Digitizing Theory

Jason Palmeri’s Remixing composition: A history of multimodal writing pedagogy (2012) proved a useful text for more than one reason. As a doctoral student nearing comprehensive exams, he provided an interesting read on the history of composition and rhetoric scholarship. As an educator, his suggestions, admittedly not foolproof or the end-all-be-all, will break the boundaries of the composition classroom that many of us still struggle with. For my purposes here, I will focus on his read of the literature, although many (if not, all) his suggestions will be making their way into my classroom.

Palmeri’s (2012) title suggests a focused look at multimodal pedagogy–preparing the reader for a look at fairly recent scholarship on the benefits and pitfalls of multimodal composing in the classroom. His history, however, took a look at staple pieces of theoretical scholarship, from all three major threads (expressivist, cognitive, social-epistemic), and fore-fronted the inherent multimodal aspect found in the history of composition and rhetoric. What I want to stress through Palmeri’s read of composition and rhetoric literature is the underlying relevance of all three strands of theoretical scholarship. No one scholar got it right, and no one scholar (myself included) will get it right. But by taking the advantageous aspects from each theorist, we stand a better chance of forming our composition theory into something that works as the landscape of composition continues to change. As Palmeri shows, digital technology has altered the way we compose and think, and how our students compose and move through the process of producing text. Multimodality has become a greater component of our compositions, and with new software (and social networking sites and online composing forums), it is now essential. The pages of these articles, from Emig to Elbow, have been read and marked by all of us, but due to the relevance and necessity of multimodality in composition, Palmeri noticed what was always there. Which brings me to my point on theory (both in this post and in my exams): composition theory should never be thrown out (as I’m sure everyone would agree). But while these theorists made their arguments privileging alphabetic text, as it was (and is) the main goal of the composition classroom, we can take what works and apply it to the changing nature of composition–to the increase of the digital and multimodal. Palmeri remixes composition, remixing the theory into a multimodal history. I say we mash-up the theory–take the best of the best, take what works and get rid of the excess, and apply it to a digital, multimodal, mashed-up composing world.


Palmeri, J. (2012). Remixing composition: A history of multimodal writing pedagogy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.


Composing Modes

composing(media) = composing(embodiment), edited by Kristin L. Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki, brings together a fantastic array of articles on media production and consumption and how that manifests in our interactions with the world. For the purposes of this post, however, I will focus on two of the articles found in this compilation: Wysocki’s Drawn together: Possibilities for bodies in words and pictures (2012) and Kristin Prins’s Crafting new approaches to composition (2012).

Wysocki (2012) illustrated (quite literally at times) the power and potential behind compositions and different modalities therein. Many scholars have made the claim that compositions are used to create identity, but Wysocki described how compositions also reflect components of an individual’s identity, including through the decision of what mode the composer uses to compose. Different modes hold meaning within them and are, thus, a reflection of the composer’s class, economy, history, etc. This meaning cannot be removed, but, as Wysocki argued, it can be used to help the continued formation of the composer’s identity.

Building on this thought laid out by Wysocki (2012), Prins (2012) stressed the importance of incorporating multimodality into the First Year Composition classroom. She introduced composing as a craft that uses different modes and is necessary for communication through digital technologies. In line with Wysocki and many others, Prins agreed that composers are transformed through their craft, but multimodal composing has yet to be used in the craft of the academe. She called for students and teachers to learn this craft together by testing out new technologies and provided potential options for doing so.

What we see here, and why I chose these two articles from this collection in particular, is the importance of multimodal composing. I’m hardly the first scholar to plead for the incorporation of multimodal composing in the composition classroom (obviously), and I am most definitely not the last, but the key here is that modes bring with them a meaning all their own—one the composer might not have considered in the first place, or even thought to consider. Take this post for example. I read a few articles, had a few thoughts, and thought to share them with my colleagues. My focus is on my meaning and what these words are conveying—but I made a conscious choice to use words. The written word holds a certain level of “prestige” (although, that isn’t why I chose this mode). They show my status as an academic. My inclusion in a group of elite. This meaning is attached only to my mode, not to my message, yet it influences my message immensely.

