F.38: Taming the Multimodal Beast: Cultivating Sustainable Programmatic Multimodal Curricular Transformation

Reviewed by Kristi Murray Costello, Arkansas State University (kcostello@astate.edu)

Speakers: Logan Bearden, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, "The Work of Composition: How Outcomes Statements Define (Multimodal) Composition Curricula"
Leigh Gruwell, Auburn University, "Beyond Digital: Building a Capacious Multimodal Composition Curriculum"
Natalie Szymanski, University of Hawai‘i-West O‘ahu, "An Administrative Ecological Heuristic for Sustainable Programmatic Multimodal Transformation"

Like many WPAs, I have been thinking about (and likely over-thinking) the best way to update our First-Year Writing courses to include multimodal composing and/or digital writing, recognizing that our students are composing for mediums beyond the page in and beyond the academy and that, as composition teachers, we can and should help prepare them to do so effectively. But where to start? Do we start with multimodal composing, digital genres, or both? Do we ask, perhaps even require, composition faculty members, from day one of the semester, to integrate lessons and conversations about multimodality and the ways in which purposes, conventions, and audiences change when we go beyond purely alphabetic texts or when written mediums move to digital, or do we encourage a smaller-steps approach, not just allowing, but appreciating the tacked-on multimodal or digital assignment as progress?

Plus, there’s another twist. How can WPAs incorporate multimodality so as not to alienate faculty members whose experience and/or training to date are solely in teaching print-based writing, some of whom are only now inching away from largely current-traditional paradigms? Or, in relation to my own institutional context, how can I require faculty, some of whom aren’t super familiar with even the inner workings of basic technologies, such as email, to develop, instruct, and assess digital writing, particularly when many of these colleagues have worked to understand, and in some cases are still working to understand, why the reading and writing-about-literature approach they employed for decades has now been replaced by a FYW course grounded in rhetorical genre studies? I am further concerned that if I move too big or too quickly, I will lose whatever buy-in I’ve been able to garner in my few years as WPA. However, I also want to be sure not to disappoint or discourage our junior faculty members who have PhDs in Writing Studies, some of whom believe all writing is multimodal composing, others who believe that adapting our methods of composing print texts to teach multimodal composing does violence to the genre.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that if Facebook were to ask me about my program’s current relationship status with multimodality before this panel, I would have answered: "It’s complicated." I was still going back and forth between digital and multimodal and, either way, had no idea where to start and wasn’t sure if our program was ready or, put more aptly, if I was ready for such an undertaking.

Therefore, it was this panel’s promise to "offe(r) strategies for the manageable (emphasis added) cultivation of multimodal curricular transformation in first-year composition programs" that got me up and out of my hotel bed in time for this Friday 8 a.m. panel.

Logan Bearden’s presentation, "The Work of Composition: How Outcomes Statements Define (Multimodal) Composition Curricula," came first, and he began with two important questions:

  1. If composition programs use outcomes statements, how do those outcomes statements define the composition curriculum?
  2. If composition programs use outcomes statements, how do these outcomes statements define multimodality? (If at all)

After validating the use of outcomes as meaningful heuristics, citing both Chris Gallagher (2012) and the CWPA Outcomes Statements as support, he introduced us to his study, which included surveys as well as analysis and coding of program outcomes statements nationwide. He defined four variations of multimodal integration into program outcomes:

  • Multimodality by Addition
  • Multimodality as Digital Literacy
  • Multimodality as Visual-Verbal Rhetoric
  • Multimodality as Material-Rhetorical Knowledge

Among his findings were that "programs were 2x as likely to focus on critical thinking than rhetoric" and that the "history of English Studies closely connected to consumption (close reading)." What was perhaps most surprising about Bearden's findings was the lack of multimodal composition curricula, particularly given the field’s current interest in multimodality.

Up next was Leigh Gruwell’s presentation, "Beyond Digital: Building a Capacious Multimodal Composition Curriculum." She used the works of David Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony Michel (2012), Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes (2014), Jason Palmeri (2012), Jody Shipka (2005; 2009), the New London Group (1996), and others to define and justify the need for teaching multimodality, leading to a discussion of the ways in which WPA scholarship and program outcomes statements often conflate multimodality and digital composition. She verbally provided the following helpful definitions:

  • Multimodality: Communication that depends on multiple modes, maybe digital, maybe not.
  • Digital Composition: Texts tied to specific compositing technologies. 

Though Gruwell illustrated the potential of both multimodality and digital composition to provide transformative literacy experiences, she also explained how and why there are more possible difficulties tied to the integration of digital writing in FYW programs, such as funding, obsolescence, and the need for faculty training and support. To the contrary, she argued "a capacious multimodal curriculum—i.e., a broader understanding of multimodality—is not tied to any specific (digital) writing technology, but is instead invested in exploring the rhetorical affordances, constraints, and effectiveness of various composing materials and technologies," listing access, attunement to local conditions, rhetorical flexibility, and potential for transformation among the potential benefits. Gruwell was sure to point out that she is not anti-digital, but instead that digital is simply not always the best route for writing programs looking to update their curricula. In her conclusion, she showed how a limited understanding of multimodality and/or an attachment to digital composition can provide obstacles for, or even prevent, curricular transformations.

