Multimodality as a Frame for Individual and Institutional Change

Multimodality as a Frame for Individual and Institutional Change

Recently, we completed the final manuscript for a guidebook to support multimodal composition in writing- and project-intensive courses. We wrote the book because we realized that each of our 15 years of experience teaching and researching multimodality were useful to other instructors and writers. Shortly after copyediting the final draft of the book, we traveled to Georgia Tech where we gave the opening plenary for the symposium, Multimodal Assessment: Navigating the Digital Turn. In that talk, we shared why we thought multimodality was important.


After five long years in which we truly now appreciate the rich theoretical and collaborative work that goes into textbook production, we have completed Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. We took on this project largely because we’ve been doing this kind of work with our students since we first started in our PhD programs at Michigan Technological University well over a decade ago. While we still teach very similarly to the ways we were trained, we were never able to find a book to support our pedagogical leanings. Those leanings were shaped by the fact that while at MTU (in 2000), the writing program underwent a major transition where faculty reimagined the first-year writing course to one that taught written, oral and visual communication. Through this course called Revisions, we were all introduced to a model of composition instruction that focused on multimodality and that helped students learn to craft texts in a variety of modes and genres to best meet their diverse rhetorical needs. For those not familiar, the multimodal turn in composition has been a gradual movement over the past twenty years from a composition pedagogy focused exclusively on the written word to a pedagogy that includes a range of semiotic modes, including (but not limited to) oral, written, and visual communication. [For more details, see the Annotated Bibliography of Multimodal Theories and Practices we have generated.]

Further, as the faculty who developed the Revisions course explained in our curricular materials, “an underlying strategy of the class is NOT to separate oral, written and visual communication, but rather to help students come to an understanding” that purposeful selection of mode and medium “always involves making rhetorical decisions” and requires “thoughtful and aware modification for particular audiences and circumstances”. In other words, our job was not to teach the discrete conventions of each mode, but to help students consider which modes were most appropriate in a given circumstance, how they might be integrated, and how they might be leveraged to achieve the desired impact on a target audience.

While we may not have realized it at the time, we were being trained not so much as writing teachers, but as teachers of rhetoric. That is, we were mentored away from a singular focus on written text and toward one that integrated modes based on audience, purpose and context. Such an approach allowed students to better understand the rhetorical situation for which they were communicating and to choose the affordances and means of persuasion best suited to their purposes. As those of you who have moved from traditional composition (linguistic-based) instruction into multimodal approaches have surely discovered, this transition was both challenging and exhilarating.

In the years since our first experiences in the Revisions classroom, we’ve gone on to specialize in different areas of the field, but the theory and pedagogy of what we experienced in those early days have influenced much of what we do today. For Kristin, this has led to sustained interest in examining indigenous rhetorics and to stewarding a program focused on the intersections of digital technology and culture. For Cheryl, an interest in multimodality served as a foundation for rethinking how scholarship about digital writing could be modeled in digital forms. Her editorship of the journal Kairos, among many other endeavors, has helped her to guide not only what is said in professional research and conversation but also how and in what forms it is said. Jenny was able to apply this background in rhetoric and composition with work creating a science-based multimedia-rich website for a Forest Service Research Station during her dissertation research. She now uses this experience to examine multimodal development practices and to run the Design Center at New Mexico State University where she supports students’ hands-on production of communication projects in a variety of print and digital media for campus and community clients.

Those who drank the kool aid, as it were, of multimodal composition tend to agree, whether implicitly or explicitly, with the New London Group (NLG)—a group of literacy scholars who greatly influenced the design of our Revisions course. The NLG could be seen as spearheading the multimodal composition turn in 1996. Their deceptively simple argument that “literacy pedagogy must now account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” essentially makes a case that such pedagogies more richly prepare students for the diverse rhetorical and communicative practices they need to succeed as students, as professionals, and as citizens in the 21st century. Yet, it is important to note that while multimedia technologies tend to make multimodality more apparent, we agree that multimodal does not necessarily mean digital. For, as Jody Shipka suggests in Toward a Composition Made Whole, we must “resist equating multimodality with digitally based or screen-mediated texts and create instead opportunities for students to examine the highly distributed and fundamentally multimodal aspects of all communicative practice” (84). Instead, the three of us rely on helping students see how nearly all communication is multimodal, be it screen- or print- based. Additionally, we encourage students to understand all communication as rhetorical, which for us involves understanding writing and composing as design.

