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December 14, 2017 Previous day Next day

Everyone has a secret vice, I suppose, and mine is reading online newspapers like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education—as in multiple times every day. I admit that there is something compulsive about the matter, something that goes beyond the unquestionable usefulness of such reading for someone who is both a university professor and a cultural semiotician, something, I'm afraid, that is akin to the all-too-human attraction to things like train wrecks. This might surprise anyone who does not read these news sources: after all, wouldn't one expect there to be nothing but a kind of staid blandness to higher education reporting? Tedium, not harum-scarum, would seem to be the order of the day on such sites.


But no, in these days when signs of the culture wars are to be found everywhere in American society, even the higher-ed news beat is not immune to the kind of squabbling and trolling that defaces so much of the Internet. The situation has gotten so bad that the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education have discontinued the comments section for most of its news stories, while Inside Higher Ed has polled its readers as to whether it should do the same. So far, IHE has decided to continue with posting reader comments (though it just shut down the comments section responding to an article on a recent controversy at Texas State University), and although I think it would be better for the overall blood pressure of American academe to just scrap the comments section altogether, on balance I hope that that doesn't happen. Here's why.


Because for the purposes of cultural semiotics, the comments sections on the Internet, no matter where you find them, offer invaluable insights into what is really going on in this country. Unlike formal surveys or polls—which, though they claim scientific precision, can never get around the fact that people, quite simply, often lie to pollsters and other inquisitors—online comments, commonly posted in anonymity, reveal what their authors really think. It isn't pretty, and it can make your blood boil, but it can get you a lot closer to the truth than, say, all those surveys that virtually put Hillary Clinton in the White House until the votes were actually counted.


Among the many things that the comments on IHE can tell us is that the days when we could assume that what we do on our university campuses stays on our university campuses are over. Thanks to the Internet, the whole world is watching, and, what is more, sharing what it sees. This matters a great deal, because even though the sorts of things that make headline news represent only a very small fraction of the daily life of the aggregated Universitas Americus, these things are magnified exponentially by the way that social media work. Every time a university student, or professor, says something that causes a commotion due to an inadequate definition of the speaker's terms, that statement will not only be misconstrued, it will become the representative face of American academia as a whole—which goes a long way towards explaining the declining levels of trust in higher education today that are now being widely reported. This may not be fair, but all you have to do is read the comments sections when these sorts of stories break, and it will be painfully clear that this is what happens when words that mean one thing in the context of the discourse of cultural studies mean quite something else in ordinary usage.


Linguistically speaking, what is going on is similar to the days of deconstructive paleonymy:  that is, when Derrida and DeMan (et al.) took common words like "writing" and "allegory" and employed them with significantly different, and newly coined, meanings. This caused a lot of confusion (as, for example, when Derrida asserted in Of Grammatology, that, historically speaking, "writing" is prior to "speech"), but the confusion was confined to the world of literary theorists and critics, causing nary a stir in the world at large. But it is quite a different matter when words that are already loaded with socially explosive potential in their ordinary sense are injected into the World Wide Web in their paleonymic one. Another part of the problem lies in the nature of the social network itself. From Facebook posts that their writers assume are private (when they aren't), to Twitter blasts (which are character-limited and thus rife with linguistic imprecision), the medium is indeed the message. Assuming an audience of like-minded readers, posters to social media often employ a kind of in-group shorthand, which can be woefully misunderstood when read by anyone who isn't in the silo. So when the silo walls are as porous as the Internet can make them, the need for carefully worded and explained communications becomes all the more necessary. This could lead to lecture-like, rather boring online communication, but I think that this would be a case of boredom perpetrated in a good cause. The culture wars are messy enough as they are: those of us in cultural studies can help by being as linguistically precise, and transparent, as we can.


During the last two months, I’ve visited three universities, where I had a chance to sit in on Writing Center sessions and talk with undergrads. I’ve also spent time in two high schools visiting Bread Loaf School of English teachers. What I didn’t remark on at the time—when I was 100% engaged with individual students—but note now, in hindsight, is that the high school students seemed to be doing more multimodal composing than the college students, at least in their class assignments. Now I’m wondering what evidence we have of the percentage of writing students do (in high school and in college) that is multimodal—that is, writing that engages a range of media as opposed to the traditional print-only assignment. I don’t have an answer to this question right now, though I’m doing some research and will report if and when I turn up compelling information.


In the meantime, I think it’s worth thinking or re-thinking assignment sequences in first-year writing to ask how many of them call for multimodal practices, how many do not, and why these decisions have been made. At one school I visited, the WPA told me that upper administration frowned on multimodal assignments because they think the assignments can’t be “reliably scored.” Another WPA said that his teaching staff is divided on the issue, with older staff favoring traditional print-based assignments while younger staff (the smaller group) leaned toward multimodal assignments. My sense is that at Stanford students do multimodal writing in their writing and rhetoric classes, but in most other classes the assignments are still the traditional print essay.


More important than the ratio of single-mode to multimodal writing, though, is the question of the strengths and weaknesses of each, or more specifically of how each helps develop student writing and helps support student writers’ rhetorical knowledge and strategies. The longitudinal study of Stanford student writing known as the Stanford Study of Writing found a strong relationship between performance, digital engagement, and heightened audience awareness. In other words, when students prepared multimodal compositions and then performed them (delivery, delivery, delivery!), they demonstrated stronger connections to their audiences and stronger understanding of their rhetorical situations. We have also found that asking students to “remediate” a piece of writing—to turn it from written medium to one or more other media—enhances their rhetorical awareness.


These findings suggest, to me at least, that the move to more carefully crafted multimodal opportunities for student work, and especially the opportunity to perform or deliver that work, is a very good one. That’s why I’m focusing more on multimodal writing in textbooks like Everything’s an Argument and The Everyday Writer, and why we support Multimodal Mondays on this blog. If you have a favorite multimodal writing assignment, we’d be very glad to showcase it! Comment below to share your favorite assignment, or message Leah Rang for more information on how to become a guest blogger on Multimodal Mondays.


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