Multimodal Mondays: Sustainability, Dynamic Compositions, and Going Viral

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146942_pastedImage_7.jpgToday's guest blogger is Halle Neiderman‌, a PhD candidate at Kent State University. She teaches College Writing I and II, as well as Writing in the Public Sphere, Writing in Business, and Professional Writing. She previously taught developmental and basic writing, literature and writing, and advanced literature courses. Her scholarly areas of interest include institutional critique, sustainability in composition, and sustainability rhetoric. Her article "Programmatic Perspectives: Weaving the Sustainability and Composition Disciplines" will appear in Decade of Education for Sustainable Development--and Beyond, edited by A. E. J. Wals and P. B. Corcoran. She is also a Bedford New Scholar (2016). 

Teaching at a large Midwestern public university, I often struggle to find course themes utilizing radical pedagogies to keep my students critically engaged. For my sophomore level writing course, I stumbled upon a sustainability theme (after picking up the book No Impact Man). While at first my students assumed they had zero knowledge or experiences pertaining to the subject matter, and that I must be crunchy-granola hippy, it became clear that working with the wicked problems of sustainability engages students bored with other radical pedagogy themes.


I use the term “wicked problem” when discussing sustainability because problem solving for sustainable decision-making includes negotiations with the interdependence of other factors. In sustainability pedagogy, this is a constant weaving of people, profit, and prosperity. The goal is to lead students to dynamic thinking through content and well-developed assignments. As such, I attempt to develop multidimensional, multimodal composition assignments fit for a sophomore level writing course.


Just as composing is discursive and dynamic and involves the reciprocity of learning between teacher and student, the assignment I share here uses sustainability as a bridge to examine and produce multiple spaces of composition.


Student Outcomes

To understand

  • the negotiations necessary within a sustainability framework of people, planet, and prosperity
  • the post-process nature of composition
  • the changing nature of audience and compositions


Why Sustainability?

 Sustainability pedagogy asks learners to consider how (in)actions positively and negatively affect small and large scale social, economic, and environmental situations. The coursework involves ongoing discussions in which students consider the past, present, and future, how they are situated in a given space, and how that space contributes to their behavior, movement, and decisions. These are futures-thinking conversations.


The assignment(s)

Like the wicked issues of sustainability, the following assignment is comprised of numerous parts, composers, and audiences. Its goal is to push students to think critically regarding the multiple issues and effects of a topic, to be able to identify and appeal to multiple audiences using multiple compositions, and to see a composition as a dynamic, living work that changes with each audience and reading.

  1. Students form groups of three and discuss a local/regional sustainability issue they choose to tackle. Though in a group, they must first tackle it individually, each presenting a different aspect of the problem.
  2. Individually, students compose a well-researched argument regarding their individual topic from the group’s decided-upon local sustainability issue.
  3. Student groups compose a video that presents their arguments. The video has no parameters, as they should be making their own rhetorical choices based on the various audiences.
  4. Students are then asked to make the video go viral using social media.
  5. Finally, student groups discuss the material and scaffold in the video in a fifteen to twenty-minute group presentation to the entire class.


Why Go Viral?

This part of the assignment has the least constraints on the students. It simply asks them to create a video that “goes viral.”


Asking students to place videos on YouTube and social media outlets changes the stakes of their compositions. Students can no longer assume only the professor will see and evaluate their work, and they can no longer assume it be viewed only once.


They also must consider how to generate an audience. We get to have conversations of click-bait and other online rhetorical conventions, but we also have conversations regarding the evolving nature of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and affordances and constraints of the outlets that previous semesters were not able to access.


So What?

Both sustainability pedagogy and multimodal composition should be taught in ways that illustrate problems are dynamic and changing. We all know that multimodal assignments should not simply be a “tacking on” after final products. This assignment allows students to consider how their sustainability argument can be successful in written argument, visual argument, and aural/face-to-face argument simultaneously.


Further, by asking students to publish their work in social media outlets, student authors are able to begin to understand how audiences consume and co-opt their own work, which then allows students to see a composition process in a different way. (A way tangential to “write for my professor; receive grade from my professor; start new paper.”) By asking students to not only compose a digital argument, place it (somewhere, everywhere?) on the Web, and have it do something, students begin to think in different ways what a composition does.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.