Multimodal v digital writing

In my last post I reflected on a set of readings that considered digital composition and the digital humanities. After a fab class discussion in 733 on Monday, however, I realized that I erroneously conflated “digital” with “multimodal.” Considering that there are important differences between the two, I should have been more careful.*

Image from San Diego Air & Space Museum, Flickr Commons

I suppose part of the reason I opted for “multimodal,” however, is because “digital” feels so redundant. Nearly every text a college student composes in the 21st century is born digital, whether as a doc, rtf, txt, html, etc. Instructors increasingly require papers to be turned in electronically (I haven’t graded a printed paper in at least two years; for some of my colleagues, it’s been longer). A paper written in MS Word is hardly a “digital composition.” As WIDE argues in “Why Teach Digital Writing?” “[c]omputers are not ‘just tools’ for writing. Networked computers create a new kind of writing space that changes the writing process and the basic rhetorical dynamic between writers and readers.”  The networked properties of writing spaces (or scenes), of course, are essential to a digital curriculum; students should learn how to use RSS readers, write blogs, and rethink invention as collaborative “ongoings” instead of a singular beginnings. But what I’m looking for in a digital curriculum isn’t just about networks or networked spaces.

A multimodal digital approach, then, would require students to experiment with various electronic tools (video, audio, multimedia) in order to defamiliarize their previous understandings of analogue, print-based texts. How do those various media affect meaning making in productive ways, even (maybe especially?) when it comes to academic writing? How would they support a critical pedagogy? These are the questions I continue to research.

Consider Jeff Rice‘s 2003 piece from CCC, “The 1963 Hip-Hop Machine: Hip-Hop Pedagogy as Composition.” In that essay, Rice argues for a concept of “whatever,” taking seemingly-unrelated samples from sources (i.e. summaries, paraphrases, quotations) and juxtaposing them. It’s a productive starting point, since students often come to a research project having already anchored toward an agenda, finding sources that match up with a pre-determined frame. A whatever approach disrupts that move. I also love it because it’s an extension of hip-hop and electronic music. For example, I’ve used Girl Talk to introduce students to synthesis in WRT 205 by having them engage with Girl Talk’s sources on Wikipedia, or sites like this one, that visualizes the layered sources as they come and go in a track. All that work is done to make academic writing more accessible and playful for students, so they begin to see all meaning making as inherently intertextual, but also start to notice how print based texts synthesize meaning; they don’t just splice blocks in. Another example comes from our own Patrick Berry, who has asked students to summarize complex texts (like Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”) using slideware, leading to some fun results. So while we tend to think of summary and synthesis as traditional academic, print-based moves, multimodal writing can help student both access these moves while also teaching them new sites and tools for composition.

Not that this is all so simple. While I’m just starting to tackle post-process theory (via Dobrin, Rice and Vastola’s recent collection, Beyond Postprocess), for now I would not argue that comp instructors stop at these activities in their lower-division courses. Since these courses are compelled to prepare students to actually write print-based academic texts, obviously students need practice with linear approaches to writing since that is still the world they’ll live in before and after their required composition sequences.


*Even multimodal, as a concept, still feels vague to me (and judging from the volume of scholarship on the subject, I should not be surprised). It could mean a student uses paper and crayons to produce a project (I’m thinking of some of Jody Shipka’s student projects), or it could mean drawing from the range of tools available in one’s immediate space (as my peer Allison argued in a presentation this on multimodal writing centers). Or it could mean teaching many different modes (i.e. academic genres). I haven’t researched the term as much as I need to, but alas, it’s on the agenda and first up will be Cindy Selfe’s book, as well as Claire Lauer’s piece from Computers and Composition).