Experiments in Multimodal Composition: Going Beyond the Traditional Paper in Freshman Writing Classes

This semester I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation in my freshmen writing classes.

Mainly in the form of multimodal composition. I really want to challenge the boundaries of what it means to “compose” pieces of communication. The traditional written essay is fast fading–both with regard to student interest, and also with relevance to contemporary practice. Our culture is one that prioritizes digital communication, and especially that which encourages and facilitates peer-to-peer collaboration.

In response to this changing face of real-world production and consumption, I am trying to adapt my teaching style so it better fits the contemporary model. I want my students to be equipped with the tools they need to be successful after college, not just during it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am abandoning writing altogether. Learning to write well will continue to be a crucial component of student success. Beyond that, the elements of good writing provide a solid foundation for developing good pieces of multimodal composition. Thesis statements, transitions, support, audience awareness–these are all elements that I stress heavily with multimodal composition projects, as well. Therefore, learning to do these things well in writing is an important first step in creating effective pieces of multimodal communication. Because of this, my writing classes now begin with two traditional written papers that are heavily workshopped and revised. Once I feel confident that everyone knows how to craft a good thesis and cite support for an argument, we move on to the third project of the semester: the multimodal composition.

Film As Multimodal Composition

Film was the form the project took this semester. Because I am a big believer in the learning power of collaboration, my students work in groups all semester (another post topic?).  By the end of the semester, they know each other well, which is one of the reasons I feel comfortable assigning this project as a group endeavor. The prompt details the assignment. Basically, each group is required to pick one of the poems, short stories, or plays, we read this semester and create a “multimodal interpretation” of the chosen piece. Each film has to have a thesis, support, and effective transitions–just like a traditional paper. The exciting thing about multimedia is it allows for much more than just these static elements. Students can use sound, colors, camera angles, and many other cinematic elements to make their point, in addition to the standard components.

In preparation for this project, we spent a couple weeks on a short film unit. As we watched some shorts, we discussed cinematography and how the filmmaker used certain elements in order to make his or her argument explicit. We spent a good deal of time identifying main themes and discussing how these main themes were supported within the work. We also discussed various recording devices and video editing programs. As you can see from the prompt, I mainly focused on the iPhone and iMovie app. Most students ended up using both (another advantage of the group setting was that at least one student in each group had some experience in this realm). Once my students were able to recognize important aspects of filmmaking, and had a basic idea how to film and edit, they were ready to try it themselves.

The first step was to develop a project proposal by which each group pitched their ideas to me. I listened and advised when necessary. Overall, I was very pleased with this step. Some groups showed up to the meetings with fully-written scripts, complete with stage directions. In general, they seemed to embrace this project with much more excitement and creativity than they might with a traditional paper, which is what I was hoping for.

The finished products are mind-blowing. I am so impressed by the work my students did. Each class has six groups of four, so I have twenty-four excellent pieces of multimodal composition and collaborative communication. And, perhaps more exciting, the students also have them. We used Youtube as a hosting platform for the films, so they can be accessed again at any time.

This project has been incredibly fun and enlightening; I will certainly be using it again in future semesters. Multimodal composition is not only possible, but it is an essential part of digital communication. Which, as I’m sure we all realize, is the future.

If you’re interested, here is my favorite of the twenty-four films. These students chose to explore the theme of memory, specifically the way memories can be triggered by every day events. Notice in particular the way they use transitions, sound, and colors to make their argument.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3H6ln3oL91k?wmode=opaque]