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’s “The Great Dictator” 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 “selling” composition to students. For years, I’ve 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’s 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!).
Author Archives: Grant Crawford
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.
“Getting On The Right Side Of It”
I really enjoyed Kynard’s piece and admired her ability to draw out the idiosyncrasies that each of her students brought into her classroom. I think that we can all relate to encountering that formulaic research paper that feels like it was written by a bot. But one focus I was hoping we could discuss is how we, as instructors, may unconsciously perpetuate this formula. As I was reading the piece, I was blown away by the type of writing that Kynard’s students Malcolm and Rhonda were able to produce. At the same time, an odd question popped into my head, which was, “how would I grade something like this?” It sounds so silly, but when I think about it, many of my rubrics are inadvertently holding up those old formulaic structures, with 20% dedicated to structure and 20% dedicated to research/quote integration etc, meanwhile I’m saying things like “try to incorporate your voice!” or “Write about something you’re passionate about!’ I now see how this is somewhat contradictory. So, I think Kynard was correct when she pointed out that these papers are not only easy for students to produce, but also easy for us to grade because they are so familiar. There are also qualities to a formulaic research paper that are easy to “measure,” for lack of a better word. If students begin centering personal styles of writing and individual experiences in their research, it becomes a bit more tricky to craft a rubric that captures all that may be produced. I suppose, then, my question for everyone is, how would you grade assignments like those described by Kynard in her piece? I would love to find more of my students’ voices in their writing. At the same time, I fear that encouraging too much personal experience may cause the research paper to drift into the territory of a narrative assignment. Maybe these are arbitrary boundaries, but I do think there is a way to craft the requirements for a research paper that encourages the type of self-exploration Kynard is advocating for while also keeping research centered…if that makes sense. I’m not sure! This is making me self-reflect on my own understanding of what research is and what the desired goals of research should be. I will add that I recently read all of my 1121 student submissions for the letter/speech discourse community assignment and I did see wisps of this “self as text” happening within these pieces. It was incredibly rewarding and fun to read the students write about a community and issue they feel passionate about, while also integrating some research into their work.
“Navigating Genres” and Lowering The Stakes Of Writing
I first assigned Dirk’s article “Navigating Genres” to a class I was teaching at another institution called “Writing Across The Disciplines.” The goal of the class was to have students explore and research how writing varies based on the field they are planning on going into, so recognizing each discipline-specific style of writing as a type of “genre,” as Dirk describes them, worked well. But I realized when I started using the model syllabus this semester for my 1121 course at City Tech that there was a lot of overlap between Dirk’s ideas on genre and discourse communities, the main similarity being that we write and communicate differently in different contexts, and through this we can start to conceptualize concepts like audience and purpose. Through this overlap, I can see the benefits of assigning an article like Dirk’s to a composition course, and how it might work to compliment concepts like discourse communities.
As Dirk states in the piece, one of her goals is to take genre “often quite theoretical in the field of rhetoric and composition” and make it “a bit more tangible.” It is this process of simplifying something typically understood as abstract that could benefit students in composition courses. The biggest takeaway for students from Dirk’s ideas on genre might be a “lowering of the stakes” when engaging with the daunting essay writing process. Partnered with raising genre awareness is a heightened awareness of the fact that we are all writing all the time. When one is able to recognize that, the act of writing on demand becomes less intimidating, as one realizes they are going through the writing process in different ways everyday. With this awareness that we are all writing all the time across genres, students can begin to pay attention to how they already “orient” themselves towards the expectations of genres via text messages, tweets and even asking their roommates to do the dishes. Dirk illustrates this (in terms that I think would resonate with students) when she says “Because you know how these genres function as social actions, you can quite accurately predict how they will function rhetorically: Your joke should generate a laugh, your email should elicit a response, and your updated Facebook status should generate comments from your online friends.” The writing process in a composition class, then, is transformed from some “foreign and weird task that your professor just wants you to do” into a different version, or genre, of what you already know how to do on some level. In this way, students can begin to view themselves as active writers, rather than “non-writers required to take a writing class.”
Furthermore, genre awareness lowers the stakes by letting you know that people have done what you are doing before, and therefore you can look to these previous examples as formulas for success. Dirk quotes Amy Devitt saying, “Genres develop because they respond appropriately to situations that writers encounter repeatedly….once we recognize a recurring situation, a situation that we or others have responded to in the past, our response to that situation can be guided by past responses.” When I’ve taught this reading in the past, the metaphor I use to explain this is building a car. Because writing does not produce “material results,” it can sometimes feel as though there are no directions or instruction manuals that you can follow, in the same way as if you were building a vehicle. Raising genre awareness allows students to see that there are sets of directions available to them when it comes to writing. Once the directions existed to build a car, it would be insane to try and start from scratch! Similarly, students can begin to realize that they do not have to enter the writing process blindly, but can rather identify the genre in which their writing and locate successful “directions” left behind by previous writers.