Multimodal Thinking and Writing

Any educator would agree, I think, that course planning is a perpetual exercise of trial and error. For me, this has been especially true when it comes to finding innovative and dynamic ways to  engage students in reading, thinking, and writing about academic texts. Part of the challenge in my case is that I teach about language, a social practice about which everyone has an opinion, and media, a ubiquitous mechanism of social interaction. Abstract ideas about what language and media are and how people use them are so naturalized that it can be difficult to facilitate critical consciousness of them, let alone their deconstruction through the discipline of anthropology. Since starting the WAC fellowship, I’ve been learning about how to encourage deep engagement with the course material through consistent and diverse writing assignments. As I prepare to teach about language and media again next semester, I’ve been thinking specifically about the affordances of multimodality in the thinking and writing process, especially after almost two years of teaching and learning online due to the pandemic.  

Over the past couple years, I’ve taught a class called Texting & Talking, a linguistic and media anthropology course that explores the differences between face-to-face and mediated communication, and the role of media in language and vice versa. We study everything from radio talk to gossip columns to breaking up with your partner via social media. As you might imagine, students usually have lots to say about these topics. Our in-class discussions are usually quite lively and students often share interesting personal anecdotes about how they and their communities use language on and offline (which I welcome and value!). However, I’ve noticed that this level of deep engagement does not always translate the students’ formal writing assignments, in which I ask them to decipher and make arguments through anthropological concepts. This has been an ongoing struggle for me as I teach, revise, and teach again. 

In an effort to address this disconnect towards the end of my first semester teaching the course, I switched things up and created a final assignment that mirrored a typical final research paper, but that could be completed in any modality the student chose. I provided examples, such as a formal presentation, a letter, a podcast episode, a video essay, a recorded conversation between students, a face-to-face conversation with me, a series of Tweets, or a typical written assignment, but the students were encouraged to propose other modalities that aligned with their preferred method to communicate the information. While there were specific requirements (references to course material, an analysis of a mediated or face-to-face linguistic routine, etc.), the assignment was open-ended and shaped by each student’s interest. My idea was that breaking away from the rigid structure of a final paper might give the students the opportunity to express the clarity I witnessed during class sessions, and I thought this approach modeled what I preached about complicating certain conventions of language use. Some students ran with the opportunity and crafted interesting and well-developed multimodal research assignments; for others, the open-ended structure and creative invitation caused confusion and anxiety and many ultimately chose to write a typical paper. I realized throughout the process that the assignment was far too unstructured to yield the deep critical engagement I had envisioned, and that I hadn’t provided my students with the proper tools to complete the assignment successfully.

Halfway through the second iteration of the course, the pandemic hit and my course became asynchronous, which presented obvious challenges to constructing a sense of community and creating online space for students to discuss and learn from each other. Although I imagined this would largely happen through written text given the circumstances, I looked for ways to diversify class participation. I found a free, web-based blogging platform called Padlet that ended up being the perfect virtual space for us to interact. Each week I posed two questions to the class, one about that week’s readings and another inviting students to share their personal experiences with the same topic. What was particularly fruitful about using Padlet was that it allows for text, audio, video, and image, and participants can interact through likes and comments. So, although it was a private site that only our class had access to, it looked more like a social media platform than a formal class discussion board. I encouraged my students to lean in to what that meant for their writing on the Padlet; I explicitly allowed for informal writing, emojis, internet slang, memes, TikToks, or any other genre of language that helped the student express their response to the week’s prompt. The results were exciting. The students took the opportunity to be creative in their class participation, and many of the students who were timid in person were more vocal and participatory online. Throughout the semester I was impressed by how this constant engagement with the course material through writing and/or multimodal creation had clear implications on the students’ ability to articulate complex anthropological analyses about media and language. Even so, I was still left with the sensation that I overemphasized informal writing, and my assignments did not encourage enough development in their formal writing skills.

