A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Remaking the Future of Multimodal Composing by Examining its Past

Review of Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy
by Jason Palmeri 2012; CCCC Studies in Writing & Rhetoric (SWR) Series

Jenna Pack, University of Arizona

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/remaking-the-future
(Published: October 10, 2012)

What qualifies composition instructors to teach multimodal composing, and why should they put forth the required time and effort? While these questions are not new to the field of rhetoric and composition, Jason Palmeri responds to these common apprehensions in a unique and persuasive manner in Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. Palmeri, assistant professor of English at Miami University, looks into composition’s past, demonstrating that compositionists began integrating multimodality into their writing courses well before the personal computer came about. He explores how past compositionists of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s integrated multimedia technologies into their pedagogies, examining some well-known and a few forgotten texts by composition scholars of the time period. He analyzes the ways these composition scholars responded to the new media of their time, including slide projectors, super 8 cameras, televisions, photocopiers, and tape recorders (11). While it might seem counterintuitive to examine the analog multimedia technology use of the past when digital technologies are proliferating, Palmeri has three main goals in doing so: 1) to demonstrate that we (rhetoric and composition scholars) have a particular disciplinary expertise that qualifies us to teach multimodal composing; 2) to show how multimodal composing can assist students with invention and revision of traditional alphabetic texts; 3) to provide a “critical perspective about both the overexuberance and the fear” that accompany integrating new media into the writing classroom (6).

Figure 1

Structurally, Palmeri creates a historical “remix” of the field. The book consists of two parts, titled “Composition Has Always Already Been Multimodal” and “‘All Media Were Once New,’ or The Technologies Composition Forgot,” respectively. Each part contains two chapters, which are divided into “tracks” and “refrains.” Each track constitutes a part of the chapter’s overall argument, typically focusing on one or two scholars and how those scholars dealt with an aspect of multimodal composing. The refrains serve as brief summaries of each track and include potential assignments for the contemporary composition classroom based on the main point of each track.

In Chapter 1, “Creative Translations: Reimagining the Process Movement (1971-84),” Palmeri demonstrates ways that the process theorists of the 1970s and 80s taught multimodal writing. Primarily, he argues that they highlighted the similarities amongst the composing processes of writers, artists, and designers. For instance, he cites Janet Emig, who “views composing as a concept that travels across modalities” and argues that English instructors should study and teach other types of interdisciplinary composing (27). In addition, Palmeri shows that process theorists considered how multimodal ways of thinking could assist in both the invention and revision processes for alphabetic texts. Linda Flower and John Hayes, Sondra Perl, and Nancy Sommers have all claimed that composing is a multimodal thinking process, as Palmeri notes. Flower and Hayes, in particular, believe that alphabetic writing is an act of translation because students do not think in purely alphabetic sentences, thus, writing makes ideas visible. Palmeri reminds us that perceiving something visually is actually a way of composing, too. He suggests, then, that multimodal activities should be part of the invention or planning process for an alphabetic text. In addition, because alphabetic texts are not always the best or only way to represent one’s knowledge, Palmeri argues that we use this idea to reimagine the composition course as one in which teachers help students discover the best modality to communicate knowledge on a given subject.

While Chapter 1 broadly discusses multiple modalities, Chapter 2, “Composing Voices: Writing Pedagogy as Auditory Art (1965-87)” focuses on the auditory. This chapter entails Palmeri’s critique that composition instructors often avoid integrating auditory modalities into their composition pedagogy, which he blames partially on the split between teachers of English and teachers of speech in 1914 (52). First, Palmeri explores how 1970s voice theorists “sought to help students draw connections among the interrelated arts of speaking, writing, listening, and reading” (55). Drawing on Peter Elbow and Otis Winchester, Palmeri contends that instructors should help students understand the rhetorical effects of their spoken voices and suggests using digital sound editing tools. He also highlights Edward P. J. Corbett’s work with classical rhetoric and its relationship to composition pedagogy. Corbett reminds his readers that rhetoric started, after all, as the art of oral discourse, and he suggests that experience with acting and vocal performance can help students understand both the arts of ethos and audience awareness. Thus, according to Palmeri, if we have students create a digital audio essay or video essay, they will better understand the connections between the spoken and written word and how each affects one’s audience.

