Becky Fitnich reviews

Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres
Author(s) or Editors: Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback Cost $29.95(U.S.)


Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres
by: Becky Fitnich

Hey everyone, I’m Becky Fitnich. I am a PhD student in the Rhetoric and Writing program at Virginia Tech. As someone who is particularly interested in how and why writing happens, especially across disciplines, I wanted to read and review Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres. The essays within this text discuss all the ways we write and compose in multiple spaces, and how multimodal writing can lend itself to new, hybrid genres. As a way to emulate the kind of hybrid genres the authors talk about in this collection, I decided to do a podcast version of this book review. At the end of the podcast, I will talk briefly about my experiences of composing within this multimodal space, but for now, what follows, is an audio review of Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres, a collection of essays edited by Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus.

Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres is a collection of essays that speak to how and why we use multimodal pedagogy in the classroom. In the past several years, I have done a bit of reading on digital literacies and multimodality. So, while I was of course interested in the topic of this book, I wondered what this text might contribute to existing scholarship. One of the things that made this book stand out is that it explores the use of multimodal literacies in and around the classroom theoretically, as well as practically. In other words, this collection gives us more than a look into someone’s classroom. While it does feature essays of how instructors integrated a multimodal framework into their writing class, it also tells us why.

As I read this book, I started to wonder how much we have been talking about multimodal writing in Composition and Rhetoric scholarship over the last decade. A quick Google Scholar search of the terms “multimodal” and “rhetoric” turned out over 19,000 results. 19,000! Scholars are writing and thinking about multimodality and rhetoric in a variety of interesting ways. Among them, of course, is Gunther Kress who considered how image and the screen were emerging as dominant mediums in 2003. During this time, he was wondering about what he termed “the likely future of literacy” and suggests that there are “larger-level social and cultural effects” that will come with changing how we understand and teach literacy (1). Many scholars have since built on the questions Kress raised about the future of literacy in combination with what we call multimodality. In more recent times, calls have been made to composition teachers to expand their purview of multimodal composition in the writing classroom. Because, as Anne Wysocki reminds us (in Writing New Media) writing is always changing (1). And indeed it is – especially when we think about what writing means when it is contextualized within a “multimodal framework.”

However, along with writing, technology in the classroom is also changing. The evolving definition of technology paired with writing potentially changes the definition of what terms like writing and multimodal mean to teachers and students. Technology bends the definition of the social nature of genres and changes how we teach writing in composition classrooms. What’s more, the reasons why we teach writing in composition classrooms are continually evolving. Building upon Carolyn Miller’s seminal article “Genre As Social Action,” many scholars such as Wysocki (such as--but not limited to--Geoffrey Sirc, Cheryl Ball, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Jeff Rice, Jenny Rice, Cynthia Selfe, Jody Shipka, and Anne Wysocki) have really questioned what it means to push the boundaries of “traditional genres” in the classroom while considering what “multimodal composition” means within our field of Rhetoric and Composition.

Opening Act: Introduction to the Collection
Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus author the introduction to the collection invoking Maxine Greene’s book from 2000 - Releasing the Imagination. They build upon Green who encourages faculty to consider “what else is possible” in Composition Studies. Bowen and Whithaus respond to Green by suggesting that multimodal pedagogy is an essential lens for thinking about program development, curriculum design, teaching, learning, and preparing students for the new global economy (8).

Among a myriad of scholarship about multimodality, Bowen and Whithaus’s collection offer a perspective of the risks that multimodal frameworks present. While some essays within this collection showcase success stories, others candidly highlight the risks of implementing these practices into the writing classroom. The collection (Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres) suggests the importance of problematizing the use of multimodal literacies in the classroom, but in combination with the possibility of allowing for, and generating, student agency.

In addition to generating and making space for student agency, multimodality in the classroom allows for new, hybrid genres to emerge. Bowen and Whithaus suggest that their collection employs multimodal pedagogy as a way of carving out spaces where different modes of composing and creating are used to explore the lived world and make meaning from experience (10). It’s through the consideration of those hybrid genres created by students that meaning is made. And meaning making is vital for students and the development of their writing. This book is useful for those instructors who often question what “writing” and “meaning making” means within their own classroom, and across disciplines - as I so often do.

So, Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres is organized into three parts. The first part, “Multimodal Pedagogies That Inspire Hybrid Genres” speaks to the opportunities that a multimodal framework provides to instructors and students to create hybrid genres, and how that might aid in the development of students’ writing. Part II, “Multimodal Literacies and Pedagogical Choices,” offers practical multimodal pedagogy for the writing classroom, and Part III, “The Changing Structures of Composition Programs” considers the complexities of program wide implementation of multimodal pedagogies.

