by Tanya K. Rodrigue
While multimodal writing has been incorporated into composition classes for decades (Palmeri, 2012; Shipka, 2011), there has been a renewed interest in multimodal pedagogies in the past 15 years. This interest is largely due to the advent of digital technology and the way technologies have changed the writing terrain. Since digital writing can be considered multimodal, scholar–teachers and professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) have advocated for both the teaching of multimodal and digital writing, citing numerous reasons as to why it’s important and valuable.
Scholars such as The WIDE Research Center Collective (2005) have argued that writing instructors must attend to how technologies have altered the “processes, products, and contexts for writing” as well as its production, delivery, and circulation. Teaching students the skills to compose with computers and “produce documents appropriate to the global and dispersed reach of the Web,” they claimed, is essential in the digital age. In the same vein, scholars such as Cynthia Selfe (2004, 2007) and the New London Group (1996) have argued that teaching students how to read modalities—visual, spatial, gestural, aural, and alphabetic—and produce multimodal texts is important for an “increasingly technological word” where communication needs to “span traditional cultural, national, and geopolitical borders” (Selfe & Takayoshi, 2007, p. 3). This knowledge is essential for the acquisition of 21st century literacies (National Council of Teachers of English Executive Committee, 2005). Further, Joddy Murray (2013) claimed that multimodal writing can teach students “critical analysis, close reading, research praxis, cultural criticism and principles of rhetoric” (p. 326). Multimodal writing, he argued, can also emphasize the role of emotion in writing and the writing process; equip students with digital and nondigital literacies; and develop rhetorical abilities that are “more closely aligned with the rhetorical methods students experience on a daily basis” (p. 326). Still others have claimed digital assignments are more meaningful to students than traditional alphabetic essays (Selfe, 2004; Selfe & Takayoshi, 2007), and thus assigning them will prompt more student interest and investment. In turn, teachers will likely have more gratifying and rewarding pedagogical experiences.
While many advocate the teaching of all modalities, several scholars have more recently honed in on aurality, promoting the teaching of writing with sound. Aurality has been positioned as an underappreciated semiotic resource, a mode that has been overshadowed by the alphabetic and visual modes. Those who argue for its value in the composition classroom have claimed an understanding of sound is essential for possessing strong communication abilities (Selfe, 2009). Others have argued that studying and composing with sound brings awareness to aurality as rhetorical (Halbritter, 2006; McKee, 2006; Stedman, 2011, 2013); has strong potential to teach rhetoric, rhetorical principles, and rhetorical strategies (Halbritter, 2006; McKee, 2006; Stedman, 2013; VanKooten, 2011); and can help students develop skills in writing and digital literacy, specifically critical sonic literacy (Comstock & Hocks, 2006). The Pedagogy section of this webtext, comprised of reflections by Tanya K. Rodrigue, the professor of this course, and several current teachers and teachers-in-training from the class, seeks to contribute to this scholarship by (1) illustrating and extending scholars’ claims about the value of teaching digital writing, and writing with sound in particular; (2) providing insight into how instructors can prepare to teach digital writing; and (3) offering a pedagogical approach for teaching digital writing.
The Value of Teaching With Sound
This webtext, the audio projects and corresponding reflections, and the teacher reflections illustrate many scholars’ claims about the value of teaching digital writing and writing with sound. The student composers clearly demonstrated how working with audio has helped them develop: (1) strong rhetorical and genre awareness; (2) broad rhetorical skills as well as those particular to sound; (3) the ability to read and compose with various modalities via the identification of affordances and constraints; (4) the language needed to identify their growing rhetorical knowledge; and (5) the awareness of how technology has shifted our understanding of writing processes and practices.
The student composers and their projects also support claims made about the meaningful and engaging nature of digital assignments. Students were strongly invested in their projects, and many engaged on a personal and emotional level with their own work, as well as the work of others. When discussing multimodal composition, Cynthia Selfe and Pamela Takayoshi (2007), posited: “when was the last time you or anyone in your class was moved to tears by a student composition?” (p. 4). To answer this question: while listening to the audio projects archived in this webtext. While some of the projects brought us to tears, others moved us to laughter, to excitement, to anger, to hope, and to curiosity. The projects illustrate the value of pathos in the classroom (Selfe & Takayoshi, 2007) and demonstrate the important role of emotion in writing and writing processes (Murray, 2013).