Palmeri then moves to a discussion of ideology and politics in auditory composition pedagogy because Elbow, Winchester, and Corbett do not address these concerns. Turning to Ira Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life, Palmeri recommends that instructors engage students in talking critically about the world (68). In order for students to understand dialogue as part of the knowledge making process, then, Palmeri suggests having small groups of students compose talking essays in which they record and then edit their conversations about a social or political topic. Naturally, a focus on speaking brings to mind the common concern in composition pedagogy about students’ rights to their own language or dialect. Engaging with Geneva Smitherman’s 1970s work on African American Vernacular English, Palmeri suggests that teachers should value all spoken and written dialects; they should question the hegemony of print in the academy; and they should integrate all forms of communication—speaking, writing, reading, and listening—into their pedagogy. Chapter 2, therefore, reminds us that speaking and writing are socially constructed activities and that we should question the hegemony of print in our classrooms.

Chapter 3, “The First Time Print Died: Revisiting Composition’s Multimedia Turn (1967-74),” begins Part 2, which details how compositionists dealt with the ‘new media’ of their respective time periods. In Chapter 3, Palmeri notes that early 1970s compositionists were worried their courses would become irrelevant if they did not attend to emerging technologies such as television, comics, and film. Palmeri once again draws upon Corbett, demonstrating Corbett’s equivocal perspective on the technologies of his day. In one sense, Corbett argued that classical rhetoric was extremely relevant to the forms of communication that youth valued in the 70s; after all, classical rhetoric was developed in an age of auditory communication. However, Corbett also resisted the often-fragmentary nature of new media discourse. Using Corbett’s ambivalent perspective on the new media of his day as a framework for approaching new media from both a critical and optimistic standpoint, Palmeri provides examples of current-traditional scholars from the late 60s to early 70s who sought to integrate multimedia activities such as photo essays and slideshows into their courses. For example, he describes Esther Burnett and Sandra Thomason’s assignment detailed in a 1974 CCC article in which they asked students to compose a cassette slideshow biography as a means to teach research skills. However, Palmeri’s critique of this assignment (and others) is that they often served to support traditional pedagogical practices such as error-driven, product-centered assignments. Palmeri argues that instead of forcing new media to do the job of the old media, we should rethink the assumptions of our alphabetic-driven pedagogies.

Palmeri then transitions his discussion to textbook design. For example, he discusses William Sparke and Clark McKowen’s 1970 textbook, Montage: Investigations in Language, which seeks “to create an interactive, nonlinear experience” (100). This textbook does not have a table of contents or chapters, and it includes images and text that students are supposed to use to create new meaning through juxtaposition. Thus, once again, composition pedagogy of the 1970s used multimedia (through juxtaposition) as a tool for invention. While Chapter 3 feels a bit repetitive, and each track feels disconnected from the next, Palmeri’s overall arguments in this chapter are effective. He emphasizes that we need to be critical of the technological crisis narratives that are prevalent today (take, for example, the ‘death’ of the book). In addition, he warns us to be careful that we do not allow multimedia implementation in our classrooms to simply reinforce conventional pedagogical practices. This is not to say that conventional pedagogical practices are bad, but simply that new media often require new methods of teaching and assessing.

The last chapter of Palmeri’s book is titled “Zooming Out: Notes toward a History of ‘Cameras and Writing’ (1971-84),” and its function is to prove that using cameras in the writing classroom is not as new as many might think. In fact, many instructors in the 70s and 80s integrated analog cameras into their composition courses. For example, Donald Murray’s 1984 Write to Learn and Jack Kligerman’s 1977 CCC article, “Photography, Perception, and Composition,” both focus on the similarities between photography and alphabetic composing (120). In particular, Palmeri notes that these similarities can help students understand the concept of “point of view.”

While Kligerman and Murray occasionally chose to implement cameras into their pedagogy, Richard Williamson asserted that filmmaking should actually replace a majority of the alphabetic composing in the composition classroom. Williamson’s essay, from 1971, argues that students’ writing in academia is divorced from what they see and do in the ‘real’ world. Palmeri, however, settles on a middle ground: He suggests that we incorporate video into the writing classroom so that students find a relationship between the composing they do in the classroom and in their everyday lives; however, he reminds readers that alphabetic texts are still important to students’ everyday communication such that video should not replace alphabetic composing but perhaps enhance it.

