Creating Spaces for Strategic Contemplation:
A Collaborative Webtext
By David Maynard and Christine Denecker
Designed by Megan Adams
Begin at the Beginning
Before returning to the notions of ethical intentionality that undergird this discussion, it would be helpful to unpack the “Ask the Expert” assignment that resulted in the collaborative discussions that led to this webtext. “Ask the Expert” serves as one of the major assignments in ENGL 501 Writing Theory and Pedagogy, a course usually taken by first-year students in The University of Findlay’s Master of Rhetoric and Writing (MARW) program. The course introduces students to “current theories, issues, and debates concerning both the processes of writing and the teaching of high school and college writing” (ENGL 501 Catalog Description). Throughout the semester, students are asked to “continually reflect upon their own experiences as writers (and as teachers of writing) in relation to the readings in order to develop informed positions about writing theory and pedagogy” (ENGL 501 Catalog Description).
Since most of the students are either currently teaching or will teach writing, the “Ask the Expert” assignment provides students the opportunity to discuss, reflect upon, and then apply their growing knowledge of composition theory. Specifically, students must interview an instructor of writing and then analyze interview responses for evidence of the various theories discussed in the course. In doing so, students are challenged to reflect on their findings in an academic manner; this includes synthesizing information discovered through the interview process with course information and sources. Students are also required to consider all available means of communication in composing their responses to the assignment’s demands. Most choose to use a mix of audio, visual, and alphabetic text, and students choose to share their work in a variety of different formats: Windows Movie Maker, PowerPoint, Prezi, Explain Everything, etc. By requiring students to consider an “all available means” approach, the assignment fulfills a tenet of the University of Findlay’s MARW program: students will be afforded numerous experiences for composing in multimodal formats. Upon completing their assignments, students present their findings to the class, discuss the implications of those findings, and field questions regarding their work.
In my creation of the “Ask the Expert” assignment, I was acutely aware of not expecting students to “compose in a desert of print-based, alphabetic texts” (to borrow David’s words). Like Selfe (2009), I believe that, “As teachers of rhetoric and composition, our responsibility is to teach students effective, rhetorically based strategies for taking advantage of all available means of communicating effectively and productively as literate citizens” (p. 644). Thus, the “Ask the Expert” assignment challenges students to consider different affordances for composing as well as “the special capabilities they [the affordances] offer to authors” and to their audiences (Selfe, 2009, p. 643). In addition, I see the “all affordable means” aspect of the assignment as another opportunity to foster invitational rhetoric in the classroom. Kirtley (2014) explains that invitational rhetoric “[encourages] creativity and innovation instead of imposing strict forms and structures” (p. 355). The same could be said of a multimodal approach to composing; students are invited to utilize creativity and innovation in choosing the affordances that will best serve them in telling the stories or making the arguments they need or want to share. As David points out in his section “new media is the multi-sensory water our students swim in,” and while all multimodal composing need not be digital, many students gravitate toward digital technologies when crafting their “Ask the Expert” projects.
Happily, that all-available-means approach also assuages the educator in me who desires to design assignments that appeal to and utilize students’ Multiple Intelligences (MI). Logic suggests that a pedagogy of Multiple Intelligences helps foster an environment of invitational rhetoric, since students are provided a safe space in which to learn through ways best suited to them as individuals: music, movement, space, and visuals, as well as more traditional methods of gaining knowledge. During my earliest forays into multimodal composition as a graduate student, I found myself nodding and making connections between arguments for Picturing Texts (Faigley, 2004), Talking, Sketching, Moving (Dunn, 2001), Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers (Selfe, 2007), and educational theories, such as MI and Bloom’s taxonomy, that I had absorbed years earlier as an undergraduate English education major. Because of my educational grounding, it made pedagogical sense that I should engage students in multimodal composing; I had been doing it for years in trailing tech ways, just without the rhetorical theory to back my pedagogical decisions.
Now, just as it was in my early years as an English educator, multimodal composing is, it is sound educational practice. Furthermore, multimodal composing aligns with MI, in that, to borrow the words of MI theorist, Gardner (2005), it may be “more humane and more veridical” (pg. 39) than other approaches to instruction, since it affords students opportunities to engage and leverage their visual, auditory, spatial, and kinesthetic capabilities. In other words, no singular form of communication (think traditional alphabetic text) or manner of learning is privileged when MIs are considered in the course design. Likewise, to make an application of Foss and Griffin’s (1995) ideas, MI pedagogies can provide students with the freedom or “the power to choose and decide” (p. 12) how they want to express themselves--an element espoused by invitational rhetoric. Furthermore, as with invitational rhetoric, I would argue that MI-based instruction creates opportunities for students “to develop the options that seem appropriate to them, allowing for the richness and complexity of their [the students’] unique subjective experiences” (Foss & Griffin, 2003, p. 12).
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