Our students, and probably most of us, live and breathe media. We send text messages and emails, share and create memes, posts and comment on blogs, upload and tag photos, enjoy and analyze podcasts, watch and critique videos. With all the ways we work with media today, why do so many of us fear going beyond print and paper assignments in our courses? In part, it’s because our training as scholars typically centers almost exclusively on academic articles and monographs. This is therefore the kind of writing we want to pass on to our students. We also have doubts about alternative projects: we worry that they would waste precious class time and that they are intellectually unserious. Even if we’re curious to experiment with assignments that have a multimedia component, we fear that we don’t have the specialized training or equipment to make it happen.
This week’s articles go a long way to alleviating such concerns. Takayoshi and Selfe’s “Thinking about Multimodality” provide useful historical context by noting that anxiety over new communication technologies goes back all the way to Socrates’ critique of writing in the 5th century BCE. They also highlight that many of the rhetorical techniques that we tend to connect exclusively with writing—such as appeals to ethics, reason, and emotion— actually have their origins in speech. Communication that aims to persuade, as we experience constantly in our networked worlds, is far from limited to alphabetic text. Teaching our classes the skills to both critically analyze contemporary media, and how to make it themselves, has many benifits. It encourages students to become more informed and engaged citizens, provides them with useful skills for the job market, and ideally, make them feel like our courses give them a deeper understanding of the world they actually inhabit.
Anderson’s “Low Bridge to High Benefits” provided a number of striking examples of how to make these kinds of assignments a reality. These include having students write liner notes for a playlist of songs that will speak to a character’s development within a novel; the creation of collages to visually depict a poem’s meaning (I found the example of Blake’s “Little Lamb” haunting); and the designing of photo essays, interspersed with clips of speeches and music, on historical topics such as the Civil Rights Movement. Anderson, even more than Takayoshi and Selfe, underlines how these kinds of projects can encourage students to become so committed to a project that they go into a state of “flow,” working on it not simply because it’s required, but out of love.
While one must guard against the idea that multimodal assignments will somehow generate student commitment and achievement all by themselves, I have had some terrific success with them in my classes. In one course, students created an artistic piece inspired by either Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” They then had to complete a one-paragraph write-up on what inspired their creative project. The project was worth only around 1% of the final grade, so I was blown away by the creativity and energy evinced in these projects. I’ve posted some of them here. Other students went beyond work on paper creating video clips that included animation and dance. I’ve also seen impressive results in the multi-modal components of the oral history projects I assign for Research Methods. Here, students not only record interviews with family members, which they will refer to in the final projects, but they share the audio with their peers who listen to them in class (providing an outside perspective on the interview’s most important themes ). Students will then use this advice as they work on their final papers. By hearing the actual voices of their peer’s interview subjects, students get the sense that they are developing a community with stakes outside of the classroom. Finally, in my War and Peace class, I’ve had similarly successful results having students “write in a character’s voice” in our online Facebook forum. They’ve also produced fantastic writing in the forum where they have to bring the novel into deep connection with ethical choices in their own lives (here’s on excellent example). The fact that students read and comment on one another’s posts seems to help generate compelling work.
For all the values of turning our classes into “construction sites” and “studio spaces,” there are still legitimate questions about how far these projects can go. Here are some of those concerns with possible resolutions. I’m curious to hear what others think about both concrete possibilities for multimodal assignments and concerns you have about their effectiveness in teaching our competencies.
1) If we’re not experts in new media, how do we grade these multimodal assignments, particularly if there is not a lot of text connected to them? This is one of the reasons that I always accompany these kind of projects with written work that I believe I am more well-equipped to assess.
2) Even though this week’s authors anticipate and deflect charges of technological determinism and boosterism, it’s important to remember that multimodal assignments should not be seen as a cure-all for boredom and apathy among students. Let’s keep our expectations in check and try to make all our work engaging. We’ve also been reading and writing about Plato for over 2000 years. There’s a reason for that. Textual literacy is a central skill in many of our disciplines. Let’s not discount it!
3) I’m glad the authors talk about “easy to use” software and non-digital projects, but I do worry that students who already have technical skills having a major advantage over those who do not. On the one hand, we should take advantage of their knowledge so that they can help their peers (and perhaps us too), but this also makes having written work to assess along with creative pieces all the more important.
All in all, I do think there are exciting prospects here. What are your own multimodal assignments? What kinds of concerns do you have about them?