Act 1: Multimodal Considerations in the Classroom
The essays in this first section explicitly talk about what it means to implement multimodal frameworks into the writing classroom, and the risks that come along with it. As a teacher of writing myself, the transparent view of practical examples of multimodal assignments that work (and don’t work) was helpful and eye opening. In addition, Part I shows what is possible when we encourage our students to compose multimodally outside the “constraints” of a typical academic essay. We can use multimodality to move past prescriptive, or static, writing. But, be careful: too much emphasis on anything can lead to prescriptive writing in and of itself.

In her essay “Including, but Not Limited to, the Digital,” Jody Shipka questions how teachers are invoking “multimedia” pedagogy in their classrooms. She suggests that the turn towards the digital, or multimodal, essay has potentially left our foundational writing behind and wonders how multimodality in the classroom might limit or constrain student writing. She urges us to remember how genres were created in the first place, and to not trade one set of skills out for another. In other words, we shouldn’t trade writing the essay for writing digitally at the expense of technology.

Building from Paul Prior, Deborah Brandt, and Anne Wysocki, Shipka suggests that we have a responsibility to teach students how to produce more than just a “static” text. In fact, if we do teach writing as static, we are limiting our students. Instead, we need to teach our students how to make nuanced choices about how they engage and interact with texts – whether they be multimodal or not. And, we need to do this through a multimodal awareness within our composition classrooms.

However, as Cheryl Ball suggests (in “Genre and Transfer in a Multimodal Composition Class,”) even multimodality can be prescriptive if we aren’t careful. Ball’s essay is written with two of her past students about their reflections of a digital narrative assignment. She provides an honest account of how she integrated multimodal assignments into her classroom. Ball assigned a digital narrative in one of her writing classes. As a way to help students develop their own ideas for the assignment, she created an activity where the class would analyze a digital narrative from a previous class. However, as the students were identifying what made up the digital narrative, she realized that the identification of the parts was creating a prescriptive outline for their own narratives. Ironically, the analysis resulted in the identification of a five-paragraph essay model.
Ball used this example to help illustrate that even multimodality can sometimes lead to prescriptive essay writing. This piece was engaging because it talked about the risks of multimodal pedagogy. We so often read how great and useful practices like multimodal frameworks are in our classroom, but rarely do we get to see how they don’t work. And, Cheryl Ball’s sense of humor shined through - something that I think we could use more of in our works.

Act 2: Multimodality as Cognition
Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres encourages us to think about writing not just as a skill, or a set of tools, but instead as a cognitive practice. As in Part I where Shipka highlighted the importance of students’ nuanced choices while they compose, the essays in Part II push us past thinking about writing an academic essay and provide practical examples of the affordances that multimodal assignments can provide our students.

Since the only thing that remains the same about technology and classroom practice over time is that it changes, Nathaniel I. Cordova invokes Darwin and suggests that “adaptation is key.” In his essay “Invention, Ethos, and New Media in the Rhetoric Classroom,” Cordova explains the importance of rhetoric in the writing classroom and offers five dimensions to help our students “engage with contemporary historical realities” as multimedia realities evolve. Even with the theoretical view of cognitive practice to frame how we use multimodality in the classroom, Cordova’s essay highlights the difficulty of straying from writing as prescriptive.

Donna Reiss and Art Young then discuss how they integrated multimodal expressions as an alternative to a formal essay in a literature class at Clemson. (In “Multimodal Composing, Appropriation, Remediation, and Reflection”) Reiss and Young remind us that even when we consider the use of multimodal assignments in our classrooms, our pedagogical beliefs do not need to be fundamentally different in order to do so. Although in a writing class, we do not necessarily teach multimedia development. Reiss and Young argue that we can¸ however, offer the skills to learn about how to communicate with the multimodal tools students already know or want to learn. Because, in the end, the multimedia essays students write “communicate … with more than words alone” (180). The process of composing multimedia essays do more for students then write an “academic” essay; it allows students to experience writing - maybe even as a way of being.

The authors in the first two sections give examples of how and why multimodal frameworks can work in the classroom. However, the authors also remind us that it is important not to forget our foundational writing roots. As teachers of writing, we need to remember how genres were once created in order to help our students make meaning with new, hybrid genres. And, as Ball suggests in Part I, sometimes these things are messy, but messiness is not a reason to leave a multimodal framework behind – it is a reason to keep going.

