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From the Classroom During a Year of Pandemic: Student Samples of Multimodal Composition

By Brandon Murakami

As a graduate student in an English PhD program, it’s not surprising that I teach undergraduate courses which often involve a writing (or “words”) component. What might be more surprising is that I—along with a handful of other graduate student instructors—have turned to teaching multimodal composition as either alternative or supplement to “traditional” composition. Whether a standalone course paired with the concept of “digital literacy” (ENC1136: Multimodal Writing/Digital Literacy), an assignment that replaces the “written” academic research project (LIT4331: Envisioning Environmental Disaster in Children’s Literature), or a twist on the “traditional” academic argument in an “non-traditional” form (ENC3312: Advanced Argumentative Writing), alternative forms of composition are becoming more common in the college writing classroom. 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that while many scholars have argued for the value of multimodal composition1, there is still much resistance to legitimating these kinds of courses and assignments as substitutions for the standard “writing” course, particularly as students’ inability to compose papers “at the college level” continues to be a point of grievance for writing instructors, centers, and programs everywhere.2 

It is too early to tell whether a year of “Zoom University” will change the relatively lukewarm sentiment about multimodal composition, digital writing, and the “non-traditional” paper, particularly as almost every instructor who has taught digitally is now more intimately attuned to the constraints and affordances of digital and access to technologies both old and new. Nor can we predict how a year-long pandemic will shape the way we approach Composition requirements of any variety. Instead, we offer examples of multimodal student compositions for a variety of audiences, purposes, accessibilities, and courses.  

Perhaps more than any other time when these classes might be offered, students were constrained by lack of accessibility to hardware and software that would normally be available to them on campus. Yet, their ingenuity to mediate their circumstances and compose in multimodal formats  despite the constraints of distance-learning shows how critical- and creative-making assignments fosters students’ awareness of their role as communicators and meaning-makers.  

I hope these student examples of multimodal composition created under the most unusual circumstances—a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic—continue to reflect the significance and value of expanding our sense of writing beyond the traditional paper.

Notes

[1] See, for example, DePalma and Alexander “A Bag Full of Snakes”, Kristin L. Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball, Writer/Designer, Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres, Kara Poe Alexander “Material Affordances”, Meagan Fulwiler and Kim Middleton “After Digital Storytelling”, Jennifer Sheppard “The Rhetorical Work of Multimodal Production Practices”, and Cheryl Ball, “Show, Not Tell.”

[2] See, for example, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write (2018). 

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