Creating Spaces for Strategic Contemplation:
A Collaborative Webtext
By David Maynard and Christine Denecker
Designed by Megan Adams
Benefits of Multimodal Learning
As I have indicated, there are remarkable benefits to creating a multimodal instructional text using video editing software such as Windows Movie Maker. It was largely such benefits that led me to choose Windows Movie Maker as my mode of delivery for the “Ask the Expert” assignment even though its use was not a required component of the class. While Microsoft has discontinued Windows Movie Maker since the creation of my video essay for Writing Theory and Pedagogy, I believe that the benefits (and risks) that I encountered while interacting with it effectively represent those that accompany much of the digital composing technologies we and our students make use of in our research and in the classroom (Microsoft, 2018). As such, I believe that my largely uncritical engagement with Windows Movie Maker provides a productive case study to illustrate the affordances and risks that often accompany new media in general.
As I composed my video essay, I found that one of the greatest benefits of creating texts with Windows Movie Maker is one that can be applied to most or all texts that appeal to a variety of sensory inputs: multimodal texts are often more engaging for audiences because they can affect those audiences in complex ways not afforded by print-based mediums. This ability to engage audiences using a variety of sensory modes is a practice that writing instructors would likely want to encourage for a variety of reasons. For one, using more than one mode in one’s text increases the chances that one’s message will be received. As Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia Selfe (2007) state in Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers, “In internationally networked digital environments, texts must be able to carry meaning across geo-political, linguistic, and cultural borders, and so texts must take advantage of multiple semiotic channels” (p. 2). Takayoshi and Selfe highlight the fact that as our professional lives become increasingly interwoven with those of people from all over the world (many of whom may be our own students, coworkers, collaborators, etc.), it becomes more and more vital that we are able to both compose and assign texts that can be understood and responded to by people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Multimodal composition helps to fulfill this growing need by communicating to audiences in a variety of ways, thereby increasing the chance that, even if one mode of communication fails, one or more of the other modes that make up the text will engage the audience.
As with most video editing software, Windows Movie Maker allowed me to combine images, music, video, alphabetic text and narration in order to create a multidimensional text that appeals to a variety of learning styles. As suggested above, the need to appeal to different learning styles becomes even more pronounced when considered in light of an increasingly diverse student population. For example, in her essay, “A Rhetorical Mandate: A Look at Multi-Ethnic/Multimodal Online Pedagogy,” Mary-Lynn Chambers (2016) explains that “[t]here are minorities who do not connect well with the written form of communication or their dominant dialect/language is not SE, and these ethnic minority students, if not considered within the development of the online pedagogy, could be marginalized” (p. 77). Though written in response to online teaching environments, Chambers’ statement encompasses the full spectrum of writing instruction. As writing instructors, the diversity of learning styles and cultural backgrounds we encounter in our classrooms demands that we present content using a variety of modalities in order to engage as many students as possible. The decision not to engage modes other than the alphabetic risks transforming the writing classroom into a rigged game in which those most comfortable composing alphabetic text via Standard American English have an advantage.
Furthermore, in light of students’ growing comfort with digital composition, not utilizing new media in the classroom risks alienating students whose present and, more and more often, future writing practices lie in the digital realm. As the National Council of Teachers of English (2005) observes in its position statement on “Multimodal Literacies," “The ‘definitions’ of multimodal composing may be written by educators, but they will most likely have first been pioneered by these young people.” Likewise, in Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, Adam Banks (2011) draws attention to the ways in which the modalities students compose in are often intimately intertwined with students’ cultural knowledge, suggesting that it is not just the responsibility of the writing instructor to foster spaces of learning that invite students to express such knowledge, it is also important that we actively engage and learn from students’ “multimodal literacies” (p. 27). By envisioning the writing classroom as a site for multimodal composition and then enacting this vision in our professional practices, we as writing instructors can transform the classroom into a more familiar, meaningful space for student writers in general. However, while new media is already the multi-sensory water many of our students swim in, we all-too-often demand they compose in a desert of print-based, alphabetic text.