In Tanya’s reflection, she explored what may have played a role in why this assignment was meaningful for the composers. She discussed how students’ engagement with a web of personal goals, experiences, epistemologies, and the project itself invited particular 21st century literacy skills—play (Jenkins, 2006) and creativity (Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2011). The interplay between and among the web and these skills, she claimed, fostered rich sites of invention that ultimately led composers to construct projects that were meaningful to them on a personal, professional, and academic level. With this discussion, Tanya, who is pedagogically influenced by findings from The Meaningful Writing Project, began to explore how we might cognitively understand what meaningful is and means in a pedagogical context.
Teaching Digital Writing and Writing With Sound
Several scholars have offered instructors guidance in how to prepare for teaching digital writing as well as pedagogical approaches, practices, and ways to craft effective assignments (Hicks, 2009; Rodrigue, 2015; Selfe, 2007; Shipka, 2006; Wysocki, 2004). In efforts to contribute to these conversations, this section of the webtext presents several explicit and implicit strategies for both preparing instructors to teach digital writing as well as teaching it. With this guidance, we hope to help instructors build or enhance their digital pedagogies.
The teachers and teachers-in-training implicitly draw attention to the value in doing digital writing in an effort to more explicitly understand its possibilities and potential value in writing classes. In reflecting on the question, “How does this project inform your understanding of audio composition’s role in the classroom?”, the teachers were able to identify for themselves how and why audio projects can be used in elementary and secondary school writing and literature courses. Much like scholars, the teachers recognized that writing with sound has strong potential to teach rhetoric, rhetorical moves and skills, reflection, metacognition, the composing process, and the meaning–making process. Several teachers also discussed the benefits of multimodal projects when working with multilingual writers, a topic of discussion that has become of increasing interest in writing studies. While reading multimodal and digital scholarship will no doubt benefit teachers in developing and enhancing multimodal pedagogies, these teachers illustrated that doing digital writing provides a unique opportunity to more fully understand its affordances in the classroom in writing and literature curricula.
While not documented in this section, the doing of the assignment also helped teachers identify potential challenges they may face in teaching with sound—a subject commonly discussed in digital writing pedagogy scholarship—and more importantly, ideas for how to negotiate these challenges. Scholars have noted one of the biggest challenges of teaching digital writing is working with, and teaching students how to work with, technology. While many have argued teaching students to “learn how to learn” technologies should frame digital writing classes (WIDE Research Collective, 2005), these teachers illustrated the benefits of possessing knowledge about particular programs, genres, and composing processes. This knowledge will be especially valuable when students are working with the same programs (or similar versions) and genres (both antecedent and similar genres), as teachers will be able to offer direct guidance and support. While we agree with scholars that teachers do not have to be technological experts (Selfe & Takoyshi, 2007), we also believe knowledge about technologies and programs students will engage with, as well as experience with multimodal composing, most effectively models teachers’ commitment to “life–long learning” (p. 10).
Like the teachers and teachers-in-training, Tanya offered insight for how instructors may prepare for teaching digital writing and sonic rhetoric. She narrated a description of the choices she made in designing the course and assignment, its purpose and rationale, the assumptions she made, and the unexpected discoveries and learning moments that occurred along the way. Tanya sought to provide teachers with a possible process for course and assignment design as well as emphasize the importance and value of teacher reflection in digital writing pedagogy.
In addition to insight for preparing digital writing instructors, Tanya also introduced a pedagogy of offering—a pedagogical approach to teach digital writing. A pedagogy of offering challenges the consumer-based educational model by providing optional guidance and flexible assignments in a studio environment. While many scholars have advocated for teaching digital writing from a particular perspective, such as rhetoric or genre, a pedagogy of offering accounts for other aspects of a course such as assessment and assignment design. This pedagogy, Tanya argued, is useful for offering students with divergent interests and experiences an opportunity to experiment with sound and produce meaningful writing. In her experience, this pedagogy maximizes students’ learning about the act and teaching of sonic rhetoric and writing with sound.