This is my presentation for Computers & Writing (#cwcon) this year: “‘That Looks Like a Crazy Person Made It’: Embodying Madness through Multimodality.”
The title of this presentation comes from the reaction that I received back in 2013 at CCCC in Las Vegas. I attended the “Evocative Objects” workshop, and it was the first time that I had made (intentionally, at least) a multimodal text. Incorporating multimodal texts into my disability-themed classes as both activities and assignments means that this comment—“that looks like a crazy person made it”—and versions of it have cropped up again and again as students juxtapose media in order to compose arguments about physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychiatric disabilities.
Multimodal texts present an opportunity to construct arguments through multiple and sometimes unusual modes, to embody the madness of composition—symbolically and literally. In this presentation, I want to talk through the potentials of multimodality as an opportunity to include and respect the value of non-normative forms of thinking and composing. In order to do this, I’m going to draw connections across disability theories of madness and embodied theories of multimodal composition in order to illustrate the state of betweenity of mad composing: toggling between madness (abnormality) and sanity (normality), personal and academic writing.
My guess is that no one at this conference really needs to be sold on multimodal writing curricula, but maybe we don’t explicitly incorporate multimodality with madness in mind. Narratives of mental illness in higher education are situated within medical models that position mental disability either as something that doesn’t belong in the classroom or as a deficit that students must overcome or—at least—keep separate from academic writing.
As Katie Guest Rose Pryal explains, disclosures of mental illness in higher education are highly tenuous. After talking to a professor about mental illness stigma, Pryal reports, “Although this stigma is common everywhere, she told me, ‘in academia, one’s brain is supposed to be the most essential asset one has.’” In Mad at School, Margaret Price makes a similar point, arguing that keeping silent on mental illness “perpetuates the conventional view of academe as an ‘ivory tower’—an immaculate location humming with mental agility and energy, only occasionally threatened (from the outside) by the destructive force of insanity” (7).
Mental and psychiatric disabilities are often positioned as stripping people of their rhetorical ability. Price writes, “To lack rhetoricity is to lack all basic freedoms and rights, including the freedom to express ourselves and the right to be listened to” (26-27). There is an association to and conflation of my mental health with madness that necessitates rationality for the rhetor to exist.
I want to suggest that multimodality can be a channel through which non-normative expressions of rhetoricity are encouraged and valued.
Our field has taken up multimodality in different ways, but a common theme echoes the principles of Universal Design for Learning with an emphasis on multiplicity in teaching, learning, and composing practices. Multimodal pedagogies present content in a range of forms and formats, which provides students with different modes of communication and engagement to compose and produce knowledge. As Jody Shipka argues in Toward a Composition Made Whole, a multimodal framework “requires students to assume responsibility for determining the purposes, potentials, and contexts of their work” (88). Not only does this framework provide students with the responsibility to make their own rhetorical choices about the process and production of their texts but also provides them flexibility in the range of materials and technologies students can use. A multimodal framework values rhetorical awareness:
[W]hat matters is not simply that students learn to produce specific kinds of texts—whether linear, print-based, digital, object- or performance-based texts, or some combination thereof. Rather, what is crucial is that students leave their courses exhibiting a more nuanced awareness of the various choices they make, or even fail to make, throughout the process of producing a text and to carefully consider the effect those choices might have on others. (Shipka 84-5)
Here, there is structure but flexibility in the products, processes, materials and technologies, and the context for multimodal text. A multimodal framework creates space for a more embodied approach to composition.
In “(Re)Educating the Senses,” Steph Ceraso argues for paying attention to “the affective, embodied, lived experience of multimodality in more explicit ways” (104). Although she focuses on multimodal listening and sonic composition, this attention to the embodied and lived experience of multimodality has broader application. For example, Ceraso argues that “multimodal listening instruction requires a feedback loop of teaching students to develop new listening habits and helping them unlearn old listening habits that have come to feel ‘natural’” (110). When you’re incorporating multimodal texts into the academic writing classroom—particularly first-year writing—there is already an element of unlearning about writing that occurs. And in a course focused on disability discourses, we constantly question what we know about disability. A dual focus on multimodality and disability requires students to develop different ways of understanding the normative values of academic writing and the line between normality (sanity) and abnormality (madness).
