“This is the most useful thing I’ve done all month”: Reflections on Multimodal Composition

This quote comes from one of my students who is currently taking my upper-level-writing course. She said this to me at the end of an iMovie tutorial in class earlier this week. In the hour long class, she (and all of her classmates) had created thirty second videos that combined several kinds of media: music or sound files, a voiceover, a still image, video, and text of some kind.

When I pressed her as to why she thought video composing would be useful to her, she told me that she was planning to study abroad this summer and blog about her experiences. She thought that video would be a great way to do that kind of travel blogging.

This is just one of many similar interactions I’ve had with students in the past few semesters since I’ve ventured into teaching multimodal composition. And this is why I will keep teaching multimodal composition. And these are examples I will give when colleagues (or superiors) question the usefulness or feasibility of teaching multimodal composition in a composition course.

Because I refuse to only prepare students for some amorphous model of traditional, print-based, academic writing. While I value the urgency and immediacy of print based arguments and “academic discourse” kinds of writing to students’ experiences in higher education, and while I am happy to be able to support them in navigating those arguments and discourses and kinds of writing, I also value and feel compelled to support their co-curricular and extra-curricular and post-higher-education writing contexts and experiences.

And I know that multimodal composition is increasingly relevant (and even integral) to students’ co-curricular, extra-curricular, and post-higher-education experiences. And their academic ones for that matter. And now I’m off to teach multimodal composition again today; reaffirmed in my purposes, goals, and strategies for doing so.

 

The Course Blog, and Beyond!

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My First-Ever Blog Post

I published my first-ever blog post on October 10, 2012.  This was an assignment for a “Perspectives on Literacy” course blog in which I was told to interview someone who had experience typing on a typewriter.  My mother is a legal secretary who started her career as a professional transcriber and typist, so I interviewed her over the phone one afternoon and published a post of 1235 words, no images, no video, no sound. This purely textual post recounted my questions, her answers, connections to course themes, and my personal reflection on the experience of interviewing my mother.   Interestingly, even this first post, my induction into the blogosphere, blurred the lines of public/private, personal/professional/academic in my life and in my blogging. I submitted three more posts to the course blog that semester, all in the same purely-textual, responding-to-the-prompt fashion but all of which involved some personal content alongside professional and academic content.

In response to and alongside these experiences with composing for a course blog, I decided to establish a personal blog, titled “My Quarter Life Crisis” and published my first post on November 11, 2012.  In the last six months, I’ve published 15 total posts that mix personal, professional, and academic topics and approaches. In one video post (composed in response to a course blog prompt that required multimodal posts), I explore some of these mixed motivations for blogging. That video post was one of my first attempts as composing a video, was entirely too long-winded for a vlog post, and mostly consisted of my talking head. I’ve excerpted a relevant portion of the video here because I think it demonstrates the mixing of personal, professional, and academic that blogs allow and shows an important step in my journey as a blogger, although it’s mildly terrible, it is still my first attempt at a video post.

This winter, my “Computers and Writing” course also required a course blog, and I decided to use my already-ongoing personal blog to compose and publish those required posts for the “Computers and Writing” course.  These posts have ranged from responses to course readings, to reflections about integrating technology and digital multimodal assignments into my own first-year writing classroom, to thoughts about attending relevant professional conferences.  I think the decision to publish these professional and academic posts on a single blog alongside descriptions of my workout routine or musings about my favorite pop singers has allowed me to fulfill my original blogging purposes of representing myself and my experiences as a fragmented-but-whole person and of attending to the intertwining personal, professional, and academic “Quarter Life Crisis” aspects of entering a doctoral program, or any graduate level educational experiences for that matter.

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This Post Went Viral!

One of the most productive experiences I’ve had with blogging thus far has come out of this blending of personal, professional, and academic content on my blog.  At the encouraging of my “Computers and Writing” professor, I attended a conference on campus titled “Autism Speaks Back: Neurodiversity and Disability Studies.” After live tweeting throughout the conference and making connections on Twitter with some of the conference speakers and attendees, I composed a blog post in which I made some connections between my personal, professional, and academic interests and investment in the conference.  This post became my most widely shared post to date with several comments from people I’ve never interacted with offline, several likes on WordPress, and over 100 views in a two month period this year.  I think the successful sharing of this blog is related to the specialized nature of its content as well as my purposeful linking and sharing the post on social media outlets.  This experience has helped to clarify for me some of the distinct and overlapping purposes and potentials of self-motivated, personal blogs versus required course blogs.

