Musings

Multimodal Shocks in ENGL 111

We’re in week 2 of our semester, and already, I’ve asked my ENGL 111 students to work with a variety of modalities and writing technologies. They’re responses have been hilarious.

Last week, after I had students read and annotate Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” I had students respond briefly to a series of prompts:

  • How would you summarize Lamott’s essay?
  • What were a few sentences/passages that stood out to you? Why did they resonate with you?
  • What does Lamott’s essay make you think about regarding your own writing process?
  • How does lament’s essay make you feel?

For this last prompt, I asked students to write their response using only emojis. Immediately, my students responded. Some students were gasping in shock, others were staring at me as if I’d grown a second head. One student gave me a “you’ve got to be kidding me” look before saying loudly, “It’s 2018. And you’re asking us to write using only emojis!”

As students unearthed their phones to scroll through their emoji dictionary, we joked. Yes, it’s 2018, and many people rely on images/icons to communicate often complex messages. We’re practically using a digital version of the hieroglyphics used by ancient Egyptians.

True, these messages and modes of communication are not privileged in academic discourse, but that doesn’t make them any less prevalent. I think my student was trying to make a statement about the ways that texting has bastardized our written language so much that it’s warped our writing instruction at the college level. However, the more I reflect on the interaction, his statement seems to say more about how people conceptualize what “counts” as writing.  And, it seems that folks might not be giving as much credit to multimodal texts as they deserve, which makes me even more excited to expose students to multimodal texts, and invite them to compose these texts.

In today’s class, we extended our conversation about Anne Lamott’s writing process to consider our own writing processes. We discussed the ways that process writing is recursive, not linear, and how writing processes necessarily must take into account life, because inevitably, procrastination via Netflix and food is part of our composition process at some point. I opened my Arts and Crafts Box and invited students to map / sketch out their own writing processes. They were given quite a bit of creative flexibility. They could choose to sketch their process as a comic strip, a map, some kind of diagram, etc. My only restriction is that their map/sketch could not be a numbered list of only words, as The Writing Process is often depicted.

I anticipated some push back, especially after last week’s response to the emoji activity; however, my students were pretty receptive to my instructions. Of course, I’m not sure what prompted this comfort level. Perhaps it had to do with my explanation that I would create a map alongside them, and it didn’t matter if the “drawings” were any good. Perhaps they felt more comfortable because we had the “Classic Rock 70s, 80s, and 90s” Spotify playlist playing in the background. Perhaps they have begun to accept that I’m a little eccentric, and class will be more interesting if we’re coloring for 15 minutes instead of lecturing from PowerPoint slide decks. Regardless, my students were eager enough to compose their multimodal text (even if they wouldn’t have named it as such yet)… until I announced that we’d be taping our sketches on the wall.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen full-blown panic among a classroom of students. Nearly every student’s eyes snapped up from their writing process maps, horrified that I was asking them to display their work for the class. Some students rushed to explain that their drawings were terrible, to which I showed them my own draft. (I teach writing and not art or math for a reason). Some students rushed to explain that they were embarrassed by what they included in their processes, though I  think this concern dispersed after our gallery crawl, when everyone realized that everyone else also procrastinates with Netflix and food.

During our gallery crawl, students walked around the room, observing their peers’ processes and writing affirmative feedback and questions on post-it notes for each author to consider.

I wish that our classroom was my classroom, or at the very least, a classroom reserved for only composition courses. If that were the case, I would have left everyone’s writing processes taped to the walls for everyone to see throughout the semester. It would be interesting for students to have the opportunity to do another gallery crawl later in the semester–to see how their writing processes changed throughout the class. However, because our class shares our space with other Ivy Tech instructors and students, I ultimately had students take their maps off the walls and turn them in.

The activity definitely had its desired effect. In the fast write that students composed after the gallery crawl, many students noted that they found the activity interesting because it reassured them that they were more alike they peers than originally thought–especially when it comes to their similarity as writers, even if they have some nuances in their individual processes. I doubt this recognition of community would have happened as quickly or completely without the use of my students’ multimodal compositions.

Although my students were definitely shocked by my invitation to compose texts using images and writing technologies not usually valued in higher education, I’m thoroughly convinced that multimodality belongs in the college writing classroom. And, on that note, I’m excited to see how this group of students react when I bring in legos and play-doh later in the semester!

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