Monthly Archives: May 2021

Multi-Modal Writing and Grammar

Let’s’ start with what I love and then I’ll write fifteen to twenty paragraphs explaining very carefully my position on academic writing and grammar. Thanks for asking. Have a seat. Smoke if you got ’em.

Martin Brandt’s book excerpt was fun and engaging and I would like to find ways to work with his ideas more.

The Annotated Bibliography is a wonderful assignment and I’ve been meaning to say this for two semesters now. I can’t say enough about how much I like it, but I’ll try. ¬† ¬†I honestly can’t figure out how I didn’t come up with it before. ¬†It’s so obvious and solves so many problems both basic (stop plagiarizing) and complex (what kind of source is viable?). ¬†I embrace it. ¬†Fully. ¬†They could have been doing this the whole time! ¬†I will never go without it again. ¬†I think I’d like it better as a series of mini-assignments that get folded into a final project, but that’s just a tweak I might add.

Representing themselves in different media will be important in student’s careers and educations, and I’m happy to fold a podcast, a TikTok, or a TedTalk style video into my syllabus. It’s liberating to be told to keep students up to do date with technological advances. ¬†Students need more multi-modal writing assignments. ¬†How could they not? ¬†Most of their communication will be in these new forms and we would do them a disservice not to guide their use.


Please don’t yank the basic research paper or the basic essay.

I’ve been haunted for many years now by a conversation I had with a friend who worked for a legal staffing firm who told me his firm would not consider even interviewing a student from City Tech for a paralegal position because their writing was notoriously terrible. ¬†He told me this full well knowing I was a writing instructor there (and he had worked as a CUNY adjunct himself). ¬†I also had a friend at the Board of Education tell me that they didn’t accept candidates from another non-CUNY college I worked at.

These chilling conversations strengthened my resolve to make absolutely certain that my students could work in whatever genre they met.  Could they fill out a job application?  Send a thank you letter?  Write a colleague a work email?  Present a school with a decent sample of academic writing?   To do that they need to write in all different genres, including standard possibly soul-deadening academic ones.

I am wary of the idea that teachers will turn students off writing by teaching them to do it in an academic manner or that by teaching them grammar they will be crippled as writers.  I sense the belief that by teaching them to write a five paragraph essay or a four page research paper they will become so traumatized that they will drop out of schoolРthey will HATE writing more than anything, or even worse, that my teaching them to write in standard edited American English is going to ruin them.  Literally, they are going to drop out of college because they will hate academic writing so much and then they will be shut out of so much of what society has to offer that they will be forced to a life of crime.

I’ve always assumed it was the other way around. ¬†Yes, they are absolutely traumatized, yes, they are scared and hate it and don’t see the point. ¬†At least when we meet, that’s sometimes the feeling. ¬†But when I’m done with them, I hope, if all goes well, that ¬†they will be great at writing. ¬†Or at least, Very Good. ¬†And being Very Good at it makes them like it a little, or hate it a little less.

I have always assumed that the problem wasn’t that people were teaching research papers and certain structures, but that they were teaching them poorly. ¬†If you watch how grammar gets taught, even the tone becomes sort of punitive and mean and sadistic. ¬†Delores Umbrage, that famously terrible teacher, would probably run a tight grammar class. ¬†And I suspect five paragraph essay structure might somehow turn teachers into assholes, because power corrupts, and that’s what is making students turn a way from an education.

A certain tone of voice.  A certain disdain.  Contempt.  Strict standards vaguely expressed.

But I felt like it was my job to prepare students for all the ¬†professors, mean professors, tough graders, angry “normed” adjuncts sitting in windowless rooms marking their way through hundreds and hundreds of papers over the course of a weekend for 40% of their actual salary.

I’ve been using five paragraph essay structure to stack the odds in students’ favor in these situations — if students know one paragraph is all about red and another paragraph should be all about about blue, then they won’t repeat what they’ve said about red in the second and third and fourth paragraphs. ¬†I write the words RED and BLUE on the board in huge letters. ¬†I give them quizzes on red and blue paragraphs. ¬†And then I have them free write and free write, to get the taste of being ashamed out of their mouths.

I worry that removing the basic research paper from composition will put students at an academic disadvantage when they go on to other classes or programs. ¬†I always assume that after Tech they are going straight to MIT to do their graduate work, where they will have to write a research paper at least once. ¬†(Or possibly NYU or the Graduate Center or Teacher’s College.) ¬†What’s going to happen to them there if they’ve never encountered the most basic (if boring and possibly silly) forms of academic writing?

I do think working in other genres or in more engaging writing projects will make them better writers and ready for the workplace, but if they don’t have any clue how to write a basic boring old research paper, even how to focus on writing something that’s not fun, not scintillating, I think their lives might be the worse for it. ¬†Possibly not life-of-crime worse for it, but embarrassment awaits.

