I am so excited to see the multi-year collaboration between Robin Snead, Keon Pettiway, Brent Simoneaux and myself come to fruition in our Across the Disciplines article, “Multimodal Communication in the University: Surveying Faculty across Disciplines,” which just came out today. There are many, many reasons to include attention to multimodality in writing courses, but the reasons are not always as obvious for instructors teaching writing in the disciplines.
As required courses for most students, writing courses are generally tied to college and university’s goals to prepare students to participate effectively society, which includes classrooms and workplaces, but also deliberative democracy. Institutions are preparing students for society and life writ large, which includes making your voice heard in the civic forum and learning to act effectively as a citizen.
In the current communication landscape, which includes a lot of digital media, more writing has become multimodal, routinely combining modes like text, visuals, and sound in the same work. As we’ve paid more attention to this in digital spaces, of course, we’ve also come to pay attention to how communication has been multimodal all along. This has inspired many writing courses to include attention to these other modes. To participate effectively in today’s public sphere, for example, it helps to know when and how to combine modes to make a point and influence others. Writing a letter to the editor can still be effective, but sometimes you might need to make a point through something like a blog post, a photographic essay, a video, a political cartoon, or even a meme.
Some writing courses, however, are oriented more specifically toward helping students prepare to write effectively in the academic disciplines they’re likely to encounter while in college. This doesn’t mean they will exit the course prepared to write in all of them, but instead should exit more sensitive to how disciplinary goals and cultures interact with communication practices. The goal is to get them over the kind of culture shock that might make them feel like all the differences they encounter are random and unknowable. Instead, we want to sensitize them to how communication is tied to how disciplines get their work done and help students see and make sense of differences in conventions more quickly. This will help them learn more quickly when entering a course in a new discipline for them and start adapting more easily.
Many courses oriented toward writing in the disciplines, however, struggle with how much of the justification to pay attention to more than strict alphabetic text applies to them too. Do we stick with just written words or do we also pay attention to how disciplines combine these with numbers, images, audio, etc.? Our study was meant to start answering that question by asking faculty across disciplines about their undergraduate assignments and their own communication practices.
Our survey of faculty suggests that, yes, academic communication routinely uses multiple modes too, though they aren’t always used the same way or to the same extent across disciplines. For many, modes other than text is a central part of developing knowledge. They couldn’t do their work without them. It’s also a moment of intense genre change and experimentation, with practices and conventions developed in an earlier media environment (e.g. double blind peer review) colliding with expectations and experiments in our new media environment (including Youtube videos).
This is a more complex communication landscape for students to adapt to, since old conventions don’t necessarily disappear—the environment just gets more complex. While this was a preliminary attempt at answering some of these questions, we feel that the implications of our study for writing programs are that students in academic writing courses would also benefit from attention to multimodality.
We also hope our results will be helpful to those organizing faculty and graduate student professional development, for writing across the curriculum programs, and for writing centers.
It’s an exciting day for us!
Reid, Gwendolynne, Robin Snead, Keon Pettiway, and Brent Simoneaux. “Multimodal Communication in the University: Surveying Faculty across Disciplines.” Across the Disciplines (March 2016). Web. http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/articles/reidetal2016.cfm
NC State’s press release on the study: “Study Highlights Importance of Multimodal Communication in Higher Ed,” https://news.ncsu.edu/2016/03/reid-modes-2016/
March 29, 2016 Update:
Brief Inside Higher Ed write-up on the study out today: “Study on Importance of ‘Multimodal’ Teaching,” https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/03/29/study-importance-multimodal-teaching
ScienceDaily coverage: “Study Highlights Importance of Multimodal Communication in Higher Ed,” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160328105756.htm
EurekAlert! coverage: “Study Highlights Importance of Multimodal Communication in Higher Ed,” http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/ncsu-shi032816.php
PhysOrg coverage: “Study Highlights Importance of Multimodal Communication in Higher Ed,” http://phys.org/news/2016-03-highlights-importance-multimodal-higher.html
March 31, 2016 Update
CHASS News: “Study Highlights Importance of Multimodal Communication in Higher Ed,” http://news.chass.ncsu.edu/2016/03/31/study-highlights-importance-of-multimodal-communication-in-higher-ed/
NC State CHASS Tweet: “Take a minute to check out this study from @ncsucrdm students, alumni: http://ow.ly/107Xwy #ThinkandDo,” https://twitter.com/NCStateCHASS/status/715560589217697792
Robin Snead’s post (my coauthor) on the article: https://robinlsnead.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/new-article-multimodal-communication-in-the-university/
April 20, 2016 Update
Daily Tarheel: NC State Study: Multimodal Learning Beneficial to College Students,” http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2016/04/nc-state-study-multimodal-learning-beneficial-to-college-students