Reflection: Why?

This page responds to the question, “Why teach with technology”—or, more specifically, “Why teach multimodal composing, which today usually occurs on digital platforms?” The first section reviews the scholarly conversation around this topic; the second section furnishes my own reflections.

Scholarly Conversation


Historicizing a Century of Teaching Multimodal Composing

Deep Roots

Arguments for teaching multimodal composition with current technology are nothing new. US college writing instructors have been experimenting with multimodal pedagogy for decades, as Jason Palmeri contends. In a chapter he co-wrote with Ben McCorkle for Soundwriting Pedagogies, the authors demonstrate that many of our field’s ongoing conversations about having students compose with voice and related modes echo those of English instructors in the 1930s, radio’s golden age. Indeed, it seems like “new” spurts of interest in multimodality recur every few decades. In the mid-1960s, a new wave of calls for multimodal composition emerged, as Jody Shipka points out in Toward a Composition Made Whole. College writing instructors advocated having students make comic books, scrapbooks, and films (4). By the 1990s, such calls had intensified into pronouncements on the benefits of blending mediums and genres (5).

Our field has a long history of taking up new communication technologies and using them to make assignments reflect what’s happening beyond academia. Multimodal assignments like podcast projects have antecedents in previous centuries. What is unique to our context today is the ease of recording and editing.

Slow Change

Yet, despite multimodality’s long history in composition studies, by 2009, instructors still seemed leery of teaching multimodal composition—the exigence for Cynthia Selfe’s watershed article, “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” She argues, “the history of writing in U.S. composition instruction, as well as its contemporary legacy, functions to limit our professional understanding of composing as a multimodal rhetorical activity and deprive students of valuable semiotic resources for making meaning” (617). Our obsession with the print medium, she contends, needs to give way to “all available means of persuasion and expression,” “a whole range of modalities and semiotic resources” (618). Such change could start with our field repairing the rift between written and voiced words, as Selfe suggests.

On the one hand, we have 1930s English instructors using radio to have students experiment with multimodal composing; on the other hand, some eighty years later, words on a page still reign supreme in many composition classes. Why have efforts to promote multimodal composing stagnated?


The Endangered Alphabet? Resistance to Multimodal Composing

A Vulnerable Discipline?

Technological innovation often fails to take hold in education because teachers and/or administrators don’t buy in. Teachers feel their pedagogies threatened and administrators feel their budgets threatened, as Bill Ferster documents in his survey of automated teaching technologies. The threat factor could be especially intense in composition studies, which has often felt marginalized as a demi-discipline created to serve other fields, and thus seeks legitimacy in demarcating its object of expertise: writing, usually viewed as “expression of thoughts or ideas in written words” (OED sense 3a).

A Boundless Discipline?

But should such alphabetic written expression remain the core of our field? Some scholars agree with Selfe that the print medium must be deposed for our discipline to progress. Others go further, arguing for computer coding as writing (Vee), or even more radically, for physical computing as writing (Reider), contending that we must start incorporating these modes into our pedagogy to stay relevant. It is easy to see how some—myself included—would balk at their proposals for deprioritizing alphabetic literacy. Multimodal projects like webpages and videos seem tame in comparison.

Common Concerns

Even so, some instructors shy away from multimodal composition pedagogy. My colleague Shannon Stimpson researched instructor responses for a handout titled “Embracing the Multimodal in the Composition Classroom” she designed for internal publication by the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. She finds that instructors often feel uneasy about teaching multimodal composing for the following reasons (I quote):

  1. Feeling unqualified, out of your depth, and afraid of losing credibility as an expert or authority figure
  2. Instructing to different levels of technical expertise and experience among students
  3. Understanding how institutional infrastructure constrains and/or reinforces practical and rhetorical choices of invention and production
  4. Finding the necessary support and resources to ensure student access and accommodation
  5. Evaluating student work, especially when existing assessment models or grading criteria do not easily translate to certain modes or media.

Each concern is justifiable and could pose an apparently insurmountable obstacle to multimodal composition pedagogy. So, we must return to the original question: why teach multimodal composing, likely using digital technology?


