Week 13: Thinking about Multimodality

multimedia_i_news_designOur 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 thmedia-literacy-a-continuum-29-638e 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.


“On the Compulsion to Repeat Trauma” -Student Work, Fall 2016

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.


“The Yellow Wallpaper” -Student Work, Fall 2016

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!


“Beyond the Pleasure Principle” -Student Work, Fall 2016

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?

Week 10 – Inquiry Versus Info-dump: Better Research Thinking and Writing in Any Discipline

What the heck is he doing here?

What the heck is he doing here?

I am not going to try to cover all the concerns introduced by Bean in this chapter.  “Research” means something quite specific as we shift from one discipline to another, so I hope you feel free to talk about whatever particular idea you found most relevant for you and your domain.

I am going to limit my kick-off post to one concern: Free choice or prescribed topics for research?

I’ve gone down both roads in preparing major English term assignments, and I would say that if you are prepared to fully support the Q-defining and narrowing process with lots of class time and lots of conferencing, then it can be rewarding for students.  If not, you are asking for frustration, data-dumps, all-abouts, and plagiarism.


In the past I let my environmental literacy BXE students define and narrow their own topics – with some pretty good results, but with a time-consuming process too. I don’t do it any more because 1) I have a more specific set of learning goals for that part of the course and 2) I am better at creating a set of several options that stimulate inquiry AND also achieve those learning goals. For example, I now have them working within the genre of the open letter, and writing on one of three topical enviro controversies (recent eg. the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides) from the viewpoint of one of several stakeholders.

I agree with Bean that our first concern with college students ought to be to stimulate curiosity and to model inquiry.   As he notes, college students tend to think of research as “going to the library” (226) – or increasingly, to Wikipedia – when what we are talking about is a kind of disposition toward an interesting question, and its known and unknown unknowns.  

Arguably, we can stimulate curiosity if we narrow the research that students do, so they can better get excited by the inquiry.   Several years ago, in my ICE:Writing English course we worked on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for several weeks. During that time, I discovered through some simple research several interesting and related texts:

  • A series of song settings of sections of Leaves of Grass by the American composer Andrew Martin, posted to Youtube
  • A letter of Van Gogh to his sister, where he talks about how he has been smitten by the poetry of Whitman
  • An advertisement for the Apple iPad, that quotes from Whitman’s “O me, O life!” (which, you may also recall, is recited at a dramatic moment by Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) in the film Dead Poets’ Society).
  • A newspaper editorial penned by Whitman himself, that argues against the abolition of slavery and the accordance of voting rights to African Americans

So, for the essays on Whitman I pulled each of these sources – it is more accurate to call them “inter-texts” – into a topic.  The topics required the student to create and defend a thesis in relation to an inquiry into the relation of a specific Whitman text and one of these specific intertexts.   And as a result, I got to read some really interesting analyses.  The “research” part of it was set up by me – but that allowed the students to really focus on the “inquiry” part of the work, which is to say the probing and analysis of the relationship between the texts.  This kind of approach could easily be widened as the students progress in their skills – at a higher level, I might invite students to then identify two more inter-texts on their own, thus pushing them into a more traditional researcher role once they are motivated and confident.

So, at least early in college, where we are definitely dealing with “novices”  developmentally (228), I now think the more carefully we frame the problems into which the student inquires, the more likely it is that students will experience a maximum of the thrill of curiosity and discovery which motivates research, with a minimum of frustration and false steps.

What should excite and interest students about doing research in your field?  What research skills are required for competent practitioners?  What kinds of projects and assignments can best elicit that excitement and hone those skills?   Do you think that BIzzup’s “BEAM” approach is one that you could successfully import into your current recipe for teaching research writing?


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Using Rubrics

Hello fellow WIDers,

Please let me begin by saying…. I love that as teachers we get to be forever students…and the term ‘lifelong learning’ is one that resonates deeply with me.

Ahhh grading… I have a love/hate relationship with it. Like most teachers, I love it when students do well and I get to reinforce/reward the ideas, comprehension, work ethic etc… but when students don’t earn the grades I find myself questioning my teaching and/or my assignments/instructions which, while necessary, I find uncomfortable.

When I was a student and given assignments where there was no specific rubric just a set of instructions, I always questioned if I was doing it ‘right’. There was guess work involved in terms of what I thought the teacher wanted and instructions can sometimes be open to interpretation. The possible ambiguity created anxiety, so as a student I always loved having a rubric… for a couple different reasons. I liked knowing exactly what I had to do. Listed with a rubric were the elements required but also a scale in which I got to measure where my work fell on this continuum, this made me feel that it was a less subjective measure. While it made it easier to take responsibility for the quality of my work I would still question the nuance of why I was in the 8 and not 9 column (which teachers could only sometimes explain). 


