Multimodal and Multimedia Projects in the Writing Center by Douglas Eyman

Douglas Eyman is Director of the PhD in Writing and Rhetoric, the MA concentration in Professional Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), and the undergraduate Professional Writing Minor at George Mason University.  He teaches courses in digital rhetoric, technical and scientific communication, editing, web authoring, advanced composition, and professional writing. His current research interests include investigations of digital literacy acquisition and development, new media scholarship, electronic publication, information design/information architecture, teaching in digital environments, and video games as sites of composition. Eyman is the senior editor and publisher of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, an online journal that has been publishing peer-reviewed scholarship on computers and writing since 1996. 

Anna S. Habib, Associate Editor, CWCAC

In this post, I hope to provide some concrete advice for working with multimedia and multimodal projects in the writing center, but I should start by noting that my advice (and even my definition of “writing”) comes from my work as editor of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and from my research interests in digital rhetoric – I’m not a scholar or practitioner of Writing Center pedagogies, but I am an ally and supporter of  the great work that Writing Centers accomplish. I’ll start with some history and some context; feel free to skip down to the “Advice and Preparation” section to get straight to the practical bits.

A Bit of Context: Histories and Scholarship

In some ways, I trace my career in writing studies to my experience as a peer-tutor in my undergraduate writing center. It was there that I first became interested in the teaching of writing specifically (a topic about which my school had no course offerings beyond the class that served as a pre-requisite for working in the writing center itself). At the risk of sounding just as old as I am, in those days (around 1989-90) computers were just starting to be used by students, and we didn’t see their effects in the writing center until many years later. Similarly, when I worked in the writing center as part of my teaching assistantship for my MA program, there were no classes teaching multimedia or multimodal composition (the closest was the FYC course I taught at the time, which included basic web page design the year that the first graphical web browser was available). Fast forward to 2003 when I started my PhD program at Michigan State, and the whole field had shifted from distrusting computers as depersonalizing machines that came between the writer and the text to nearly ubiquitous use for drafting, revising, and editing. And in this program, I did not work in the writing center, but I did use it as a patron – both for traditional, textual writing, and for multimedia work.

In 2004 or so, Dave Sheridan, then associate director of the Writing Center, sought to continue work he had done in developing a multiliteracy center within the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan by including peer-mentors who could assist with the digital writing projects that many of us at MSU were assigning in our FYC, professional writing, and web design classes. These specialists, who were mostly drawn from students in the professional writing program, could help with visual design (e.g. using Photoshop), working with audio, and even more technical issues such as database design and use (I consulted fairly heavily with the latter peer mentor in the course of build a database-driven online portfolio). This experience, from a user standpoint, colors my sense of how (and why) consultations on multimedia and multimodal projects can work in writing centers.

Of course, like multimodal assignments in composition, which have a long and rich history (see Palmeri, 2012), the idea of the writing center as a multiliteracy center is not particularly new. In 2000, John Trimbur presciently suggested that

[W]riting centers will more and more define themselves as multiliteracy centers. Many are already doing so – tutoring oral presentations, adding online tutorials, offering workshops in evaluating web sources, being more conscious of document design. To my mind, the new digital literacies will increasingly be incorporated into writing centers not just as sources of information or delivery systems for tutoring but as productive arts in their own right, and writing center work will, if anything, become more rhetorical in paying attention to the practices and effects of design in written and visual communication…(p. 30)

However, at a Computers and Writing conference roundtable in 2011, Sheridan suggested that Writing Centers tend to resist incorporating these new forms:

The first can be summed up with the accusation: That’s not writing. Writing centers tend to get anxious and to make other people anxious as they explore forms of composing that don’t involve writing in the narrow sense of the term. Q: Can you help me with my video? A: Can we call it a video essay? Can we call it a visual argument? (Balester et al. 2011, p.2)

He goes on to suggest that it might be useful to not center the work as writing, but my own sense is that we should be doing more work to expand the definition of writing rather than applying it to a very circumscribed set of forms.

My own definition of “writing” accounts less for specific sign-systems than their affordances and constraints. Writing is both practice and outcome (among other formulations), but for my purposes here I want to focus on the product – what constitutes that which is written (that is, “writing”) is akin to Latour’s “immutable mobile”; that is, it has to be set in a form that is distributable. In the process of its creation, it must be editable and revisable. So this text that you are reading, or a podcast, or a speech written in Braille, or a collage that mixes images, texts or other media: all are writing. And if that is the case, then it all belongs in the Writing Center.