Also, I started teaching grammar because the students were freaking out about it. ¬†Not all of them, but enough of them, were so frightened of grammar that I thought it would just be easier to teach it than to try to talk them all out of worrying about it. ¬†I tried to teach it in a way that wasn’t shaming and punitive, but still relevant. ¬†I would never write students mistakes on the board–even doing so ¬†anonymously is a sadistic practice. ¬†I just can’t be funny or humble enough to pull this tactic off. ¬†I would just write my own made-up mistakes on the board and have them correct them, and the mistakes might match a grammar lesson. ¬†The whole thing took 10 minutes a class and seemed to calm their nerves.

I do wish these composition experts would stop using words like “inflicting” when they talk about teaching practices. “But those promoting these grammar drills¬†should also be shown how to observe what happens in their classes¬†when they inflict such lessons on their students, as well as how to¬†document the before-and-after writings of these students. Perhaps
their first-hand experience will convince them when other people‚Äôs¬†research could not.” ¬†There’s a lot of English-teacher shaming going on in these articles. ¬†I understand they’re lobbying for change, but their case is specious. ¬†Teaching grammar can be empowering, or humiliating, for students, depending on how it’s done. ¬†Certainly this writer can’t possibly be arguing that just knowing grammar makes you a worse writer?

I’m willing to wager that some writers have managed to produce works of staggering beauty, all the while knowing grammar.

It’s self-consciousness about grammar that cripples us as writers. ¬†That’s why, I wager, students writing doesn’t improve when you teach grammar. ¬†(Not that I think teaching grammar improves writing–but that’s another essay.) But we have to get them past the self-consciousness. ¬†Get them to focus on the flower bed and not always be thinking about what kind of gardener they are, how they look as a gardener, what kind of grade they’ll make as a gardener or if they should take another selfie.

Meanwhile, in our efforts to prepare students for a world of new means of communication, which we absolutely must do, I hope to also remember that the new fast methods of communication sometimes preclude, by their nature, meaningful, slow thought.

The new constant ticktocking instagramming texting communication illuminates with the quality of a strobe light.¬†The¬†communication goes on around us almost as if no one is doing it, it’s just happening. The¬†accumulation of all this multimodal communication running at us all day long is that we all enter a sort of nod where we just flick ideas back and forth like spit wads.¬† Doing great! Love this! Thanks so much!¬† ¬†We ping memes and images and bright chirpy little jokes with kittens falling all over pianos¬†back and forth relentlessly. ¬† How can I encourage my students to think, to look for facts and substance in this digital haze? ¬†

Thank you for getting to the bottom here.  Nice to see you down here.  Really enjoyed thinking about these issues with other people.


Multimodal Projects

I have found the arguments put forward here in favor of incorporating more multimodal projects in composition classes to be compelling. I can also say from experience this semester that the students are far more excited about piecing together a project like this than a normal term paper. I have students producing podcasts, writing blog posts and creating brochures about a series of social justice issues. I agree with the sentiment that if composition is to stay relevant, it must adapt. Of course, there are lessons from traditional composition courses that should remain in place, it’s just a matter of applying these lessons to broader forms of rhetoric. I think that this works well with the genre awareness approach to composition as it makes the writing process less daunting and foreign. When I was going over multimodal texts with my class, we looked at various Instagram posts and discussed why they were multimodal, what forms of communication they were using, and how the meaning would change if any of the elements were altered. Students then started to see that whenever they post an Instagram post with a caption, they are already participating in multimodal production. It also helps to make concepts like the modes of persuasion more tangible. To demonstrate how music and sound could be a form of sonic rhetoric, I played my class two versions of Charlie Chaplin‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Great Dictator‚ÄĚ speech.¬† The first version did not have music layered over it, and the second did. Then we discussed how the audio altered the way in which the speech was received.¬† Most students commented that it sounded more compelling and emotional, or in other words, more persuasive and engaging, which are two qualities we want students to be constructing in their own texts. In regards to transfer of knowledge and applicability, I think this is one of the best ways of ‚Äúselling‚ÄĚ composition to students. For years, I‚Äôve tried to explain to my classes why composition matters, that it helps them become better communicators and writers, BUT it is incredibly difficult to sell the purpose of, say, a compare and contrast paper. The resistance makes sense – it feels artificial, as if these assignments can only exist in the bubble of the classroom. So, multimodal projects have a more direct transfer into everyday life. As mentioned above, everyone that uses social media is engaging with these types of texts. But beyond that, most professional paths now require some form of digital literacy, whether it is writing emails, editing web pages or keeping up with a company‚Äôs social media accounts.¬† Lastly, it creates a space for all types of learners. Rather than success in a composition class being completed predicated upon whether one is good with words or not, now visual and auditory learners can learn and create within the objectives and goals of a composition class while appealing to their natural talents.¬† Overall, I am sold on this path forward for composition (PS: it’s also more fun for instructors to grade / read!).