Monthly Archives: April 2021

Multimodal Education

As an entirely multimodal person, who has spent many years unsuccessfully trying to bend myself into one mode, I find that I am still mildly conflicted by the ideas presented in Takayoshi and Selfe’s piece. Although the digital world has become all-encompassing, and obviously more so in the past year and change, the attitude that language, and purely “alphabetic” writing, is somehow passé doesn’t feel comfortable. Obviously this is not a zero-sum game, and multimodal seems to imply that we embrace a multiplicity of viewpoints. Paper and books were once state-of-the art technology. The study of rhetoric, as the authors point out, began by looking at oral communication, not written. Multimodal education can honor and respect the traditions, just as it seeks to incorporate new ideas and modes.

With my caveat in place, I see no reason why standards, elegance or literary ideals need to be compromised when working this way, and personally I like it, though with a little less focus on the digital world as such. We can bend technology to our will just as forcefully as it can bend us. Technology was invented by humans, choices were made, and perhaps we can apply a critical eye to the technology itself, not just to what was produced with it. As the authors say, “Grounded in the knowledge that comes from authoring multimodal compositions themselves, students can constructively respond to audio and visual compositions, developing critical perspectives that will serve them well as citizens who respond to any texts” (3). These critical perspectives should be applied to all the world, and especially the digital world, an artificial place that was created with an uneven application of art and care.

A few years ago, I read Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus and jealously considered her work. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a “professor of interdisciplinary creativity” and has put out a few books about her strange and novel approach to the classroom. Art, research, science, and writing are interwoven in idiosyncratic and delightful ways. Granted, what she talks about is all on paper, and I realize that that’s not exactly what’s being discussed here. Still, in my own work and education I’ve always tacked in the direction of the gray area between modes, like William Blake’s illustrated poems. I like that gray area best, and have always taught it enthusiastically in my own way.

I’ve always snuck in some multimodal assignments along the way, though again tacking towards paper, but was a bit sheepish about it, and never pushed it as far as I would have liked. We’ve spent time looking at and analyzing comic strips over the years (Krazy Kat and Little Nemo in Slumberland in the context of Modernism and Surrealism, looking at the rhetoric of the genre). We’ve always listened to podcasts and watched short art films to look at their construction: diegetic and non-diegetic music, use of voice-over etc. This semester I’ve introduced some small drawing projects as well based on our reading, but over the years we’ve always returned to the five-paragraph essay, as was the standard. The purpose of looking at these things was always to write about them in the end.

There are many multimodal ideas I would like to introduce in the classroom, though not all of them are digital. I always wanted to have the students create zines, for instance, collective zines using artwork and their writing, or individual thematic works. I’m sure there are ways to think about that project both in analog and digital terms. I’m also eager to explore making podcasts and sound recordings with my students. Some of the podcasts out there are beautifully written and hold to the highest standards of composition. I’ve had a number of students interested in using that genre for their unit 3 project and one who made a podcast last semester, and would like to delve into that a lot more.

A multimodal environment that fully embraces the multiplicity of modes is delightful to me, as it leads me to a teaching life more integrated with the rest of my work, education, and interests.



Multimodal Composition – I Say Embrace It

In the 1121 class I’m teaching right now the students are working on the “Documenting Your Life: Multimodal” assignment (unit #3). I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the process of helping them choose the modality for the assignment. We spent part of a class brainstorming the types of modalities they could choose, then I had them type up a brief proposal which included the reason that modality was the right fit for their story. Since the assignment is a personal one, no one would know better than them the best way to tell their own stories.

During the pre-post chat, the students were definitely participating more than usual. It was nice to see them enthused. And the students seemed eager to help each other as well; one person, for example, asked if she could do a TikTok (For the record, I don’t know TikTok at all – I’m not even sure if the correct terminology is a “TikTok” or a “TikTok video”). I asked the class what they thought about the student’s idea. After a bit one of them suggested that the student make a series of TikToks to tell her story. I thought that was a great idea.

In this instance, I feel like I’m learning from the students, and maybe it’s selfish of me, but I like learning from them. They seem happy to do it as well. So when I read this statement in the Takayoshi and Selfe article, “Students often bring to the classroom a great deal of implicit, perhaps previously unarticulated, knowledge about what is involved in composing multimodal texts, and they commonly respond to multimodal assignments with excitement,” (pg 4)—I found myself nodding along in agreement.

