• Matthew Davis
    University of Massachussetts Boston
  • Kevin Brock
    North Carolina State University
  • Stephen J. McElroy
    Florida State University

II. Avenues for Assisting: The Multiliteracy Center as Available Means

When thinking about the means available to multimodal composers, the first inclination may be to enumerate the tools that writers use: pencil, typewriter, computer, software. Another inclination would be to think of the rhetorical tactics at a rhetor's disposal: the pisteis or topoi. One might even try to account for the innumerable modes available for representation of meaning: writing, image color, font, sound, and so on. In some respects, these three approaches characterize our analytical foci throughout this article. However, there is another element of available means to consider: the composing infrastructure (DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill 21). Composing infrastructure accounts for the situational and temporal constraints that influence the possibilities, processes, and final deliverables of multimodal composing, including all of the factors listed here:

  • computer networks
  • network configurations
  • operating systems, computer programs, interfaces, and their interrelatedness
  • network, server, and storage access rights and privileges
  • courses and curricula
  • the existence and availability of computer classrooms
  • decision-making processes and procedures for who gets access to computer classrooms
  • the design and arrangement of computer classrooms
  • time periods of classes
  • availability of faculty, students, and spaces outside of set and scheduled class times
  • writing classifications and standards (e.g., what is writing; what is good writing)
  • metaphors of computer programs; metaphors people use to describe programs; metaphors people use to describe their composing processes
  • purposes and uses of new-media work
  • audiences for new-media work, both inside and outside the university (21)

While Sheridan adds multiliteracy centers to this list (Sheridan and Inman), we argue that mulitliteracy centers might be productively conveived as a subcategory of what we here call 'avenues for assistance,' a concept that accounts for the ways in which composers actively seek help with their composing processes: face-to-face discussions about ways of composing, online tutorials demonstrating how to construct a specific kind of text, standard software or hardware documentation, and others. Situating multiliteracy centers and avenues for assistance more broadly as part of the available means of composing can help us begin to account for the ways in which the centers serve students in the invention and deployment of these means; it also provides a fuller understanding how multiliteracy centers fit within the composing infrastructure that enables and constrains student composing.

As more students are asked to engage in multimodal composing, and as the breadth of skill-sets needed for this kind of engagement expands to include advanced layout design, image manipulation, website creation, and audio- and video-editing, the field of vision for composers who are trying to see the available means can quickly get compounded. With compounded vision, students become confused, apprehensive, frustrated, even a little afraid, losing sight of the text whose creation awaits them. For some students, simply trying to take stock of all the available means can be overwhelming in itself. For others, that compounded vision includes a lack of confidence or inexperience with genres, software, or multimodal composing in general; compounded vision can extend to situational pressures, impending deadlines, and outside distractions. Students with compounded vision ask themselves questions like: what should my final product look like? What tools or programs can be used to create this kind of text? How do I use those tools? How do I even start? Because avenues for assistance serve to help answer these questions, teachers, tutors, students, and administrators ought to think of these avenues as means in themselves—means that are just as important to consider as the tools, rhetorical tactics, and variety of modes that we so readily think of when we think of composing. To illustrate this argument, we will explore the experiences of three students in and around the FSU Digital Studio, an on-campus multiliteracy center that serves as a hub for a variety of avenues for assistance, looking specifically at how those students' composing visions were impacted by their experiences.

Welcome to the Digital Studio

Loosely modeled after writing centers, multiliteracy centers offer services that are analogous to their antecedents' but focus on electronic and multimodal composing (Sheridan and Inman); the Florida State University Digital Studio is one such center. Opened in 2008, it is an extension of the university's Reading-Writing Center and employs graduate teaching assistants from the university's English department. These graduate tutors interact with and assist hundreds of multimodal composers each semester. These interactions often take on the form of the one-on-one tutoring sessions that are most like the basic unit of writing center work, but visitors to the Digital Studio can also use one of the workstations on their own or in groups and with or without dedicated tutor oversight. More often than not, though, students do take advantage of the tutors' varied expertise, posing questions not only about technical issues but also about rhetorical concerns—does what I have created so far really say what I think it says? Is this the best approach for my particular audience? For tutors in the Studio, these questions come in a variety of guises at any and all stages of the composing process, from brainstorming to revision. By helping students answer these questions, the tutors can help the students see the available means of composing more clearly.

Case One: Marybeth

Consider our first case example: Marybeth, an undergraduate writing major, visited the Studio to get help with an assignment for a class she was taking in visual rhetoric. The assignment, as she explained in a recent email interview, was to recreate a monument or memorial according to her own specifications. When she came to the Studio, she had already mentally sketched what she wanted to do, but, as she says, she didn't know how to execute the idea. Marybeth's idea was to manipulate an image of the Eiffel Tower and to combine the Parisian landmark with another image of a giraffe. Marybeth was under the impression that the best program for combining images in this way was Adobe InDesign; however, InDesign is primarily a layout application. Marybeth's vision, in this instance, was compounded by the confusing abundance of programs that were available to her, conflating one with another. When she visited the Studio, she learned that Photoshop was a more appropriate program for her project, thus helping to focus her vision.

