CCCC 2014 Reviews

A.22 "Multimodal Composing: Perspectives from across the Disciplines"

Reviewed by Laurence José (josel@gvsu.edu)

Chair: Brent Simoneaux, North Carolina State University

Brent Simoneaux, North Carolina State University, NC,”Mapping the Landscape of Multimodality”
Keon Pettiway, North Carolina State University, NC, “Defining Multimodality across the Disciplines”
Robin Snead, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, NC, “Broadening Cross-Contextual Perspectives on Multimodality.””

As part of the “Interdisciplinary, Multidisciplinary, and Cross-Contextual Perspectives” cluster, this panel offered ways to complicate our views on multimodality in the classroom by adopting a cross-disciplinary perspective. By reporting on the preliminary findings of a research project aiming at learning how teachers from others disciplines use and talk about multimodality in their classrooms, the speakers invited the audience to see past their disciplinary borders and to engage in cross-contextual and cross-disciplinary conversations.

Speaker 1: Keon Pettiway, “Defining Multimodality Across the Disciplines”
The form of the presentation itself reflected the panel’s endeavor to use a dialogical approach for expanding our understanding of multimodality. Hence, as way of introduction, Keon Pettiway turned to the audience and asked them what they expected to learn from this specific session. Several audience members immediately raised their hands and expressed interest for learning more about:

  • How to define of multimodality
  • What other disciplines use multimodality and how do they define it
  • What we can learn from other disciplines
  • The required level of training to teach multimodal composing
  • How to counter potential resistance when proposing multimodal composing courses
  • How to support multimodality in the writing center
  • What students need to learn in a multimodal composing course
  • How can it help the field connect with the STEM disciplines

This conversational approach set the tone for the rest of the presentation. Even though not all the questions were addressed during the presentation, this interactive introduction allowed for a more discussion-based session, which is always nice when the audience is composed of teachers who want to learn new pedagogical strategies and bring knowledge back to their classroom. After getting the audience’s input, Pettiway noted the wide range of questions multimodality raises for the writing teachers and argued for the necessity to understand its theoretical and practical underpinnings. He continued by giving us a pretty comprehensive overview of how multimodality has emerged and is used today in composition. He referred, among others, to Cindy Selfe & Gail Hawisher's (2004) call for moving beyond the sole teaching of “alphabetic composition” and to the New London Group’s (1996) focus on multiliteracy for preparing students to the reality of contemporary practices of communication. Pettiway also noted that other disciplines participate in preparing students for communicating outside of the classroom. As such, multimodal assignments are not limited to the composition classroom but are used, and have been used for a long time, in disciplines such as communication studies, arts, architecture, and theater. Pettiway’s remarks worked well as a means to invite the audience to think about multimodality beyond the writing classroom. He concluded by noting that, even though multimodality is ubiquitous and certainly not confined to the field of composition, not much research has been done on where disciplines diverge or converge regarding the pedagogical use of multimodal composing practices.

Speaker 2, Brent Simoneaux, “Mapping the Landscape of Multimodality”
This call for expanding our lens of inquiry was taken up by Brent Simoneaux. In his presentation, Simoneaux reported on the preliminary findings of an ongoing collaborative project that explores how and why teachers from other disciplines use multimodal assignments in their classroom. The primary research methods included a combination of surveys and interviews. Specifically, Simoneaux and his collaborators distributed surveys asking teachers from other departments to describe the writing assignments they have their students complete. Although the analysis is still at its preliminary stages—they collected 68 faculty responses so far—interesting elements emerge from the surveys. For instance, Simoneaux noted that formal academic writing without visuals is still considered by many the most emblematic writing assignment. Also, multimodal assignments are most typically assimilated into presentations that include both oral and visual components. Simoneaux explained that, beyond general quantitative elements, the surveys had also interesting qualitative lessons. Not only did the surveys give them more information about why instructors use multimodal assignments, and what some of their struggles are, but they also helped them determine whom they should interview. For the presentation, Simoneaux focused on the results of two interviews: one conducted with a teacher from the Department of Communication, and the other with a teacher from the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences. Each interview revealed that teachers use fairly complex multimodal assignments in their classrooms; for instance, students were asked to develop training sessions webinars for a fictional organization; others worked on making short videos on nutrition resources for the public. The interviews also showed that the primary goal of such multimodal projects is to give students experience in communicating with audiences outside of the classroom. Through his recounting of the interviews, Simoneaux made it clear that what happens in these classes and the focus on audience, research, and drafting is very reminiscent of process pedagogy and rhetoric. In other words, Simoneaux really gave us a sense of the connections that exist across disciplines and pedagogical practices, even when the terms used to describe the assignments and the work of students may differ from one discipline to another.

Speaker 3, Robin Snead, “Broadening Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Multimodality”
This idea of engaging with and learning from other disciplines was further developed by Robin Snead. Snead’s intervention was centered around the idea that “we don’t know enough about what other people know and do, and we don’t know what happens in other disciplines.” She began her presentation with the question:“so, what have we learned from our research?” She continued by noting that, if their research left them with even more questions to explore regarding the definition, scope, and function of multimodal projects, they already learned some interesting lessons. For instance, through their research, they learned that:

  • Some instructors seem reluctant to talk about their multimodal work in the classroom. Snead attributed that reticence to a possible lack of common vocabulary to engage in interdisciplinary settings.
  • Visuals, such as charts, graphs, and other figures still count among the most typical elements to be recognized as multimodal.
  • Multimodal projects are pretty common, but there is still a solid balance with alphabetic text assignments.
  • There are admissions of surprises regarding what students know, and often do not know, about software and hardware.
  • Many teachers in other disciplines still regard the work of writing teachers as correcting grammar and mechanics.
  • Teachers in other disciplines may not need the support of compositionists to teach multimodal assignments. They are already doing it and have been doing it for quite a while. Even more so, teachers from other disciplines do not look at the composition scholars as the experts of multimodal work.

Building on these observations, Snead called for engaging in conversations with other disciplines to complicate and refine our approaches to multimodality and writing in general. To this end, she invoked Elizabeth Allan’s (2007) "Multimodal rhetorics in the disciplines" that explores the use of multimodal composing practices in the field of architecture. Snead noted that multimodal work is present in different disciplines because of its relevance in these disciplines. As composition teachers, Snead argued, we also need to become more aware of what exists beyond our disciplinary borders so that we can articulate better the function and use of multimodal projects in our own classroom and share our perspectives on writing with people from outside our field.

Overall, this presentation was good reminder for composition teachers to see past their disciplinary borders and work on creating spaces that acknowledge and engage with cross-contextual perspectives. Multimodal composing practices are used in another disciplines and classrooms. Though the language used to talk about it may be different, multimodal work exists because it serves a greater situational aim. Therefore, as suggested by the presenters, it may be time to think of rhetoric as the frame to establish common ground across the disciplines. And why not shift from “Writing Across the Disciplines” to “Rhetoric across the Disciplines?”


Allan, Elizabeth G. (2007). Multimodal rhetorics in the disciplines: Available means of persuation in an undergraduate architecture studio. Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning, and Academic Writing, 11. Retrieved from http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/articles/allan2013.cfm

The New London Group. (1996). A pedgagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), pp. 60-92.

Selfe, Cynthia L., & Hawisher, Gail E. (2004). ''Literate lives in the information age: Narratives of literacy from the United States. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. 

CCCC 2014 Review1996s

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