Beyond Writing Papers: Expanding Composition’s Purview

Five Reasons for Multimodal Composition Pedagogy

There are at least five compelling reasons to make the potentially uncomfortable leap across the aforementioned obstacles toward multimodal composition. Many scholars point to the fact that college students already have years of experience consuming and even creating multimodal composition–though usually not in intellectually rigorous settings. So, it is already relevant to their lives; it is generally accepted that students learn better when they perceive curriculum’s significance beyond the classroom.

Moreover, first-year writing teachers–who have a heritage of trying to reach diverse learners dating from the Open Admissions Era in the 1970s–are growing increasingly conscious of a need to make our courses more accessible to learners across a spectrum of abilities. Multimodality influences accessibility. As Anne-Marie Womack has argued in “Teaching Is Accommodation,” a key tenet of universal (accessible) design is redundancy, in which one piece of information is shared in multiple modes, as with an announcement delivered orally in class and then transcribed and posted on a Learning Management System, enabling students to both hear and read it.

To these two reasons, relevance and accessibility, Shannon Stimpson adds three more (I quote):

  1. The complexity of working with multiple modes encourages students to adopt sophisticated literacy practices. If students are required to reflect on these practices, they are more likely to become more self-aware of their agency in making rhetorical choices.
  2. Multimodal composition expands our definition of literacy to include all kinds of semiotic expression. In turn, recognizing multiliteracies opens previously closed spaces for marginalized voices to be heard.
  3. Multimodal composition emphasizes engagement and experimentation; design as a composition model shifts the evaluative focus away from product and toward process.

Instructors on the ground, like Womack and Stimpson, see multimodal composition’s value for their students, which has not gone unnoticed by those at the top of the field: our three preeminent national organizations.

Statements from National Organizations

Three major organizations for administrators and instructors of college writing have all called for the implementation of multimodal composing into the curriculum. In sum, their statements acknowledge that most students already use digital platforms for multimodal composing, but they need to become better at doing it and critiquing it.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

CCCC’s parent organization, NCTE, released a statement on “Multimodal Literacies” in 2005. They explain the affordances of multimodal composing, declaring, “The techniques of acquiring, organizing, evaluating, and creatively using multimodal information should become an increasingly important component of the English/Language Arts classroom.” In addition, they discuss at length the effects of digital forms on multimodal pedagogy, noting that students face “increased cognitive demands…to interpret the intertextuality of communication events that include combinations of print, speech, images, sounds, movement, music, and animation,” heightening the urgency of teaching multimodal composition on digital platforms.

Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)

CCCC’s “Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing,” updated in 2015, includes an item on “relationships between writing and technologies.” They state that since composers have access to an increasing range of powerful tools, students should “learn about the potential that various technologies have for the production, consumption, and distribution of forms of composed knowledge. This includes writing, but also includes the composition of other types of texts (i.e., videos, podcasts, etc.). It also means that writers learn about the values associated with different technologies that can be used for that composition.”

Also in 2015, CCCC released a statement on “Preparing Teachers of College Writing.” This statement says that graduate training for college writing instructors must provide “coursework in teaching with technology, including learning management systems, and experience with facilitating writing courses where students practice multimodal genres of textual production and refine their digital literacies.” That is, the CCCC does not simply recommend, but requires, graduate programs to train new instructors to teach multimodal composition.

Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA)

CWPA released their third update to the “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition” in 2014. In the introduction, they explain,

In this Statement “composing” refers broadly to complex writing processes that are increasingly reliant on the use of digital technologies. Writers also attend to elements of design, incorporating images and graphical elements into texts intended for screens as well as printed pages. Writers’ composing activities have always been shaped by the technologies available to them, and digital technologies are changing writers’ relationships to their texts and audiences in evolving ways.