I could imagine some composition instructors, faced with the challenge of teaching multimodal assignments digging in their heels in a sort of “get off my lawn” way … but why? Things change. This is the world now. And have to admit that I love the almost scolding Takayoshi and Selfe give hesitant teachers when they write, “Teachers less than willing to make such a leap might be encouraged to remember that the rhetorical principles currently used to teach written composition are, themselves, principles translated from the study of oral communication.” Like I said: Things change. This is the world now.

One last thing from the article: I liked what the authors said about multimodal composition possibly bringing the “often neglected third appeal—pathos—back into composition classes” and I look forward to seeing how my students do it next week.

The second article, “Teaching Multimodal Composition” from the University of Michigan website, was helpful in affirming that I’m not going about teaching multimodal composition in the completely wrong way. (This is most likely thanks to Carrie’s excellent model classes!). I’ve had my students following this basic scaffolding of analyzing, finding models/mentor texts, proposing the projects, drafting their own versions and then workshopping, finalizing, and finally reflecting. I’ve always had scaffolded assignments, but this is more thorough, with more chances for feedback—which seems more important than ever for catching students from falling through the cracks now that we’re online.

One other thing I like about the multimodal composition assignments is that they naturally lend themselves toward examining a student’s purpose and audience. I think it’s built into the question of why this modality for this project?

I’m really happy with the changes to composition this year (okay, aside from the online aspect, which to be honest, I truly don’t mind much). I feel like the past years I was doing the same thing each semester, never quite sure if my students were learning anything. Now I feel like they are. And I know I am!

Katelyn Connor Multimodal Writing

In our “new normal” (I hate saying that), I think that multimodal writing and communication is important more than ever. We are living in an increasingly digital world, and the ways that we communicate on a daily basis have changed drastically. I agree with Takayoshi and Selfe’s article that there is an urgent need for more multimodal writing assignments.

As someone who teaches business writing, my main goal is to give the students the confidence to be flexible when faced with new challenges in their writing at work. I try to give them many different assignments, both short and long form, that will help for larger assignments but those don’t necessarily address the daily needs of communication. As I write this, I’m receiving emails, getting Microsoft Teams messages, and will eventually prepare a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming account meeting. While I dream of writing beautiful essays and letters, the reality of my work life is multimodal in so many different ways.

I think I look at multimodal writing skills as separate from the general writing skills I am hoping to teach: organization, transition, traditional formatting. In reality, these are the same skills, just executed in a new format. While I have students mainly work in PowerPoint for certain presentations, I’m always impressed by the students who use Prezi, or create another type of presentation. I think it would be important for me to open up assignments for different forms like podcasts or videos. The process to create a cohesive narrative or argument remains the same- the students now are executing the very core of what I hope to accomplish as a teacher: flexibility in different formats. I found Sweetland’s multimodal guide incredibly helpful for planning future assignments that can incorporate multimodal writing.

Upcoming readings and some generative grammar resources!

For Weds, April 28: Please read this article by Takayoshi and Selfe  and look over these resources on teaching multimodal writing from the Sweetland Center for Writing. Both are on teaching multimodal writing in FYW classes.

Then write a blog post about your thoughts on the articles and how you feel about teaching multimodal writing: Have you done it? Do you like it? What are your concerns? Do you have good ideas? Things you would like to try?

For May 5, we will meet on zoom. Before we meet, please familiarize yourself with Unit 3 of 1121 HERE . Please also look at the handout HOW TO MAKE A PODCAST THAT MATTERS from the New York Times

And…. here are a couple of resources for teaching generative grammar. These are just here for you to use if you want to

First, this site on strengthening sentence variety from the Texas Gateway is very useful. Remember to follow up immediately with exercises in which students look at their own writing!

Second, an excerpt from my friend Martin Brandt’s book on generative grammar is below. I think sentence focus is often quite a complex issue, but I do like this chapter and look forward to reading the rest of Marty’s book!

Download (PDF, 1.57MB)

Thoughts on Grammar

I learned grammar myself by reading voraciously, and remember the long slogging classes of my middle school years diagramming sentences without fondness. I bet I would enjoy it now, as I love word puzzles to distraction, but when I think about those classes all I remember is torpor, droning, and interminable afternoons. I must have doodled and looked out the window through three years of Language Structures, and it wasn’t until years later that I actually committed the rules themselves to memory.

I did learn to love grammar eventually, because I loved playing with syntax as I wrote: the jazz and flow of the sentence, sentences that waddled and skipped through clauses or traversed the light bridge of the semicolon from one idea to the next. Grammar is part of that, and probably shouldn’t be separated so much from the whole of communication, or vilified, or disparaged. Of course, it’s based on convention, and conventions are interesting, both to learn on their own, and to learn how to break most effectively.

