Undergraduate Curricula and Multimodal Composing ~ Session G1


Review by Sarah Spring

Read more about session G1 on the C&W conference site.


Kristin Cornelius, California State University Northridge
Rory Lee, Florida State University
David Sheridan, Michigan State University
Lee Odell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

These panelists examine multimodal composing within existing undergraduate composition programs – topics like best practices, support from literacy and writing centers, unity across written and multimodal assignments, and integration of a Multimodality Discourse Analysis approach.

Teaching Multimodal Discourse Analysis in Discipline-Specific Communications Courses and First-Year Classrooms

Kristin Cornelius, California State University Northridge

Kristin Cornelius taught both Accounting Communications (Writing in the Disciplines) and First-Year Composition (Writing Across the Curriculum) in one year, which allowed her to compare the two courses/methods. She decided it was easier to teach accounting students due to genre theory or the idea that students can more readily learn how to take on the role of accountants than beginning writers can learn how to be authors.

As a way of assisting first-year writers, Cornelius introduced Multimodal Discourse Analysis (MDA) into her classroom and encouraged other teachers to do the same. The following list highlights a few key concepts of MDA that she borrowed from the existing scholarship to use as vocabulary in student activities and assignments.

  • Production and Constraint = Production looks at the object before and after it is created and how contexts interact with the object, while Constraint asks what it means to produce a multimodal text.
  • Audience/Salience = Cornelius gave examples from her first-year composition students who created blogs within particular conventions, constraints, and contexts. Students were asked to consider Audience by contemplating the difference between a website and a blog, a difference that highlighted the need for this vocabulary while teaching (not just for assisting students with technical know-how); students discussed Salience by focusing on how visuals grab attention.
  • Extension and Enhancement = The University of Georgia has been recognized for its work with portfolios because these portfolios look at the “page” as in flux rather than static. Students were constrained to an image but encouraged to think outside of the box by imagining the possibilities of text.

Cornelius then returned to her original point that business and accounting students have more straightforward goals in the classroom than first-year composition students because they are already trying to market themselves for the workforce. To help demystify the composition classroom, she argued that teachers should ask all students how they want to present themselves as writers/authors and introduce this terminology in classes other than first-year writing. Unfortunately, she was unable to stay for questions, so it was not completely clear how teachers can use this vocabulary in other courses or how effective it is to ask first-year students to “market” themselves; a lingering question is what are the potential advantages and disadvantages of bringing genre theory into the composition classroom. It would also be insightful to see the assignment prompts and rubrics for the activities she mentioned, as a model for incorporating MDA into composition.

“Now with More Modes?: The Role of Multimodality in Undergraduate Tracks/Majors in Writing/Rhetoric”

Rory Lee, Florida State University

Rory Lee introduced himself by stating that he is presenting his dissertation research, and as part of this research, he surveyed 20 undergraduate programs with writing/rhetoric majors. The reason for this focus was the rise of writing and rhetoric majors as well as the increase in scholarship keyed toward multimodal composition (Howard 2000, Yancey’s CCCC chair address, and authors such as Balzhiser, McLeod, Weisser, and Grobman). Several programs across the country also adapted to Yancey’s call for a new curriculum in the new century and began to incorporate multimodality.

Lee’s data set included only programs with a required course in rhetoric and incorporation of and attention to technology. He then surveyed these programs (17 of 21 program directors responded) by asking them to complete 32 questions about multimodality. He revealed his initial findings:

  • All participants responded that multimodality is a common practice (Lee is defining “multimodality” in a way similar to Kress). There are four common ways to integrate multimodality – individual basis, course basis, programmatic level, and a combination of these ways.
  • Programs emphasized both the consumption and creation of multimodal texts.
  • Of the types of texts that are common to analyze and produce, programs work with social media the most, followed closely by blogs. Print advertisements are common to analyze but not produce, and findings indicated that memes have not made their way into the classroom. All programs incorporated more than one multimodal text.
  • Most majors created and developed their own assessment practices with some commonalities.
  • These programs relied on three common means of support: self training, help from colleagues, and help from conferences.
  • Students utilized various methods of accessing technology and different spaces to work on these texts.