Why I chose to use only words in this post, though, is to show how my lack of different modes bears a direct influence on my message in other ways, too. Yes, a meaning all its own is attached to each mode, as Wysocki (2012) argued, yet I would say that meaning might not always be the main point taken away from a composition. The written word might reflect my membership in a group of elites, yet notice how here I argue for multimodality in composition and the academe, but I fail to incorporate it in the very argument itself. My mode might be one of prestige, but in this case, it destroys my argument by showing hypocrisy (and tearing down my credibility). Wysocki, herself, made a point of using the blank space of her article and incorporating illustrations and comics in connection with her written argument.

Many (dare I say, most) articles on multimodality steer clear of using it themselves. While that is a thought to ponder over, what I mean to show here is the relevance of Prins’s (2012) point. Multimodality has a lot to offer, especially in a digital environment (for instance, the inclusion of links in this post), and as the meaning of each mode may not be able to be removed (Wysocki, 2012), there might be meanings that ‘trump’ them that are also conveyed through mode, not message. All this further shows the absolute need of incorporating multimodality in the composition classroom—through the points made by Wysocki (2012) and Prins, but also through this post. Multiple modes bear a lot of influence on a message—to further it and/or to break it down. Our students, entering into a composition classroom to learn composing, deserve to be given effective tools to communicate through multiple modes, as well as in a digital environment.


Prins, K. (2012). Crafting new approaches to composition. In K. L. Arola & A. F. Wysocki (Eds.), composing(media) = composing(embodiment) (pp. 145-161). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Wysocki, A. F. (2012). Drawn together: Possibilities for bodies in words and pictures. In K. L. Arola & A. F. Wysocki (Eds.), composing(media) = composing(embodiment) (pp. 25-42). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.


Whose Class Is It Anyway?

After quite some time away from blogging, I’d like to make my first post of the new year purely reflective (and one I actually began drafting back in October). This past semester, I had an interesting experience with one of my classes that I’d like to share here, but I want to start by discussing a conversation I had with a colleague of mine at the very start of the semester. She felt the students in one of her classes lacked engagement (something we can all relate to). I made a suggestion, which she in no way was obligated to try, but the forcefulness with which she rejected it really had me thinking. I suggested she simply and directly ask her students two simple questions:

  • Why aren’t you engaged?
  • What can I do to increase that engagement?

I, in absolutely no way, mean to point an accusatory finger at students through these questions. I am suggesting, we open the floor up for students to make suggestions, contributions, and, yes, provide honest criticism and feedback of the course. We take stories, articles, concepts and shove them down our students’ throats; force them to read something we think is fitting for them to write about; don’t take their opinion into consideration at all; and then we ask for performance—and blame them for not being engaged.

Imagine, if you will, that you are asked out to dinner. You are hungry, so you agree. Your date, coincidently, is well-fed.

As you drive with your date, they tell you exactly what turn to take, what speed to go, how to hold the steering wheel (10 and 2). And you are not allowed to object. You have to do as you are told.

Your date picks the restaurant. You are not asked where you would like to eat, what kind of food you like, if you have any particular preference or craving.

At the restaurant, your date orders. For both of you. You aren’t even given a menu. Some consideration might be taken into account for an allergy, but at the end of the day, you eat what is on your plate because your date said so. And you eat it how they say, as well (chew each bite 30 times).

And why? Why are you doing all this? Because your date has more experience at dating than you do.

Oh, and you pay.

This ridiculous concept of a date is our students’ typical classroom experience. And the professors? We’re that asshole date.

Students agree to come to college. To sit in a room with us and learn.

We pick the goal of the course. What needs to be taught…and learned. Not taking into consideration what students feel they need to learn. Because, apparently, 18 years in an education system, taught them nothing about their own level of writing and their own needs. We, strangers, know that.

We also pick the way to get to that goal. Regardless, again, of the fact they might just know how to communicate a thought. They need to forget their route and learn our route. Instead of taking their communication and writing skills and transferring them, we call them an empty vessel, who must learn to communicate a thought our way, by our route.