I’ve tried many techniques over the years to teach grammar, conventional approaches like worksheets or mini-lessons on specific topics, and felt sometimes like my own enthusiasm might take the students part of the way. Sometimes they loved the grammar best, and we would laugh and talk through the lessons. I don’t know why that is, but it does make it hard to believe that nothing was gained from the old-fashioned grammar lesson. An entirely motivated classroom is something in and of itself, I think.

Meeting one on one in office hours always seemed the most effect way to look at grammar issues, but it doesn’t work as well on Zoom as at a desk in the same room going over a paper together.

I’m going to try sentence combining exercises, as that seems like a fun and interesting assignment, and the practical strategies Harris recommends seem like a helpful way to look at the problem.



Grammar and Writing

I have to say I find the amount of resistance to making grammar secondary in college level writing courses odd. As expressed by Dunn, “decades of research” has shown that this is not a valuable use of class time, and even acknowledges that “future studies” will also follow this trend of being ignored.  I find it odd because since I started studying composition and rhetoric (which I guess was about ten years ago now when I started undergrad) there has always been a heavy emphasis placed on teaching higher order concerns to students, rather than lower order concerns (which includes most grammar). Yet, even though I have only encountered a few people in the field who still place such a heavy emphasis on grammar, almost all students continue to place it at the top of their writing concerns. Working as the associate coordinator for the writing center at Pace, I have plenty of anecdotal experience to back this up. I would say that, when a student is asked what they want to work on during a tutoring session, there’s about an 80% chance that they will say grammar, and it takes some finagling during the tutoring session to break the students out of this focus. Now, most of these students are in their beginning years of college, either freshman or sophomores, who are just beginning to realize that college english courses are much different from high school english courses. So, this leads me to believe that while this is certainly a pedagogical issue at the college level, it’s going to be almost impossible to solve unless there is a shift at the grade school level as well. I remember having the exact grammar assignments described by Dunn in her article when I was in high school, which were mostly quizzes or tests trying to identify grammatical mistakes or defining these terms. But, I can’t say that I really learned much from them. I think in my own experience, I learned grammar by reading, which is in line with what Dunn was saying about the difference between knowing a definition of something and actually applying that thing in practice. As an instructor, one of the ways I try to deviate from a focus on grammar is by having its contribution to the overall grade of the paper quite low, typically 5%, in the hopes that students will pay more attention to the higher order concerns that are more heavily weighted. I also appreciated Dunn pointing out the arbitrary nature of grammar, with disputes over what is proper even in standardized english, such as the Oxford comma. I think that as instructors, if we can really highlight this point to students, it may help get their attention of grammar, or at least allow them to see how it can be fluid. This approach pairs well with the focus on discourse communities and genres as we can show grammar to be one of the features of writing that changes based on the circumstance you are writing within. In regards to Harris’ piece, I found much of what she was saying to be aligned with writing center tutoring strategies. For example, having students read out loud to listen for grammar, rather than trying to visually recognize it, is common practice in writing centers.  I always tell my students that their ears will pick up on things that their brains will “auto-correct” like an iPhone fixing a typo, so they should always read their papers out loud before handing them in. Another point to take into consideration is that there is so much variability among students in regards to their grammatical fluency. So our approach to grammar can sometimes be case by case.  I’m sure we are all familiar with receiving a paper that has so many grammatical errors that there is little to no clarity. In this case, I would say grammar does take on a higher priority, but there is only so much we can do given the limited time (especially one on one time) that we have with students. So, with students like this, I always suggest that they make routine trips to the writing center.  That way, I can continue providing a fair amount of focus to higher order concerns, while knowing that the student is receiving help on lower order concerns in tutoring sessions.

The Dreaded G Word … Grammar

Though the word “grammar” conjures images of kids gripping #2 pencils as they diagram sentences in sullen and silent classrooms, I actually like thinking about grammar in terms of my own writing. I enjoy deciding between a semicolon or an em-dash; I like reading things out loud to see if I’ve used too many commas (which I almost always have). This, though, is about my own writing and not about teaching.

Teaching grammar is another animal, and one that I don’t like. When I first began teaching at City Tech in 2015, comp classes had an additional 45-minute lab each week and somehow I had the impression that that’s when we were supposed to teach grammar … I can’t remember if the English Department Chair at that time told me that, or if I just guessed. I’d already been teaching creative writing for a decade at that point, but hadn’t taught first year writing, and had never taught grammar. Occasionally I’d come across run-on sentences in the short stories my students turned in, and sometimes I’d point them out, but that was as far as I’d gone grammar-wise.