Act 3: Multimodality within a Writing Program
If we are to continue - and in some cases, start - implementing multimodal practices into the composition classroom, we need an awareness of the composition programs’ practices currently in place. Part III is useful for those writing program administrators who would like to consider a programmatic view of implementing multimodal pedagogy into the writing classroom.

Tarez Samra Graban, Colin Charlton, and Jonikka Charlton expand upon the ideas presented before them in this collection and express the need to understand the tensions of praxis writing and multimodal writing within the writing classroom. (In “Multivalent Composition and the Reinvention of Expertise,”) the authors recommend that simply suggesting composition has multiple values is not enough. Administrators need to define what these values are with others in order to make meaning. In other words, we need to understand that multivalent composition refers to the multiple meanings of composition as the field to which we belong (249). In addition, we want to have these conversations where we situate student writing less as form and more as a way to help students create habits of mind.

In “Going Multimodal,” the authors suggest that it is limiting, and even a disservice, for students to learn to communicate through only one kind of modality of writing. Instructors need to offer students multiple ways to make meaning with their writing. Throughout this chapter, the authors provide examples of assignments that were used in the composition program at Miami University, which explicitly integrates multimodal literacy into the curriculum. They end their chapter with the discussion of the implications of assessment, access, and fairness within a program that encourages multimodal assignments. Since we live in an increasingly digital world, the authors argue that we need to ensure that all instructors and all students have opportunities to teach and learn within digital multimodalities (302). How we take advantage of these opportunities though, is up to us.

Closing Act
Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres provides an overview of how multimodal literacies and emerging genres can be used in the composition classroom. As Traci Fordham and Hillory Oakes suggest (in “Rhetoric across Modes, Rhetoric across Campus,”) that multimodality is not a “new-fangled” way of viewing pedagogy in the composition classroom. We have been using multimodal means to write, and teach writing, for hundreds of years. As many of the authors in this collection have suggested, we have been able to identify the ways in which we have been doing multimodal writing in the past. We now need to identify the ways that we are doing and teaching multimodal writing in the classroom. The understanding of what we are doing will help us to better situate our learning outcomes and make arguments for administrators to explicitly call for multimodality in the writing classroom. In fact, the authors in Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres suggest that we do not just need to defend our stance for using such practice in the classroom, but we need to urge those who are not to incorporate it into their own practice.

Thank you all for listening to this audio review. The editor asked me to reflect briefly on my experiences of writing a book review as a podcast, so here is a little encore. As I mentioned in the introduction, one of my areas of research is writing across and in disciplines. One of the reasons I wanted to read this book and do this review is because I am particularly interested in how various disciplines use the word "writing" to define a variety of practices teachers ask students to perform. This review is an extension of that for me. As I “write” for publication, it is not the same as writing a seminar paper, or a conference paper, or a blog post, or this script for this particular podcast. The multimodality of writing in a new (to me) genre allowed me a more cautious navigation of my content. Whether this review would have been in print or here in this audio space, what I am writing would not have changed, but how I wrote certainly did. Is this podcast “writing” the same as the “writing” as a print version of this review? No, it definitely is not. Then why do we call it the same? And, as a teacher of writing myself, I think about how the multiple uses of one term - writing - can quickly get confusing for our students. Either way, did this experience allow me to imagine new ways of composing? Did composing this allow me agency? Did this podcast allow me to make meaning from my writing? Why, yes, I believe that it did - just like the authors of this collection said multimodality would.

Again, thanks for listening to this audio review of Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres edited by Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus. You can find a complete manuscript of this podcast including a works cited list by clicking the link. I’m Becky Fitnich – happy reading!

Works Cited
Bowen, Tracey, and Carl Whithaus, eds. Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres. Pittsburg:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. Print.

Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Miller, Carolyn. “Genre As Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70.2 (1984): 151-167.

Wysocki, Anne Frances, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc. Writing
New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition
Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2004. Print.

About the Author(s):

Becky Fitnich Morrison is a Ph.D. student in the Rhetoric & Writing program at Virginia Tech. Becky is particularly interested in exploring what “writing” means across disciplines and how those meanings may or may not intersect with the ways in which Composition programs teach “writing.” Her current research questions how writing centers might accommodate or challenge the diverse definitions of writing for students and faculty across, and within, disciplines. Her teaching interests include First Year Writing and Business Writing. She holds an M.A. in Written Communication and a B.A. in Business Management from Eastern Michigan University.