Producing Local Knowledge:

The Grad Class Assignment As Curricular Outreach

Technology use and expertise is an invaluable skill on both the academic job market and in the classroom. A recent article by Graupner, Nickoson-Massey and Blair (2009) argues that multimodal training and experiences are "vital to the relevance of the composition curriculum in the 21st century" (p. 14) and thus also relevant to graduate programs producing scholars in composition and rhetoric. The authors encourage multiple and meaningful ways "for graduate programs ... to promote digital teaching and research as integral, sustainable components of their knowledge-making spaces" (p. 14). This article furthers this work by offering a specific example of multimodal graduate-level training and production that not only creates knowledge-making spaces for graduate students, but also encourages the inclusion of multimodal writing in composition classes at all levels at a large state university.

In the fall of 2009, nine graduate students from a variety of backgrounds - rhetoric and professional communication, creative writing, education, and accounting - participated in my English 579: Computers and Writing course at New Mexico State University. The course combines theory and practice by first grounding multimodal composition practices in the scholarship of Selfe, Hawisher, Johnson-Eilola, Wysocki among others and then focusing on practical ways to bring such assignments into the composition classroom. Students worked in pairs to prepare sample assignments resulting in moments of praxis allowing engagement both as student producers and as educators creating dynamic assignments for themselves and other teachers. The need to consider context when crafting assignments arose as a key concern of this work. Several enrolled in the course were graduate teaching assistants at our university and so understood the particular issues of access, skill, and level of interest in technology that undergraduates in particular face at our Hispanic-serving public university situated in a region near the US/Mexico border. This awareness of the unique positionalities of those in the class as both teachers and students at such a university clarified the need to foreground context when crafting multimodal assignments and thus led to our negotiation of and students' collaboration on a final course project.

My original syllabus assigned a mid-term essay similar to a comprehensive exam question, but as we neared the due date our readings on collaboration, our desire to value multimodal composition in the same way we value traditional text, and our increased awareness of the power of specific context led to a discussion that replaced a more traditional, individual graduate assignment with a collaborative project rich in theoretical and concrete resources for writing instructors from across our campus. This ability to enact true collaboration in multimodal spaces at the graduate level reframed, I think, both the course and the meaning of the material we were covering.

How this piece works

This website is the culmination of a project that began with archival work on a class wiki combined with general theoretical grounding for inclusion and assessment of multimodal composition assignments and how those assignments and new media tools might work at our local institution. A major component of this work, then, was to directly link the learning outcomes and objectives of NMSU's undergraduate general writing courses to multimodal theory and pedagogy. Locating this work in specific courses and assignments, this website offers both incentive and practical tools for overworked instructors interested in expanding the types of writing they teach in their classes.

Benefits of this project

The writing program at NMSU benefited from the decision to combine graduate learning opportunities in this course with the production of faculty training materials and workshops. After completing this website, several of the authors of this piece held an informal meeting attended by graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts, and fulltime faculty who were introduced to the website and had the chance to ask questions about their own specific courses and assignment ideas. The site is now also included in the online community for all instructors in our writing program, providing an archive of ideas, scholarship, tips, and assessment strategies.

For students in the class, this work was a visible moment of praxis with writing produced for an audience and also situated within a real, local context. The project further allowed students - many of whom will likely one day take on administrative roles - to create curricular and training materials and to honor the work of local teachers alongside nationally known scholars. Finally, the project allowed us to enact the kind of true collaboration we had been discussing in our class.

What we learned

One important lesson the authors of this website learned, a lesson many of us learn anew each semester in our composition courses, is the real challenge posed by collaborative writing. "What I found most useful about this assignment is the firsthand experience I gained. Although I certainly advocate this kind of work in classrooms, I had primarily experienced it from the teacher side, not the student side. The challenges of coordinating a group and defining a project became clearer to all of us, and informed how we present collaborative, multimodal assignments to students," according to Jen Bracken-Scott, a second-year doctoral student in Rhetoric and Professional Communication.

The project also opened up a real space for leadership in our classroom as one group member taught herself HTML in order to design the final website and others took lead on editing. The final lesson we learned is that most universities - and sometimes journals - accept unsolicited, well-researched work in this area. Taking on this assignment not only allowed those participating in the Computers and Writing course to produce new knowledge, but also resulted in new curricular materials, a faculty workshop, and a publication that encourages other programs to localize multimodal writing pedagogy at their own institutions.

-Introduction, Dr. Jen Almjeld

-Website authors: Tanya Allred, Jennifer Bracken-Scott, Bonnie Chapman, Nate Daniel, Emily Hernandez, Robin Korody, Bryan Lindenberger, Santiago Lopez, Omar Montoya, Seth Myers, Frances Walker


Graupner, M., Nickson-Masey, L., & and Blair, K. (2009). Remediating Knowledge-Making Spaces in the Graduate Curriculum: Developing and Sustaining Multimodal Teaching and Research. Computers and Composition, 26, 13-23.