Multimodal Mondays: Using Listicles to Help Students Engage with Sources

3 2 3,487

Kelly_Pic cropped.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Caitlin L. Kelly, a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she teaches multimodal composition courses using 18th- and 19th-century British literature and serves as a Professional Tutor in the Communication Center. Alongside work on the intersection of religion and genre in British literature of the Long Eighteenth Century, she is also interested in exploring applications of a multimodal approach to composition to traditional literature pedagogy.

One of the most difficult assignments to teach is the one at the heart of most college composition courses: the research project. Taking students from brainstorming a topic to a polished argument over the course of a semester is daunting; in the composition classroom, we are tasked with teaching—under very inorganic circumstances—a research process that should evolve organically. And one of the most challenging parts of that process for many students is learning how to engage with sources once they have found them. This is where the listicle comes into play in my courses.

The listicle provides a dedicated space where students can explore the many different arguments that they can make with the sources they have found in researching their topics. It can then become a form of multimodal outline and first draft. The listicle can also help to emphasize that any presentation of research—written, oral, visual, and multimodal—has a narrative and tells a story. In this way, it has much in common with Andrea Lunsford’s Storify assignment in which she harnesses the affordances of that multimodal platform to collect evidence and “pull all the pieces together to see what results.”

What’s a Listicle?
A listicle is a hybrid genre, an article in list form. While listicles can be found in a variety of print and digital publications, the genre is best known for its use on the websites Buzzfeed and Cracked. As a result, listicles are often not considered as “professional” and appropriate for “serious” subjects. Slowly, however, that view has been changing, and that is good for composition teachers. Not only does it make the genre more accessible to us as educators but also it allows students to participate in its evolution.

As defenders of the listicle have pointed out, the genre is responding to our need to deal with the ever-increasing multitudes of data that are readily available to us. Listicles give us a tool with which to “curate” that information, and they provide “additional ways to interact with [it]” and act as “jumping off points” for further research. As Maria Konninkova explains in the New Yorker, listicles do the “mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis” at the outset. In a digital environment, this improves the chances that readers will indeed read—and understand.

Learning Objectives
Jessie Miller, writing about her multimodal annotated bibliography assignment, describes the way that using “a visual display of information to map out the interplay between their sources” can be an effective way “to get students to see source use as an engaging and active practice.” The same can be said of listicles. Additionally, in composing a listicle, students gain:

  • a space to explore the many stories their research can tell,
  • a chance to focus on how the parts of their argument relate,
  • an opportunity to explore communicating specialized, academic topics in a way that is accessible for wide audiences,
  • a better understanding of copyright, and
  • practice in attributing sources in a digital environment.

The Assignment
After spending the first 4-6 weeks of the semester reading and exploring potential research topics, students first put together a robust annotated bibliography. Using those bibliographies, the students remix the information into a listicle. In the process, I also make a point of discussing how the structure of the listicle maps onto more traditional writing assignments. Assigning readings on drafting, constructing arguments, and revision from texts like The St. Martin’s Handbook are all options, depending on your students’ needs and how you are using the assignment. Chapter 1 of Everything’s An Argument would be a particularly good pairing if you want your students to identify a specific type of argument that they want to make in their listicles.

In terms of what platforms the students use to present their listicles, I leave that up to them to determine. They have found that free website builders like Weebly, Wix, WordPress, and the like are good options for this project. With its emphasis on images, Tumblr can also be an effective platform. A few students have even posted their work on Medium and on Buzzfeed Community. Each platform presents a different range of affordances, so students also have a chance to reflect on the ways that various platforms inform their composition strategies.

The assignment also affords students with a unique opportunity to practice using images alongside textual evidence in their arguments. An effective listicle uses images to advance its argument and to connect with a wider, nonacademic audience. These are vital skills for students, particularly those in STEM fields. Images can be used to present evidence, help readers to visualize complex concepts, or to demonstrate significance or perspective. Students can even create images to use by taking their own photographs and creating their own graphics. Determining what permissions are required to use these images and the appropriate ways of attributing them provide invaluable lessons in applying traditional methods of citation to digital environments where the rules are still emerging.  I have included sample assignment instructions, and below is a template showing the first section of a listicle and the defining characteristics of the genre.

Kelly_MultimodalMondays_5.18.15_draft 2 template.jpg

Finally, because the listicle is such an exploratory assignment, reflection is an especially important part of the process. That reflective work can be done formally by making reflection an explicit part of the assignment or, as I have done, reflection can occur in the course of peer review. I schedule two class sessions for peer review. In the first I ask students to bring several copies of the written parts of the listicle–the title, section titles, and short paragraphs for each section. Then, they cut those up and have classmates reassemble them. Many students find that the story they are hoping to tell is not the one that their readers anticipate or find engaging. So, in drafting their listicles the students have taken the first step in determining what it is they want to say; in giving a fragmented draft of the listicle to their peers, they get to see how readers would use the same sources in different ways. The next step for students is reconciling those different views and determining which path it is that they want to take—how they want to enter the conversation. For the second peer review, then, the students bring a draft in which they have assembled all of the parts of the listicle in the media they will submit it in. Here, they refine the presentation of their research narratives and the emphasis shifts to tone, style, design, and attribution.

Concluding Thoughts
One of the most exciting things about incorporating a listicle assignment in a composition class is its newness as a genre and its flexibility. A listicle might be one step on the way to a larger project or it might be the larger project itself. A listicle could also be formal or informal, left in draft form or polished, composed offline or online—depending on the instructor’s needs and learning objectives. An emphasis could be put on research, genre, public writing, digital writing or any combination thereof. There is plenty of room to develop the listicle as a genre and assignment for a variety of purposes, making it highly accessible for composition teachers at all levels and institutions.

Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to for possible inclusion in a future post.

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.