My overall purpose in recounting these experiences with blogging is to mine them for some useful takeaways as I instate a required course blog for the first time in an undergraduate course that I am teaching this coming fall.  I’ll be teaching upper level writing/academic argumentation, and I’ve set up a course website on WordPress that includes a video course description, a syllabus and schedule, and a course blog.  I think the most useful things I’ve taken from my limited experiences with blogging and from discussions with other instructors who’ve used course blogs are:

  1. logistics: most undergraduates do not keep personal blogs, so setting up a single course blog and allowing everyone to publish on it can be a useful structure for the blog.  In addition, although I’ve had useful, positive experiences with open-ended blog assignments, for the purposes of an undergraduate academic argumentation course, I think more directive prompts will be a useful way to start out and move toward more open-ended, free form posts as the semester progresses.
  2. goal setting (and decision making based on those goals): the goals of required blog posts should be made explicit and be in keeping with the broader course goals, themes, and content.  Ideally, after expressing these broader course goals, students will be able to arrive at and pursue related individual goals for their course blogging.
  3. publicizing: to avoid a reading-responses-posted-online version of course blogging, I hope to encourage students to set and pursue some goals concerning how to and why we ought to publicize our course blog as whole and their separate, individual posts.

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    Course Website and Blog

  4. multimodality: I hope to encourage students, through the video course description, course readings, and assignments, to explore not-only-textual modes of composing on the course blog.  This multimodal composing seems relevant to me in an upper level academic argumentation course because many of the arguments students encounter are not-only-textual but multimodal.  By asking students to produce these kinds of arguments themselves, I hope to encourage more conscientious production as well as consumption of digital, multimodal arguments in the course and beyond.

Pedagogy Continued (or Pedagogy Strikes Back)

So, as promised, I am writing to follow up on the experience of incorporating a brief, low stakes, in-class, digital assignment into my first-year composition course today!  Students submitted their final draft of a personal narrative/argumentative essay today that we had been drafting for several weeks, and then we moved into a new unit/major writing assignment, the theme of which is writing processes.  When introducing this unit in the past, I’ve had students draw their process and then we discuss their depictions and experiences of process. So, today in class, I asked that they represent their process visually through some sort of digital media.  I had prepared a visual

My "Model"

My “Model”

representation of my own writing process using Comic Life and provided that for students as an example, and then encouraged them to use ComicLife or whatever program they were familiar with or preferred to visually represent their own processes.  Most of my students used Comic Life, a few of them used Prezi, and one student made a video.

Some successes:

  • Students asked a lot of questions about composing, saving, exporting, and sharing their compositions.  We were all able to answer these questions together without any awful, uncomfortable, scary de-centering classroom authority Apocalypses of any kind. Some students had a more difficult time navigating the program than others and a few students expressed a lot of frustration, but approaching the assignment as low stakes and entirely in-class helped to alleviate any full scale freak-outs.
  • We were able to discuss a broader range of processes than just “writing” processes and we were able to expand our notions of what constitutes a “text”.  We had briefly discussed this expanded notion of a “text” before in class (with the help of the rhetorical situation), and today’s digital/visual in-class activity helped to reinforce and demonstrate that lots of compositions, not just text based compositions, involve processes, authors/speakers/composers/designers, audiences, and contexts.

    We Made Knowledge!!

    We Made Knowledge!!

  • Things got real meta real fast.  We first discussed how students were representing process in their visual compositions: what images they had chosen and why (with the help of some terms from Sorapure’s article), what arguments those images they had chosen were making about processes, if their current representation of process had changed at all from an earlier written description of their process composed weeks before.  Then, we discussed the process of composing the visual artifact and compared that process to the one they had hoped to represent (this is where we introduced the expanded notion of “text”).

Some things I would do differently:

  • Warn my students to bring their laptops instead of assuming they would have them (only one did not, she used mine) or better still reserve a room on campus with access to campus computers with a wider variety of programs for composing visual texts.
  • Devise, ahead of time, a better way for each student to share their composition with the entire class. About halfway through class I realized we would need a way to share and see each others’ visual compositions (a problem I had not anticipated when I was creating my model alone and not needing to share it. Classrooms are social spaces, duh).  So, I had students upload them to shared files on Google Drive that they had used for small group peer review, but this meant that each student could only access three visual compositions instead of everyone seeing everyone’s work. (That too would have been easy to fix in the moment too, but my laptop was being used by a student).
  • Assign some out of class reflection or response to carry the assignment and our discussion of it outside of our one hour and twenty minute class meeting.

As you can tell, the successes were more substantive than the mishaps in this instance, and I will probably repeat (and update) this activity for future composition courses. Yay!!

Pedagogy!! (That’s A Double Exclamation Point By The Way)

I think Madeleine Sorapure’s “Between Modes: Assessing Student New Media Composition” has been one of the most accessible, practically useful, and thought provoking readings we’ve done for our Computers and Writing class this semester.  Because I had such a positive experience and reaction to that text, I thought I’d explore it a bit more here.  As I’ve already expressed, one of my most pressing goals for the semester and for this course  is to ease my anxieties about incorporating computers and writing type assignments into my first-year composition classroom. I think this text was so useful in pushing me towards that goal because it offers actual assignments and student compositions. In that way, the text helped me to come down out of the ether of theory and into the equally important, possibly more urgent issues of pedagogy.  It also still helped me to sort out some more theories too.

