Interaction of Author, Audience, and Purpose in Multimodal Texts: Students’ Discovery of Their Role as Composer
Contributors: Beth Powell, Kara Poe Alexander, Sonya Borton
School Affiliation: University of Tennessee at Martin, Baylor University, Lipscomb University
Teachers and scholars in Rhetoric and Composition have found students to be highly motivated when confronted with a multimodal assignment (i.e., Anderson 2008; Brooks, et al. 2006; Kuhn 2005). In our research study reported in this essay, nine out of fifteen students (60%) commented on their high levels of motivation for the multimodal project. Part of the reason for this enthusiasm is that students find multimodal composing relevant for both academia and the workplace. Our students said as much in a survey we distributed after they had composed both print-based and multimodal projects. Other reasons they cited for their motivation included the following: some were excited to be creating a project different from the typical essay; some were motivated by the emphasis on creativity they associated with the project; and others, again, found that multimodal composing was relevant for future jobs. Overall, the responses to composing in multiple modes were positive, and several students actually mentioned that they shared their multimodal projects with people beyond the classroom, including parents, friends, and former teachers.
Such positive motivations possibly lead to more meaningful or fruitful learning experiences, thus suggesting that a multimodal project will be a useful tool to teach students complex concepts and skills that we typically aim for in first-year composition, such as rhetorical principles: “audience awareness, exigence, organization, correctness, arrangement, and rhetorical appeals” (Takayoshi and Selfe, 2007, p. 5). However, the high level of motivation and positive feedback we received from students did not necessarily mean that students’ end multimodal products demonstrated a clear understanding of the rhetorical principles we tried to teach, particularly awareness of the relationship between audience, purpose, content, genre, and mode. While some students were quite savvy in moving from print to multimodal—shifting their audience and purpose to fit a different genre and varied modes in successful ways—other students seemed to struggle with the change, especially with their understanding of their writerly stance in relation to the audience and purpose.
This finding, that students may demonstrate lack of facility with multimedia composing, conflicts with conventional wisdom that students, because of their exposure to multiliteracies outside the classroom, will be able to build on multiliteracy skills they already have. For an example of this conventional wisdom, Christopher Walsh, in “Creativity as Capital in the Literacy Classroom: Youth as Multimodal Designers” (2007) detects in the students he teaches a wealth of multimodal knowledge that lies unappreciated in the conventional classroom; instead of ignoring the students’ literacy skills, he builds a pedagogy of multiliteracy to positive effect by creating web-based assignments. He described his pedagogy thus:
- In acknowledging that adolescents could already design multimodal text I sought to allow and encourage them to use their evident competence in school. This was critical because it shifted the focus of literacy instruction in my classroom from students imitating literacy practices that I had modeled, to students becoming ingenious inventors/designers of new genres. (p. 84)
In contrast, while Walsh’s classroom experience was positive, other scholars have looked at the tension that arises when students in college are confronted with a break from the traditional print-based culture of the classroom. Ellen Evans and Jeanne Po (2007), for instance, found that students were uncomfortable when asked to read hypertexts in a literature class because the texts diverged too widely from conventional, familiar representations of literature. Some reasons students cited were they did not like that they were not able to physically hold or mark the texts, and they did not like the open-ended feel of the texts. Yet, would we not expect those in the “Net Generation” to be comfortable with that kind of reading? They are called upon to consume and create these texts on a daily basis. And yet, despite our assumption that multiliteracies and multimodality should be taught in the composition class because they are beneficial and relevant for students, tension still exists when integrating these kinds of projects into the classroom.
Understanding these areas of tension will be beneficial for both composition teachers and their students as they discuss ways audience, purpose, content, genre and mode must shift for different modes, and, ultimately, it can maximize students’ learning of these rhetorical principles. Students’ expectations about a writing class often diverge from instructor expectations, and while multimodal assignments may appeal to students who have a familiarity with posting video on YouTube, social networking through Facebook, and texting, it may be difficult for those students to shape their texts to meet the teacher’s goals, even when those goals are clearly articulated, as Elizabeth Moje (2009) points out. Conversely, students may struggle with the multimodal assignment because it does not fit in with her/his perception of the composition class as a course in alphabetic literacy.