And there is certainly an abundance of Writing Center scholarship that takes up the question of how Writing Centers should account for new ways of writing, such as Sheridan and Inman’s (2010) Multiliteracy Centers: Writing Center Work, New Media, and Multimodal Rhetoric and the 2016 special issue of Computers and Composition on “Pedagogies of Multimodality and the Future of Multiliteracy Centers” guest edited by Russell Carpenter and Sohui Lee. As part of the larger context of thinking about how Writing Centers can support new kinds of writing, I want to suggest two works that I think are particularly important (and that directly relate to the advice below): Allison Hitt’s “Access for All: The Role of Dis/ability in Multiliteracy Centers” (2012) and Joy Bancroft’s “Multiliteracy Centers Spanning the Digital Divide: Providing a Full Spectrum of Support” (2016). Both works address questions of access and support: Hitt suggests ways to incorporate Universal Design principals in tutoring, and Bancroft argues that Writing Centers should provide support and training in basic digital literacy skills. Both of these issues should play an important role in tutor’s work with authors of multimedia and multimodal projects.

While there is a good bit of scholarship about how and why Writing Centers might consider a broader definition of what constitutes “writing” – and how that expansion impacts the services provided by peer-tutors, there are still challenges in terms of preparing students to work as tutors with expertise in multimodal and multimedia projects. A short aside here: multimodal is not synonymous with digital. Digital texts – we can call them new media, or multimedia, or webtexts – can be multimodal, but many great examples of multimodal works blend digital and analog features (e.g. 3D printing) or include writing by combining material forms (for more on multimodality, see in particular Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole [2011] and Alexander and Rhodes’ On Multimodality [2014]). Some of the advice below can apply equally to digital and multimodal, but I chiefly work on the digital side, so my tips will be more aligned with digital multimedia as writing.

As the editor of Kairos, I’ve seen quite a few digital projects in various states as they work their way through our peer-review, editorial, and production processes. And I am often asked about how to get started with developing what we call “webtexts” – that is, texts that take advantage of the affordances of the networked, interactive medium of the web. In the advice and suggestions below, I’ll reinforce a couple of key ideas that I use when working with potential authors:

  • start by getting to know the basic literacy practices of the modes you will work with
  • don’t be afraid to collaborate
  • think of design as central to your argument (not an addition to it)
  • consider issues of accessibility and usability starting at the invention stage (again, not an addition at the end of the process)

Advice and Preparation for Peer Tutors

Tutors who work with multimodal project authors need not be experts in using particular applications or platforms – but they should know and be able to teach the underlying digital literacies that provide the foundation for design across multiple media. For visual forms, this means a grasp of how to use design features such as contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity; for audio, editing, layering, and cross-fading sound; for video, working with timelines, cutting, splicing, and adding transitions. But just like a peer tutor need not be an expert in every genre in order to be effective in the writing center, they also need not be experts in all multimodal forms. And of course, the rhetorical expertise that all peer tutors draw on is still the most important, as rhetoric is itself foundational regardless of mode.

Fundamentally, multimedia and digital multimodal projects require an interaction between content, design, and code. An excellent resource that provides an overview of how to talk about and develop projects that take up these interactions is Ball, Sheppard, and Arola’s Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects (2018). As the authors note at the outset, “Both design and content influence how audiences respond to a text’s message, so developing familiarity with design concepts and practices as well as textual and rhetorical composition is critical for successful communication” (p. 1). Any tutor who is interested in supporting writers who come in with multimodal projects would benefit from a review of this text, which covers rhetoric, design and genre from invention through revision.

Invention

It’s not necessary to have the most current software or any particular application or platform – often the most useful assistance comes into play at the invention stage, and lo-fi methods like sketching and paper prototyping are more useful at this stage than coding.  When working with authors early in the process:

  • Help them to slow down and map out both process and foundations before getting too far into technical choices, visual or other design elements.
  • Ask them to make explicit their rhetorical choices – who is their audience? What does that audience/reader/user want, need, and expect? What is their purpose as creator of the work?
  • Provide invention tools like brainstorming, storyboarding, and sketching so they can try out ideas before committing to the heavy-lifting of coding, recording (audio or video), or designing.
  • Encourage them to consider accessibility and usability at the outset, rather than tacking on later in the process. For instance, a good script (as opposed to extemporaneous performance) can help to produce a transcript of video or audio. For more on accessibility, see https://webaim.org/.

