Introduction     By Chance    By Choice    Theory     Results      References

A Chance Meeting

“I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know what to say.”

 As instructors of composition, we have likely heard these laments or comments from our students, and perhaps we have uttered one or two of them ourselves in a situation where we are struggling to stave off those first, often painful or grueling, moments of typing words onto that vast white space staring at us waiting patiently to be filled. Seasoned writers may recognize that this writing “paralysis” is sometimes rooted in fear of failure or an unrealistic demand for personal perfection. And while novice writers in beginning composition classes may experience some of these same pressures, their paralysis might possibly occur from a lack of understanding regarding the writing topic, the assignment, or what constitutes “good writing” in general. Oftentimes, too, the motivation for student writers is just not present—there are too many ideas or a dearth of ideas to deal with; there is too much information to sort through; and there is too much to consider in terms of rhetorical concerns. Finally, there is no real exigency beyond the grade for the student to engage with the assignment given.

 “If I could . . . just . . . get . . . started . . .”

In Thinking about Multimodality, Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia L. Selfe (2007), note that “the texts that students have produced in response to composition assignments have remained essentially the same for the past 150 years” and “these texts do not resemble many of the documents we now see in digital environments that use multiple modalities to convey meaning—moving and still images, sounds, music, color, words, and animations . . .” (p. 1). To Takayoshi and Selfe (as well as a host of others, see in particular, Selfe & Selfe, 2008; Yancey, 2004; Jewitt & Kress, 2003), employing multimodal pedagogies and designing multimodal composition assignments makes good sense as these strategies answer classical rhetoric’s call to utilize all available means for effective communication. To this point, Takayoshi, Selfe, and the writers featured in Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers (2007) provide templates for justifying, designing, incorporating, and assessing multimodal composition assignments that often accompany or stand in for a traditional alphabetic assignment.

“Stand in” is the appropriate term here in that proponents of multimodal pedagogies do not presume that multimodal composition will or should usurp written text. Instead, they argue that instructor awareness must be built regarding the potentialities inherent in multimodal writing assignments and the strategies used to teach them. In other words, instructors should recognize that “The more channels students (and writers generally) have to select from when composing and exchanging meaning, the more resources they have at their disposal for being successful communicators” (Takayoshi & Selfe, 2007, p. 3).

Furthermore, the interplay of these channels has a significant impact in and upon the learning process. Howard Gardner’s (2006) work into multiple intelligences underscores this argument as does modality studies such as Kate Pahl’s (2003) that suggest an interplay between modes can increase creativity and lead to “rich and complex learning experiences” (p. 153). As such, multimodal composition and traditional written text need not yield an either/or sum; instead, they can and should be viewed as complementary units. To borrow from Richard J. Selfe and Cynthia L. Selfe in “Convince me!” Valuing Multimodal Literacies and Composing Public Service Announcements (2008): “The traditional language skills of reading and writing . . . are converging with new multimodal composing practices and feeding off each other in ways that make learning in all content areas both exciting and challenging for students and teachers” (p. 85).



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