My master’s degree was in educational psychology and one of my required courses was on assessment. The most important idea I walked away from that course was ‘do your learning objectives align with your assessment?’ or how Bean puts it “what do teachers actually want when they ask students to write?” Rubrics, whether analytic/holistic or generic/ task-specific, aim to minimise the ambiguity and subjectivity involved with assignments

Begs the question… how much is subjective? Bean is right when he states that judgements about what constitutes good writing are complex. Do you think that including a rubric with its “grid and neat categories pushes us towards pretending an objectivity that does not match the complex mixture of likes and dislikes we feel towards any particular paper”?

One other point I would like to address are the different types of rubrics and possible commentary. I think teachers get frustrated when we spend time giving (valuable) feedback and students either don’t apply that feedback to the next draft or if a final, don’t pick up the papers. I like that Bean touched on the concept of the universal reader and while I have only ever used analytic rubrics (because that is all I have ever known), now I see other types might be more helpful for some of my assignments. It will allow my comments to focus not what the student did wrong but how she lost certain readers and how to minimise that. I feel this would be especially helpful for IS.

What are your favourite types of rubrics to use and why? Do you find making encouraging revision oriented comments easy using rubrics? If not, how might some of the ideas in this chapter facilitate that? 


Week 7: Designing Formal Assignments

calvin-enjoy-writingFor me, the heart of Bean’s discussion on designing formal assignments is his RAFT/TIP heuristic (98), which encourages the creation of assignments that are problem-driven and rhetorically situated.  Bean suggests that the trouble with traditional assignments (the “term paper”, the “research paper”) is that they are topic-oriented – “Discuss diabetes!” – and thus likely to result in “data dump” or “all about” papers that are boring to produce and boring to read.  Moreover, these papers bear no resemblance to any writing that we actually do in our fields: they are composed in a rhetorical vacuum, and sent down a one-way street to the teacher-as-examiner.Continue reading


ah yes – genres… this is a topic to which I have already given a lot of thought; in fact, it is what enticed me into the WID program from the beginning!

I had read this chapter from Bean before we started, and I have already mentioned some of these my ideas, based on my own experience and Bean’s chapter, in our discussions (blog and meeting), so I will try to not repeat myself.

obviously, it is a topic near and dear to me. I have always played around with genres to some extents, but it was when I actually started writing fiction that many of these ideas came together. My colleague Susan Palmer and I had conceived of a religion-based mystery series as a retirement plan (we were of course going to become best-selling authors!), a way to put our education and expertise to practical use. But I hadn’t realized just how freeing it would be to write this way, and how much fun! So I started thinking about how it would be possible to bring that to my students, to start out with something that was actually fun to do, and transform it into what the academy requires.

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Many Literacy Cultures

Many Literacy Cultures

The New Yorker Digital Edition  Sep 07, 2009 - Mozilla Firefox 922009 90350 PM

My language is the sum total of myself. -C S. Peirce

There are so many different viewpoints about literacy, and so many different focuses in these three readings, from Rose to Zammel to Pekham.  All three share that they aim to disabuse us of the idea that literacy is a skill, a practical and technical ability learned through hard work and good teaching.  Where these readings differ is firstly in where they place their focus and secondly in how much credence they give to the idea that good or better literacy leads to improved integration or power (even transforming the student themself) in the larger world.  Zammel and Pekham seem to suggest that indeed education (not literacy per se) can be transformative, but only Pekham is dedicated to explaining his ‘working class contempt’ for the modernizing literacy project to which he himself was subject, describing working class English as a dialect rather than an aberration in speaking and writing, making it possible to recognize multiple, varied literacy cultures.Continue reading

Week 4: The Politics of Literacy: Whose Grammar?

Le chapitre 5 me fait penser à mon expérience de correctrice aux épreuves uniformes de français, niveau collégial. C’était le travail le plus déprimant que j’ai jamais fait : sept heures par jour de correction à la chaine. Pour ceux qui ne savent pas, l’épreuve uniforme de français est un examen obligatoire à la fin des études collégiales (qui a son équivalent dans le système anglophone). Elle consiste à rédiger une dissertation critique (l’équivalent de l’ « essay ) à partir des textes littéraires sur lesquels l’étudiant doit appuyer sa réflexion. Le candidat dispose de quatre heures et trente minutes pour rédiger un texte d’environ 900 mots. La grande majorité des candidats sont des locuteurs natifs du français ou des allophones ayant une assez bonne maitrise du français. Cependant, c’est souvent le niveau de maitrise de la langue (mesuré en fautes commises) qui fait échouer les candidats à cette épreuve. Si les candidats commettent très peu d’erreurs de syntaxe, ils sont la plupart du temps pénalisés à cause des fautes d’orthographe et surtout de vocabulaire. Dans cette dernière catégorie on inclut non seulement l’emploi inapproprié d’un mot, mais également toutes les incohérences d’expression, les énoncés qualifiés d’« absurdes », contradictoires ainsi que les « non-sens ».  Et c’est d’ailleurs ce genre de « fautes » qui rendent le travail du correcteur vraiment pénible. À force d’être noyé tout au long de la journée dans les non-sens, on finit par se désespérer.Continue reading