The order of the process is important as well – you can’t adjust for audience needs after everything is in place, to audience analysis and user research needs to come first. Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience (2011) provides a great model (and rationale) for following a sound rhetorical approach to the design of multimodal projects (see his “Simple Planes Poster” for a useful handout/reference – http://www.jjg.net/elements/pdf/elements_simpleplanes.pdf)

Another key consideration at this stage is the programs, systems, or platforms are best suited to support the project. I encourage authors to consider using open, non-proprietary systems if they want to be more accessible and sustainable in the long run. This isn’t always a concern in the context of a class project, but I think we should ensure that authors are aware that these decisions have consequences. Using a system like Adobe Muse might make the process of coding and design easier, but then the author is locked into using Muse, as you can’t transfer or edit outside of it. Using an online platform like WiX provides a simple and quick way to get a good-looking site up, but it’s very difficult to archive or control the content outside of the platform itself. Authors should be aware of when they are trading control and long-term sustainability and access for ease of use so they can make informed decisions. In terms of working with an author in the Writing Center, peer-tutors can encourage authors to both consider a range of options and do some basic research on the limitations and issues that come with each choice.

Production

During the production stage (the coding, recording, writing, or making that takes place after planning), there are a few areas where peer tutors can provide assistance or feedback. User-testing is a critical procedure for digital projects that should take place continuously throughout the production process (adding user testing only after production is finished means that issues discovered through testing might not be fixable). The process for user-testing is in some ways much like serving as a reader of a written text: first, ask the author what they want you to focus on and what questions they have for you as reader/user. It may be useful to first help the author develop a read-aloud protocol for user-testing – that is, list specific tasks for the user to accomplish in the current draft of the project and report what they are doing ask they try to complete those tasks. The author can take notes and determine where problems with interactivity, navigation, or accessibility come up. After the testing, peer-tutors can work with the author to develop a plan to address the issues found.

Revision

It is far easier to revise text than it is to revise multimedia (and this is why encouraging authors to get assistance at the point of invention is so important for these kinds of projects). If the project is nearly complete, it may be most helpful to focus on elements that can be edited and revised, such as text, navigation, and layout (the latter can be challenging to revise but is still less work than revising or editing audio, video, or interactive media). At this point, it is also helpful to focus on final editing and proofing of both content and code and recommending the addition of elements that are often overlooked:

Final Note

In many ways, the basic principles and practices of writing center pedagogy are easily adapted (or directly applicable) to multimedia and multimodal projects, and in most cases don’t require specialized technical or design expertise (although such expertise is certainly useful). As school and workplace genres continue to evolve and include more media elements as writing, it is more and more likely that these projects will show up in the writing center – and I would argue that the writing center is already prepared to serve authors of multimodal projects just as well as more traditional print-oriented genres.

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References

Alexander, Jonathan, & Rhodes, Jacqueline. (2014). On multimodality: New media in composition studies. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Anderson, Daniel. (2008) The low bridge to high benefits: Entry-level multimedia, literacies, and motivation.” Computers and Composition, 25: 40-60.

Balester, Valerie, Grimm, Nancy, Grutsch McKinney, Jackie, Lee, Sohui, Sheridan, David M. & Silver, Naomi. (2012). The idea of a multiliteracy center: Six responses. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 9(2): http://www.praxisuwc.com/baletser-et-al-92.

Ball, Cheryl E., et al. (2018). Writer/Designer: A guide to making multimodal projects. 2nd ed., Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press.

Bancroft, Joy. (2016) Multiliteracy centers spanning the digital divide: Providing a full spectrum of support. Computers and Composition, 41: 46-55.

Carpenter, Russell, & Lee, Sohui (2016). Envisioning future pedagogies of multiliteracy centers: Introduction to the special issue. Computers and Composition, 41: v-x.

Garrett, Jesse James. (2011). The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Hitt, Allison. (2012). Access for all: The role of dis/ability in the multiliteray center. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 9(2): http://www.praxisuwc.com/hitt-92.

Latour, Bruno. (1986). Visualization and cognition: thinking with eyes. Knowledge and Society – Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, 6: 1-40.

Palmeri, Jason. (2012). Remixing composition: A history of multimodal writing pedagogy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Sheridan, David, & Inman, James. (Eds.) (2010). Multiliteracy centers: Writing center work, new media, and multimodal composition. New York: Hampton Press.

Shipka, Jody. (2011). Toward a composition made whole. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Trimbur, John. (2000). Multiliteracies, social futures, and writing centers. Writing Center Journal, 20(2): 29-32.

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