“This is pretty cool. When do we start?”
While obtaining the label of “cool” was not my motivating factor for incorporating a multimodal digital assignment into my classroom, the “cool” component of working within MovieMaker to create an argument clearly became a motivating factor for my students. According to the fairly loose parameters I devised, the students’ digital argument could contain text; however, the bulk of the message had to be displayed through visuals and auditory elements. Much like Dunn (2001) who challenges students to organize written drafts by drawing “the shape of their ideas,” I encouraged my students to use “no words or as few words as possible” (Dunn, 2001, p. 65) in creating their digital arguments. As the students began researching texts and images for this assignment (and their subsequent traditional argument paper), I witnessed a burgeoning of ideas and possibilities as they discussed their projects. In addition, they seemed to take more care and interest in their topics than had been true for previous assignments. Simply put, students appeared more engaged with their learning. According to Pippa Stein (2003), “Multimodal pedagogies work consciously and systematically across semiotic modes in order to unleash creativity, reshape knowledge and develop different forms of learning . . .” (p. 123); this assertion proved true in the case of this assignment as I witnessed my students researching and storyboarding the arrangements of their digital arguments. The paralysis they had at times experienced when asked to type words on a page had been replaced with an eagerness to gather visuals, quotes, statistics, and music that would help convey their argumentative message.
Still, the heuristic purpose behind the assignment went far beyond student motivation. In Hypertextual Thinking (1994), Catherine F. Smith writes that heuristics serve to help writers explore questions and to problem-solve. Likewise, they function as devices for invention, starting points for argument-building, and agents of clarification regarding a writer’s thoughts on a particular topic (Crowley & Hawhee, 2003, pp. 253). Heuristics also “prompt intuition toward the formation of an ordering principle of hypothesis” (Young, Becker, and Pike, as cited in Smith, 1994, p. 278). As such, my eventual, underlying goal of this assignment as heuristic turned into a question of whether or not composing first in a digital form would positively impact students’ abilities to find something meaningful to say when it came to their written texts. Furthermore, what impact would this digital heuristic have on the students’ abilities to organize the thought and content of their alphabetic texts, and would this approach aid students in a more accurate and appropriate consideration of audience needs?
“Can we do this again?”
In response to the assignment, students created digital arguments on a broad range of topics from a plea to better state regulation of puppy mills to a call for the local radio station to increase coverage of rural high school sporting events. These digital arguments were screened in class and discussed for the following elements: exigency, persuasion, organization, credibility, and audience appeal: the areas with which the students struggled most. No formal grade accompanied the digital argument; instead, it was treated as any other heuristic used in class—as process work. Since “Process theories of rhetoric see invention as, to some degree, conscious, systematic, and teachable” (Smith, 1994, p. 278), students were told the purpose of their digital argument from the start; it was meant to eventually aid them in the composition of their written arguments. In addition, the time given to complete the digital argument was—although slightly longer—largely comparable to that given for other heuristic work, such as using graphic organizers, brainstorming, free-writing, or initial drafting. This low-stakes approach produced results that reflected the exploratory nature of technology’s more traditional heuristic counterparts. “Polish” was not a requirement, and with the goal of perfection removed, students seemed more at ease with producing and then commenting on their own work and that of others.
Using their digital assignments as templates, the students seemed to transition quite readily to their traditional written argument assignments. Writer’s block or paralysis lessened. Organization and coherence of thought improved. And the students as a whole demonstrated a greater awareness of audience concerns in their textual drafts than they had in previous written work. Were multimodal heuristics the key? While there was no way to definitively know, anecdotal evidence appeared to support the hypothesis. At the very least, my pedagogical choices were answering the call for composition instructors to “change their teaching styles to take advantage of . . . electronic environments” (Selfe, 1999, Technology and Literacy, pp. 71). At the most, my students had yet another “rhetorical tool” to add to their invention repertoire for those times when they just could not put words to the page. As an instructor, my next step was to take this heuristic by chance and turn it into a heuristic by choice.
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