Indeed, attention to embodied composing can help make writing more accessible to students with non-normative learning or composing needs. In “Writing against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn,” Jay Dolmage addresses pedagogies that refuse normative conceptions of embodiment and offers suggestions for developing “technologies and pedagogies for writing that not only affirm the body, but that affirm all bodies” (110). In order to develop these technologies and pedagogies, he proposes a corporeal turn that centralizes the body and examines the “messy and recursive process of composing” rather than looking at “ideal, complete texts” that mirror ideal, normative bodies (125).
By taking an embodied—or corporeal—approach to composition, we push on what it means to compose a rational, cohesive rhetorical text. An embodied approach asks students to occupy a space between what we perceive as academic and personal writing, to disrupt the conversations that we circulate within higher education.
An embodied approach to composition also asks students to occupy a space of betweenity. In the webtext “Articulating Betweenity,” Brenda Jo Brueggemann argues that to be between is to be relational—that is, constructing an idea that is in relation to something or someone else. In Brueggemann’s example, a deaf student toggles between the normative understanding of deafness as deficit and deafness as a communicative mode that demonstrates nuanced rhetorical awareness. Betweenity is the construction of an identity that toggles—for example, between deaf and hearing, personal and academic, sane and insane.
In “The Mad Border Body: A Political In-Betweeness,” Shayda Kafai theorizes how existing as a border body between sanity (normality) and madness (abnormality) can destabilize dominant cultures and norms. “There is fear in the telling and owning of madness,” she writes, and a border body is one “that affronts normativity, a body that comfortably exists in the gaps, has a transformative power.” By creating a text that toes this line, students have power to push on what is possible and acceptable as academic production and what stories are allowed to be told, which helps disrupt stigmas both of multimodality and of madness:
The stigmas of madness, the falsity of the sane/mad binary and the assumption that one cannot exist simultaneously in the border spaces of sanity and madness are all perpetuated by silence, by the act of refusing to tell one’s story. (Kafai)
Multimodal texts already occupy a border space within academic writing. They present a kairotic opportunity for betweenity with modes and contexts and as a means through which students can tell their stories in ways that are rhetorically significant.
To illustrate what it means to embody madness through multimodality, I want to highlight some student work.
The first piece is from an in-class activity where, at the beginning of our research unit, I bring in supplies and ask students to construct arguments. This was created by a service member exploring PTSD and gun control. The use of a cardboard gun and red paint juxtaposed with images about PTSD gives the piece an affective dimension. And, certainly, this text elicited a version of “that looks like a crazy person made it.”
This second piece was a core assignment where students composed a brief research essay in conjunction with a multimodal text. Although the essay was incoherent in terms of logical organization, the student beautifully visualized the misuse of the phrase “I’m so OCD.” In ways that the essay did not, the poster immediately visualizes the lived experience of OCD.
Notably, these first two texts aren’t digital, and I am very much aligned with Shipka’s positioning of multimodality as incorporating a range of media that are not necessarily digital to give students the flexibility to choose media that’s best for them.
So the third texts transition to digital multimodality with a meme series about mental illness. The student wrote in their reflection that they were trying to appeal to those who ignore the mental health of teenagers, attempting to make satirical memes that would be entertaining through the use of popular genres but also bring awareness to a serious issue.
I end on this last piece, titled “Suicide Glitch,” to emphasize how multimodal texts push on normative writing practices. This final project explores the impact of music on manic depression and suicidal ideation. The incredible thing here is that the student manipulated the technology so that as the suicide confessional progressed, the video glitches progressed visually and auditorily so that the end is a mass of colors and noise.
This student made clear rhetorical choices for an audience, chose purposeful media, and organized the content cohesively despite a very arguably incoherent topic. This video exists in the betweenity of academic and personal writing, pushes indeed on the possibilities of writing itself, and toggles between the realms of sanity and madness.
It embodies the madness of composition.