Overhead projector - Wikipedia
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Does anyone else remember this thing? This ancient relic of days gone by. For me, and hopefully some of my readers (I’m not that old), this image calls to mind the nostalgia of the old classrooms. This, TVs on cart (even though must of the classrooms actually had TVs), incredibly overdone PowerPoints that utilized every animation and transition feature, and the idea that having your cell phone out in class, or even on you at all, was the most grievous offense you could commit, were the staples of any classroom. “Visuals were incidental props,” as Jody Shipka points out in Toward a Composition Made Whole (18). The overhead projector is the very definition of that. Most times, the teacher was simply writing on a blank piece of transparency paper with those odd looking fine point Expo pens. But… it was pointed at the white board where she could just have easily written the same thing without the strange whirring noise the projector made.

Today, the very idea of rolling a small TV on a cart into a classroom and the students whooping for joy is laughable to say the least. Gone are the days when Bill Nye and Ms. Frizzle were as multimodal as it got. (If you read any of this hearing the Gone with the Wind score in your head, that is absolutely what I was going for). As Kim Haimes-Korn points out, “We lived in a culture that has a voracious appetite for engaging content that involves visual, design, and interactive technologies not previously imagined” (169). Because of this, classrooms, and subsequently the teachers utilizing them, have had to evolve.

What Does This Mean for the Classroom?

Ootp i cant with her order of the phoenix GIF - Find on GIFER
Source: gify

I suppose, if you were so inclined, you probably could get away with writing on the overhead and I’m sure you could dig up a TV with a VCR somewhere, and you could use those tools to teach students that as long as they can write a solid three-point Thesis Statement in perfect Standard English, then they will be all set for the rest of their lives. While I am in no way poo-pooing the merits of Thesis Statements, I must point out that this is simply not what’s waiting for students beyond the hallowed halls of our school. If you tell them “there is nothing out there” to prepare for, you are simply Professor Umbridge and I wish you good day please close my blog.

The simple truth is that there are things out that students should be cognizant of in writing, and multimodality is one of them. Because of that, Composition Professors need to be open-minded in how they incorporate it into the classroom. Haimes-Korn points out that “Students tend to believe that digital and visual projects speak for themselves” (171). I am inclined to agree, as a member of the generation who first used PowerPoint to present a project in the class.

My name is Kevin and I had texts scroll up in my PowerPoint slideshows to Star Wars music.

But we have to take it a step further and show students how to incorporate multimodality into their writing. We can do this by marrying the classic tried and true with the new and innovative. For example: audience. (All English majors reading this just said “Ah yes, audience.” followed by a hearty chuckle.) We love talking about audiences when it comes to writing. Imagined audiences, real audiences, writing for your professor, writing for yourself. I’m telling you, as writing professors (and aspiring writing professors) live for this shit. But, when thinking about multimodality and incorporating the digital age into your classroom, there’s a new audience to consider. “When writing is content, … we must imagine machine audiences, programmed to algorithmically manipulate any composed text – to mine, rank, process, match, reconfigure, and redistribute it – at many places in its rhetorical travels” (Dush 176). In other words, the Google search bar is suddenly your new audience. Otherwise, how is anyone ever going to find you? If you’re going to be writing for the digital audience, you need to know how to write in such a way that it can be found by that audience. Now, I am certainly not encouraging you to impose upon your poor Freshmen the need to rank higher on a Google search; this is still a Composition class after all. This is just one way of showing students how the ideas we teach in a classic composition course translate to later tasks they might come across in this digital age.

There are many ways to incorporate multimodality into your classroom, but you also don’t want to go crazy with it. Just like students will be bored to tears if you whip out your handy dandy overhead projector and start writing on a transparent piece of paper, so to will they overwhelmed if they walk into your classroom and everything is about digital composition and media and technology. Many of them, especially if this is a Freshmen Composition Course, will not have used much (if any) technology like blogs or multimedia content creation previously, and many of them may not use it again in their college career. Setting up a class entirely composed of such writing will overwhelm them and create an unrealistic expectation of what lies ahead in their college careers. One way to slowly incorporate multimodality is to start small. One or two tasks that require multimodal composition, and probably not the first assignment or any of the ones that will count for the majority of their grade – this would again create a fear of the technology for those unfamiliar with it.

The professor that I am shadowing for my student teaching has found a way to slowly integrate multimodality into her Composition classroom. The last assignment of the semester is a PSA video the students will create using the same research and arguments they incorporated into their previously completed research papers. This is a low-stakes assignment, therefore the students will not be as stressed about it, and it also does not require any new research on their topic. This will give them more time to focus on learning about the video creation process instead of splitting their time between content research and content creation research.

Things to Think About…

I leave you with this question: what other ways can we slowly begin to integrate multimodality and modern ideas/technology into the traditional classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Works Cited

Dush, Lisa. “When Writing Becomes Content.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 2, Dec 2015, pp. 173-196.

Haimes-Korn, Kim. “Trailblazing in the Frontier Zone: Advice for Multimodal Pioneers.Beyond the Frontier, Volume II: Innovations in First-Year Composition. edited by Jill Dahlman and Tammy Winner, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018, pp. 168-182.

Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central.