During the last two months, I’ve visited three universities, where I had a chance to sit in on Writing Center sessions and talk with undergrads. I’ve also spent time in two high schools visiting Bread Loaf School of English teachers. What I didn’t remark on at the time—when I was 100% engaged with individual students—but note now, in hindsight, is that the high school students seemed to be doing more multimodal composing than the college students, at least in their class assignments. Now I’m wondering what evidence we have of the percentage of writing students do (in high school and in college) that is multimodal—that is, writing that engages a range of media as opposed to the traditional print-only assignment. I don’t have an answer to this question right now, though I’m doing some research and will report if and when I turn up compelling information.
In the meantime, I think it’s worth thinking or re-thinking assignment sequences in first-year writing to ask how many of them call for multimodal practices, how many do not, and why these decisions have been made. At one school I visited, the WPA told me that upper administration frowned on multimodal assignments because they think the assignments can’t be “reliably scored.” Another WPA said that his teaching staff is divided on the issue, with older staff favoring traditional print-based assignments while younger staff (the smaller group) leaned toward multimodal assignments. My sense is that at Stanford students do multimodal writing in their writing and rhetoric classes, but in most other classes the assignments are still the traditional print essay.
More important than the ratio of single-mode to multimodal writing, though, is the question of the strengths and weaknesses of each, or more specifically of how each helps develop student writing and helps support student writers’ rhetorical knowledge and strategies. The longitudinal study of Stanford student writing known as the Stanford Study of Writing found a strong relationship between performance, digital engagement, and heightened audience awareness. In other words, when students prepared multimodal compositions and then performed them (delivery, delivery, delivery!), they demonstrated stronger connections to their audiences and stronger understanding of their rhetorical situations. We have also found that asking students to “remediate” a piece of writing—to turn it from written medium to one or more other media—enhances their rhetorical awareness.
These findings suggest, to me at least, that the move to more carefully crafted multimodal opportunities for student work, and especially the opportunity to perform or deliver that work, is a very good one. That’s why I’m focusing more on multimodal writing in textbooks like Everything’s an Argument and The Everyday Writer, and why we support Multimodal Mondays on this blog. If you have a favorite multimodal writing assignment, we’d be very glad to showcase it! Comment below to share your favorite assignment, or message Leah Rang for more information on how to become a guest blogger on Multimodal Mondays.