On Multimodal Composing


book covers

In a broad sense, multimodal composition can be defined as communication using multiple modes that work purposely to create meaning. (Lutkewitte, 2014, p. 2)

Design concerns making choices about which modes a person will use and how to develop a concept or content that will eventually be realized or expressed through one or more media. (Lauer, 2009, p. 236)

When I reflect about my life as a writer and teacher of composition, I don't just see printed pages: I hear voices speaking … I feel bodies moving. (Palmeri, 2012, p. 51)

But in order to value this kind of scholarship readers need more new media texts on which to base a collective understanding of the ways cross-generic modes function. Valuing these texts—and making them less rare, which will increase our analytical and interpretational strategies for them—is important for new media scholarship to move forward. (Ball, 2004, pp. 421–422)

Calling on Claire Lauer's and Cheryl E. Ball's considerations of multimodal composing processes, this project is our attempt to blur the lines between design/process, between process/production, and between production/distribution. We also consider the material and cultural rhetoric approaches of Anne Frances Wysocki, Ben McCorkle, and Kristin Arola as we try to offer better perspectives into the process(es) of multimodal composing.

We have played with/in the spaces where multiple media and the modalities that enter/exit them intersect with composing processes and their rhetoricity. We have created, analyzed, and explored. We return briefly to the composing moments we document in the introduction, summarizing the complexity and richness (re)presented there. We began with queries about what composing looks like, sounds like, and feels like in and across digital, networked spaces and the physical spaces our bodies inhabit as we compose. Our framing questions were "What can/’t multimodal composing be?" and "What are the material and cultural rhetorics of our (multimodal) composing processes?" What we found—and what we offer now—are not answers to those questions, but some conclusions that actually point toward beginnings, and beginning again.

Beginnings, and Beginning Again

While all thirteen of us compose with/in the same discipline, our processes are diverse and complex. We navigate the material and immaterial, the multilocal and digitally dispersed, across multiple spaces, places, and interfaces. In our composing processes, which are always and already multimodal, meaning is made not with but across modalities. And we’ve realized that we need to (re)cognize, theorize, and embrace that reality more fully than we, individually, and perhaps we, as a field, have.

Across our videos, each composer constructs composing spaces and processes that works for him or for her; we have that in common. However, each of us uniquely employs a variety of mediums, media, tools, interfaces, and (of course) modes to serve our hyper-specific purposes when composing (in) particular genres (coursework, 3D prints, research articles, slam poems, and more).

In addition to their multimodal properties, our processes are all also inherently collaborative, constant, and physical. Composing changes, moves, shifts, and evolves with our bodies and the tools we adopt/adapt. Composing is social, mobile labor. Indeed, it's impossible for us to imagine, to see, composing as anything other than extremely networked, ecological, and therefore unceasingly complicated—dependent on (f)actors as diverse as technical skill and physical comfort. Our experiences of being human perhaps count as much as (or more than, perhaps) our official educations as composers.

Multimodal Processes in Our Research, Teaching, and Theorizing

For our final week in the multimodal composing seminar in which this text emerged, we read from the postscripts and conclusions of a range of scholarship on multimodal composing:

  • Jason Palmeri's (2012) epilogue to Remixing Composition
  • Jody Shipka's (2011) conclusion to Toward a Composition Made Whole
  • Stuart A. Selber's (2004) epilogue to Multiliteracies for a Digital Age
  • Mary P. Sheridan and Jennifer Rowsell's (2010) final chapter to Design Literacies: Learning and Innovation in the Digital Age
  • Suzanne M. Miller and Mary B. McVee's (2013) conclusion to Multimodal Composing in Classrooms: Learning and Teaching for the Digital World
  • Joddy Murray's (2010) epilogue to Non-Discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition

So, finally, we draw from these pieces to articulate some final points and to encourage more research, more work, and more representations.