Coupled with these issues surrounding expectations is the reality that multimodal composing is a complex task for students. Not only does multimodal composing ask students to combine various features of audio, video, and print, as well as many different communicative modes (aural, oral, visual, et cetera)—difficult tasks in themselves—it also demands that students learn new technologies. Learning new technologies can be frustrating for students who may view themselves as unskilled with technology, but it can be doubly frustrating for them to be required to use them in a composition course where they may assume that writing has nothing to do with technology or composing texts beyond the alphabetic. In addition to these complexities, multimodal composing is also difficult for students because it requires them to reconsider the rhetorical situation (the relationship between the audience, purpose, content, and author) for texts that do not adhere to their preconceived notions of academic writing. They must discern the relationships between genre, modes, and rhetorical situation and may struggle to find an effective literacy practice for the classroom that bridges those literacy practices beyond school (in their daily lives) with academic literacy practices (at least those practices as defined by the English class). That is, students will have to decide how content and form (organization, layout, typography, etc.) work together to convey meaning and purpose for their audience. One way students, at least in our study, tackle the complexity of multimodal composing is by drawing on what is familiar to them—such as conventions of familiar genres, like movies, public service announcements, and the like.
This article addresses some issues we see in students’ multimodal projects, with the hope that teachers will be better prepared when faced with similar issues to the ones our study reveals. We also present students’ texts with analysis to show how they approached a print profile and a multimodal profile, and how those approaches differed—how students shifted their rhetorical situation, some to good effect and some to negative effect.
The questions that drove our analysis are as follows:
- How do students navigate the complexities and interactions of mode, rhetorical situation, and genre?
- What marked differences exist between student print and multimodal profiles, and what might these differences say about how students view print and multimodal composing?
The Current Study
We collected and analyzed both print and multimodal essays, interviews, and questionnaires from twenty-four students enrolled in first-year composition classes at two different universities: Baylor University, a large private university, and the University of Tennessee at Martin, a small public university. Both universities require two semesters of first-year composition of students in all majors. The essays were composed in two stages: first, students were asked to collect original research about a person, place, or event in their community and then profile that person, place, or event in a traditional print-based essay. Second, once those print essays had been evaluated and returned, they were asked to compose a “multimodal” profile essay using the same original research. This time, though, they were to compose an essay using more than one mode. Students were encouraged to choose any mode(s) and medium(s) they wished, and we did not require them to choose the same focus or message as their print essay. We chose to use the profile assignment because the assignment: (1) involves primary research and observation, which allowed students to include interviews, photos, and footage in their project; (2) encourages students to generate knowledge rather than merely compile facts (Downs & Wardle, 2007); (3) lends itself to a range of modes; and (4) is a popular assignment in first-semester composition courses. Click here to review the print assignment. Click here to review the multimodal assignment.
In the rest of this essay, we will rhetorically analyze Alexander’s and Powell’s students’ print and multimodal compositions to illuminate how students created their projects for different rhetorical situations. These student texts were chosen because they were representative of all the compositions we received and were good examples of the tensions that exist when moving from print to multimodal. Our examination shows that students, without any prompting from the teachers, demonstrated an understanding of how purpose and audience in their projects needed to change depending on the medium, modes, and genre they used. However, in spite of student choice to shift the rhetorical situation, some students were more successful than others at making this move. Our study also finds that students draw on familiar genre conventions when making a shift from print-based to multimodal essay—sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. In the next two sections, we will examine strategies students used in their print essays as well as their multimodal essays, especially as those strategies pertain to audience and purpose of texts. The following results should help teachers better meet the needs of students when composing academic projects in multiple modes.
Print Projects: Reproducing Traditional Conventions
In this section, we talk about the way students composed their print essays, including the visual and verbal cues they incorporated as well as their predominant rhetorical mode of first-person narrative.