What I tried to do in the lab portion of the comp classes at City Tech – and I’m so glad those lab portions are gone – was use examples from either student texts or things I found online to gently point out problems and have the students work together to fix them. For example, one exercise I did was project (onto a screen at the front of the class) a paragraph where I’d taken out all the punctuation. Then the students would work in groups of four (my in-person students LOVED doing group work, so I tried to incorporate them into classwork as often as possible) to revise the paragraph with punctuation included; they were also free to change word order or revise the sentences completely if they wished. Then one person from each group would go up to the board and write one of their sentences and the class would discuss the choices they’d made and why.

Honestly, the students seemed to enjoy this. There was usually a bit of good-spirited laughter. It was a team effort, and no one was ever singled out. I didn’t hand out worksheets or define grammatical terms, but rather had them practice them. I made a point to tell them that they know more about grammar than they think they do, simply by reading.

So when I read about the term COIK in Muriel Harris’ piece, I felt a bit relieved. Perhaps I haven’t been as terrible to my students with regard to grammar as I’ve feared these last few weeks. (Also, I love the example of defining physics that Harris uses.)

I think the Dunn article relates a lot to what we’ve been talking about in terms of genre, and I like the point Dunn makes when she says “Every writing project is constrained by previous iterations of that type of writing.” This reminds me of another exercise I’d have students do in-person: Have them write a text to a friend asking what they’re doing that weekend, an email to me asking for an extension for a paper, and a cover letter for a job. Then I’d have them share them with the class – it was just a way to illustrate the different ways we use language in different situations.

All of this is making me think about how much I miss in-person classes! Looking forward to seeing you all later today.






Grammar: Eureka Moments are not Created by Staying within the Lines

One of the first things I casually mention to my students on the first day of class as we go over the syllabus is that I honestly genuinely do not care as much about grammar as I do content. Technicalities bore me to death, and I consider grammar technicalities. I am nowhere near saying that reading a paper with atrocious grammar does not bother me. But the reason for a student’s quality of grammar could be numerous. English may not be one’s first language and they may still be struggling to learn all the intricacies of the English language. They may have not been fortunate enough to go to a school that had quality resources to educate their students: the tools for music, science classes, updated textbooks, extracurricular activities or college readiness programs – never mind grammar, of all things. They may struggle with a learning disorder. But do any of these possible reasons necessarily mean that these students are not capable of holding rich, deeply complex thoughts and ideas within their minds? Certainly not. Can horrible grammar get in the way of understanding a student’s ideas effectively? Yes, and I clarify to them that if it gets in the way of conveying your ideas effectively, or hinders me from understanding your ideas, I will recommend that you go to the Writing Center, or a tutor. I write this on the feedback for their essays. But otherwise, I do not want to hold grammar over my students’ heads in such a way that the fear of a grammar mistake cripples them or hinders them from being able to get their thoughts down onto paper or screen. Students have enough anxiety about writing. Writing is difficult enough of its own. The process of trying to extract something you cannot touch (thoughts, ideas and emotions, which can be haphazardly scattered or vague or blurry) – from your mind, and produce them into enough of a legible, coherent sentence that captures effectively what you hold in your head – is enough of a difficult process on its own. (Was that a long, rambling sentence? It certainly was, but right now I am more concerned about trying to get my ideas down).
I do not want the fear of grammar to begin to censor my students’ thoughts and ideas. Once they have written down whatever they can get down, once we can enrich the writing further or clarify the ideas, then we can work on grammar, or even get past it if that is possible. To me, it is the last step; not really the first.

I think the reason why grammar is associated in society with “laziness/sloth/uneducated” – as Patricia Dunn writes – is more due to a societal association of grammar with law and order, strictness and rigidity of rules. Laws and rules can be important — but not when the richness of thought, humanity, morals, and free-flowing ideas are sacrificed at their expense. There have been many social, political and educational laws and rules throughout history that were morally wrong. It was once a practice to punish Native American children in school if they spoke their own native language over English, even in a casual conversation. Segregation was once the law, slavery was once the law and the rule. (I am going overboard with the examples but I am sure you get the point). So to abide by the principles of only law and strict rules, without leaving the freedom of space to allow for ideas to flow, is I think ignorant and can even be dangerous. So I really do think that the lamenting of the loss of grammar isn’t always accurate, but also negligent. I think upholding grammar as the only standards of education has more to do with an association of grammar to law and order than anything else. And sometimes, we need to break the rules – or at least not glorify them – if it means creating something genuine, true and meaningful. The “eureka!” moments of scientists, artists and writers throughout time did not occur when they always stayed within the lines, but sometimes, outside of them.

