This morning, I attended the workshop “Evocative Objects: Re-imaging the Possibilities of Multimodal Composition led by Jody Shipka, Erin Anderson, Kerry Banazek, and Amber Buck. Here is the workshop’s pitch:
The workshop challenges the common tendency to conflate multimodality with digital media in the larger field of composition. Indeed, when they are considered at all, multimodal texts that are strictly analog or hybrid analog-and-digital creations are rarely seen as scholarly. They are instead labeled expressive, crafty, even childlike. This workshop will trouble those assumptions.
I’ve read Shipka’s work before and am familiar with the multimodal-is-not-digital argument. This is something I also value, particularly when we consider that multimodality is also something that ties strongly to principles of Universal Design for Learning, which would be constraining if limited only to the digital.
So, the format. We were asked to bring at least five three-dimensional (found or personal) objects to the workshop with us. In the 3.5 hours that we met, this was the run-down:
- Write about one of the objects that you brought, discussing the significance of that item and the possibilities of its history and future. Discuss with a partner.
- Choose one item to gather in a pile and exchange them, white elephant style.
- Choose a new object from a bag. I thought this was a really interesting moment because the workshop leaders stressed that we had previously chosen based on sight, and we were now choosing items based on touch.
- Take 45 minutes to compose, thinking about the potential of what the objects could do, be, and communicate.
- Reflect on the composing process.
- Finally, do a “speed dating” activity where folks have the chance to discuss their compositions and then circulate around the room to talk to others about their products.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this workshop because I’m a very structured person. When I signed up for the workshop weeks before, I was immediately nervous about my ability to produce an actual product in the space of a morning workshop. When I compose, I go through multiple drafts. I have multiple versions of documents. Yes, I’m that person.
I started to feel a little of that anxiety when we first started. I started with a red scarf, blue and red gloves, a pig kitchen timer, a Super Nintendo controller mint tin, and a bell from a wedding. And I had no idea what to do.
With my interests in disability studies, I thought—regardless of my objects or not—that it might be interesting to tie my composition to disability somehow. Then, the person sitting beside me suggested that with the gloves and scarf, I should do something about bodies and the ways that bodies are suppressed. So I started thinking about the ways bodies don’t meet expectations.
So, there’s a pig in the center that represents not only the way bodies are dehumanized but also the way bodies are criticized in terms of weight and shape. The pig is also a timer, which certainly has domestic (cooking, baking) metaphors, and also signals the “ticking away” of time that bodies have to meet particular expectations. The timer, ticking in the center, is attached to a clothesline, which has gloved fingers threaded to it.
I cut the fingers off the glove to show that not all bodies are the same. It’s also a critique of domestic bodies and the labor of women (cleaning, cooking, mending, etc.). There is one de-fingered glove, which is threaded to another “normal” glove that is both controlling, and trapped within, the Nintendo remote.
The controller symbolizes the way technology (and media) presents gendered, raced, and able-bodied expectations of what bodies should be. Wrapped around, and threaded to, the whole thing is a torn scarf (a rejection of femininity & bodily expectations).
Although my composition was very messy in the sense that it’s layers upon layers upon layers of metaphoric meaning, it was a really interesting process. I had to do a lot more talking through my ideas than I do with writing, which I think could be an interesting pedagogical moment to emphasize the importance of collaboration in the composition process. I also had to step away from my piece multiple times to try to re-imagine it and to look at others’ processes to get ideas. I feel like this doesn’t happen as much with writing because you can’t just look over at what someone else is writing and immediately get an idea.
The takeaways for me are multiple:
- First, there’s this idea of collaboration and working with others and working with objects to consider the importance of the actual materials we use and consider when composing.
- Second, it’s an opportunity to reimagine process and product. This was a much messier experience than my “usual” composing processes, and for a while, I was just playing without knowing my argument. This, I think, helped my composition to take shape in the way that I did because I wasn’t trying to force a particular argument. Rather, I let it emerge from the process.
- Third, there’s value in the old cliché making something out of nothing. When I first looked at my objects as a whole, they meant nothing to me. As I started to place them next to each other and discuss their significance, they possessed meaning.
- Finally, and perhaps most interestlingly, there’s a level of chaos to multimodal composing that I think is really productive. As Amber said afterwards, there’s almost a feeling of serendipity with the process. It’s messy, it’s confusing, it’s unfamiliar, but you have to go with that chaos in order to make meaning.