Week 1: Writing and Thinking

When I have to talk about the value of informal writing – or scribbling, if you like – I often refer to the notebooks of Charles Darwin.  You are likely familiar with the doodle that represents – or did it generate? – one of the most important insights in the history of knowledge:

darwin treeBut you can also open the notebooks to almost any page, and “see aloud” Darwin thinking the thoughts that will soon turn science on its head – check out this passage for example.   This is a great way to spin “I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say” into “I don’t know what I think till I see what I write.”  If you happen to be one of those people who keeps a personal notebook or journal, it’s easy to supplement this example with a personal anecdote about how writing can pull the invisible and unknown into full view.
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Weeks 1 and 2: Linking Thinking and Writing

colorfulI’ll kick off the discussion with a few remarks after my rereading of  Bean’s Chapters 1 and 2.  For each Chapter I’ll then throw out a question or two for you to respond to.  These follow roughly those guiding Qs found in the Schedule for Week 2 – but I’m tweaking here and there as we go.

Let’s start with, hmm, Chapter 1!  Bean wastes no time in setting the stage with a host of interesting ideas and problems.  For me, the most important concept introduced in Chapter 1 is the idea of design – in our context, the intentional decisions made by the teacher regarding the learning experience that the student will undertake. Continue reading

Welcome to the F2016 Writing Fellows Blog

Welcome to the Blog for the Fall 2016 Writing Fellows, where we’ll discuss the weekly topics and readings. Moderators will set up one or two guiding questions, and their views thereupon, and the rest of us can comment at the bottom of the post in the “Leave a reply” box. You can reply directly to the Post, and also to others’ comments on the Post. It’s standard blogosphere procedure, and the default tone is conversational. Still, we take the idea of “writing to learn” seriously, so be brief or be lengthy, but either way, try muting your perfectionist internal editor, and let your fingers do the (fresh) thinking.

It is important to be consistent in your visits here.  By contributing something every week, we increase the collaborative learning of the group. Many past Fellows have remarked that some of the most important insights of the semester came while writing their comments or reading the comments of the other group members. Because not everyone has done a lot of writing online, it might be inspiring to hear from a previous Writing Fellow on how she felt about blogging in an online community of colleagues. Here’s a few thoughts from Davina Mill (Psychology Writing Fellow Fall 2010):

Congrats, guys, for being selected for WID. You’re here because you’re open to new teaching ideas and WID delivers. You probably already do a lot of special things in the classroom, but I know I certainly walked away fine tuning some old techniques, and learning a bunch of new ones to boot. You’ll get out of blogging what you put into it, so a couple of suggestions that, looking back, I think you might benefit from knowing about.
WID groups meet about once every 2 weeks. Given this structure and my tendency to procrastinate (not that any of YOU do, but just in case…) sometimes, I’d wait to the last minute to do the readings and then add my comment to the blog. Which meant I put less into the process and got less out of it. Suggestion: do readings early on and then throw ideas onto the blog!
And I mean “THROW!” I was a bit hesitant to write… this is a group on writing and critical thinking, so I worried, Will what I write make sense? Plus, before I got to know how cool everyone in the group ends up being, I was worried my peers would scratch their heads at my ramblings. Heck, maybe you are too! But, the key here is: It doesn’t matter. Seriously. This blogging is meant to share ideas, but also to help you unclog your own thoughts. Hey, maybe we should call it Blog and Unclog. But I regress. Main point: try not to get hung up on spelling/ grammar and if you make sense. Your contribution will more than likely resonate with at least one person in the gorup. (note: I am working very hard right now to restrain myself from obsessively correcting my errors in this blog)
As you can see, I tend to ramble in my blogs. But blogs can be super short, too.
So, blog and unclog- it’s liberating and will help you get the most out of the experience.
And don’t worry about how you end your blogs because…
          – Davina Mill, Psychology


So, I hope you are looking forward to the online conversation here as the weeks proceed. If you have any questions or comments about the blog and how we’re using it, doesn’t hesitate to chime in.

Have you previously done any online writing or blogging? Take the comment box out for a test spin…

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