Grouling, Jennifer, and Grutsch McKinney, Jackie. “Taking Stock: Multimodality in Writing Center Users’ Texts.” (In press.) Computers and Composition (2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2016.04.003 Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
Jennifer Grouling and Jackie Grutsch McKinney note that the need for multimodal instruction has been accepted for more than a decade by composition scholars (1). But they argue that the scholarship supporting multimodality as “necessary and appropriate” in classrooms and writing centers has tended to be “of the evangelical vein” consisting of “think pieces” rather than actual studies of how multimodality figures in classroom practice (2).
They present a study of multimodality in their own program at Ball State University as a step toward research that explores what kinds of multimodal writing takes place in composition classrooms (2). Ball State, they report, can shed light on this question because “there has been programmatic and curricular support here [at Ball State] for multimodal composition for nearly a decade now” (2).
The researchers focus on texts presented to the writing center for feedback. They ask three specific questions:
Are collected texts from writing center users multimodal?
What modes do students use in creation of their texts?
Do students call their texts multimodal? (2)
For two weeks in the spring semester, 2014, writing center tutors asked students visiting the center to allow their papers to be included in the study. Eighty-one of 214 students agreed. Identifying information was removed and the papers stored in a digital folder (3).
During those two weeks as well as the next five weeks, all student visitors to the center were asked directly if their projects were multimodal. Students could respond “yes,” “no,” or “not sure” (3). The purpose of this extended inquiry was to ensure that responses to the question during the first two “collection” weeks were not in some way unrepresentative. Grouling and Grutsch McKinney note that the question could be answered online or in person; students were not provided with a definition of “multimodal” even if they expressed confusion but only told to “answer as best they could” (3).
The authors decided against basing their study on the argument advanced by scholars like Jody Shipka and Paul Prior that “all communication practices have multimodal components” because such a definition did not allow them to see the distinctions they were investigating (3). Definitions like those presented by Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus that emphasize the “conscious” use of certain components also proved less helpful because students were not interviewed and their conscious intent could not be accessed (3). However, Bowen and Whithaus also offered a “more succinct definition” that proved useful: “multimodality is the ‘designing and composing beyond written words'” (qtd. in Grouling and Grutsch McKinney 3).
Examination of the papers led the researchers to code for a “continuum” of multimodality rather than a present/not-present binary (3-4). Fifty-seven, or 74%, of the papers were composed only in words and were coded as zero or “monomodal” (4). Some papers occupied a “grey area” because of elements like bulleted lists and tables. The researchers coded texts using bullets as “1” and those using lists and tables “2.” These categories shared the designation “elements of graphic design”; 19.8%, or 16, papers met this designation. Codes “3” and “4” indicated one or more modes beyond text and thus indicated “multimodal” work. No paper received a “4”; only eight, or 9.9%, received a “3,” indicating inclusion of one mode beyond words (4). Thus, the study materials exhibited little use of multimodal elements (4).
In answer to the second question, findings indicated that modes used even by papers coded “3” included only charts, graphs, and images. None used audio, video, or animation (4). Grouling and Grutsch McKinney posit that the multimodal elements were possibly not “created by the student” and that the instructor or template may have prompted the inclusion of such materials (5).
They further report that they could not tell whether any student had “consciously manipulated” elements of the text to make it multimodal (5). They observe that in two cases, students used visual elements apparently intended to aid in development of a paper in progress (5).
The “short answer” to the third research question, whether students saw their papers as multimodal, was “not usually” (5; emphasis original). Only 6% of 637 appointments and 6% of writers of the 81 collected texts answered yes. In only one case in which the student identified the paper as multimodal did the coders agree. Two of the five texts called multimodal by students received a code of 0 from the raters (5). Students were more able to recognize when their work was not multimodal; 51 of 70 texts coded by the raters as monomodal were also recognized as such by their authors (5).
Grouling and Grutsch McKinney express concern that students seem unable to identify multimodality given that such work is required in both first-year courses, and even taking transfer students into account, the authors note that “the vast majority” of undergraduates will have taken a relevant course (6). They state that they would be less concerned that students do not use the term if the work produced exhibited multimodal features, but this was not the case (6).
University system data indicated that a plurality of writing center attendees came from writing classes, but students from other courses produced some of the few multimodal pieces, though they did not use the term (7).
Examining program practices, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney determined that often only one assignment was designated “multimodal”—most commonly, presentations using PowerPoint (8). The authors advocate for “more open” assignments that present multimodality “as a rhetorical choice, and not as a requirement for an assignment” (8). Such emphasis should be accompanied by “programmatic assessment” to determine what students are actually learning (8-9).
The authors also urge more communication across the curriculum about the use of multiple modes in discipline-specific writing. While noting that advanced coursework in a discipline may have its own vocabulary and favored modes, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney argue that sharing the vocabulary from composition studies with faculty across disciplines will help students see how concepts from first-year writing apply in their coursework and professional careers (9).
The authors contend that instructors and tutors should attend to “graphic design elements” like “readability and layout” (10). In all cases, they argue, students should move beyond simply inserting illustrations into text to a better “integration” of modes to enhance communication (10). Further, incorporating multimodal concepts in invention and composing can enrich students’ understanding of the writing process (10). Such developments, the authors propose, can move the commitment to multimodality beyond the “evangelical phase” (11).