As I prepare the next version of Texting & Talking, which I’ll teach next semester, I am using WAC pedagogy to address my concerns from each of the previous classes in my syllabus design. I’m specifically looking to scaffold the assignments in ways that not only equally prioritize informal and formal writing, but see them as integrally related. To do so, I’ve created two semester-long writing assignments: a reading log, which requires formal writing practice through weekly prompts about the readings, and a media journal, which is designed to practice informal and multimodal writing through ethnographic data collection. The former is basically a formal notebook, where each student will have documented, written engagement with each week’s course material. The latter is an informal and multimodal guided ethnographic field notebook, where the students are asked to provide thick descriptions of their media usage (including screenshots, links, videos, accounts, etc.) throughout the semester. The two combined are the basis for the students’ final assignment, which is an autoethnography about how each student uses mediated and face-to-face language. The reading log will help the students construct the literature review section of the ethnography, and the media journal is the data they will analyze linguistically. I believe these continuous assignments will encourage and incentivize students to prioritize the process of writing over the product and improve their writing throughout the semester as a result. And if they don’t, or not as much as I’d hoped, I’ll have to try again! 

WAC pedagogy teaches us how to use writing to promote critical thinking and facilitate deeper student engagement, and provides us with pedagogical tools to implement these ideas in our classrooms. I’m interested in thinking about how multimodal thinking and writing can enhance WAC pedagogy, especially in the context of our current moment when our reliance on mediated forms of communication and knowledge has intensified and our student populations have shifted. In a classroom of digital natives and media addicts (myself included), how can the incorporation of multimodal thinking and writing invite a different kind of student participation? What do we, as educators, have to lose, if anything, by embracing seemingly informal, mediated forms of knowledge production? What might our students manage to gain?

One Reply to “Multimodal Thinking and Writing”

  1. I admire Anthony’s creative and ambitious attempts to assign homework in multimodal forms. Considering the course Anthony teaches is about language and media, it is interesting and makes sense to embrace different media in assignments. I share the feelings with Anthony that it is difficult to take a less travelled path in a curriculum design. In response to Anthony’s thought-provoking post, I write some of my assumptions and reflections, and welcome further discussion about this topic of “multimodal thinking and writing.”

    (1) Formal academic writing is a set of skills that can be taught and need to be taught. Formal writing needs attentive guidance/feedback and practice.

    In his post “Teaching Writing: Nobody Knows the Rules, Just Write,” Brian argues that not any rules “are necessary for good writing” and that instead of looking for rules, we should “just write.” He lists writing rules such as “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”; “avoid run on sentences”; “avoid repetitive phrasings,” and points out that these rules are sometimes not followed in some pieces of great writing. I agree with Brian that we should not keep looking for rules, which may inhibit us from writing. Forming a good, regular writing habit in different contexts is important. I’m with Brian that we should use writing to learn and explore.

    Brian quotes that there may not be specific rules to follow in novel writing (some creative writing programs may disagree!), but rules, especially in teaching academic writing, I think, are sometimes needed. These rules would guide students and let them know which direction they should go to improve their writing.

    The rules I’m thinking of are more than just grammatical ones that are given in the above examples. In my view, students need to learn certain rules, or academic conventions, for example, what the elements of academic writing are (e.g., see Gordon Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay”), what the components of a thesis are, how to better structure an essay and make better transitions from one paragraph to another, etc. Students in class who don’t learn these “rules” would feel at a loss when writing a long research paper. I consider these rules more like scaffoldings or templates that would better structure their thinking and writing. Only after they learn these rules, can they be more aware of the effects when a writer breaks certain rules. Only after learning them, may experienced writers take liberty to break rules or conventions to achieve certain intended effects.

    In the case of Anthony’s course Texting & Talking, Anthony observes that the deep engagement in class (“students often share interesting personal anecdotes about how they and their communities use language on and offline”) does not lead to good formal academic writings. I had students who shared “personal anecdotes” in class as well—a good sign showing students’ interest and engagement in class materials. It involves a kind of associative thinking that is important in learning. But sharing in an informal way, I think, is quite different from making an argument or doing an analysis of a text/data. I consider the lively in-class engagement and the good formal academic writing as two different modes of thinking and delivering/writing, and each, especially the latter, requires deliberate practice and attentive guidance.

