Whole Lotta Multimodalin’ Goin’ On

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This blog was originally posted on April 18th, 2014.

Think 1957.  Think the inimitable Jerry Lee Lewis. Or Elvis Presley.  Both sang about a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.

I said come on over baby,

a-whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Yeah I said come on over baby,

a-whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Well we ain’t fakin’,

a-whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

I was a high school kid in 1957, and little did I imagine that fifty-plus years later this song would keep popping into my head in relation to digital literacy and the ways it has  helped us reimagine writing as, always, multimodal.  And we ain’t fakin’!

Since I teach courses on digital literacies and the digital essay, I decided that this year at 4Cs, I would try to go to every session on multimodal writing.  Until I saw the program, that is:  there were so many panels devoted to a range of perspectives on multimodality that I would have had to clone myself several times over in order to attend them all.  That fact reaffirmed what I’ve been seeing as I visit schools across the country:  writing programs are increasingly inviting their students to produce multimodal projects, with some pretty stunning results.  Last month in Arkansas, for example, I heard a teacher describe an assignment that asked students to create and “pitch” proposals for new apps, and another teacher describe the animated smartphone mini-lessons she and her students were producing to help each other learn and retain material.  On my own campus, intructors are guiding students in doing everything from digital research projects to beautifully illustrated and published storybooks.  Most important, students I encounter continue to tell me that they are highly engaged and motivated by such projects.

So I was delighted to hear that Bedford/St. Martin’s was sponsoring a Multimodal Celebration during the 4Cs meeting, where participants could showcase their students’ projects. When I arrived at the celebration, the large room was already jammed with people eager to see what students across the country had come up with.  Lining three sides of the room were posters describing instructor assignments—along with examples of student work in response to those assignments.  Liz Losh was there talking about her students’ mini-Comic Con; Erik Ellis’s students’ fabulous storybooks were on display; posters such as the ones seen below proved yet again that today’s writers are thinking about how to use visuals and infographics to get and hold an audience’s attention. These projects testified to the imaginative, creative, and serious work being produced by students across the United States.  I was particularly thrilled, since I believe we are coming close to the point of not having to label such projects as “multimodal.”  In sum, it seems to me that the word “writing” will soon carry with it the assumption (entirely justified) of multimodality.

As we move toward that day, I see two areas that need our careful attention.  The first has to do with colleagues who are still puzzled by or resistant (or indifferent) to multimodal writing, who don’t understand how all writing could be said to be multimodal.  I sympathize with these colleagues:  after all, writing has a way of changing on us—constantly, and we  have had a steep learning curve ever since I entered the profession, as new and emerging technologies have shaped and affected what we think of as “writing.”  So we need to find ways to link what may seem new and foreboding to the tried and true principles of rhetoric and to provide support and encouragement to those who are uncomfortable with multimodality.  Second, we need more research on how to assess such projects, and in this regard we can turn to our students, creating rubrics together and testing them for accuracy.  Luckily, both these areas of concern are already being attended to by leading scholars like this year’s 4Cs Co-Exemplars, Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher.

From where I stand, I think it’s safe to say that multimodal writing is alive and well and prospering in writing programs across the country.  No wonder that during the Bedford/St. Martin’s celebration, participants and attendees called for a follow-up celebration of student multimodal writing next year in Tampa – to loud applause.

Oh yeah, there’s a whole lot of multimodalin’ goin’ on!

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.