They divide the outcomes between four categories: (1) rhetorical knowledge; (2) critical reading, thinking, and composing; (3) processes; and (4) knowledge of conventions. Multimodality is a feature in all of the categories. For example, they explain, “By the end of first-year composition, students should be able to”:

  • Understand and use a variety of technologies to address a range of audiences [(1) Rhetorical knowledge]
  • Match the capacities of different environments (e.g., print and electronic) to varying rhetorical situations [(1) Rhetorical knowledge]
  • Read a diverse range of texts, attending especially to relationships between assertion and evidence, to patterns of organization, to the interplay between verbal and nonverbal elements, and to how these features function for different audiences and situations [(2) Critical reading, thinking, and composing; emphasis added]
  • Adapt composing processes for a variety of technologies and modalities [(3) Processes]
  • Learn common formats and/or design features for different kinds of texts [(4) Conventions]

Teaching multimodality—how to analyze it, how to employ it, and how to tailor it to a field—clearly comprises an indispensable component of first-year composition, according to the CWPA.

To read more of the scholarly conversation on multimodal pedagogy, please visit the next page.

Pedagogue's Reflections

This section follows the questions provided by Penn State’s Teaching with Technology rubric.

Why should you use technology for teaching?

Unless we want to embrace the ivory tower stereotype, we need to prepare our students for the decades they will spend in the workforce.

Show me a job that only requires employees to write five-paragraph essays in Times New Roman size 12 font with 1” margins and MLA-style heading, title, and page numbers. Nope?

Now show me a job that needs employees who can communicate effectively across a variety of platforms and quickly adjust to new and uncomfortable rhetorical situations. I expect that’s the kind of job many of our graduates will be vying to land. That’s the only kind of job I’ve ever had since I started working in skilled positions in 2010, regardless of employer. Now, I’m not saying instructors should merely conduct job training, but we should be instilling the capacities into our students that will help them succeed after they exit our collegiate bubble.


How does using technology relate to the pedagogy of teaching?

“Pedagogy” etymologically refers to guiding children. Of course, as college instructors, we’re teaching young adults—but still, I would emphasize “guidance.” So, what does guiding mean? I believe that it means concurrently helping a student figure out the route they want to take while also pulling them into difficult territory where they’d rather not venture: a combination of tapping into existing passions in topic choice and insisting on the exploration of new possibilities in genre and medium. Exploring mediums is where technology enters pedagogy. It is a tool for intellectual exploration. Of course, there’s so much more to pedagogy—note that multimodality is only one of six learning objectives for my course:

  1. Recognize and articulate your goals as a writer.
  2. Research and respond to the ongoing conversation surrounding a topic.
  3. Apply critical thinking to your own compositions and those by other rhetors, interrogating the assumptions and evidence underlying claims.
  4. Anticipate the needs and expectations of your audience.
  5. Compose in a process of planning, drafting, revising, and editing.
  6. Employ the affordances of various mediums, whether a traditional paper or a digital medium.

Without a doubt, technology could aid with some of the other objectives—it facilitates research, helps a rhetor identify and assess their audience, and makes it easy to save multiple drafts of a developing project.


What are the limitations of technology as a solution for teaching and learning challenges?

  1. It can fail—wireless connection disappears and you’re out of luck.
  2. It’s only as smart as you are—and I’ve made some dumb mistakes; I recall with chagrin my students’ frustration when the deadline I’d forgotten to reset on Canvas erased the short essays they were composing online.
  3. Its seeming ease can induce laziness—in editing, why is it so much harder to concentrate on discrete words on a screen than on paper?

In short, it’s not a solution for learning any more than a hammer is a solution to a nail. Again, technology is a tool.


How does technology help you and the people with whom you work and teach?

We’re utterly immersed in technology. Everything that a few decades ago had to be done on paper we now do on our computers: sending messages, composing documents, filing and recordkeeping, gathering data–the list is long! In the teaching realm, some instructors stick with commenting on hard copy essays, but many of my colleagues do their grading online (as I hope is obvious by now, I’m among the latter, consolidating my teaching work on Canvas).


How does using technology relate to your personal and professional goals?

The sixth learning objective on my syllabus relates to myself as well as my students: Employ the affordances of various mediums, whether a traditional paper or a digital medium. As an instructor, a scholar, and an advocate for various communities, I want to take advantage of the communication platforms available—today, constantly shifting and multiplying—to work toward my lifelong objective of serving others.