Author Archives: Prof. Schanzer

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.



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.



Research Reflections

When I was in grad school, I developed a healthy obsession with Virginia Woolf. I had taken a class called “Virginia Woolf as a Public Intellectual” at City College and from there descended down a very productive and exciting rabbit hole. Funnily enough, the paper I wrote for that class was on small presses and not even particularly focused on Hogarth, her press with Leonard. Still, from that point on, I bought and read the volumes of her diaries, her letters, obviously all of the fiction, and many biographies. I had a little book that listed all of the Hogarth publications and their editions, and spent a good deal of time imagining her laying type at her dinner table. I bought my own Adana table-top press and took classes at the Center for Book Arts in the garment district. I never wrote another formal paper for school about her, but that class and very charismatic professor got me started on the deep dive, which occasionally flares up to this day.

This same thing has happened around Dostoevsky, P.K. Dick, Russian science fiction, classical rhetoric, the illustrator Virgil Finlay, and others. My own propensity for research, open-ended and for its own sake, is a through-line in my life.


I am guilty of some of things that I disparage in the teaching of research! In the past, I have taught research techniques using a very conservative approach. To be honest, and in my defense, I went to a school without grades for twelve years—not quite Summerhill, but with some counter-cultural propensities—and have at times over-compensated for my own free-form proclivities. I was not taught to write using even theoretical templates and in fact have a naturally anarchic brain, and I did suffer for it for a bit when I first got to college. I had to learn for the first time at seventeen how to be “normal,” and many of the aspects of my style and technique that had been rewarded as a kid became, outside of my college creative writing classes, a liability.

I’m excited to create assignments that incorporate “curiosity and delight,” but fearful for my students who cling to the surety of form and what they’ve known already. With that being said, I think the first step to this is making it clear that their grades won’t suffer if they take risks. That’s really what the engaged students worry about. Once it’s clear that they’ll be rewarded for striking out on their own, and that the process, not just the formal end product, will be emphasized in grading, I think that the ideas mentioned in the essay, and in the 1101 curriculum, can be embraced.

Dirk creates a likeable, breezy tone here, and seems flexible and easily amused. I’ll bet that if she’s in the classroom, her students like her. She uses many engaging examples throughout—a ransom note, the Onion—and models for us the kind of language and ideas that work well with students.

My favorite part, for personal reasons, was when she called out that essay writing formula (the standard Baker keyhole, basically) drilled into students in many high schools. When it is really adhered to, it results in lockstep writing, and it seems actively to prevent personal expression. As she says about it, “But looking back, what resulted from such formulas was not very good; actually, it was quite bad.” I taught high school English back in my twenties, and the way we were supposed to prepare students for the Regents looked exactly like the bad writing that Kirk describes. I always felt that the tactic was based on the fear that if we tried to communicate something more elemental about writing, the students would be neither prepared for the Regents, nor would they be able to create the more original type of writing. Not teaching them to cling to the formula might leave them drowning. Dirk throws out that idea summarily!

I like this way of looking at genre and rhetoric. The widening of rhetorical ideas in the classroom seems especially helpful as a way to connect with the students, and by teaching them what is essentially a form of careful reading, we can help our students to be more effective, thoughtful, and alert in all their communications. I feel like my students will relate to this because of its practical implications, but I like it too because of its artistic ones.

Dirk includes a quote about the “homely discourses” that we’re involved in every day, and grounding what we do in the idea that genre is ubiquitous feels like an effective approach. Teaching genre awareness feels like a sharpening of the approach to teaching ENG 1101.