Overall, participants composed print essays using similar visual and verbal strategies. In terms of visual cues, each of the essays “looked” alike and included the following characteristics typical of academic essays composed in school:
- MLA-formatted header
- 1-inch margins
- Times New Roman font (size 12)
- Indentation to begin new paragraphs
Some of the essays used additional visual cues such as italics to emphasize points or indentation to cue dialogue. Beyond these, however, essays were visually uniform, following standard practices for academic print essays.
Students also used verbal strategies, particularly the use of first-person and personal observations about the subject, in spite of being instructed in their profile essays to focus on the profile subject and to limit their focus on themselves. Almost two-thirds (64%) of the essays contained personal accounts of their experiences with the profile subject. These personal accounts came in the form of narrative, anecdote, and reflection. Perhaps students’ choice to include firsthand accounts was intended to help the reader have the same experience as the author when they were conducting their observations and interviews. In addition, many of these combined both personal observations and factual information, often switching back and forth between the two. In sum, when writing their print essay, the majority of students used personal, firsthand accounts to appeal to their audiences.
Audiences for the print-based essays often seemed general and vague. For the most part, students wrote informative essays that would appeal to anyone interested in the topic. For example, in the example provided below, Travis writes about the rock-climbing center at his university (click here to read his print essay). His text highlights the positive aspects of the center, and he includes the pronoun “you” throughout the text as a way to help the reader feel like he/she can also participate in rock climbing. In contrast to his print-based essay, Travis’s multimodal essay spends little time, except through images, on the actual place being profiled and instead focuses on technical aspects of rock climbing. Yet, again, his audience appears to be general and vague, rather than specific and concrete. Here is a link to his multimodal essay.
In addition, the majority of students followed typical essay organizational patterns: an introduction that sets the stage and provides the thesis; the development of points throughout the body of the essay; and a conclusion that restates the main idea and thesis. All but one of the essays provided background information or context in the first or second paragraph (instead, this profile began with a story of the author’s encounter with the person she profiled), and in the conclusion, all students either restated the thesis or summarized the main idea. To serve as an example, we return to the piece by Travis profiling the rock-climbing center at his university. Travis’s print essay begins with a brief anecdote that sets up an image of rock climbing; then, it takes us through the “entrance” into the center and ends with an “exit” from the place. In between, the essay provides reasons why the place is well-liked by students as well as other facts and information about the facility.
To summarize, participants did not stray far from typical essay conventions when composing their print projects, in terms of audience, purpose, and visual strategies. The “Evaluation” section on the assignment sheet specifies that the writer provides a focus, synthesizes the field research, reveals the writer’s attitude toward the subject, and presents the scenes and people vividly and concretely. These instructions set up an assignment that will be creative, reflective, and descriptive. As would be expected in a writing class, some students were more successful than others in meeting the assignments’ criteria and producing compelling essays. So, while students ranged in skill level, they generally made familiar composing choices that aligned to the traditional expectations of genre and form in print-based essays.
Multimodal Projects: Shifting Focus, Audience, and Purpose
In the multimodal essays, students were encouraged to choose any mode(s) they wished. Nonetheless, they typically chose to compose in commonly-recognized modes, such as PowerPoint (PPT) slide shows, videos, scrapbooks, and posters (Table 1). Students borrowed from the conventions of those genres in order to construct recognizable messages, messages that would do the job students hoped they would do.
Table 1: Medium of Multimodal Project according to % of Students
|Medium of multimodal project||Percentage of students|
|PowerPoint (PPT) slideshows N=10||42%|
Table 1 shows that, while only 13% and 8% of participants created videos or posters, 42% created PPT slideshows and 36% created scrapbooks. This medium preference does not seem to be based on technology, since scrapbooks use non-electronic or digital materials while PPT uses computer technology. Moreover, in the least chosen mediums, videos used “high-tech” materials and posters used “low-tech” materials. We might then postulate that students chose the medium of the project based on their prior knowledge or familiarity with the genre, although we cannot be sure.
