Where Access Meets Multimodality: The Case of ASL Music Videos

Janine Butler

A young man is signing the word love. On screen are the lyrics "you love."

Incorporating ASL Music Videos in an Accessible Multimodal Pedagogy

I have incorporated ASL music videos in different styles in different composition classrooms, from first-year composition to the graduate-level seminars that I’ve taken. Throughout these courses, the theme of accessible multimodal compositions remains constant: These videos show that we can, and should, rhetorically design meaning that reaches out to multiple senses through different modes. If these videos embody sound in multisensory form, we can likewise consider other rhetorical and aesthetic ways to embody meaning and access different senses.

In this section, I provide suggestions for incorporating ASL music videos in composition classrooms to support students’ rhetorical skills for making communication accessible through different modes. I strongly encourage composition instructors to redesign these approaches for different student populations. If we want to support accessible multimodal pedagogies, we should be continually redesigning our practices and providing students (and instructors) with multiple options for expression—so, I welcome transformations in these accessible multimodal practices and assignments.

The following options—introducing, analyzing, designing, reflecting, and redesigning—are developed from the different ways that I incorporate ASL music videos in the composition classroom. These practices can be rearranged and redesigned in a recursive or scaffolding process. Each practice is meant to allow teachers and students alike to recognize the aesthetic and rhetorical advantages of reaching different senses through multiple modes. These options can be applied not only to ASL music videos, but also to other accessible multimodal compositions.

Introducing ASL Music Videos

Introducing ASL music videos in the composition classroom can begin with projecting a video—for instance, Sean Forbes’ (2011) video “Sean Forbes ‘Let’s Mambo’ Ft. Marlee Matlin”—on the screen at the beginning of class. This may be students’ first engagement with ASL music videos, sign language, signed songs, and/or videos with dynamic visual text. This becomes a stimulatory moment in which teachers and students alike can assess their initial reaction to viewing a video that embodies sound through dynamic visual text, facial expressions, body language, and ASL. Use this space to discuss the rhetorical and aesthetic effects of the visual design. Explore how viewing this video for the first time shows us that we can compose in different ways to reach different audiences.

I will provide one such example of how we can discover different ways to compose through introducing ASL music videos to students. I introduced two first-year composition sections to ASL music videos during a two-day video-based activity that supported concepts that were new to them: the rhetorical situation, rhetorical appeals, and the juxtaposition of text and visuals. To help these students articulate rhetorical and visual analysis concepts, I designed activities in which they viewed, considered, and discussed ASL videos in groups and as a class.

I provided a handout with guiding questions on visual and rhetorical analysis for consideration and discussion. I have adapted these questions here and encourage you to further redesign these questions or approaches for your own courses and practices. You could ask students to consider these questions when viewing ASL music videos—or another accessible multimodal composition—for the first time.

Prompt for Introducing Multimodal Accessible Compositions

  1. Context. Who created this composition and why? Who is the intended audience? Who else might view and enjoy this composition? Who might not be able to enjoy this composition and why?
  2. Content Description. Describe what you sense. Which details and moments in the composition convey meaning to the audience? How do these details and moments convey meaning? What might you or other audiences NOT sense? What might you miss if you could not sense a moment in this composition?
  3. Rhetorical Appeals. How do the visuals reflect the rhetorical message of the song? How does the composition appeal to different audiences?
  4. Key Features. What are the most salient moments in or elements of the composition? What reaches out to you? What doesn’t?
  5. Accessibility. Explain how the song is conveyed and made accessible (or not accessible) to different audiences. What senses does it reach? What senses does it NOT reach?

I used a similar handout to guide these two sections of first-year composition students through initial assessment and analysis of ASL music videos. After explaining the genre of ASL music videos and traditional/nontraditional subtitles, I asked the students to consider the questions on the handout as they watched Sean Forbes‘ (2011) “Sean Forbes ‘Let’s Mambo’ Ft. Marlee Matlin” and Sean Berdy’s (2012) “Enrique Iglesias’s Hero in American Sign Language [Sean Berdy].” I found Forbes’ (2011) video to be especially appealing to these freshmen, with one section smiling and moving along with the beat while watching the video. The unique design of subtitles and physical gestures in these videos clearly resonated with them.

After the music ended, they broke out in groups to discuss the rhetorical and visual practices of these videos based on the questions on the handout. When we came back together as a class to discuss their responses, the students showed that they had carefully thought about the creators’ purpose, the audiences, the juxtaposition of visuals and sounds.

One student remarked on whether sound would even be necessary if the video were designed for a deaf audience. His question led to a thought-provoking discussion on how compositions appeal to a larger audience through different modes (although we did not use the term mode). We continued a conversation about how the creators of the videos purposefully designed the videos to be accessible to various audiences—including non-deaf audiences. We realized together that these videos are visually appealing to deaf and non-deaf audiences.

We looked at how meaning could be expressed through the synchronicity of sound and visuals. For instance, I replayed an upbeat moment in Forbes’ (2011) video, in which the three energetic syllables of pi-a-no extend through the lyrics, the cascading sign of piano, and the bubbled and colored visual text. Pausing the videos and exploring specific moments helped them with the overall theme of recognizing how a multimodal message can be presented clearly in different ways to audiences. The introductory moment can help students begin to build rhetorical skills for analyzing and designing accessible multimodal compositions.

NEXT: Pedagogy 2: Analzying ASL Music Videos and Designing Accessible Multimodal Compositions