how “multi” is your multimodality?

Without ever really intending to, I have come to be seen by some of my colleagues as the Guy Who Doesn’t Like Multimodal Pedagogy. By multimodal pedagogy I mean the contemporary yen for teaching mediums and technologies in writing classes that are not what most people would think of when they think of writing. So instead of traditional alphabetic, words-into-sentences, sentences-into-texts writing, you get lots of podcasts, websites, infographics, video game levels, crowdfunding campaigns…. It’s not actually the case that I think this stuff should be kept out of the writing classroom. I recognize that we should be training students for a world in which their writing is integrated in other forms of media, and that multimedia skills are a must for developing nimble and adaptable workers. I do think, though, that stitching those skills together is a more difficult task than people realize. I also think that this work cannot replace the work for which our writing programs have been founded and funded.

Pedagogical discussions are essential but tiresome because they so often devolve into maximalist stances. Take the wearying lecture debate; as in so many of these arguments, the positions seemed to be based on caricatures of the other side. I am thoroughly convinced by research and experience that lecturing is often pedagogically unsound, and anyone who teaches purely through lectures is likely doing his students a disservice. I’m also convinced, however, that for certain lessons in certain classes in certain subjects, lectures can be an elegant and entertaining means of conveying information, particularly for introvert students. Lectures are a tool in the toolbox; if you use a spatula when you need a screwdriver, you’re not being productive, but sometimes a spatula can be handy. (Also, “active learning” is the worst kind of empty pedagogical buzzword, designed to sell books and get hideously expensive boondoggle facilities built. Naturally Purdue is investing millions of dollars in just such a facility.) And yet the lecture debate seemed to revolve around the question if we should ever use them, rather than how often and when. Same thing with multimodality: the notion that we should be introducing other mediums than alphabetic writing has become a maximalist position, where some instructors I know out-and-out refuse to assign anything that doesn’t involve a heavily digital component. That strikes me as pedagogically risky and, potentially, disciplinary suicide.

To begin with: I simply find that it’s not credible to argue that alphabetic writing no longer has huge relevance and importance for training both professionals and citizens. Alphabetic writing retains unusual power and prominence in all sorts of contexts, such as academia, law, politics and governance, medicine, business…. And why wouldn’t it? Writing is a remarkably powerful, adaptable technology. It’s survived the transition from clay tablets to parchment, from being hand-copied by monks to being mass produced in presses, from being printed on paper to displayed on screens, and not for no reason. Rather because it retains flexibility and power that can’t be easily replicated in other mediums. When I hear people in the field arguing that the age of alphabetic writing is past and we should move beyond it entirely — and they’re rare, but they are out there — I’m always reminded of this brilliant parody from the Onion. In the digital age, the desire to appear ahead of the curve often results in people trying to abandon things that just work.

Besides, I always want to ask, what happens if we win this argument? If the maximalist anti-writing position wins out, what do people think will happen to our writing programs? With budget cuts everywhere and the humanities under the gun, do people think that if we say “hey, you know, alphabetic writing really isn’t where it’s at anymore, it should be abandoned,” that our administrations will say “cool, here’s your paycheck, have fun doing whatever else you want to do”? Or will they say “cool, thank you for your service, clear our your desk”? That’s an especially risky argument because, to many people, our efforts in these areas will appear to be redundant, given that there are other departments more directly oriented towards those medias and technology. And in a corporate architecture (as the contemporary university surely is), the perception of redundancy is the kiss of death. I certainly believe that we approach these techniques and technologies in unique ways, and that we can bring a lot of theory and practice to bear that’s valuable. But I fear that too many deans and provosts will say, “you’re teaching HTML, but I’m already funding a computer science program. You’re teaching Photoshop, but I’m already funding a graphic design program. You’re teaching podcasts, but I’m already funding a media program.” I’m not saying that’s fair. But I am saying, in some contexts, it’s likely, and it’s is not an idle concern. We have to defend the specific expertise in which we’ve been trained, or else risk being seen as a vestigial organ of our institutions.

We have allies, there. Of all the arguments that I hear for shifting to a predominantly multimodal, minimally alphabetic approach, the least convincing is the contention that this is what professors in other departments want. Though I have no polling or any other responsible evidence, the idea that professors in other fields want writing programs to teach web design or audio recording instead of how to write papers simply does not fit with my anecdotal experience at all. In fact, despite what many people think, I find that professors in engineering, the sciences, business, etc. are often champions of the importance and value of traditional writing. They can be important allies for our programs, but only if we demonstrate to them that we are actually doing the work they find valuable.

Also, on a personal level, I will admit that it’s frustrating to have joined a field of writing studies to find that I frequently have to make the case for the value of writing. I considered getting my PhD in a straight linguistics program, but I chose this route because I value writing, I think it matters. (Do math people feel the need to defend the value of arithmetic to other math people?)

I am not a pedagogical conservative. I think there is room for both. I think that’s particularly true in programs with a two-semester sequence for freshman composition and which have advanced undergraduate writing classes where instructors can really stretch out and make connections. Part of this conversation has to involve recognizing that too many institutions ask a single semester of freshman composition to do too many things. I think that there are a lot of really enriching multimodal projects out there. But to so lose sight of the basic institutional and financial justification for our continued employment strikes me as emblematic of the branding problems of the 21st century humanities. It’s putting our weakest foot forward and calling anyone who doesn’t old fashioned.

The truth is that, at least in the research/doctoral program side of collegiate writing, the multimodalists have already won. There’s this tic in the liberal arts where people who are in a position of dominance represent their (often imagined) opponents as the conventional wisdom. Take grammar and mechanics prescriptivism: to hear many people tell it, the world of English is filled with instructors and professors who take a harsh stance on commas and gerunds, forever policing students for the smallest infraction. In my experience, literally the opposite is true. I cannot name a single such professor, but I know hundreds and hundreds of “living language” types. (I am one, more or less, myself.) So here. The textbook industry, the academic job market, our biggest journals and conferences: these all betray a multimodal obsession. Believe me when I say that as an early-career academic, there’s nothing less sexy than trying to convey the importance of writing as traditionally conceived. But that importance is real, for our students and ourselves, and as we train new teachers and build a base of shared knowledge, I think it behooves us to remember: if we don’t teach what our institutions expect us to teach, they’ll just replace us with people who will, and nobody will be around to defend the value of an appropriate amount of multimodal teaching.