My Thoughts on Grammar

As a student, I LOVE grammar. I love thinking about it- I find diagramming sentences one of those eerily calming things to do in my mind. It’s like my version of a rubik’s cube. I went to Catholic school all my life, and those nuns and brothers really held “proper grammar” next to godliness. For me, these lessons just clicked. I was also a native English speaker, an avid reader, and had a mother as an English teacher. I very clearly see that my elementary and secondary education was rooted in a white, religious, middle-class experience.

Therefore, I cannot in good faith use my experience of learning grammar as a measure for my students. I believe that using my narrow definition of what I was taught was “proper grammar” would be a racist, classist, xenophobic way of teaching. Besides, who wants to be that person on Facebook who tries to end an argument by saying “you’re*?” As Dunn stated, “As a recent rhetorical analysis of grammar rants has demonstrated, many such rants are laced with moral judgments about the departure from allegedly proper grammar. In a disturbing, repeating trend, the offending speaker or writer is seen as uneducated and lazy, the latter judgment being connected not too subtly to one of the Seven Deadly Sins (Sloth).” I certainly don’t want to lay a curriculum’s foundation on being a jerk.

That being said, as I teach business writing, grammar is part of many different lessons. As we discuss the proper tone and formality for an external business presentation, or an email to your boss, grammar inevitably comes into play. Dunn’s quote of Elizabeth Wardle really put my teaching into perspective when she says “’There is no such thing as writing in general.’ Every writing project is constrained by previous iterations of that type of writing. Is it a memo, résumé, game manual, business plan, film review?” Since there is no such thing as writing, can there even be such thing as proper grammar in general?

Similar to Dunn’s point above, I try to focus on how writing will need to ebb and flow to accommodate different audiences and different workplaces. My goal is to make flexible writers- and their flexibility will make them strong writers, and good writers. We talk endlessly about industry terminology, similar to Harris’s note on COIK. We address those challenges together and make sure when we are reading student writing that they define any acronyms or industry terms that the other students wouldn’t know. It’s a collective learning- a future lawyer can learn more about a future computer engineer’s world, and the engineer can practice being explicit in different formats, and making their writing clear for a lay audience.

I took a grammar class in college and was super proud of an essay I wrote entitled “I Give a Fuck About an Oxford Comma,” just to come to realize that it truly does not matter. When ESL students are working so hard to move from one language to another, they’re doing four times the work I will ever do to express myself in English. That by itself is cause for celebration and acknowledgment. Instead of saying “this is a run-on sentence” I try to say things like, “this sentence isn’t clear to me. How can we rephrase what you’re trying to say?” so that they can think through how to improve their writing in real time.

While I don’t grade based on grammar, I do have a PowerPoint presentation of grammar memes. It’s a list of 20 common grammar mistakes, and we talk about them as a class, and then work it out in sentences. Many students find it mildly entertaining, and have a moment of clarity with at least one, but I’ve long since abandoned my thought that seeing one meme will change a writing style that is years in the making. Instead, my hope is that by encouraging them to read and assigning them different types of writing throughout the semester, they will naturally experiment with different types of writing and their grammar will develop as well.

Work for week of Weds April 14 and Weds April 21

Hi everyone!  By next Weds, April 14, please watch and answer the questions on THIS EDPUZZLE. There’s kind of a lot of writing there, so leave yourself some time. Edpuzzle is a cool program which allows you to ask questions mid-video, so that you can have conversations with students and, let’s be frank, see if they’ve watched.  In the video, I talk about the 1121 Unit 2 assignment as is and also ask for your input as we think about revising it to make it a bit better.

Here are some resources I refer to: You do not need to read them, but they are there for you if you find them useful:

For Weds, April 21:

Please read “Teaching Grammar Improves Writing” and “Grammar Should be Taught Separately” from Bad Ideas About Writing (below) and write a blog post here on Open Lab about… grammar. How you teach it, what your thoughts are about it– what you think works teaching it and maybe where you are stuck.

When we meet, we’ll talk about the possibly not-unrelated topics of teaching grammar and using mentor texts in the classroom.

Download (PDF, 151KB)

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