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On Grad School; or, This is an Assignment

Note to regular readers: feel free to ignore this post. This is part of an assignment for one of my courses. If, however, you feel like reading about multimodal composing, by all means feel free to peruse.


In generations past, writing was a name given to alphabetic text that utilized language to communicate an idea. In a certain sense, this remains true today, although the parameters are not nearly so exclusive. That is, “writing” in the past was used to describe academic essays, poems, novels, and the like. Good writing was writing which cohered to accepted fundamental standards, such as grammar and syntax. A skilled writer in any one discipline could perhaps be expected to be skilled in another. For example, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound both found success as poets as well as essayists. However, in our present generation of growing technology-dependence and digital media, the definition of writing is ever-shifting and ever-growing. We have reached a state where “writing” is no longer a term we can place neatly in a box. While writing is still used to communicate an idea (or thought or emotion or event or so on and so forth), it is no longer dependent on alphabetic text alone. In fact, at this point in time, writing can encompass various other media as often as text, whether printed or digital.

Kathleen Blake Yancey states in her essay “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” that we (read: the writing community) are having a moment. “This moment right now,” she says, “is like none other.” To put it another way, writing has become an umbrella term that we use to cover a wide variety of discourses, topics, genres and modalities. Some of these areas may include, but are not limited to, academic essays, short works of fiction, poetry, emails, text messages, photography, film, novels, letters, and so forth, in both printed and digital formats. There are cases wherein a composition may be made without any alphabetic text at all, yet which still communicates meaning. Take for example an image or a film: neither contains alphabetic text, and yet the audience or viewer still walks away with an understanding of the subject matter.

In “Kairos and Multimodal Public Rhetoric,” authors Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel discuss multimodal composition as a web representing what they term “articulation points,” which include but are not limited to exigency, genres, media of delivery, modes, media of reproduction and distribution, audience, rhetor, collaborators, and other compositions. (see image below)


These various factors contribute not only to the composition itself, but also to the process of composing as well as what comes after the composition is “finished.” Note that none of these articulation points include alphabetic text as a necessary component in composition. Quite the opposite, the web uses terminology such as “modes” and “genres,” which are inclusive of alphabetic text as well as modes such as image and video. I believe that this web can be used to draw a distinction between the act of writing and the act of composing.

Consider this: in a broad sense, writing is language-based communication. Thus, are “writing” and “composing” the same thing? Perhaps not. A musician can compose a symphony. Journalists can compose news articles. Photographers can compose and produce image-based essays. That the English language uses the same word to describe a creation which can be enacted by each of these disciplines indicates the multimodal uses of composition and, by extension, writing. Alphabetic text, while critical in the traditional idea of the written word, is no longer the limiting factor for what constitutes composition today. Then, if we accept this premise, what is writing? What is composing? They are forms of communication, ways to transfer ideas, thoughts, or experiences of a certain weight and/or importance.

Furthermore, they are exercises in meaning. What do I mean by this? Composing, rather than being limited to one genre of alphabetic text, can seek to communicate or illuminate an idea through many different kinds of discourse and medium. As an exercise in multimodal composition, I wanted to expand on the idea of the web as a way to consider composition. The concept of the web or map put me in mind of interlocking prisms, such as the one found below (credit to Daniel Kwan).

Explaining what constitutes composition through alphabetic text presents certain challenges; the English language is limited in what we can and cannot describe. I found the image of the web and the interlocking prisms to create a much more clear picture of what composing can constitute. Consider that each prism represents a different factor in composition. One may represent alphabetic text, another may represent music, a third image, and so forth. As such, I decided to try my hand at creating interlocking origami. My attempts are documented in the images below. The model I was attempting to mimic can be found here.







Bonus image: Alice tries to help.



I was astounded at how difficult it was to arrange these pieces of paper into one cohesive unit. They each appeared so similar, and yet they each had a separate role to play in holding the composition together. Like composing itself, each piece helped to hold the others up, and yet getting them to that point required great skill and concentration. Despite many attempts, I do not believe I have yet been successful in creating a satisfactory origami eight-point star. In a way, this mirrors the difficulty in teaching and understanding composition. Is there truly a way to teach and understand all forms of composition? Perhaps not. Perhaps what we as teachers should do is provide the necessary tools for students to discover the various ways of composition for themselves. Yet what constitutes these tools? How do we decide on what the foundational building blocks of composition are?

For all intents and purposes, beginning with fundamentals is imperative. One needs to understand what tools are at one’s disposal and how they work before attempting to use them. How do we decide which tools to teach? David Smit proposed “syntactic fluency” and “rhetorical maturity” in his book The End of Composition Studies. Are these the limits to those cornerstone tools? They cannot be, if we accept the premise that composing is not limited to alphabetic text. As instructors of composition, should we not also teach those ideas theorized in Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel’s web? If we make it possible for students to access as many modes of composition as possible, then we will have equipped them with the tools they can use to tackle the purpose of composition.

What do I mean by this? In all genres, we face the “perhaps” and the “if so” and the “then what’s” as well as they “how’s” and “why’s.” Traditionally, fundamental standards of writing (i.e., compositional skills) have been the telescope and microphone through which we witness and reveal the cosmos. In contemporary composition, however, the genres and modes through which we seek to examine the ” how’s” and the “why’s” have increased to allow further creativity of composition. As such, in addition to teach basic “writing” skills, such as alphabetic text, sentence structure, grammar, and Smit’s syntactical fluency and rhetorical maturity, we should also seek to teach how these skills can interact with other modes. That is, we should give students the opportunity to discover composing through image, video, music, and more. Through combining several modes or genres, we will allow students to discover for themselves which “how-to’s” create the most effective answers or examinations of their “what’s” and “how’s” and “why’s.” Perhaps it is less important that the questions are answered and more important that the composer discovers something in the process of seeking them.


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