Multimodality: What is it Good for?

In my previous post on the importance of multimodality in 21st century literacies, I defined my understanding of what multimodality is and explored the idea that our culture’s commonly dismissive and condescending view of multimodality in the English classroom is, at the very least, up for debate.  In this blog post, I’m going to raise some of what I consider to be fairly compelling arguments for the use of multimodal assignments in the modern high school classroom.  These arguments are somewhat varied in scope and are listed in no particular order of importance or otherwise!

1) Modes of communication are inextricably linked to one another; a composition is never composed entirely in a single mode without some reliance on additional modes. Reading musical compositions, while largely an audio endeavor, has a necessary visual component in that music is recorded and printed with a complex set of symbols.  Music is also a gestural, physical meaning-making process; any music lover will tell you that you never get the full meaning of a song until you watch the artist physically perform that piece, factoring in body language, facial expressions, and musical technique.  These modes all interact with one another to create the integrated meaning of a musical composition.  Even our beloved default of the alphabetical mode is actually a very visual mode in that it is a complex series of symbols that students learn to recognize.  Print alphabetical texts are rarely devoid of visual, nonalphabetical cues; authors can communicate necessary information to readers through font, spacing, layout, and a wide array of other visual tools. Understanding how different modes interact with one another and with the audience creates students who can critically and meaningfully analyze pieces composed in any combination of modes, enabling them to interpret complex cues and messages.

2) Teaching students to apply the rigorous approaches of literary analysis to multimodal compositions enables them to meaningfully and insightfully approach a wide variety of interdisciplinary compositions.  Art, music, drama, mathematics, and a host of other disciplines rely heavily on modes other than the alphabetical in their compositions.  When we teach students to read, analyze, respond intelligently to, and produce multimodal compositions, we equip them with valuable tools to apply their literary skills across the disciplines.

3) Multimodal projects often work well as digital assignments.  Multimodal assignments do not necessarily require digital tools; however, they do present the occasion for students to test and develop their technological skills while strengthening complex rhetorical and analytical skills.  See my prior blog post for more reflection on how necessary it is for our modern students to be fluent and creative in digital spheres.

4) Offering students an opportunity to compose multimodally is a fun and alternative way to engage ELL students who might otherwise have difficulty connecting with and completing a composition assignment in the traditional, alphabetic mode.  Students who struggle with English as a nonnative language may thrive when given an assignment in which they can compose freely without the added concern for grammar, academic language, or spelling.  This gives ELL students a chance to build confidence and fluency while also developing and utilizing complex composition and critical analysis skills.

5) Integrating academically rigorous work that appeals to a student body demonstrating a variety of Howard Gardner‘s multiple intelligences can be challenging.  Multimodal work, digital or non-digital, can respect, engage, and develop students of all learning styles.  Assignments that ask students to make intelligent and strategic choices in modes that come naturally to them in order to intelligently create meaning are tasks that both challenge and encourage academic identities.  The ability to use sound, motion, color, or image in order to convey what may be a very insightful or intelligent idea can often be a huge relief for a student who struggles to convey those ideas in the traditional alphabetic mode and whose primary intelligence is not verbal/linguistic.

6) The real world is multimodal.  The social, career, and recreational spheres of modern life are all multimodal, featuring complex combinations of sounds, images, and text.  If we don’t teach our students to be smart consumers of the information and entertainment that they are bombarded with, they will struggle to navigate the fast-paced culture in which they live.  Assigning challenging and rigorous analyses of composer choices in multimodal pieces as well as asking students to make those choices in their own compositions helps our students grow into smart, savvy individuals capable of functioning expertly in their society and culture.

These are just a few points in a litany of what I consider to be very valid arguments as to why multimodal composition is important, if not essential, in the modern English classroom. In all of these points, I make repeated mention of rigorous and challenging academic analyses of multimodal compositions.  Given that multimodality is somewhat unfamiliar in an academic context, it can sometimes be difficult to envision how a multimodal assignment can be intellectually and analytically demanding for a student in the same way an essay or paper can.  How can a video assignment help students develop tangible skills that may translate into their paper writing?  How can a student’s compositional skills in the alphabetic mode really be tested and stretched in a non-alphabetic mode? To help shed some light on this, in my next blog post, I will be posting a video composition of my own that I completed as part of a graduate class.  Along with that video composition, I’ll include some discussion of the fairly complicated compositional choices I had to make in compiling it as well as some of the academic research I relied on in making those decisions.  My hope is that this will offer a little bit of insight into the complexity and potential for pedagogical use that well-designed multimodal assignments can have for a 21st century classroom.

I also recognize the great irony of relying so heavily on the traditional, alphabetic mode to write about the need for multimodality and the unprecedented communicative power of multimodal compositions. But, in my defense, would you take my points seriously if I communicated them in an alternative mode?


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