The final panelist was Natalie Szymanski. Her talk, "An Administrative Ecological Heuristic for Sustainable Programmatic Multimodal Transformation," explored best practices for implementing multimodality at a programmatic level, stemming from her 2013 research project in which she worked from (and added to) Richard Selfe’s (2004) categories from Sustainable Computer Environments: Cultures of Support in English Studies and Language Arts as a means of analyzing the writing programs of three public institutions in Florida. Though her study yielded interesting findings regarding the guiding administrative philosophies of the programs, it was her ecological approach to the WPA’s task of shifting to multimodality, adapted from theories and frameworks provided by Rita Malenczyck's A Rhetoric for Writing Program Administrators (2013) and Michelle Ballif, Christian Weisser, Mary Jo Reiff, and Anis Bawarshi's Ecologies in Writing Programs: Program Profiles in Context (2015), that was of most interest to me. Szymanski developed a constellation of ecologies to illustrate the stickiness, interconnectedness, and complexity of multimodality and provided pragmatic strategies and steps for curricular transformation. Her ecologies included:

  • Goals and Outcomes
  • Curricula
  • Pedagogical Training

Through this framework, she furthered the idea that incorporating multimodality should not be tacking on a digital assignment and how/why multimodality needs to be a consideration from the beginning, in part because of the important distinction of digital versus rhetorical approaches and the need for the latter. Similar to her co-panelists, Szymanksi urged WPAs to sit down with faculty, talk with them about what multimodality means, and provide training before jumping into curriculum changes.

This well-prepared, cohesive panel inspired me to make plans for integrating multimodality (as opposed to digital writing) into FYW, provided me with clear considerations and strategies for doing so (particularly in regard to outcomes statements and prerequisites), and allayed some of my concerns. Bearden, Gruwell, and Szymanski were engaging, insightful, incredibly helpful, and acutely aware of, sensitive to, and open about the potential obstacles, politics, and pitfalls of not just incorporating multimodality into FYW, but also the obstacles, politics, and pitfalls of program development and WPA in general. I left this panel enthusiastic and energized with three Google Doc pages full of notes, which included the following highlights:

  1. Based on Bearden's analysis of program outcomes statements, I was able to see that my program isn’t as far behind as I’d feared (and the same probably goes for yours).
  2. Digital does not mean transformative (Gruwell).
  3. The idea of writing programs as ecologies is not merely an apt metaphor. Writing programs ARE ecologies, which means they are interconnected, always in flux, complex, and emergent (Szymanski, paraphrased from Reiff et. al., 2015, p. 4).

I also exited with lots of tangible ideas, one of which—a six-part professional development series on multimodality based on a broadly implementable heuristic to be developed by me and the panelists from this session for the 2017-2018 academic year—has already been funded by my university, and a proposal for a CCCCs 2018 panel about this new partnership, the heuristic, and our progress.

Ultimately, Taming the Multimodal Beast: Cultivating Sustainable Programmatic Multimodal Curricular Transformation was certainly worth the early rise from my comfy hotel bed, and Bearden, Gruwell, and Szymanski's works are certainly worth a read for anyone considering integrating multimodality into their writing program. 


Alexander, Jonathan, & Rhodes, Jacqueline (2014). On multimodality: New media in composition studies. Urbana, IL: Conference on College Composition and Communication/National Council of Teachers of English.

Ballif, Michelle, Weisser, Christian R., Reiff, Mary Jo, & Bawarshi, Anis S. (2015). Ecologies of writing programs: Program profiles in context. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

Gallagher, Chris W. (2012). The trouble with outcomes: Pragmatic inquiry and educational aims. College English, 75(1), 42–60.

Malenczyk, Rita. (Ed.). (2013). A rhetoric for writing program administrators. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 60–92.

Palmeri, Jason (2012). Remixing composition: A history of multimodal writing pedagogy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Selfe, Richard. (2004). Sustainable computer environments: Cultures of support in English studies and language arts. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Sheridan, David M., Ridolfo, Jim, & Michel, Anthony J. (2012). The available means of persuasion: Mapping a theory and pedagogy of multimodal public rhetoric. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

Shipka, Jody (2005). A multimodal task-based framework for composing. College Composition and Communication, 57(2), 277–306.

Shipka, Jody (2009). Negotiating rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological difference: Evaluating multimodal designs. College Composition and Communication, 61(1), 342–366.

Created by cheryl. Last Modification: Sunday 14 of January, 2018 04:41:53 UTC by JenniferCarter.