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Five Challenges to Incorporating Multimodal Composing into Writing Curriculums

12 March 2019 Written by   Santosh Khadka; J.C. Lee

Given the rapidity with which writing and publishing technologies evolve, our students need to keep up with rapidly emerging new literacy practices as well as new technologies. We can expose our students to these composing modes in the class to demonstrate the many ways writing can be done at this time of rapid technological change. Such engagement not only encourages students to look beyond traditional print technology for communication, but it also allows them to explore all available modes of composing (including print) and make an informed decision about the best medium for their particular act of communication. This will help ensure neither we as educators nor our students fall behind and become irrelevant in a future with even more complex composition and communication needs.

Multimodal learning activities can be incorporated in all levels of college writing. While many writing instructors already have multimodal or digital writing components in their curricula, upper- and lower-division composition courses differ in the degree to which classroom space and time are dedicated to these composing activities. Lower-division required writing classes often include multimodal projects within a mix of other, traditional print-based assignments, but an upper division writing course, such as “Digital Writing” or “Writing Across Media,” can be fully dedicated to composing with or for digital media.

For instance, Santosh’s upper division GE course, “English 315: Digital Writing” at California State University Northridge, focuses on the production of multiple digital texts—podcasts, documentaries, websites, digital portfolios, and collaborative online articles, among others—giving students both insight into and hands-on practice with how these different media and genres work in and respond to different rhetorical situations. In most cases, first- or second-year required college-writing courses don’t have that luxury. Such courses must devote the lion’s share of their time to college-level critical and thoughtful reading and writing practices, awareness of rhetorical situations, and the development of writing and research skills that allow students to successfully navigate rhetorical situations in their academic and personal lives. While all of these goals can be accomplished through multimodality, students in their first year often require more support. Many are still learning how to write effectively in print genres and the added challenge of learning the technological and rhetorical skills that accompany multimodal composition means optimal use of the valuable time that these students also spend on essential, text-based composing tasks.

We want to discuss briefly what it means to teach multimodal/digital composing in both lower- and upper-division writing courses. While implementing multimodal and digital writing assignments in a first-year writing course and in an upper division writing course, Santosh navigated these five recurring challenges:     

  1. Learning Curves. As is the case with lower-division writing classes, students in upper-division writing classes also demonstrate a range of learning curves, depending on their prior digital learning experiences. Some students, such as those majoring in multimedia production, including film and television, have had advanced video and audio production skills, while many others who lacked prior experience composing in web, video, audio, and graphics media had to learn a whole new process of writing in and for these new media. This is a typical scenario in any writing class, calling for strategic and situated instruction.

  2. Student Expectations. Depending on the background and the degree of preparedness, students came in with different expectations from the upper-division “digital writing” class. Some expect an advanced level of multimodal production (video and audio) with professional equipment and premium editing programs, while others expect simpler multimodal assignments, such as blogs and social media posts, to be the primary focus. Such different student expectations are a norm in all writing classes and bring a unique set of challenges to instructors as they design courses, construct calendars, and develop syllabi.

  3. Workshop/Studio Time. Varied student learning curves and expectations within the same upper-division course also play into whether students need or appreciate various composing workshops and in-class studio time. Students with higher learning curves love workshops and creative studio time, whereas students with prior, advanced, digital skills find some of the workshops offered on open-access editing programs (such as I-Movie [video], Garageband/Audacity [audio], or Wix [web]) to be too basic for them, thus not meeting their expectations for cutting-edge media production in a college-level composition class. As a result, Santosh now offers workshops on both open-access and premium editing programs. These challenges are amplified in lower-division courses where more resources must be devoted to textual writing efficacy and rhetorical awareness, thus allowing less time to teach multimodal composition techniques. As a result, lower-division courses often necessitate simpler approaches to multimodality than a devoted, upper-division “digital writing” course.

  4. Infrastructure. Multimodal and digital writing of any kind, at any level, requires infrastructure, such as computer labs, access to editing programs, digital equipment and accessories, and most importantly, access to human resources, particularly when support is needed. A creative media studio, equipped with premium, editing programs and professional production gears, is an ideal space for teaching multimodal/digital composing. While some students expect such a lab, that is not always possible. At the bare minimum, we need to have access to a computer lab with open-access editing programs already installed if we are attempting to introduce multimodal activities into the curriculum (regardless of level). While personal devices like laptops, tablets, and cell phones may be able to facilitate some multimodal compositions, options are limited without the support of a computer lab.

  5. Evolving Course Content. Multimodal and digital writing practices naturally evolve with new and emerging media technologies. Technological advancements inform both the ways we compose and the ways we consume media, which means our course contents and pedagogical approaches also need to reflect changing composing technologies and practices. As with any curriculum, writing curricula also need to evolve and expand with the advent of new technologies and genres of composing. This is best supported by professional development. While faculty can, independently, track media developments through current events and specialty and scholarly publications, programs are most likely to succeed with institutional support to bolster such efforts.

While every course faces challenges and constraints, it is also important to acknowledge the rewards of multimodal composition across all levels of writing curriculum. Though the depth and degree to which multimodality can be explored in a lower-division required writing class is limited, as noted above, introducing students to some of its core concepts and genres with scaffolded projects can help them navigate their already-multimodal world more critically and rhetorically, while preparing them for the rest of their academic and professional lives, which is also likely to be increasingly multimodal. Upper-division writing courses allow students to explore multimodal/digital composing more fully, even if, sometimes, within institutional constraints, making students in those classes better equipped for multimodal/digital composing, giving them a competitive edge in this highly digital and networked world.

Santosh Khadka and J. C. Lee are both assistant professors of English at California State University, Northridge and coeditors of the forthcoming Bridging the Multimodal Gap: From Theory to Practice.