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?

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  1. Excellent post Julian

    I am very curious to experiment with different media not just for assignments but for content delivery as well. I attended a meeting this afternoon given by Chantale in the French Dept to gather more information for potentially making part of my courses include an online component and how to do that. Davina (a colleague) and I shared our fear of exactly what you have supposed, that “we fear that we don’t have the specialised training or equipment to make it happen.” Once we talked more about getting part of our courses online the conversation moved to assignments and Davina and I had a pretty great brainstorming session about best practices and creating application based assignments. I think part of getting over the fear is to jump in… preferably with a colleague. Trial by fire was what we were thinking for next semester. For us the issue is designing assignments that apply the psychological concepts in a bigger way, that serve a purpose, that include media and take a whole class to do (if not a whole semester). My foray into Facebook for questions, answers and opinions was great if for no other reason to see that the students were extremely invested/involved/engaged… and that was great reinforcement for me to take another (perhaps) larger step into the online world. I have little things that include different media in my courses but what I’m looking for now is to have students write the academic papers required but then to disseminate that information in a meaningful way to non academics to whom the information would be most useful… just haven’t figured out how to do that yet! I was introduced to some different portfolio type platforms last semester in the AL fellowship and I hated them… I’m looking at other options for that assignment. I was thinking for IS that they would need to create an online workshop that could be ‘sold’ to elementary schools or PSA podcast or brochure around their topic…again I would need to brainstorm specifics with colleagues before that could happen and then yes, how do I grade the media portion? My opinion of what I consider creative and/or aesthetically pleasing? I’m excited to see where these ideas lead and the assignments that get created.

  2. Thank you Julian, this was really thought-provoking. I am always looking for ‘multimodality’ that echoes real-world circumstances and skills that can be coupled with ‘critical thinking’ in Humanities. I love your reminder of our fear of the new, remembering that writing was also considered a bit of a nefarious innovation at one time, as was (and is) the internet, social networking, and so on… I should admit that I am not one of the teachers to which Bean, Takayoshi and Selfe and even WID sometimes refers as anxious about compromising other important learning or writing time by introducing new elements and skills into the classroom environment and in homework. I have embraced multimedia assignments that rely on various different forms of expression, but like you I also attach to them a strong writing component (in the way of an artist’s manifesto, analysis of an interview, etc.). I also worry about privileging those who have more technological skills, or even artistic abilities, and have found ways whereby students who know more about editing teach those who know less and earn some credit, for instance. I am always curious to find ways we can learn about ‘different choices in visual arrangement’ that include images and texts, or how we can include peer-review so that students understand each other’s work. I also love the idea of bringing the pathos back; yes, let’s bring it back, but also temper it with boredom, both of which have spawned much innovation in the past. I hope we continue to use the tried-and-true composition formats some times, and then encourage students to produce a Linkedin profile for a historical figure at other times. As Takayoshi and Selfe brilliantly argue, audio and visual composing both require rhetorical prowess (even print itself, typeface, is visual), and that is a great deal of what we are teaching when we refer to critical thinking, expression of this thinking in a way that we and peers can understand it!

  3. Yes, thank you Julian! I have been incorporating different modalities in my courses for quite a while now and I share some of your concerns. I do worry sometimes that while I see an increase in student involvement, maybe I am sacrificing some amount of “learning” for the sake of engagement… so that students may end up having more fun, but are they actually learning? On the other hand, the fact that they are engaged (and therefore awake!) has to be a good thing…..
    I have always used an elastic definition of “text” – I am not a huge fan of written texts, as I find that what people say and then what they actually do often differ. So when we examine texts, we look at visual images, films, fiction, actions, … anything that has both a creator and a consumer, to use Takayoshi and Selfe’s terminology. (by the way, didn’t you love the fact that one of the authors is named SELFE????)
    The way I deal with the grading is the only way that makes sense to me in a social science non-art-oriented course – I mark on content and clarity, and leave the aesthetic quality alone. When my students produce their posters (which I now do in all my classes as a substitute for the presentations we don’t have time for), if they include all the requirements and get them done on time, they get full marks. As this is only 5% (the accompanying essays are worth 15%), this seems fair. Some of them are barely adequate, but some of them are amazing and my office is decorated with the ones that I love to look at.

