Multimodality in the Composition Classroom


In Towards a Composition Made Whole, Jody Shipka argues that we should reconsider college composition. In Chapter 1, she begins her argument by summarizing the traditional approach to teaching writing in college. Shipka argues that multimodal assignments should be a part of composition classrooms to make the learning relevant to students. She says that tools like social network and editing software can promote a multimodal learning experience. At the same time, she wants to avoid defining multimodal as strictly the technological tools that we use. Instead she argues that students can have a true multimodal learning experience “negotiat[ing]– an interplay of words, images, sounds, scents and movement (21). She supports this definition because it reflects students’ out of class literacy practices, one that is dynamic and reflective of their unique discourse communities.


In addition, Shipka notes the traditional practice of teaching college composition often alienates students and she says instructors can overcome this perception by transforming writing as a process for creating authentic communication. She argues that the traditional way of teaching freshman composition creates an artificial corridor around the skills developed in a classroom, hard to acquire and just as difficult to employ outsides the classroom. Instead, Shipka encourages instructors to equip students with an “experimental attitude” so that they see that literacy is context dependent and part of a social practice. To accomplish this lofty goal, instructors should be mindful of helping students develop transferable skills, by weaving students’ out of school writing practices into their teaching while shepherding students through a process to tailor their writing to fit their audience, purpose and genre.


I am glad that Shipka clarified what multimodal assignments should be. I initially thought that it should be about the use of technology or the use of visual images. I think my initial definition of multimodality was underdeveloped. I agree with her that we should help our students negotiate and mold different texts and have them interact with one another. We do live in a dynamic world with technology disrupting our very conception of writing. I think it would be useful to incorporate multimodal texts into the classroom so that students see that composition can include a lot of different mediums.


At the same time, I am also mindful that many of us operate in an academic setting where there are certain conventions that give students power and access. In that case, I believe that it is still important to teach students how to write for an academic audience. Shipka says instructors can be comprehensive by incorporating multimodality into their instruction and teach academic composition. Shipka says there is enough time to do it all but I question her stance. There are Student Learning Outcomes to follow and I will be evaluated based on my ability to meet these standards. I am afraid that privileging multimodal assignments leaves me little time to meet my SLOs. I see multimodality as text to introduce to the class but I would not assign the production of a multimodal assignment because I don’t know how valuable it is for their academic experience. I can have my students write a visual essay but what happens when they go to their history class and they are asked to write a research paper? Have I failed my students if I don’t teach them how to write a type of paper that is privileged in academia?






3 comments on “Multimodality in the Composition Classroom

  1. Your last two paragraphs point out a really difficult issue: how does technological literacy/multimodality align with the university-mandated SLOs? If anything, this class has taught me that teaching in a digital age is much more complicated than it seems. Although I understand your concern about the applicability of multimodal texts to academic genres, I would like to pose broader questions: with the continuing development and research of new technologies and modes of creating meaning, how relevant are the traditional models? As teachers and scholars, should we be actively trying to adapt to the new modes of writing? Should we re-consider the value of “traditional” academic texts?

    I’m not sure. Personally, I’m in favor of re-considering traditional academic models because I have suspicions about how useful they are to students outside the classroom. Sure, your student will probably have to write an academic essay in their History class, and will have benefited from learning about academic texts in your FYC course. However, when is a student going to write an academic essay outside of the university context? I’m starting to wonder if the skills learned through digital literacy and multimodality are more helpful for students in their lives outside the university.

  2. I actually agree with you, jmakian. I do acknowledge Gabi’s point here too. I think balance is the answer (to just about everything). I think the question we need to be asking ourselves as teachers, and most of us are already doing this in the MA program, is: What is rhetorically needed to teach this particular group of students here and now. I don’t think the ‘traditional” must be divorced from the multimodal. I think they can coexist blissfully. there may be some traditional or conventional requirements to a new media/multi modal assignment. and to quote a recent post from Zach somewhere — the process can be multimodal while the finish product can still be traditional.

  3. I also question the extent of the multimodal texts in the classroom. Some of her visual essay ideas are very interesting, but with transfer being such a burgeoning idea I am not sure how effective that they can be. If we follow the idea that students need to have the critical framework to be able to succeed at other writing tasks then these kinds of assignments might work when also exposing students to other genres. Now, as English teachers, we cannot necessarily be responsible for teaching our students every genre especially when writing a research paper for a history class can look very different from other research papers. In this way, I would concern myself less with that idea, but question how effectively Shipka’s assignments transfer to other writing styles and how well the students process is able to move into other classes effectively.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s