This is Not a Pipe: Re-Defining Creativity for Multimodal Classes

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Today's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn(see end of post for bio).

Students sometimes hesitate to take on multimodal projects because they place them in the category of “creativity.”  When asked, they often assert that they do not consider themselves “creative” and feel that these efforts come from an entirely different part of their brain that they are unable to access.  They see creativity in narrow terms and feel as if it is something they either have or not.  We also tend to see creativity in terms of origination – a goal that feels nearly impossible in this world where everything has been done before. 

Students have heard the term, déjà vu – a feeling that we have when we recognize an experience as something that has happened many times before and feels familiar.   We can flip this idea and teach students to make the familiar strange (like cultural anthropologists and ethnographers) and present them with what creativity theorists refer to as vuja de, a way of thinking in which we can see old things in new ways (this term is attributed to comedian, George Carlin who first coined it in one of his routines).   

When we ask students to engage in multimodality, we are, in fact asking them to be creative and to see things in new ways, engage in design thinking and create something that goes beyond words on a page.  Multimodal composition even harkens back to notions of rhetoric that employ right brain activities such as philosophical inquiry and invention and left brain activities such as techne (technique) and problem solving.  When students switch back and forth between these kinds of activities, they elevate the possibility of creative thinking.  When students develop rhetorical awareness and remix ideas this act of genre switching and visual representation engages them in creative acts of composition.

I find it increasingly useful to include classroom activities that engage the both the right and left brain and expand notions of creativity for students.  As teachers, we do plenty of left brain activities in our classes, but I believe that it is productive to include right brain activities side by side to engage both sides of the brain.  There are many online resources for these kinds of activities (as it has a history in educational psychology) but I list some (digital, tactile, aesthetic and kinesthetic) below:

Some Ideas for Engaging the Right Brain

  • Image Searches
  • Open ended art – painting, drawing/doodling, coloring
  • Engaging both hemispheres – write with non-dominant hand – write words backwards
  • Incorporate movement – walk backwards, stretch
  • Music
  • Play-dough, sculpting
  • Meditation
  • Blind drawing – object w/out looking at paper
  • Photography – Digital Stories

Although students eventually compose in digital spaces, I like to start them out with tangible acts of creativity that potentially push boundaries. For this particular activity, I introduce students to 4 different kinds of creativity (Gibson and Hodgetts, 1986) that push the definition beyond origination. 

  • Innovation
  • Synthesis
  • Extension
  • Duplication

It is also helpful to include opportunities for non-structured, intellectual play that opens up possibilities for creative thinking. 

Assignment: The Pipe Cleaner Activity - Engaging the Right and Left Brain

I call this activity This is not a Pipe [Cleaner] after Magritte’s famous image of a pipe in which he reminds us about the difference between representation and reality (another important concept for multimodality).   You will need an abundant selection of craft pipe cleaners that come in different colors and designs so that students.

  1. Distribute Pipe Cleaners and allow students to create without boundaries (right brain)
  2. Introduce 4 types of creativity (left brain).
  3. Compare pipe cleaner creations and discuss kinds of creativity (right and left).
  4. Connect ideas to what we do as multimodal composers (left).

Reflections on the Activity:

Although this might seem simplistic, it gets interesting when you see what students create and the ways they come to understand creativity through the process.  I generally conduct this activity with college students or with colleagues at conferences and I am always encouraged by their delight at just seeing the pipe cleaners as a long forgotten activity of their youth.  It brings them back to a time when unstructured play felt more acceptable and when they were able to see possibilities before limitations. 

Some participants make functional items such as glasses, or pen holders.  Others make miniature versions of larger things.  Some make full scenes while others shape animals or characters. Still others create conceptual structures that represent universal ideas or symbols.  Throughout this process they engage in innovation, synthesis, extension and duplication and come to see familiar things in new ways. For example, in what I call a Tale of Two Flowers (first image below), a student picked up the pipe cleaners and immediately constructed a somewhat predictable flower with petals, stem and leaves.  Another student tossed off her pipe cleaners in frustration because she felt the idea was “already taken.”  This gave us a great opportunity to discuss the concepts of duplication and extension. We talked about how the first student didn’t own or invent the concept of flower and in fact there are many versions and varieties of what we call flowers (both real and imaginary). At this point, the first student went back to his work and extended it through creating a scene (second image below) in which he synthesized the concept of flower into the larger context of its place in the world. As student present and discuss their creations with others they are additionally inspired through their classmates’ responses.



The most difficult thing about this activity is getting students to stop.  They ultimately want to keep creating.  Many create, dissemble, and start again.  Some keep adding on and elaborating beyond their first creations. The activity opens up an excitement and an agency for them as they begin to see the possibilities for themselves as multimodal composers who can shape and reshape their ideas through different lenses and mediums.

Guest blogger Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor in the Digital Writing and Media Arts (DWMA) Department at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things.  She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity.  You can reach Kim at or visit her website Acts of Composition.

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.