The New London Group introduces the notion that literacy educators should see themselves and their students as “active designers — makers — of social futures.” As designers, “we are both inheritors of patterns and conventions of meaning and at the same time active designers of meaning. And, as designers of meaning, we are designers of social futures – workplace futures, public futures, and community futures.” As graduate students, being taught this notion of writing as designing has stayed with us. Forgive us for quoting them at length, but for folks not familiar with the NLG these concepts, we believe, are incredibly crucial for moving forward with a pedagogy of multiliteracies. We find ourselves fully buying into NLG’s argument that “The notion of design connects powerfully to the sort of creative intelligence the best practitioners need in order to be able, continually, to redesign their activities in the very act of practice. It connects as well to the idea that learning and productivity are the results of the designs (the structures) of complex systems of people, environments, technology, beliefs, and texts.” Lest we rehash the entire article, suffice it to say that thinking of any semiotic act as an act of design helps one move away from being bound to one mode of communication over another. Instead, as designers, and as rhetoricians, students can see the affordances of each mode (and in NLG terminology, the modes include the linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, and spatial) and work within rhetorical situations to best craft meaningful texts. While Kristin Prins makes a case for moving away from design towards notions of craft, we believe either term helps to encapsulate a sense of composing as designing, and design as rhetorical. For any time a designer has to consider the available means of persuasion, they are rhetoricians.

Some fifteen years after the New London Group’s manifesto, we are still having debates about whether literacy in modes beyond the word falls within the purview of English Studies (and believe us, we still have these debates with friends, English Studies colleagues, and faculty across the campuses at which we work and speak). Cynthia Selfe (2009) has advocated persuasively for a multimodal approach. Doug Hesse, responding to Selfe, posed what we believe is a seminal question for anyone teaching communication: “Is the curricular space that our field inhabits ‘rhetoric/composing’ or is it ‘writing/composing’” (603). We all have different answers to this question; we may even inhabit the fields of rhetoric/composition, or rhetoric/design, or writing/designing.

We believe it behooves folks in any discipline, be it History or Biology or Engineering, to ask themselves what it is they want out of their students’ communication. Do they want just writers who can put words on a page in a standard format? Or do they want designers, for whom the act of communication is always rhetorical and can take advantage of whatever mode best suits the audience, purpose, context, and genre? For us, it will always be the latter, under which writers can still be nurtured as meaning makers who can utilize their composition skills as videographers, graphic designers, soundscape composers, or in whatever other modal capacity they can operate. We believe that writers/designers can mindfully and tactically communication in ways that just writers (strictly speaking) cannot. That is why we encourage mindful rhetoricians in whatever class it is we teach, be it English 101, or a 200 level technical writing course, or an upper level digital composing class.

Design gives us the room to rethink the semiotic activity with which we engage in our classrooms. Rhetoric and composition has been theorizing multimodality for over a half of century (see Jason Palmeri’s work on the history of multimodality in composition studies). We’ve arguably reached a point where it’s less important for us to think of new ways to preach to the choir, and more important for us to consider how to talk to colleagues within and outside our discipline about why multimodality matters and how it can achieve longstanding goals for humanities instruction.

For the three of us, moving from a department where multimodality was the norm (which was truthfully a bit unusual in the early 2000s) to departments where some folks still hold quite firmly to fairly traditional linguistic and print-based models of literacy instruction, we had to find ways to address why what we were doing was relevant. Institutionally, this ability to translate multimodal goals outside of English Studies is incredibly important. We have all been faced with the colleague from across campus who wants to know why his students can’t write, and wants to know what we’re doing about it — as if a single semester of first-year writing could prepare students for all the kinds of communication they’ll face in their courses, disciplines, and professional lives. If you tell them you are teaching podcasts in your English 101 course, the response likely isn’t going to be favorable. Thus, the onus is on us to translate our learning goals across campus, and to explain why teaching communication (or literacy) as design matters.

If you ask instructors across the Humanities to share their learning goals, particularly for writing-intensive courses, they are likely to look something like this:

  • Understand that critical thinking and reading are integral parts of communicating effectively

  • Understand and demonstrate how rhetorical knowledge and awareness can improve communication

  • Illustrate knowledge of information literacy in selecting and using resources

  • Understand that communicating is a process that requires multiple drafts, revision, and reflection.

  • Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of genre conventions.