Basically, Sorapure’s use of metaphor and metonymy to structure her assignment prompts and to evaluate her students’ compositions helped me to sort out a process by which I might incorporate some more new media/multimodal type assignments into my classroom. Not that I will wholly adopt her terms and methods, but in her process of assigning and evaluating, I found some connections to the ways that I already try to teach print based composition (like being consistent and transparent with students about the goals, requirements, and evaluation of the assignment as Sorapure did with the terms metaphor and metonymy).  Turns out that bringing multimodal and new media assignments into the classroom might not be as scary as I’ve been imagining.  I might already have some useful processes and principles to draw off of (although I also recognize that I will need to remain flexible and open to new possibilities, opportunities, and also unforeseen/unpredictable troubleshooting).

I will say I’m still a bit concerned and will now recapitulate some often expressed reservations about incorporating these kinds of assignments into the comp classroom (not simply to beat a dead horse but instead to hopefully get them out of my system and move beyond them):

I guess I’m still concerned about how truly de-centered my classroom will now be. I already feel less authoritative than desirable in the classroom simply because I am so young and new a teacher, so close in age to my students, and generally run my classroom pretty informally/conversationally already.  Introducing technology and assignments based in using technology into the classroom will reveal and expose me as even more of a novice.  And now, to move beyond this anxiety about further de-centering authority in my classroom: my students have always been respectful of me and also sought me out for my guidance/”expertise” when they’ve felt like they’ve needed it. Continuing on in this honest/transparent way that I’ve begun as a teacher will hopefully encourage that kind of dialogue and “learning together” type environment rather than alienating me or undercutting what authority I do have in the classroom. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself as I incorporate a brief, low stakes, in-class, digital assignment into my classroom today! Follow up post coming soon…

I Love The Word “Consumer.” It Feels Like A Dinosaur Metaphor.

This semester I’m taking a course called “Computers and Writing” and using this here blog to do some thinking and writing about those topics.  So, technically I am a “digital native” or so my age and generational identity would seem to suggest. However, I am much more a consumer than a producer of digital media, and that fact makes me feel uncomfortable being labeled as someone who should know how to do things and make things with technology.

The most striking example of my consumery digital habits is that I unapologetically love

My Dog and My Pretty New Purple Computer: Enabling My Consumery, Digital Immigrant Ways

My Dog and My Pretty New Purple Computer: Enabling My Consumery, Digital Immigrant Ways

Facebook, and most anything else I’ve found and liked on the interwebs I encountered first through Facebook.  I have a theory rolling around in my head about Facebook being a largely middle class phenomenon. That’s not to say that only people who identify as middle class use Facebook, rather the uses and conventions that have developed on Facebook fulfill some specifically middle class needs and desires.  But I have lots of theories about different things (digital or not) being middle class phenomena.  And that is one of my biggest concerns as I jump headlong into the topics surrounding computers and writing. How do I study these new things without simply cutting and pasting all the ways I’ve been studying print composing and print literacy practices?

I’m also a bit anxious ((and excited)) for how these computers and writing topics may influence my teaching.  I’ve already been encouraging my students to explore these topics whenever possible or whenever they have seemed to take an interest in them.  Last semester I assigned a “Writing Constructs” paper in my first-year composition class and about half of my students chose digital-y type topics to explore, mostly about how Facebook or Twitter or Texting or E-Readers or Word Processing programs have and are influencing writing.  So many of them were interested in these kinds of topics that I sent around this “Myth of Digital Literacies” video, which I’m becoming a bit obsessed with (plus, it’s always good for the soul to get a good visual of Andrea Lunsford).  Where did I first find this video you ask? Why, Facebook of course! So, it seems, I am encouraging my own digital consumer ways in my students.

I would love to encourage my students to instead PRODUCE some sort of digital assignment or argument, but that scares me a lot because I would be relinquishing my authority in the classroom in a very real way.  They’d ask question and I’d have to answer with a lot of “I don’t know”s.  And not the kind of teacherly “I don’t know, why don’t you go explore that for yourself” rhetorical trick where I really do know but don’t want to simply give them the answers. No, in this case, I genuinely would not know how to answer their questions about using and producing digital media.  Also, I would want a digital project for them that could stand on its own and not just be the performative, cherry on top, add on to some traditionally, print-composed argument they had already written.  So these are my goals for the semester: learn some new research and teaching methods that seem fitting to the topics of computers and writing.