June

The Digital Media and Composition Institute was an interesting and worthwhile experience. Participants included a range of experience from young graduate students in rhetoric and composition to professors to a former editor of College Composition and Communication. Guest speakers included Cheryl Ball, editor of Kairos, and Hugh Burns, a visiting scholar from Texas Woman's University, also participated.

For the most part, the focus of the institute was to learn about multimodal composing. Four themes that were prominent were:

  • The more modes, the better the learning and the more inclusive of those who may favor one mode over others.
  • Using other modes can help us rethink and perhaps improve our theoretical and practical understanding of what it means to compose.
  • Using other modes might help us retool our pedagogical practice.
  • Using and understanding these digital forms of composing can help prepare students for writing in the 21st century.

The primary tools we used included Audacity, iMovie, and Sophie (a tool for assembling a "book" of electronic pages). Sophie is particularly good for creating not only a multimodal book but also an eportfolio. It's a little buggy right now (you need to save often and keep everything in one folder), but in October, a new version should be coming out that will also allow one to create a web "book." The audio and video editors are a crucial aspect of "revising" one's composing in these modes.

We were advised to pay attention to our learning processes as we did so. (For details and readings, go to the DMAC schedule and to pay particular attention to Takayoshi and Selfe's book chapter titled Thinking about modality [pdf].) I don't think I did a good job of paying attention to my learning processes as I was more focused, like my students, on the product I was creating. However, several thoughts on multimodal composing did occupy my mind.

One thought was the difficulty of moving from being a scholarly analyst of multimodal composing to becoming a scholarly producer of multimodal compositions. That is, it would take years of practice to reach a level in which the quality of my production would match my analysis. Alex Reid has written on this (Digital video and scholarship):

Once we get past the questions of the genre that might/will develop for video humanities scholarship, including the questions of scholarly validity, we need to address the material constraints such work imposes. Even for someone with real professional expertise (i.e. not me), producing quality video is expensive and time consuming. Generally it takes a group of professionals. Of course, if you're going to shoot home video style that's easier but is that level of quality going to fly for scholarly work?

Certainly there is something in-between professional, academic video of the type we see on the History channel for example and home movies. With a couple assistants, modestly better equipment, and a little practice and training, I'm sure I could put together something that would be of acceptable quality. But even that means an investment in time and money that goes substantively beyond what goes into humanities scholarship now.

Where is that investment going to come from? And what type of return will we expect from it?

Another thought was on whether it was worth the time for my students, considering that as second language learners, they have enough on their plate without squeezing another item into the semester. Alex had a response for that point, too:

I see FYC this way... Students need the opportunity to become writers. By "writers" I mean people who write on a regular basis with some sense of connecting to the world for some reason. By "write" I mean composing in any variety or combination of media that might be appropriate. That's the best way we can "prepare" students for the compositional and rhetorical challenges they will face as students, professionals, and citizens. In part this can still mean the fundamentals of rhetorical philosophy--of audience, purpose, and so on--applied to a variety of media. It means seeing how compositional practices are shaped by material, technological, discursive contexts, but also seeing compositional as an embodied process of distributed cognition. To do this, I think students will have to engage in the practice of new media composition.

I agree in some respects. After all, Powerpoint presentations are a normal part of our courses at Kean, presentations that incorporate images and sometimes sound or a YouTube video. But these are copy-and-paste productions that require no editing of the images, audio, or video. Based on my own experience at DMAC, it takes a considerable amount of time to "produce" a multimodal composition in which editing of audio and video has taken place. Although exceptions may exist according to the student population, students in FYC, especially second language students, need considerable work on revising and editing their print mode.

Even so, Alex and others are right in that new media composition is lincreasing in importance—even if it may be some time before Supreme Court justices begin to integrate new media into their legal edicts. The question is how much integration of new media into FYC and how much later on. Actually, I would guess that many, if not most, FYC classes introduce students to analyzing visual modes, such as how advertisements and commercials persuade their audiences to purchase their products. And others have had students produce ads, posters, and other items that integrate images. Various textbooks take such an approach (for example, Rhetorical Visions: Reading and Writing in a Visual Culture and Compose, Design, Advocate). In my FYC classes, I've had students analyze websites for both design and content based on the premise that analyzing rhetorical concepts across modes should lead to a better understanding of audience, context, and genre, which in turn should faciltate the transfer of those concepts to new contexts, genres, and modes, not only to other classes but also to their careers and civic lives.

However, on having students produce multimodal compositions, it makes sense in more advanced writing courses. In FYC (past what they're already doing with Powerpoint), well, I don't know. I've had my FYC students blog, collaborate on a wiki, participate on Ning, and subscribe to their classmates and search feeds in Netvibes. Obviously, print text is privileged in my classes, primarily because, as noted above, I focus on language due to teaching ESL students. However, keeping in mind the four themes mentioned above, I'll need to give this some more thought. Perhaps, for a beginning, I'll look into online tools like VoiceThread or Flowgram that can integrate the different modes into one document.

Related posts:
Math, Transfer, and Writing
Learning by Remixing
Bottlenecks in Learning to Write
Shin & Cimasko, Multimodal Composition in a College ESL Class
VoiceThread