“I’ll start later—when I get inspired. I work better under pressure anyway.”
These “channels”, “modalities”, and “multimodal composing practices” are much like the rhetorical “tools” Jane Zeni discusses in Literacy, Technology, and Teacher Education (1994), an article that predates the push for legitimizing multimodal composition as a site for rhetorical instruction and creation. According to Zeni, composition teachers must develop a “rhetoric of tools” to share with students in order to aid them in making “wise choices” regarding rhetorical features such as “audience, purpose, and context” (p. 80). Granted, Zeni is writing of electronic writing tools; however, her piece includes a call for classroom research that “brings to English education the wisdom of innovative pedagogy . . . and the exploration of new technological possibilities” (1994, p. 85). Likewise, Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the 21st Century (1999) encourages English teachers, composition teachers, and language arts teachers to “turn [their] attention to technology” and recognize the “complex ways in which technology has become linked with our conception of literacy and, possibly, to shape the relationship between these two phenomenon in increasingly productive ways” (pp. 4 & 36). And while Patricia Dunn does not specifically advocate technological pedagogies or a digital “rhetoric of tools” in Talking, Sketching, Moving (2001), she does call for “multiple, alternate strategies to teach writing” (p. 8) including activities such as drawing, sketching, or graphing that capitalize on students’ multiple intelligences and subsequently open pathways into new and richer learning.
“I don’t know what to write!”
In Fall 2008, an equation that included student laments and trepidation regarding the writing process plus my own scholarly interests in multimodal composition as well as language arts and writing pedagogies yielded an interesting sum: a digital heuristic. I was instructing an entry-level freshman writing course, and the students were routinely struggling with traditional writing assignments throughout the early stages of the semester. Problems with introductory paragraphs, organization, and audience awareness issues dominated the students’ drafts, and despite conferences, revisions, and peer-review sessions, the students’ compositions showed little improvement. I had already planned to implement a multimodal composition assignment into the course as a complement to the students’ final argument paper; however, as the class embarked on its scholarly research for that assignment, I devised a quick change of plans: students would complete the multimodal portion of the assignment prior to writing the alphabetic portion. Also, while “multimodal” can refer to any combination of modes, such as alphabetic text, visuals, audio, video, etc., in paper or electronic form)--this assignment would be completed digitally. Both the students and I needed a change of pace from the textual drafting frustrations, and perhaps composing in another medium prior to writing would engage the students in a way traditional means had not.
It was not until after this decision was made that I would find justification for this approach in the work of Takayoshi and Selfe who write regarding an audio assignment that “teaching students how to . . . select the right details for inclusion” in an “audio composition—also helps teach them specific strategies for focusing a written essay more tightly and effectively . . .” (2007, p. 9). Likewise, Selfe and Selfe (2008), discussing the same audio assignment, challenge instructors to investigate multimodal composing options and then tie those options to classroom instruction. Kathleen Blake Yancey (2004), too, suggests a “repurposing” of technology when she explains how presentation software can be used for “exploration” and as a “new space for drafting ideas” (p. 319). These notions allowed me to reflect that perhaps my students’ writing problems came back to the set of rhetoric tools I was affording them. If heuristics, “aid significantly in preparing students to manage their thinking” (Smith, 1994, p. 279) and “pedagogies that consciously work to structure and stimulate variations on concepts or themes, produce creativity” (Stein, 2003, p. 136), then maybe a multimodal, digital heuristic was the right rhetorical tool at the right time—a technological “available means” for engaging and improving my students’ traditional literacies.
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