Like many writing instructors, I initially resisted multimodal composition because I did not feel I had the time needed to familiarize myself with new composing technologies. At the time of creating my video essay for English 501, I was working as both an adjunct English teacher and teaching assistant while pursuing my second master’s degree and also tutoring at a writing center. Like so many of the contingent instructors who, according to a study by the American Association of University Professors (2018), “amounted to 73 percent in 2016” of the total faculty of “all US institutions combined,” my limited time and energy were focused on trying to teach my students to write in ways that satisfied departmental expectations, expectations that tended to emphasize the composition of traditional alphabetic essays while deemphasizing other modalities. In the face of challenges that included “low pay, lack of contractual stability” and “juggling teaching on multiple campuses [in different cities] to make a living,” I had come to be more mindful of time as a precious resource (Schell, 2016, p. 183). Thinking that Windows Movie Maker would require dramatically more work than composing a simple seminar paper, I felt a certain amount of trepidation when I first viewed the assignment sheet for Chris’ “Ask the Expert” project.
In this assignment, my classmates and I were asked to conduct “a multimodal interview of an expert, novice, or anyone in between who has or is currently teaching writing.” As I completed my project (which involved reaching out to my interview subject, preparing questions, digitally recording approximately one and a half hours of interview footage, recording my own audio commentary, locating a variety of images and music, and then editing all of these elements together into an engaging video essay that was less than 30 minutes), I came to appreciate the amount of time and energy that is required to become even somewhat comfortable composing with a technology such as Windows Movie Maker. However, and somewhat unexpectedly, I also came to appreciate the heightened level of engagement I felt toward this particular form of multimodal composition. In many respects, the “Ask the Expert” assignment ended up being a welcome escape from the routine of composing almost exclusively via alphabetic text. Whereas in composing alphabetic essays, I tended to restrict my attention to the impact of my printed words, their rhythm and presentation, composing multimodally helped me to think on a more multisensory level: an invigorating experience. Furthermore, I felt much like I imagine our students feel when they are given the opportunity to compose using the genres and modalities they find most meaningful, and it was largely this initial experience with multimodal composition that led me to incorporate similar multimedia assignments into future syllabi.
I will address one more benefit of creating a multimodal text and a video essay, specifically. By opting to use digital video creation software to convey the content of my interview with fellow writing instructor, Robert (Rob) Ryder, I was able to give Rob greater voice and presence in the project, overall. By including digital video footage of Rob speaking during the interview, I was able to deliver to the audience a multisensory inquiry into the various theories and perspectives that intersect with Rob’s teaching. As suggested above, the very act of communicating with audiences using multiple sensory modes is itself a remarkable benefit of digital technologies like Windows Movie Maker in that it stands to engage audiences more deeply through a variety of senses. Even more interesting is that by providing the audience an opportunity to both see and hear Rob, Windows Movie Maker enabled me to offer resistance to the tradition of sole authorship that has dominated the production of print-based texts and, arguably, continues to dominate much of the production of multimodal texts today. Indeed, by composing a multimodal text that enabled me to represent Rob in a more bodily and engaging way, I have come to think more critically about the role of authorship in general.
In Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media, Collin Brooke (2009) explores the potential for digital composing technologies to help us think more critically about the act of composition and the role of authorship. Brooke suggests that “new media encourages us to consider a more radical distribution of individual intention, figured less as a decrease in authorial agency or power and more as a different activity entirely, one that exceeds authorship as we experience it in a print context” (p. 80). By incorporating sensory detail from the subject of my interview, I was able to (ever so slightly) push back against traditional notions of authorship by emphasizing the ways in which the knowledge produced through research is never solely representative of an autonomous author but is negotiated between a variety of agents. Looking back, I wonder how different my project would have been had I simply been asked to interview a fellow writing instructor and then create alphabetic text about it. Even though the audience would have experienced Rob’s words and ideas, those thoughts would have been dislocated from Rob as an embodied subject. This potential for dislocation that is so prevalent with written, alphabetic texts can be resisted via composing technologies that appeal to a variety of sensory modes.