As composition grows differently relevant in the academy (and beyond it), we recognize simultaneous vertical–lateral shifts in the applications and implications of our work. After reminding us that "people are writing as never before" (p. 102), Sheridan and Rowsell encouraged us to attend to creativity, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity. Likewise, Miller and McVee (2013) wrote that classrooms can be spaces in which writing becomes both subversive and submersive.

Turning now to teaching, then, we must ask, as Claire Lutkewitte (2013) did in Multimodal Composition: A Critical Sourcebook, "What is the point of the composition classroom?" (p. 1, emphasis ours). Our classrooms are sites of action, and sometimes of activism, so we must treat these (as we have with this webtext) as spaces in which we, with our students and our peers, challenge definitions of writing, of composition, of multimodality, and of process. Our text(ualitie)s, and the materials, modalities, and bodies that occupy them, are alive, and they change (over) time, challenging us—especially as the composed/composing/composer worlds around us change—to critique and revise our field. As our field changes and those who populate it do as well, we must consider ecologies, materialities, pedagogies, and the rhetoricities of various texts.

We must consider and critique our field, challenging the structures and strictures of the institutions that populate it: How do we weigh and (de)value multimodal and digital compositions in our teaching, research, and service—with the assignments we ask our students to compose; the dissertations and theses we craft; the scholarship we publish to support our work on the tenure track; the training we receive and we deliver; the communities we engage; and the spaces we enter, exit, occupy, vacate, and transform? How do race, dis/ability, gender, and class figure into the politics of access, labor, and representation in our mediated world? How are our processes infused with rhetoricity, rehearsal, serendipity?

To that end, Palmeri (2012) reminded us that "compositionists have a rich multimodal heritage that we can build upon in order to reimagine contemporary pedagogical practices." He continued, "The discipline of composition studies is a deeply and complexly situated one" (p. 149). Palmeri emboldened us to develop flexible strategies for inventing/revising alphabetic writing, to think rhetorically and persuasively about multimodal composing, and to develop critical literacies for re/seeing, re/hearing, and re/inventing (in) the world around us. After all, "there is great diversity in the student bodies we engage, the institutional contexts in which we work, the physical environments in which we teach, and the theoretical frameworks on which we draw" (Palmeri, p. 149). After tracing a history of multimodal composing, Palmeri invited us to be reflective and reflexive about how our composing moments today are chapters in both the future anterior of composition and the history of multimodality.

Anticipating the "now" of multimodal composing as an eventual past, we turn ultimately to Jody Shipka (2011), who advised us to think richly and rhetorically about process research. "I find myself increasingly drawn to the potential of video-based studies," she wrote, advocating for a video showcase of individual or group writing processes (akin to the webtext we provide here) in which we "identify the times when they are or are not 'in the process of' producing a text, object, or event" (pp. 146–147). However, Shipka critiqued this method, arguing that it tends to focus only on academic writing:

A variation on this study would involve soliciting the participation of a broader, more diverse range of composers and research subjects (for example, dog trainers, hair stylists, party planners, photographers, bloggers, realtors, choreographers) and having them create videos or visual-verbal representations of the processes they engage in while doing their work (such as training dogs, cutting hair, composing parties, photographs, exhibits, or dances). (p. 148)

Shipka concluded, and we agree, that process research could vastly benefit from moving outside the walls of the institution, which would emphasize the "composition, consumption, reception, and valuation of still other kinds of texts, activities, events, social spaces, and ways of knowing" (p. 148).

Most of all, and by way of beginning, we call for—and hope to have shown here—a critical reading of our own praxis. Joddy Murray (2010) argued that "just as any writing course stresses close reading as a way to improve writing, so must multimodal reading become a method of improving multimodal writing" (p. 185). In short, we must read and compose with intention. Moving forward, then, we find it imperative not merely to celebrate that we are as a field less resistant to multimodality in the composition classroom than we have been; we must not forget that resistance still encumbers our work, so if we hope at all to attend to these gaps we surface in our field, we must continue to embrace and incorporate multimodality carefully, recursively, purposefully, and rhetorically and to attend to the politics of materiality, access, identity, and interdisciplinarity in our research and practice.