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Today's guest blogger is Tiffany Mitchell a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

 

When assigning multimodal assignments, instructors may feel overwhelmed by all the options and choose to use simple templates that can limit students’ creativity. Alternatively, some instructors may offer too many format options and end up with a hodgepodge of assignments, rubrics/expectations, and file types that can confuse students. At different times, I've fallen into both categories, but I’ve learned that the most effective and engaging projects find middle ground between being limitless and being limited. The important thing is that the instructor is comfortable with what’s assigned and that students have fun and learn the skills and purposes behind these assignments.

 

Here are some ways to travel the multimodal middle ground…

 

1) Let them fly free but know where they’re flying. As with any assignment, students should have enough room for free expression but enough structure and guidance to keep them on task. Even with carefully crafted assignments, students can misinterpret instructions and go off the beaten path. The best way to establish middle ground for this is to do check-ins. Just like the writing process includes check-ins via drafting, revising, and redrafting, the multimodal process should have the same:

  • Discuss students’ multimodal plans before they begin designing.
  • Ensure that they understand the expectations and are working towards them.
  • Check-in with them at regular intervals throughout the project to make sure their work is still on task.
  • See if any design plans or outcomes have changed or if they need help with the technology they are using.

The goal of check-ins is to maintain a sense of what students’ multimodal creations will look like in their finished states, so that there are no bizarre, inappropriate, or completely off-track designs.

 

2) Encourage exploration but know how to help. We’re really good at teaching students how to critically think, read, and write because we’re really good at these things ourselves. The same should be true when teaching multimodal assignments.

 

For some instructors, knowing how to teach students the multimodal composition process is the most important aspect of the assignment. We know the process well, so we can always help with that. For other instructors, teaching the students how to use the technology for the assignments is on equal footing with teaching the multimodal composition process. When this is the case, it’s wise to keep at your disposal a cache of tech tools that you know how to use well.

 

In my classes, teaching the process and how to use the tech have always gone hand in hand. Encouraging students’ multimodal exploration has occasionally caused concern when students wanted to use technology that I was not familiar with. I was comfortable teaching the process, but I feared not being able to help with the tech. My concerns dissipated when students were quite comfortable with the tech they wanted to use, even if I wasn’t. Whichever approach an instructor takes with these assignments, we must remember that the ultimate goal is to teach the process, so the tech should bend to our wills and support what we do, not the other way around.

 

3) Simple is fine; boring is not. Simple formats can be amazing with proper ideas and guidance, but too often students see a simple format and think it also has to be boring.

Students frequently question the rhetorical value in doing an assignment that seemingly fits better in an art or graphic design class than an English class. Beginning with simple formats that offer a hybrid between text and graphics is an easy way to get students to see the rhetorical value in reformatting textual information into multimodal formats. To help them break out of the boring:

  • Ask them how they would rhetorically respond to what they’ve created.
  • Ask them what they’d like to see within that format’s parameters.
  • Ask them if it speaks to them, and if so, how?

If they think it’s boring, ask them how they think their audience would respond.

If they don’t respond well to what they’ve created, show them design features for color, font, borders, images, etc. Teach them how all of those things work together to make the whole thing amazing, then they’ll shift away from boring and towards spectacular.

 

4) Pre-select one or two genres to make management easier. As described above, a multimodal assignment with a single format could become boring without proper guidance but having too many options might overwhelm students. Multimodality can come in so many forms; an instructor might be inclined to let students pick any form of multimedia that fits the rhetorical situation. I was this instructor. At one point, I had to use four pages of expectations to cover all of the potential formats my students used. It became a muddled mess that was challenging to juggle.

 

I simplified by pre-selecting the genre(s) the students could use. By simplifying, I could:

  • Offer more detailed help
  • Develop clear expectations/rubrics
  • Engage with and assess and their final products better.

Selecting a genre for students but letting them decide their formats within that genre helps them consider the rhetorical choices they make, which reinforces the composing process.

 

5) Establish expectations/rubrics but be flexible. Regardless of the format options, students should always have clear expectations for the assignment. Having clear expectations does not, however, mean being inflexible. In fact, multimodality necessitates using flexible assessment for final drafts because there are so many components to consider: color and font choices, spatial design, length, content, images, audio, and video, among so many others.

 

How to assess these compositions is worthy of a much deeper discussion, which I will explore in my next blog post. Stay tuned for more to come. And in the meantime, comment below and let me know what you’ve learned about creating parameters for multimodal assignments.

There is a terrific article in the March issue of NCTE’s Council Chronicle by Trisha Collopy, laying out both a rationale and some practical strategies for incorporating challenging and complex readings in community college classrooms at all levels. Much of the content in the article will resonate with integrated reading and writing (IRW) instructors; we know that deep reading will make a difference for our students—as they discuss “reading that matters” (12).

 

But I would suggest that such readings also offer an opportunity to revisit our approach to grammar (where we so often resort to decontextualized sentences, prescriptive rules, and worksheets – none of which seems to have a demonstrable effect on the quality of student writing). What if we invited students to consider language structure as a reading strategy, a means of reading closely, constructing meaning, and interpreting rhetorical moves and stances? What would that look like? What would it require for instructors?

 

I’d like to explore the instantiation of a “reading for grammar” pedagogy over the next few weeks. The foundation of such a pedagogy, however, rests on a linguistically and rhetorically consistent definition of grammar. Perhaps what is needed is a set of threshold concepts to frame and undergird the pedagogy, akin to Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s Naming What We Know

 

Here is a first attempt at such a list, garnered from studies in applied linguistics, language acquisition theory, and the composition classroom. I would welcome an opportunity to revise, expand, and refine the list as others share expertise.

 

  1. Grammar is a rule-governed system for producing and interpreting language.
  2. All speakers possess a grammar; speakers may access multiple grammars for different purposes.
  3. Grammars are neither “good” nor “bad.”
  4. The specific rules of grammar are derived from the habits of communities of practice.
  5. Grammars change.
  6. Knowledge of a word includes knowledge of the grammatical structures in which that word participates.
  7. Academic/written grammars are acquired; they are not native to anyone.
  8. Conventions of written language are arbitrary.
  9. Grammatical knowledge can be both tacit and explicit.
  10. Speakers working within a particular grammar make choices.
  11. The effectiveness of a grammar choice is related to the listener/reader’s ability to interpret that choice.
  12. People make judgments about others because of grammatical choices.
  13. People establish and maintain identities through the language choices that they make.
  14. Grammar is informed by previous experiences with language in a variety of discourse communities.
  15. There is no such thing as complete mastery of academic grammar. (Or perhaps there is no such thing as a common academic grammar.)
  1. Educated speakers can disagree about practice (Oxford comma, “healthful” vs. “healthy”).
  2. Grammar is contextual, rhetorical, and meaning-driven.

 

What else? I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

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