Lee mentioned that several of these programs had an emphasis on technical communication, so the creation of technical communication tracks or majors was likely a factor in the integration of multimodality. This point seemed particularly important due to the potential implications for whether programs should include such an emphasis, but since he will pick three programs as case studies, this focus may not make it into the dissertation.

“Can You Deliver the Goods?: Models of Peer-Consultant Expertise in Technology-Intensive Learning Environments”

David Sheridan, Michigan State University

David Sheridan first presented a brief background of his experience at Michigan State University. While he is currently working with the Language and Media Center within the Residential College of The Arts and Humanities (RCAH), he started as the associate director of MSU’s Writing Center. His administrative roles offered an opportunity to observe the work that happens within the centers and study it.

Because of the key differences between the two centers, Sheridan asked himself how best to keep track of the work within the Language and Media Center and measure it. The Language and Media Center is located in a special program within the RCAH, a program that Sheridan is now a part of, but its knowledgeable peer consultants do not take appointments. Unlike the writing center, this center typically assisted with different types of work from the writing center such as media production and world language proficiency. The nature of the work meant collaboration, and Sheridan desired to highlight the multiple voices within a single conversation and the connections these students made to other areas of the university.

Focusing on a single case study allowed Sheridan to begin to answer his own research questions. He focused on a student named Jenny, a photographer and compositionist, and her experience with the center; the interview resulted in Sheridan’s findings that the work of this center transfers to more computers (both in and out of the center) and more programs across the university. He speculated that this transfer was at least partially due to the “conference room” or collaboration configuration of the room, but the center had indeed become more of a micro-network with relationships that extend beyond its walls. In contrast, the Writing Center has computers lining the walls with the monitors facing the center of the room.

Finally, Sheridan argued for a de-centered learning ecology, one that connects the various entities of people, technologies, spaces, and curricular structures. He said he will continue to keep track of this work as it is an important sense of the multiple – a blurring and blending of classroom and center. His work is still in progress, so it remains to be seen whether Sheridan is ultimately arguing for writing centers to adopt this approach or for the creation of more technology-intensive learning environments like the Language and Media Center. If it is the latter, how can institutions with few resources heed that call?

“Bridging the Gap: A Framework for Integrating Multimodal Composition into a Writing Class”

Lee Odell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Lee Odell began his presentation by asking a question: is there a center or a framework for holding written and multimodal composition together? If so, he posited it must be descriptive, generative without being constrictive, and widely applicable.

He then referenced James Gee and his theory of comprehension as a foundational basis. Because mental processes are essential to any effort to compose or comprehend, Odell argued for a framework that focuses on five important concepts: observing the given-new contract, establishing and resolving dissonance, creating and fulfilling expectations, understanding relationships, and selecting and encoding.

He then articulated those points through the multimodal piece Snow Fall from The New York Times.

  • Establishing givens – tacit background knowledge and use of analogy and visual images
  • Resolving dissonance/Encoding – personification, inanimate object (the snow) becomes animate and malevolent
  • Creating expectations – placement of dissonant material within the piece in the emphatic position
  • Identifying relationships: contrast/comparison, temporal/causal sequencing, and physical context of the map within the piece (for example, the image that begins the argument focuses on the way lines work; there are three lines in that image)

Odell concluded that the basic expertise needed by teachers is contained within those five things, or in his words, “to help people, this is all you need.” While the example of Snow Fall deftly illustrated these concepts – and several in the audience have used that piece in their classrooms – what else is possible with that framework? How can teachers link this framework to their existing curriculum? Is the ultimate goal to help students create assignments with both written and multimodal components or to recognize these components within existing texts, like Snow Fall ? Or both?

Sarah Spring is an Assistant Professor of English at Winthrop University. In addition to her work with the professional writing program, she has research/teaching interests in first year composition, new media, professional writing, and qualitative research in the classroom. 


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