Then we tell them what text to read. What novel, author…you name it, we pick it. And they eat it. They have no choice.

All because you have a Ph.D. Because you have a Masters. Because someone handed you a piece of chalk and named you “Professor.” Because you’re well-fed in the academic sense and have the right to flaunt your food over the starving college student. And they pay thousands and thousands of dollars for it.

Now, not all professors are like this, and I may be giving you a slight extreme (not by much, unfortunately), but it’s a tough pill to swallow. We call about 20 people into a room, tell them what they need, how they need it, why they need it, and force them fulfill that need in the way we choose. And if they stumble, we, quite literally, call it a failure. If you couldn’t eat that meal your date ordered because it made you gag, because your body was not accustomed to that taste, texture, or both, would that be your failure? Yet, somehow, our students are assessed and judged—as is the purpose of the course and professor. We are required less to help make better writers through feedback, but more to assess the performance of students and their writing.

Now, this post isn’t about assessment—that’s a whole other issue that holds merit on both sides of the argument, and I will hold it for another day. I want to take this opportunity to talk about student ownership of the classroom

This past semester, I tried something new with my Introduction to Writing and Literary Study course at Montclair State University. As expected, I had provided my students with a syllabus, breaking our semester into five units—the first three: reading literature; the last two: letting them roam “free” in their writing (in a way I organized). As is my duty, I picked the texts, assigned the homeworks, outlined the essay questions, etc. With each of the first two units, I did what I always do when assigning any essay, I left an “Open Topic” option—a moment for students to take the class and the essay into their own hands and write whatever they wanted to write about. I always hope more students will pick that option, but more often than not, they always pick one of the “safer” options, one of the topics I provide.

By the third unit, however, I decided to try something a new. The third unit was designed, the readings picked, the homework written, the essay assignment drafted, but I was still driving too much. All of this was me. I was the third unit—and the second unit, and the first unit. They picked the “safer” essay questions because I was the one in those questions, and the entire semester and course was designed around me and what I thought they should know (much like that horrible, controlling date from the start of this blog). So, I trashed the entire third unit. And I asked my students to design it instead. They had to pick the text, guide each class discussion, and decide what they were going to write their essay on (I would provide a list of themes, which they saw occur in the book and talked about in class).

Obviously, they were shocked and uneasy at first, but a little coaxing (and a threat that I would assign Fifty Shades of Grey) had them in full gear. In selecting the text, I gave two criteria: it had to be a novel, written in the past twenty years. I took a seat at the back of the room and told them to decide. It was amazing to watch. Computers came out. Everyone was talking, voting, contributing, suggesting. A student stood of his own volition and started to tally the votes on the board. The entire time, I kept my mouth shut and observed as a room of 19 students put themselves into their syllabus. Made it theirs. Had a stake. Genuinely gave a damn.

Eventually, they decided on Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, and made this unit the best I have taught thus far. Because I didn’t teach it. I let them tell me what they needed, what they wanted to talk about, how they wanted to read the text. They didn’t need me, and while that might be a scary thought, it is exactly what a college classroom should do.

Due their independence, investment, and responsibility in maintaining this unit and this class, 15 out of 19 students held class on a day I was in a different state at a conference. They recorded their discussion, which was an honor to listen to and which, unfortunately, I cannot post here (although my admiration of them has me desperate to do so), and sent it to me. Students, who normally remain quiet while I am in the room, were actively partaking in the conversation. A few students took the “professor” role in the recording, posing questions, making sure everyone’s comment was heard, but there was no one “in charge.” Thus, there was an air of mutual respect and accountability as they engaged in a truly intelligent and thoughtful conversation.

And they weren’t even required to attend that day.

We talk and research and publish about student ownership, yet when do we actually give them the moment to own the room? I’ve tried every semester to make my students feel invested and important and responsible for the course, but not once did I have see the reactions like when I gave them no other alternative but to be invested, important, and responsible for the course. There are 19 students in my classes. And 1 professor. The class belongs to them.

Student ownership can only begin when the professor finally gives it up.