3 Ideas for Thinking About Multimodal Writing: Notes from the Spring Learning Community

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Last semester, we published a series of posts about multimodal writing assignments – assignments that ask students to compose not only with words, but also with other modes like images, sound, or video. (You may know it as “digital writing;” the terms are often used relatively interchangeably.) Alongside this blog series, the Writing Program (in partnership with CNDLS) also ran a faculty Learning Community focused on the design and implementation of such writing in the classroom – which I had the pleasure of facilitating.

Our group met monthly throughout the semester, and covered a range of questions related to using digital/multimodal writing in the classroom. With participants coming from a wide range of disciplines both within and beyond the Humanities, our conversations showcased a similar range of ways to think about using this non-traditional but increasingly relevant writing style to reach our course objectives. I wrote about these conversations, and about the assignments that came out of them, for The Prospect over the summer (Read my piece for The Prospect). For our blog, I’ve pulled out three of the ideas that stuck with me the most, and which I think are particularly helpful for anyone considering adding multimodal writing to their course.

➤ Multimodal assignments don’t need to be high-stakes. There’s a tendency to think of multimodal writing solely in terms of major projects, but it can be a great tool for low-stakes writing as well. Ask students to map out their research using a tool like MindMup, on the way to drafting a traditional paper. Have them respond to readings by assembling a quick image essay. A friend of mine even has students use reaction GIFs as a tool in peer review. Digital writing assignments don’t have to be long or weighty to be useful.

➤ It’s never too early to think about scaffolding. We spent a lot of time talking and thinking about how to set the stage for multimodal writing assignments, and how to support students through the writing process. Since these assignments often ask students to use new tools or compose in new forms, building in time to explain expectations and help pace the work is crucial. Don’t wait til the assignment sheet is set in stone to begin thinking about this – sketch a timeline for how you’ll roll out the assignment as you design the prompt. And consider setting multiple deadlines for different parts of the process: for example, one for initial brainstorming; one for a rough draft; and one for the final

➤ There are different degrees of freedom, and each has its place. Some people in our group favored a hands-off approach – giving students a topic and end goal for the assignment, and letting them choose the form that writing took: website, photo essay, Prezi. Others started with the form and platform – a website with Weebly, a brochure with InDesign – and tailored the shape of the assignment to match. Both approaches offer benefits as well as limits. Freedom of format can overwhelm students, and can require more class time to explore possible options. Mandating a structure and platform pushes students into a single perspective, and can bring pre-existing expectations that aren’t necessarily in line with the actual assignment’s goals. Think carefully about what you want an assignment to achieve, and what degree of freedom will best enable students to succeed.

If this post has you thinking about what digital writing might look like in your course, I’d love you to join me later this semester for our new workshop, “Bringing Digital Writing into Your Course” – November 29th from 1:00-2:00 in the Lannan Center (4th Floor New North). We’ll be talking about these ideas and more, and you’ll have a chance to do some initial writing + sharing to start the assignment design process. Hope to see you there!