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From My Graduate School Blog

Digital Literacy/Digital Rhetorics

Multimodal Composition:  Resources for Teachers
By Pamela Takayoshi & Cynthia Selfe


“Composition instruction must change if is to remain

relevant and fulfill the goal of preparing effective and

literate citizens for the 21st century.” (8)

People in all walks of life – business, science, research, personal

and communally - are exchanging information in new ways and

in networked environments, so we need to make sure the adult of

tomorrow can make himself heard, relevant and effective on the world stage.  


New Controversy?


However, there seems to be a bit of controversy over whether to incorporate multimodal methods into composition instruction.  Is it a distraction and should it even be the responsibility of English departments to take the lead in this technique?  


People like to think that a newfangled term indicates a new discovery.  They think that cutting edge technologies mean a whole new framework for life is on the horizon.  Fiddle sticks!  Young people have a weakness for thinking the world is all new. I had a wise old aunt who once turned to me and said quite straight-faced and dryly, "Young people invented everything.  You know they invented sex."  With a tip of the hat to that grand dame, we must realize that this controversy has been raging for centuries.  It is as old as the hills. 


As far back as Aristotle, the roots of rhetoric centered on persuasive oral arguments where writing was used as support.  Socrates seemed to have been concerned that writing actually weakened memory.  When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the new invention was greeted with skepticism by the church who felt it provided dangerous access to information.  In Ancient Judea, there was tremendous conflict over writing down the oral Torah.  As such, all ancient commentary on the written Torah was written sparsely.  Each generation wrote down just enough so that the oral tradition would not be lost.  


Modern times is no different when it comes to fear of new modes of communication.  When the telephone was invented there was fear that the art of letter writing would be lost.  All communication would shift essentially making us all, in a sense, illiterate.  When emailing, texting, ‘whatsapp’ing, ‘instagram’ing and the like burst onto the scene, the 'Henny Pennys' felt it would be the end of interpersonal communication as we know it bringing about a ruinous effect on relationships.  Digital literacy is most naturally at home within the context of communication.  As such, the English department would seem like the right address. 


So, we have yet another controversy to overcome, but this one is informed by more research.  Tremendous study has been invested into the immeasurable benefits of multimodal instruction.  


Multimodal Is the Way


Let us take just one more peak into the past.  Multimodal learning is also embedded in ancient wisdom.  It says in the Talmud that you need to involve at least two of the five senses so that your learning be incorporated into your being and they usually mean oral and visual in terms of text.  If you ever walk by a yeshiva beis medrash (house of study), you would be amazed to hear how noisy the place is.  The more elite the institution, the louder and more active it is.  


  Click to load this video in a new window.


In today's environment, the very best teachers have rightly come to include multimodal assignments by design.  Far from being a distraction, they look at it as an essential tool.  Given that all students have preferred modes of learning (i.e. aural, tactile, etc.), it is wise to always have a couple of modes of teaching in hand.  This can be done either digitally or in a non-digital fashion.  (I myself read all of A Tale of Two Cities to one of my own children when it was assigned.) Body language, music and read alouds progress along a continuum to photography and film all the way through to the latest digital technology on the World Wide Web.  


In today's world, technology is most hungrily consumed by the young.  The relevance of digital platforms stare us squarely in the jaw and we would be wise to take up the challenge.  For most of the new generation, getting them to do their assignments digitally is like luring them to the dinner table with cookies as the main course.  It’s a no-brainer.  Enthusiasm abounds and half the teacher's job, inspiring young minds, is taken care of.  Work turns into play and creativity flows.  

Children with physical and learning disabilities are the most dramatically benefitted by modern technology.  Most of us now understand its value.  Technology helps compensate for many of their challenges by enabling them to use things like a keyboard and spell check for writing and aural modalities for reading.  Audio versions of almost any book can be obtained or recorded.  Modern multimodality opens up vistas and opportunities in both the learning and professional worlds that were heretofore closed to them. 


A perfect blend of multimodal and writing instruction is encompassed in the writing workshop method.  The reason I love it is precisely for its multimodality.  In this format, the tactile learner, aural and visual learner all have their place.  They all add to the mix and each individual as well as the team benefits from all these strengths.  It’s a win-win situation.  Each gets to fully express themselves and succeed and the world at large gets to benefit from the contributions of those who just might have remained mute.

Works Cited:


Selfe, Cynthia. Multimodal Composition, Ed.  Pamela Takayoshi.  Cresskill, New Jersey:  Hampton Press, Inc., 2007.  Print.


"A Glimpse Inside the Beis Medrash of Telshe Yeshiva Chicago." Online Video Clip. Vimeo. 10 Dec. 2014. Wed. 2 Feb. 2016.

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