In this chapter, Palmeri also draws on William Costanzo’s work to argue that “experience with cinematic composing” can help students transfer the skills of invention, arrangement, and style from one genre to another (131). Costanzo suggests having an entire class create a documentary film as a course project because documentaries tend to be composed in similar ways as researched essays. However, Costanzo largely ignores the ideological and political implications of teaching composition with visuals; thus, Palmeri returns to Shor’s work and suggests that the visuals students compose should be used to challenge social issues. Because new media can represent different ways of knowing and writing, then, students should use different media to represent their research on these social issues. This final chapter serves to demonstrate that various composition instructors from our field's past believed cinematic composing and alphabetic writing have commonalities and that learning the rhetorical principles of one might well transfer to the other.

Finally, in the epilogue, Palmeri provides inclusive goals for instructors at all university levels to implement in order to integrate multimodal composing into their pedagogy. Goal 1 is for instructors to implement adaptable strategies for using multimedia in their courses to strengthen the invention and revision of alphabetic texts. Palmeri recommends that instructors try one low-stakes multimodal activity related to each writing assignment in the course (149-150). Further, he maintains that we should work with colleagues in other fields to ensure that multimodality is being integrated across the curriculum; we should also strengthen relationships with K-12 teachers and integrate multimedia into graduate curricula. While these are lofty goals, to be sure, Palmeri is careful in recognizing that each program has different levels of access to technology and support, so these goals are purposefully broad to account for local contexts. Goal 2 is to have students apply “rhetorical and process-based theories” as they compose multimodal texts (152); for example, Palmeri suggests an assignment in which students translate a text in one modality to a different modality. Finally, Goal 3 instructs that we should help students develop the critical digital literacies necessary to resee, rehear, and “ultimately transform the world” (158).

Ultimately, this text will be useful for instructors and administrators alike. It helps establish the need for multimodal composing in the writing classroom, and it proves to skeptics that composition and rhetoric scholars have this expertise. In addition, instructors will find Palmeri’s suggested lesson plans and assignments useful. Each of the assignments pursue rhetorical, critical, and/or design strategies that can help students become better writers and can help them think about and write with various modalities. Similarly, each assignment usefully relates to the argument of the particular track in which it is discussed. For example, in Chapter 1, when Palmeri discusses the benefits of multimodal activities for invention, he suggests having students create multimodal cluster maps using Prezi, combining words, images, and videos about a paper topic. Students later present their cluster maps in groups and discuss how their ideas about the topic changed as they played with the various modalities, thus serving as a brainstorming or invention activity for an alphabetic text. While Palmeri obviously focuses heavily on digital technology, he often provides activities that can be completed without digital technology access, which I find to be useful for instructors who do not have technology classrooms or who have students with little access to technology. In addition, Palmeri provides many different options for activities, thus avoiding being too prescriptive in his suggestions. His humble and open suggestions will make instructors feel comfortable experimenting with new ideas in their courses.

There are very few weaknesses in Palmeri’s text. It is thorough and practical. One missing link, however, is assessment. While he briefly mentions assessment in Chapter 2, he only mentions the difficulty in assessing multimodal assignments as opposed to suggesting methods for tackling the issue. Perhaps this is beyond the scope of his book, but it is an important concern for instructors. In addition, a continuing concern for instructors will be, do we actually have the class time to teach students some of these technologies? I would have appreciated suggestions for how to effectively and efficiently manage a course in which one teaches both alphabetic and multimodal composing.

Returning to my opening question: What qualifies composition instructors to teach multimodal composing, and why should they put forth the required time and effort? By demonstrating our field’s rich multimodal heritage, Palmeri successfully proves that we have the experience and expertise to teach multimodal composing. He also affirms that multimodal composing can help students with traditional alphabetic composing, in addition to teaching students skills that transfer across various disciplines and genres. These assertions are likely to help assuage the concerns of those who doubt that multimodal composing should be taught in the composition classroom. Multimodal composing can helps students understand important rhetorical skills such as audience awareness and persuasion, and it can assist with writing process strategies such as invention and revision. With these benefits in mind, it is worth the time and effort to teach these skills. Ultimately, by “reinventing” our field’s past, Palmeri actually “remakes” our future (161).

Work Cited

Palmeri, Jason. Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print.