If we proceed with the NLG’s understanding of design and embrace that communicative modes include the linguistic, along with visual, auditory, gestural, and spatial, then writing an essay—the standard bearer at the university level of proving one’s communicative abilities—is just one possible way of achieving the above goals. A podcast can just as easily involve critical thinking, rhetorical knowledge, information literacy, process-based composing, and an acute awareness of genre conventions. That’s not to say that these goals are necessarily transferable from mode to mode, as students will need to reassess genre conventions in whatever mode they choose to (or are assigned to) communicate it. But, we do believe that multimodality when taught through a rhetorical lens helps to achieve a range of learning goals. If we focus solely on writing pedagogy in our classrooms, we are not only excluding a wide range of communicative possibilities, we are erasing the visibility of what writing can do well. Writing affords many things that, say, visuals do not. But, visuals afford many opportunities that writing does not. Allowing students to see writing as one tool in their rhetorical toolkit encourages rhetoricians who can choose the best tool (or tools) for the job.

If we are going to not only change our own classrooms, but change our institutional understandings and commitments, it is time we learn to carefully articulate why teaching composition/design/writing through the lens of rhetoric matters. For us, such a pedagogy provides students with a much broader toolkit from which to function as rhetors in the world. That is, if we ask our students to assess the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, context, author, genre) and ask them to consider what modes, media, and design strategies will best help respond to that rhetorical situation, we will encourage students to be rhetoricians. And as rhetoricians, they won’t just be adept at communicating clearly and concisely (that stuff that gets them jobs and helps them communicate in the ‘real’ world), but as John Poulakus suggests in his sophistic definition of rhetoric, they might also then be able to “capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempt to suggest that which is possible.” This is an opening up of communication instruction, from a one-semester fix-it to a whole-life be-it.

In closing, here are three principles for supporting the development of students’ multimodal communication practices that we believe are critical no matter what specific sub-discipline of the field we work in.

  1. First, we believe in having students find and analyze copious examples of communication in different modes and media to encourage discussion and analysis of how and why different kinds of texts work (or don’t). We want students to have a common language for understanding the affordances of various media and the impact these have on how a message is communicated and received by particular audiences. In our classes, we often begin with modal rhetorics such as those outlined by the National Writing Project’s Multimodal Assessment Project (MAP) group. The MAP authors outline a set of overlapping domains for guiding evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses, the affordances, of different semiotic resources. The ability of students to identify particular affordances and rhetorical choices within various media is an important step in supporting their ability to be communication producers.

  2. Second, we believe in the need for hands-on learning. Reading texts and making texts are very different sets of practices. It takes time and experimentation to learn how to implement rhetorical strategies in particular media, even if one can point out how they function in texts made by others.

    We are surrounded by print, visual, aural and digital texts, and our students are often already making texts of their own in various venues. However, what we as instructors can contribute here is rhetorical guidance and a critical approach for the development of deliberative, persuasive communication. This does not mean that we have to be experts in every mode, medium and technology available, but we should be open to letting students explore options, prepared to help them find necessary resources, and flexible in how we assess the projects they produce. (See below)

  1. Finally, we believe in creating flexible assessment strategies that mirror the hands-on and multimodal learning students do in our classes. These assessment strategies should make learning explicit to students. To move from implicit practice to explicit understanding allows students to make conscious, purposeful choices in their projects. It also provides space for self-assessment, allowing students to consider what worked, what didn’t and how they might alter their approach in the future. If one of our primary goals as teachers of writing and communication is to help students be successful in any number of rhetorical environments beyond the classroom, pushing them to be mindful of their own practices and the tools in their repertoire is an important component of our work.

The authors have prepared an Annotated Bibliography of Multimodal Theories and Practices to extend the conversation from this article.

[Image from miuenski]

About the Authors

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Kristin L. Arola (@kristinarola) is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Composition, and Technology at Washington State University where she directs the Digital Technology and Culture Program. Her research brings together composition theory, digital rhetoric, and American Indian rhetorics so as to understand digital composing practices within larger social and cultural contexts. Learn more at arola.kuurola.com.

Cheryl Ball

Cheryl Ball (@s2ceball) is editor of Kairos. She researches digital publishing, scholarly multimedia, and multimodal composition. Find out more at ceball.com.

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Jennifer Sheppard is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Professional Communication at New Mexico State University where she directs the Design Center. Her research interests include new media, information design, professional and workplace communication, and issues of pedagogy for face-to-face and online classes. She can be reached at jasheppa@nmsu.edu.

  1. […] citation Arola, Kristin; Sheppard, Jennifer, & Ball, Cheryl E. (2014, Jan. 10). Multimodality as a frame for individual and institutional change. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/multimodality-frame-individual-institutional-change/ […]

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