The New Work of Composing

Undergraduate Research in Multimodal Composition

Unlike most scholarly work, the page never factored into our composing processes for this chapter (borne out of our Multimodal Composition class).  Instead, our goal was to capture video and audio moments from the 2008 Thomas R. Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition and make them into scholarly multimedia projects that showcased both the conference and our perspectives on the conference. The four group projects presented here may do more of the latter than the former, but that’s not so unexpected given that the authors

  1. are all upper-level undergraduate students, from several disciplines (and not all from the humanities) with no prior experience in multimodal theory,
  2. had no prior experience in sustained multimedia authoring (1 or 2 had done small videos on their own; 1 had blogged),
  3. had no experience authoring academic scholarship of any kind (either page- or screen-based),
  4. had no experience attending any kind of academic conference prior to attending Watson,
  5. had no clear understanding (at the beginning of the semester) what professors do when they “publish,”
  6. assumed all professors (Cheryl excluded, only due to the obvious digital course content) were “technologically illiterate,” “FaceBook haters,” and (wait for it…) “old,”
  7. had only eight weeks to learn the disciplinary conversations about (and audiences for) multimodal composition before Watson, and only four weeks after to complete their scholarly multimedia projects.


This video mimics the mockumentary format of The Office (which, sadly, the teacher didn’t realize at first because she doesn’t watch that television show). We present it first beause it straightforwardly documents the conference and the students’ reactions to being there.

By Kenton Cody, Tom Raehl, Nick Walker, Julie Zei (with additional filming/editing by Nick Walker and Matthew Wendling)


This project began as an anecdote about teachers and social networking sites, wherein a student relayed the fact that one of her teachers had called Facebook “the devil.” In a class on Multimodal Composition, we could all laugh at the ridiculousness of that statement, but students knew better (and had experienced different). So the question became: How can teachers integrate social networking inside and outside of the classroom? This interactive MySpace site asks and answers this question. In the tradition of hypertextual scholarship, the site requires readers to interact with it and combine nodes of information in the form of videos from and about the Watson conference, blog posts that offer annotated research, and social-networking updates to recreate the argument.

Image of IsMySpaceUrSpace profile from

IsMySpaceUrSpace: Click on this image to access the MySpace webtext site.

By Matthew Wendling, Amy Determan, Ariana Haza, Katie Rockwell


This video is a humorous and slightly uncomfortable “behind-the-scenes” look at both students and teachers at the Watson conference. In opposition to the more polished scholarship—i.e. work in line with teachers’ expectations for multimedia academic writing—that the first video represents, the “Gotcha!” video shows what students want to produce. In this “behind-the-scenes” video, The Normal Group shows their well-meaning buffoonery juxtaposed against those of the teacher-scholars they observe at the Watson conference. This piece—originally intended for submission as part of the final video, “Technology’s Impact on Teaching and Learning”—speaks back to teachers (particularly those who think they don’t have anything else to learn about teaching with technology) in ways that are profound, uncomfortable, but ultimately accurate in the eyes of students. The students enjoyed every minute of editing this video, including the surprise shout-out at the end. (to point out their own professor's buffoonery? What, again, counts as scholarship?!)

By Jessica Huang, Amos Rein, Steve LaGioia, Vince Scannell


This video, revised for class but after which the editable footage was lost, is perhaps the most powerful example of The Normal Group’s practice of converging digital media and academic writing practices. This project was pitched by Vince Scannell, who asked classmates, “How does pedagogy need to change when students have Google in their pockets?” The students quickly recognized the power of Katherine Hayles’ take on hyper and deep attention, and the video includes several clips from an interview they conducted with her at Watson.

By Jessica Huang, Amos Rein, Steve LaGioia, Vince Scannell (with Hayles’ interview footage by Andrew Chamberlain)


Elsewhere in this chapter, I (Cheryl) told readers that I began to re-think what digital scholarship is and can be because of these students’ projects. Not just what academic writing cum digital scholarship can look like for them—something that I’d been thinking about for years both inside (see Moeller & Ball, 2007) and outside (see Ball & Moeller, 2008) of the classroom—but what digital scholarship is for all of us.



The Normal Group would like to thank the following people for making this project possible:

  • Andrew Chamberlain (an undergraduate student co-teaching the English 239 course with Dr. Ball), who was instrumental in planning and driving the other students to the 2008 Thomas R. Watson Conference
  • Debra Journet, who was open to the idea of undergraduates documenting the conference and provided in-kind registration fees for them
  • The Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Illinois State University, which provided $2,000 in funding through its Teaching Development Innovation Grant to pay for the students’ hotels and food as well as some digital recording equipment
  • The English Department at Illinois State University, which paid for transportation costs for the students
  • The Research and Sponsored Programs Office at Illinois State University, which began an Undergraduate Research Fellowship award in response to a lack of non-Honors undergraduate research opportunities on campus. One student from The Normal Group, Matthew Wendling, received a summer fellowship to revise several of the videos in this chapter. (Revision suggestions were based on student editorial feedback from a subsequent semester of the Multimodal Composition course).