What is interesting about the multimodal essays was that students often changed their focus, audience, and purpose, thus shifting their rhetorical situation to account for the move from print to multimodal. In multimodal essays, the audience sometimes became more public, varied, and concrete, though as we saw in Travis’s rock-climbing essay, some students continued to target a general, vague audience. Furthermore, the purpose expanded beyond informing to instructing and persuading. In fact, students typically presented themselves as “expert,” persuading the audience of the subject by showing that they have a credible ethos to speak on the subject.
Some were more successful at making this shift than others: some students borrowed too heavily on (PPT) genre elements when composing their multimodal essays, so that the end product was not very successful or substantial; other students, though, drew on genre elements (of scrapbooking and video) to good effect. Following is our analysis of the multimodal essays, concluding with a discussion of the implications.
Unsuccessful Use of PPT Slide Shows
When students in this study constructed PPT slideshows, they used the technology in conventional ways, applying templates with familiar layouts and bulleted lists, as well as flashy animations and clip art. However, these conventional choices were actually at odds with their rhetorical situation because PPT is a presentation technology, better at presenting key points than at providing readers with a substantive essay.
Take Susan’s multimodal project, for example. Susan profiled the Leadership in Residence (L-I-R) course she was invited to attend her freshman year. In the print version of the project, her goal is to inform the audience—which again seems to be a general audience— about the program by profiling its various characteristics. As evidence, she explains the purpose of the class, how she was invited to join, and what activities the instructor used in the class to teach certain leadership qualities to the students. Throughout the essay, she includes anecdotes and descriptions of class activities to inform her audience about this program, and she ends with a summary of her main points and a prediction of how this course will benefit her in the future.
Her multimodal essay, however, is quite different in terms of goals and purpose: instead of retaining her main purpose in the print essay of profiling and informing the general audience about this leadership organization’s strategies for teaching leadership, her purpose shifts to define the more abstract concept of leadership. She becomes the resident “expert” and adopts a stance that “teaches” the audience rather than just informs them. Finally, her purpose shifts to accommodate the genre and technology of PPT.
As evidence of these points, let’s look at Susan’s multimodal essay. Susan begins her essay in similar ways to the print by informing the reader by including a statement about leadership and some context about the L-I-R class. After this background information, however, she shifts away from the print essay’s presentation of information. Instead of imparting information from the writer’s observations of the class, she uses the next six slides to present characteristics and skills that the leadership class develops, alongside pictures of iconic leaders and quotations from those leaders. Click here to view selected slides from Susan’s PPT.
These rhetorical choices shift Susan’s purpose from merely profiling to actually instructing her audience about leadership characteristics. Susan’s attempt to reconcile the PPT technology with the initial rhetorical situation of the profile essay creates a text that seems to echo those instructional PPT presentations given by teachers: her slides do not diverge from typical slide layouts that combine bullet points and images. Furthermore, instead of focusing on the specific class as she did in her print essay, she attempts to “teach” her audience about the abstract concept of leadership, which is the focus in the class but a completely different emphasis for the profile. Moreover, the slides combine leadership qualities and images of famous leaders, a combination that taken out of the context of a presentation might be confusing to an audience—thus, the piece does not end up as a stand-alone, substantial essay.
It is possible that Susan’s problems constructing an “essay” with PPT technology is that this technology, according to both Edward Tuft (2005) and Jean-Luc Doumant (2003), reduces complex ideas to simplistic hierarchical bullet points. Unfortunately, students have been exposed to many bad PPT presentations. Susan seems to have struggled with fitting her message to her media in a way she did not struggle with in the more familiar mode of print. She also did not move beyond the traditional genre features of PPT. She used the bullets, for example, because this is the default template and how PPT is often used. It is possible that Susan did not know that PPT had video capabilities.