    Formal writing, in my view, requires a careful design of the prompt that provides specific criteria and rubric. As presented in our faculty workshop, it is problem-oriented, needs to present an argument, and sets up audience and genre, etc. (reference: Bean’s Engaging Ideas, chapter 6 “Formal Writing Assignments”; PPT of our workshop “Effective Assignment Design”). And above all, as many other skills, it needs practice and requires instructor’s attentive feedback and guidance. In my writing-intensive courses, students submit three formal papers throughout the semester. It is not until they get to their second or sometimes third paper that they begin to show what they’ve learned in writing a formal paper.

    In lieu of a final research essay, Anthony offers the assignment that “could be completed in any modality the student chose,” such as “a formal presentation, a letter, a podcast episode, a video essay, a recorded conversation between students, a face-to-face conversation with me, a series of Tweets, or a typical written assignment.” Based on the previous discussion, I would consider this assignment requires additional guidance and criteria / rubric that may vary according to different media. Students may not feel comfortable as they don’t practice such formal assignments in a different modality before. Elements involved in other media would be different from the elements of academic writing. It also needs to create a new way of scaffolding to break down the final project in a particular medium, so that students can learn how to deliver it in that medium.

    For example, delivering a formal presentation requires one to practice formal delivery skills which may not be emphasized enough in class previously. Students may still have to write out an argumentative essay first, or at least an outline with careful planning. It needs practice.

    Another thing to think about is what purposes are for each assignment. Does the assignment emphasize associative thinking? Or creative skills? Or formal academic writing skills? Assignment in different modality may highlight different purposes, though some are overlapping.

    (2) Instructors need to mark a boundary for students to learn.

    As stated above, students need certain rules to learn. Besides, assignments also need a boundary, especially for students who are learning. Sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming and make students at a loss. A work that can be completed in any modality seems that too many choices are offered and yet not enough practice in a particular medium is done.

    In a small group of our first WAC professional development meeting, Karen shared one of her teaching assignments, a research paper prompt, in which she provides students with a specific debatable argument and lets students pick up a side. She also offers some articles for students to review. In contrast to assigning a final research paper of the topic students choose, (which I previously did, and sometimes I do not achieve the desired effects,) Karen limits students’ choices, and she believes that in such a way students would get involved more deeply in writing an argumentative essay. Indeed, this way may sound too “rigid,” not “open-ended” at all. But we also need to consider students’ capability and time (a freshman’s capability would be different from an experienced senior’s). In creating assignments, we should keep in mind that sometimes certain assignments may look easy for us, but not easy for students.

    This raises the question: how many choices do students have in a course?

    Modality may grab students’ attention and students may not be able to notice that they still need to produce an argumentative product (writing/ presentation/ talk / …) behind different modality of the final assignment.

    (3) Would using different media shift students away from practicing formal academic writing?

    I think this question can be resolved by thinking about the purposes or goals of the course. If the goal is to enhance formal academic writing skills, then the best practice would be to write more in a formal style. Using different medium puts an emphasis on different purposes.

    We also need to think about how to build the connection between media and the formal argumentative work that we would like students to develop. Or do we need to?

    (4) Accessibility
    I think offering different modality to achieve certain goals can be a great example of accessibility. Some students are more attuned to visual images, some like more oral presentations, and some would prefer putting down thoughts in words. It offers choices so that students may find their strength to deliver their product.

    (5) Multi-modality could prompt meta reflection. In addition to allowing different forms, such as “informal writing, emojis, internet slang, memes, TikToks, or any other genre of language,” maybe we could take a step further to ask students reflect on how the delivery changes if they chose a different medium.

    (6) We have formal writing and informal writing. Do we also have formal talk and informal talk? A formal letter and an informal casual letter? Other media does not necessarily mean “informal.” For each option, we need to provide students with more context and conventions to learn and practice.

    Overall, I like Anthony’s frank and deep reflection on his teaching—what works and what doesn’t work—and appreciate his efforts to improve students’ engagement and critical thinking. I hope Anthony has a fruitful and rewarding semester in teaching his writing-intensive course this semester and I look forward to hearing from Anthony and others as well, and welcome more discussion!

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