  4. Merci Julian pour ton poste et pour ces beaux exemples qui donnent envie d’expérimenter la composition multimédia.

    Bien que de manière générale je sois ouverte à l’idée de composition multimedia, je ne l’ai pas encore expérimentée dans me cours, par crainte de ne pas savoir comment évaluer ce genre de travail. Pour ce qui est des nouvelles technologies la question me préoccupe depuis quelques temps, mais je me sens un peu démunie. Je suis bien consciente de leur potentiel motivationnel, mais pas encore complètement convaincue que leur intégration dans mes cours soit une nécessité.
    Cela vient peut-être du fait que je suis en général rétive à la technologie.
    Cependant, j’ai commencé à regarder tout cela d’un œil un peu différent au moment où j’ai vu le merveilleux travail fait par une enseignante de l’école primaire avec des enfants de 8 ans. En utilisant une application disponible sur l’Ipad les enfant ont créé des histoires en mixant texte, images (dessins faits par les enfants) et son (ils ont donné voix aux personnages de l’histoire en interprétant et enregistrant le texte qu’ils ont écrit préalablement). Malgré ma méfiance envers cette campagne de I-Pad-sation des écoles primaire et secondaires au Québec, je dois admettre que le résultat était vraiment éblouissant.
    Je me suis dit à ce moment là que je pourrais peut-être un jour tirer profit de ces technologies pour rendre mes cours plus dynamiques, pour arriver à stimules plus l’intérêt et l’implication des mes étudiants dans le processus d’apprentissage. Je ne suis pas encore passé à l’acte, premièrement, parce que, comme Julian, je doute de mes compétences d’évaluation d’un travail qui ne relève pas que des habiletés d’écriture, et deuxièmement, parce que je ne sais pas comment gérer les différences de compétences technologiques entre les étudiants. Les étudiants en arts, en animation 3D, en études cinématographiques, en design, je les vois très bien faire un excellent travail, un travail dans lequel ils vont probablement se sentir épanouis. Mais les autres ? Ceux qui ne savent même pas comment brancher leur clé USB à l’ordinateur quand ils doivent présenter leur Power Point d’exposé oral ? Je n’exagère point et je suis à peine ironique. J’ai réalisé les dernières années que même si les étudiants sont en permanence branchés à Facebook, Twitter, etc. sur les téléphones intelligents, l’utilisation d’une clé USB ou d’autres applications pratiques pour faire un travail à l’ordinateur reste un mystère pour certains. Peut-être qu’une solution équitable serait de donner la possibilité aux étudiants de choisir s’ils veulent faire une composition uni média ou multimédia. Il ne reste qu’à trouver la grille d’évaluation appropriée qui puisse récompenser ceux qui osent exploiter d’autres voies sans pénaliser ceux qui ne ressentent pas nécessairement ce besoin.

    Une idée qui m’est passée par la tête en lisant les deux articles est que la question de l’intermédialité (je préfère ce concept plutôt que celui de multimédia) est inévitablement liée à l’interdisciplinarité. En fin de compte, on fait appel dans les compositions multimédias à des compétences, à des savoirs nourris par d’autres disciplines.

    Finalement, une autre idée à laquelle j’ai accroché dans l’article d’Anderson – et qui faisait écho à l’atelier donné vendredi dernier au Département de français par Ian – a été celle de la classe studio dans laquelle étudiants et professeurs sont des co-apprenants et l’expérience d’apprentissage est avant tout une expérience d’échange.
    Sans doute, la technologie facilite ce type d’expérience, et nous offre de ce point de vue plusieurs outils pratiques. En même temps, je ne suis pas certaine qu’elle soit LA solution, en tout cas l’unique solution.
    Cela me fait penser à un article que j’ai lu il y a quelques années, un article qui parle justement d’un autre type d’expérience d’échange, d’une autre manière de performer (quand on enseigne la littérature).


  5. Great conversation on this topic.

    I am not a rabid enthusiast for new technologies – I do love my iPad, but I’m not on Facebook, we have no TV at home, I have no smart phone. I do like many old technologies – the corkscrew, the chain saw, the bicycle come to mind.

    What I really like is doing things – which I guess is why when Anderson visits Latour’s metaphor of the construction site as a place where technologies provide new ways of doing things, it appeals to me right away. Learning environments that match new ways of thinking about things with new ways of doing things are potentially exciting environments, for students and for teachers. As Melanie notes, it is not entirely satisfying that students simply know things. Better that they should know how to do things with what they know – as in the PSA idea. This links to Anderson’s point about fostering the agency of our students, so that they feel equipped to not just know, but act on what they know, in the world.

    Julian raises the question of how to evaluate multimodal work, and others echo it, understandably. It’s essentially a matter of anxiety over teacherly authority: If I am not an expert in this or that technology, than how will I ever justify my evaluation of its use? The premise is that the teacher should never require students to do anything that the teacher is not already expert at – I’m not an artist, do not expect me to evaluate art… A way to work around this is to share authority: Solicit student input to develop some evaluation criteria, and performance levels. If the community of learners creates and endorses these criteria, and find that they clarify and advance the work in progress, then it seems unlikely that they’ll be called into question later.

    And Carmen raises another interesting Q: What about the advantage to students who come to us already tech-savvy, or art-savvy? Is it unfair to the others? To which I thought: What about the advantage we’ve always given to students who come to us already alphabetic-savvy? Has it been it unfair to the others?

    Arguably, multimodal assignments widen the opportunities for students to experience, develop and demonstrate to us their multiple intelligences – I think this also pertains to the higher motivation and “flow” that Anderson sees in his student work, and the degree of effort and attention that is visible in Julian’s students’ artwork.

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