CCR 732: Advanced Comp Pedagogy · Pedagogy

Calling All Multimodal Compositionists

We started off my advanced comp pedagogy course with some readings on multimodality—specifically, Kathy Yancey’s 2004 CCCC’s chair address and excerpts from Jason Palmeri’s book Remixing Composition.

In her address, Yancey challenges the long-held belief that writing is only a print-based activity and calls on us to rethink curricula that fail to consider the social factors of composing. The urgency for such a call, in part, is the influx of new writing technologies that students already use that most composition curricula exclude. Yancey, then, is concerned with what composition does not teach students:

  • intertextual circulation and how writing relates to “real world” genres;
  • how to determine an appropriate medium and delivery;
  • transfer between media—what transfers and doesn’t, what’s added;
  • transfer of knowledge that students can apply to other contexts; and
  • how writing practices prepare students to become members of a writing public. (311)

With the increase and prevalence of new writing technologies, students already have viable writing publics. If a student has a Twitter or Tumblr, they’re already writing publically and shaping a writerly identity for a real audience. If we ignore these interests and experiences, we risk further removing ourselves and our courses from the writing that helps shape them as rhetorical agents beyond the classroom.

Paired together (though nine years apart!), Palmeri’s text reads like a practical response to Yancey’s call. In the first chapter specifically, Palmeri illustrates how process-oriented researchers imagined print-based (alphabetic) writing as a “deeply multimodal thinking process” with processes similar to visual, spatial, and gestural composing (24-25). Palmeri makes interesting connections to scholars in the 1970s and 1980s who advocated for multimodal processes, thinking, and revision strategies. Ann Berthoff, for example, argued that composition’s success would come from assigning activities and essays that were somewhat familiar to students. This is partially an argument for scaffolding and meeting students where they are—a key trait of a multimodal pedagogy and a harkening back to Yancey’s call to use the technologies with which students are familiar.

If we want to reframe our curricula to account for and include multimodality, Palmeri’s refrains are a practical starting point.

  1. First, he argues that “alphabetic writing is a profoundly multimodal process” (43), warning that we constrain students when we limit them to just print-based processes. Here, he offers two practical tips for instructors: “freecomposing,” an image-based form of freewriting, and “cluster maps” that offer non-linear outlines with images and videos (43).
  2. Second, “we should recognize the limitations of alphabetic text as a modality” (46), and Palmeri argues that students must be able to think critically about which modalities are appropriate in different persuasive contexts. His tip here, interestingly, is a translation project where students translate a print essay into a multimedia presentation. A translation project is the fourth assignment in SU’s own WRT 205 and the only multimodally-focused of its kind in the core curriculum.
  3. Third, “we can learn about writing through studying and practicing other arts” (48), which is important for thinking about showing students the transferability and interconnectedness of their in-class practices with other kinds of composing that they already do. Palmeri’s practical tips for this are to assign a reflection on previous experiences with nonalphabetic forms of communication and to assign a multimodal project, which both emphasize not only multimodal processes but product as well.

Even in the brief space of these refrains, I “hear” Yancey’s address and her calls to account for screen literacy and students’ everyday technologies. And although Yancey and Palmeri have these connections, perhaps it is here where their differences are most notable. Yancey calls for us to pay attention to different genres available through new media and writing technologies, while Palmeri seems to focus more broadly on multimodality. Depending on whom you ask, these are very different. I’ve been switching between “technology” and “multimodality” here, which many do. Others, like Jody Shipka, argue that multimodality is much broader than just technology. It includes print and digital texts, performances, physical objects, repurposed and remediated objects.

That is, a multimodal pedagogy is not necessarily digital.

Palmeri’s historical analyses show truly multimodal practices and processes, but his contemporary applications are predominantly digital. I don’t see this as a problem necessarily—if you have the technology, why not use it? The issue, perhaps, is how we define “multimodal” and what is at stake when it is defined differently (which makes me think of this article I first read by Claire Lauer and her recent Kairos piece on naming).

Do we associate multimodality with technology simply because there are so many more digital options than there were in the height of the process movement? What are the risks of defining multimodality as solely digital? What modes & literacies are excluded? Who is excluded?


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