Once Marybeth knew which program was best for her project, she went about getting help using Photoshop, as she had little to no experience using it. During the course of her time working with tutors in the Studio, Marybeth learned skills like how to work with layers, how to cut and paste elements from and into images using the quick selection tool, how to refine selection edges, how to use the clone stamp tool, and how to warp layer perspective. In addition to these skills particular to Photoshop, Marybeth also learned about some of the fundamentals of digital imaging, including resolution, aspect ratio, and file types. The final result demonstrated the level of technical proficiency that Marybeth achieved by means of the avenues of assistance available in the Digital Studio. Marybeth's project, by her own admission, is something that she would not have otherwise been able to produce without the help of the Studio.

Giraffeifel Tower

The mission of the Studio goes beyond helping students with individual projects. Not only do the Studio staff want to help students learn practical, immediately applicable program skills, but they also want students to discover within themselves the confidence to use the software on their own and to understand how that software fits within the larger composing infrastructure. In other words, students should not just create one project in Photoshop, for instance, but they should learn how to create any project in Photoshop. Such lofty goals are not always attained, of course. In Marybeth's case, when asked if she could use the same program to recreate the project on her own, she stated frankly, I think I might need a few more sessions before I am absolutely comfortable with establishing a design on my own but I think I have the basics down. Despite the fact that Marybeth does not consider herself an expert in Photoshop, she has a better understanding of the potential of the program and a clearer vision for how she might use it as means in the future.

Case 2: Lakey

Marybeth's case is one that in many ways is representative of the kinds of work seen in the Studio. Our second case, however, is an outstanding one in many respects, although it brings to our attention several of the ways that the Studio serves to assist students with visions compounded by factors even more complex than a lack of software expertise. Lakey, a graduate student majoring in English and tutor in the Reading-Writing Center, visited the Studio on a Thursday afternoon. There, she revealed that a close friend of hers had succumbed to a long battle with pancreatic cancer earlier that morning. In prior preparations for the day that her friend's family and friends knew would come, the friends' wife had asked Lakey to prepare the printed program for his memorial service. When he passed, Lakey explained in an email interview, and I realized what I wanted to create, I immediately made an appointment with the Digital Studio.

While this example is an unusual one, it helps to reveal the human element that is at work in all composing. Consider one possible expression of this human element. Under more normal Studio circumstances, a tutor's insistence on attention to technical considerations such as the aspect ratio of an image (that is, emphasizing to the student the importance of maintaining the aspect ratio as not to end up with warped- or stretched-looking images) is helpful and expected. In circumstances like Lakey's, though, it can seem no more than a trifle, a quibble. However, if the tutors can establish an understanding with students that these minor quibbles are ultimately in the interest of the final text, then productive, on-the-spot learning and adaptation can take place. Lakey cites the interaction she had with the Studio tutors as being integral to her experience, writing that the Studio and the tutors therein helped me expand how I view what I can do and it made me realize that when I accept the help of others I become more autonomous in my own work.

Case Three: Paul

With this statement, Lakey speaks directly to the importance that avenues for assistance, like the Digital Studio, play in helping composers see the available means of composing. In thinking about these issues, however, it is easy to forget that the vision of the tutors themselves is altered by the work that they do when they help students. For our third and final case, we turn briefly to the experiences of Paul, a tutor in the Digital Studio. Paul began working in the Studio in the fall of 2011, and by his own account in an email interview, his interest in a knowledge base in multimedia compositions…for our evolving academic and professional world brought him to the position. Paul's work with students and their projects quickly forced him to grapple with the available programs, and exposed him to a wider cross-section of personalities from the university. Paul lists a range of projects he has helped students create, from simple handouts considering the rhetorical use of text and image in the page-space, to manipulation of images for campus-wide advertising campaigns, to building websites on Wix or Weebly, to video editing. Through this work, Paul explains, I also learned about my own capabilities and limitations, how to ask for help, and when to say, I don't know the answer, but I'll help you find it. In his remarks, Paul references consulting help files and online support sites to find answers to students' questions.

This point is key because it directs attention to how the tutors in the Studio can model strategic searching that students can use on their own after they leave the Studio. Beyond helping students learn how to use programs, then, the Studio can help students learn how to seek out resources on their own, avenues for assistance that exist independently from the Studio and can be accessed from anywhere and at anytime. By providing tutor assistance—expertise, personal support, and strategy modeling—the Studio serves as a place where students with compounded vision can find clarity, with both short-term project-goals and long-term understanding of their own composing practices. This is an avenue of assistance: a direction towards the available means of composing and one of those means itself.