An Institutional Narrative of Multimedia Collaboration
By Erik Ellis and Dave Underwood
Although rhetoric and composition continues to embrace digital technologies and visual rhetoric, some scholars have criticized the tendency of composition textbooks and instructors to position students as critical consumers rather than active producers of multimodal and multimedia texts (see, e.g., Davis & Shadle, 2007; Jenkins, 2006; Kress, 2009; Murray, 2009; C. Selfe, 2004; Sheppard, 2009; Shipka, 2011). “In other words,” according to Steve Westbrook (2006), “to ‘do’ visual rhetoric in composition too often means not to work with students on authoring multimedia texts that combine words and images but, rather, to work on critically reading visual artifacts and demonstrating this critical reading through the evidence of a print essay” (p. 460). Of course, to go beyond this more passive model of print-based critical consumption—to help students compose in multimedia—requires some sort of institutional framework.
But what if you don’t have one? What if your writing program privileges alphabetic literacy and has no systematic—or even unsystematic—relationship with the technical staff needed to bring a multimedia project to fruition? If you teach composition and want students to pursue a multimedia project, what should you do? The problem is partly physical and spatial. Yes, the logistics of facilitating multimedia projects usually requires, well, a facility. But you need more. You need not only the right technology and constructive relationships with those who oversee it but also an effective multimedia pedagogy. And you need to overcome two personal obstacles: fear and inertia—fear of uncertainty (not to mention fear of reprisal if you rock the curricular boat), and the power of inertia to keep you in your comfort zone. Overcoming these obstacles requires a change in attitude.
Our multimedia narrative traces the evolution of one such shift in attitudes. We reflect on the way our five-year collaboration as composition instructor and manager of Academic Media Services at the University of Colorado at Boulder helped make multimedia composition assignments more practicable than precarious, more routine than rare, and, in turn, how we helped transform the University’s Media Lab from a site of custodial oversight to a popular, sustainable crossroads of collaborative, interdisciplinary multimedia pedagogy. For writing instructors and technical support staff, our informal collaborative experiment suggests the potential value of stepping outside one’s comfort zone—one’s domain—to forge institutional relationships that either don’t exist or that lack dialogue and depth. For writing program administrators, our experience might serve as a reminder that innovation often happens at the margins. It may be worthwhile to keep an eye out for it, recognize it as such, and build upon it—maybe even encourage it in the first place.