Successful Shifts in Video Essays and Scrapbooks
In contrast to the difficulties encountered by those who, like Susan, created PPT slideshows, those who created video essays and scrapbooks had more success negotiating the move from print to multimodal essay. Christina’s video essay, for instance, can serve as an example. For her project, Christina conducted field research on a local animal shelter where she spent time volunteering. In her print essay, she explains to her audience why she went to the humane society, what she saw there, and what she learned from her experiences. She utilizes paragraphs to develop her points and employs narrative, dialogue, and description to show her readers what she experienced. Her paper follows basic format for an academic essay (thesis, paragraphs, topic sentences, conventional organization, MLA format, etc.). Her purpose is to inform her readers of what she encountered at the humane society, and her audience is predominantly the teacher.
Christina’s multimodal video essay, however, diverges sharply from her print essay in its purpose: instead of merely informing the readers about a program, in her multimodal essay, she attempts to persuade the audience to care about the overpopulation of abandoned animals. The multimodal genre of the video essay allows her to use a combination of music, images, and text. While she does not actually use moving video—so the movie reads more like a slide show than a film—she uses the affordances of the media to good effect. Her background music is the song “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, evoking a strong pathos. Its lyrics, “Lean on me; when you're not strong; I'll be your friend; I'll help you carry on,” are played simultaneously with images of animals from the Humane Society—cats and dogs in their cages or interacting with volunteers—all the while giving a sense of sadness. These animals are even personalized with their names written across the screen. Interspersed throughout the images are slides containing text—black screens with white text—giving a feeling of stark reality to the meaning within that text, which often reminds readers of the problems experienced in the humane shelter. Click hereto watch Christina’s video.
In addition to the bleak and evocative images, Christina’s video is different in another way from her print essay: rather than relying on her own personal narrative visiting the humane society to drive the essay, she relies on images of the animals and descriptions of what it takes to maintain a humane society. In fact, her personal experiences all but vanish in the video except through certain pictures where she is interacting with cats. Furthermore, instead of reflecting on what she learned, as she does in the print essay, Christina shifts her focus to the audience by including facts about the usefulness of volunteering and by including contact information for the audience. Her video becomes much more activist, calling on her audience to participate in helping improve the lives of the animals featured in the video. Her video resembles activist advertising, such as television commercials asking for donations for certain causes. In sum, rather than writing predominantly an informative and reflective essay that might appeal to a general audience, she composes a message with a new purpose: persuasion.
Where Susan and Christina are similar in their shift from print to multimodal is in how they both change their purpose for their composition: in the print essay, they are informing; in the multimodal essays, they are teaching, and Christina is also persuading. That is, they add an element of “instruction” to their multimodal compositions, which in spite of Susan’s ultimate lack of success, does show some rhetorical awareness. Susan teaches her audience about leadership; Christina teaches her audience about the humane society. Perhaps because Susan loses her initial focus (leadership class) when moving from print to multimodal, she does not manage to compose an effective focus in the PPT; Christina, on the other hand, manages to shift her focus entirely, combining conventions of video, slide-show technology, and genre elements from activist-styled commercials, to compose an explicitly persuasive and compelling document.
This type of shift in rhetorical situation also occurred in the scrapbooks. Kasey, for example, profiled the campus ministry at her church. In her print essay, she provides detailed information about the church’s philosophy, programs, and staff. It is an informative essay that takes us logically through each of these three points, concluding with praise for the church. The major driving force of the print essay is an interview with the church’s pastor. Integrating quotations throughout the piece, the writer paints a very positive picture of the church.
The multimodal version of this profile paints a no less positive picture of the place, but its audience shifts from teacher to peers and her purpose goes from informing to persuading. Kasey’s scrapbook, with its black and gold cover and red ribbon in the binding, resembles a Bible. Inside the book, the pages combine colorful layouts, images, and descriptions of the photographs to show the readers what the church and the college ministry are like. Rather than relying on the interview with the church pastor, however, Kasey gives each page a theme—much like the topics for her paragraphs—including ”The Facilities” with images of the church and directions for getting to the building. So, instead of merely describing the place, Kasey is also encouraging readers to visit the church. Along these same lines, she provides a copy of the church schedule on one of the pages. On another page highlighting the problem of inadequate parking at the church, she advises readers to ”carpool”. She emphasizes the “fun” the college ministry provides for its members on a couple of pages entitled “Highland to Baylor” (tailgating) which features pictures of a parents’ tailgating weekend and of freshmen Fridays, and she writes “Food!” “Family!” “Football Games!” in large green letters next to photographs showing students and parents tailgating. Overall, Kasey’s scrapbook shifts her audience from teacher to college peers; her purpose is no longer merely to inform, but also to persuade, and her focus conveys a sense of fun.
Here are a few additional pages from Kasey’s scrapbook:
As these scrapbook pages indicate, Kasey created an engaging and vibrant scrapbook that does not just record events but also acts to persuade readers to join the college group by showcasing the positive aspects of the church that would appeal to young college students.
Based on our analysis of the print and multimodal student essays we collected, we draw two main conclusions. First, students drew on familiar genres when confronted with composing a multimodal essay, though sometimes those conventions were constraining, which led some students to struggle to create their profiles in multiple modes. Consider Susan’s PPT on her Leadership-In-Residence course. She drew on commonly used PPT conventions, such as bullet points, and her purpose reflects the typical purpose for PPT in education—a teaching tool. As we saw, however, the project failed as a substantial profile. She changed her focus from a description of the class to a “lesson” about leadership and failed to create a stand-alone essay that profiled the course. Our second conclusion is that students shifted elements (audience and purpose in particular) of their rhetorical situation when changing modes. For example, Christina, Susan, and Kasey shift from informing in their print essays to teaching and/or persuading in their multimodal projects. While Christina’s and Kasey’s focus, like Susan’s, changes, they are better able to create more substantial texts that delve more deeply into the topic and create essays that convey a unified message.
One implication from our conclusions is that students will not always be more successful when composing with multiple modes just because they are more familiar with reading multimedia texts. Students may associate print-text essays with academics and teachers; however, when they are asked to compose in multiple modes, they are allowed to branch out and draw on their own personal, lived knowledge of multimodal genres that they are familiar with from television, radio, movies, et cetera. With multimodal essays, students may feel more ownership because of this higher level of familiarity, though this does not always ensure a successful project. While they may be more likely to construct meaningful and purposeful messages that have real social impact—a goal that composition teachers have long had in teaching writing—there will also be students who may have difficulty making this transition, as can be seen in Susan’s Leadership PPT. We may also find that, while students do bring in their own personal, lived knowledge, they may, like Christina, reduce the visibility of the author, making the piece less personal and more focused on the content than the individual composer’s interpretation of the content.
From this project, we learned that as teachers we can talk about the relationships between modes, genre, and rhetorical situation to help our students become more cognizant of the choices they make when composing, while also discussing modal affordances. In addition, we can help students recognize how they can (and do) determine audiences for their multimodal projects, which perhaps can lead them to gain greater ownership of their audience in print modes. The shift in audience in their multimodal essays allows us to show students that they do determine their audience, which they can then apply back to their print essays and explore why they invoked the certain audience in their essay, in hopes of moving them beyond the vague, general (undetermined) audience. Multimodal essays allow us to see how the audience students often envision in print modes can be extended to include people beyond the classroom. Perhaps we need to show them ways these texts can reach various audiences.
Furthermore, as Donna Kain and Elizabeth Wardle (2005) suggest, perhaps we could encourage students to research the genres they are adopting for their multimodal projects. For example, with research into the pros, cons, and popular uses of PPT, Susan may have had more confidence with this technology and created a more effective slideshow. Other students, like Kasey, who knew their genre (scrapbooking) really well, were more successful. By critically examining genre and mode, students could articulate how they are both drawing on and moving beyond conventions to get their message across. This strategy would allow students to pick a genre that will best fit the audience and purpose of their message, and through this research, they may be able to expand their understanding of the ways genre, purpose, and message are intertwined.
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