This essay is a narrative of discovery, rather than an argument; but of course an argument—by what is recounted and affirmed—is implied.
In late May of 2007, I arrived at the Ohio State University’s Digital Media and Composition Institute with two unusual resources: a small cassette recording of a family musical party, and a set of letters. Along with a handful of family photos, they would allow me to fulfill the central task demanded of DMAC participants: the creation of a short multi-media text—in my case, a film titled Mr. Secrets. The film’s title directly reflects the nature of the correspodence I had brought with me: a set of letters composed from April 30 to Christmas Day of 1950, written to my father by a young woman named Millie—as he lived and worked in New York, while my mother, sister, and I remained in Ireland, waiting to join him. After his arrival in New York City, my father had lived with his aunt and uncle, and the letters had been found in the attic of their house, and been passed along, by their daughter, to my mother, in March of 2007. She—in her generosity—then gave them to me, feeling that I should decide what was to be done with them, as the oldest son of my father, who had died two decades earlier.
In what follows, I am going to focus primarily on the multimodal composing process that led to the creation of Mr. Secrets, and secondarily on what this single instance of such composing reveals about some established theoretical issues in research on multimodality as a textual strategy.
An amateur plunge into multimodal composing
"And no doubt, that is what reading is: rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives."
This line of Roland Barthes', quoted in Robert Scholes' The Protocols of Reading (9), was much on my mind when I first read the letters that had come into my possession. Here was a powerful and unexpected set of texts that now existed—in difficult ways—within the text of my life. How would they, both in their first-encountered immediacy and then over time, rewrite for me the man who had been my father? And how would I “rewrite” them and him for myself?
Early on I felt a strong need to produce some kind of textual response to them, having constantly stressed to my students the validity of this foundational claim from Protocols: “The reader is always outside the text...The price of entry is the labor of production itself. To read rightly we must start to write ourselves” (5). But the nature of the texts confronting me here was unusually challenging and unsettling: a one-sided correspondence (I had only Millie’s letters), an intimate correspondence, an incomplete record of a relationship lived out more than half a century earlier. My wife, who had attended DMAC the year before, suggested that it might be possible to work with the letters, the cassette, and the family photos in some multimodal way, and that such work might give me a better sense of what their meanings, within my own life, might be.
At DMAC I would be facing another difficulty, one beyond the natural challenge of working with the letters: while not at all opposed to the technologies that were already transforming my students’ composing processes and textual products, I could most charitably described as technologically inept. I relied on my home and office computers merely as glorified typewriters, used to generate nothing more than traditional textual materials. I had never scanned a document or image, never used a digital camera, never created a PDF file—embarrassingly, I had never even saved a document to my desktop, and had no idea it was possible to do so and why it might be useful. Working at the same time with both the delicate texts I had inherited and the daunting technologies DMAC would connect me with struck me as a challenge I could easily fail to meet.
DMAC is structured to plunge one immediately into the several digital technologies essential to multimodal composing: digital sound recording, digital photography and video, and various software systems for managing one’s digitally captured resources. The strongest emphasis is on doing, but some key readings on the theory and meaning of multimodality frame that doing from the start, and one among them—Elizabeth Daley’s “Expanding the Concept of Literacy”—offered a reassuring claim about what multimodal work could offer me: Daley writes that the final product of any multimedia work “is most successful when it emerges in large part during the process of creation...there needs to be room for discovery and even serendipity during the production or creation of a film or multimedia document” (36) . I was uncertain about what I could or should produce in response to the letters I had inherited; but multimedia tools and the typically collaborative context of multimedia composing were designed to allow meaning to emerge in a distinctively fluid way—encouraging me to immerse myself in a composing process that I could trust to help me toward both discovery and creation.
And what I began to understand after just a couple of days’ work with digital tools is what multimedia theorists commonly refer to as the various technologies’ “affordances”—what each one makes it possible to achieve, both during composing and in the final multimodal text. Digital sound technology, in connection with the sound-managing program Audacity, allowed me to bring voice to Millie’s letters, and made available my father’s own musical performances as possible accompaniment to whatever images would constitute the bulk of my short film. Digital scanning technology allowed me to present the letters in their original written form, rather than as more distant, visually “anonymous” typed recastings, as well as to reproduce the family photos that would bring into view the people (excepting Millie) centrally involved in the story that the film would eventually unfold. Windows Movie Maker program would enable me to integrate all of these resources, with relative ease, so that a coherent visual and aural narrative could, at the end of many and varied composing processes, finally emerge.
One of the great surprises of my DMAC experience was finding out how accessible and how powerful these varied technologies had become by the time I took them up, making them unexpectedly enabling and strikingly engaging. I had arrived at DMAC with a resource—the letters—that was little more than a chronicle, and an incomplete one at that; what the digital technologies were enabling was a way of blending those letters with my other visual and aural resources, and a way of being deeply engaged by their affordances so that I might myself engage in narrative speculation and, in the end, creation.
But beyond the technologies, my project was very much a matter of traditional text production as well. Parallel to all of my daily work in the Institute’s computer labs, I was making notes on the letters and the photos, jotting down narrative ideas that I hoped would eventually become the film’s script, and often scribbling ideas about sound and image into these texts as and after they were being written. These multiple composing processes were as inchoate and serendipitous as Daley had promised, but their interactions were also teasing structure out of my thinking and feeling. The varied resources—music, photos, Millie’s texts, my own texts, images of the letters, digital voicings of them by my wife—slowly created possibilities of telling and interpretation, and suggested multiple connections that constantly carried me forward.
The final product—the short film Mr. Secrets—is, inevitably, amateurish. Certain images need to be redesigned or replaced; the digital voiceover needs to be re-recorded to improve its clarity and its pacing; there are segues that should be smoothed out or re-thought. But it also, in its processes of composing, became amateurish in that other sense, a true and surprising labor of love. The degree to which DMAC’s digital technologies both engaged and inspired me drew me into hours of work well beyond the end of the labs’ daily schedule My just developing grasp of the intense rhetorical and critical thinking demands involved in the creation of multimedia documents happily unsettled me. I had arrived at the Institute completely ignorant of the nature and use of the technologies that would allow me, in just less than two weeks, to produce a text I had never before imagined. That does, at least, make me a useful example to university colleagues—both students and faculty—whom I hope to convince of the benefits and the pleasures of multimodal composing. Uncertainty, it turns out, can with luck lead to enthusiasm, and ignorance to wonder.
From experience to speculation
Unsurprisingly, my DMAC experience confirmed some important ideas offered by the start-up readings. In his “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies,” Dennis Baron observes that communications technologies become widespread when they can easily be adapted to familiar functions—that is, when they become less cumbersome to use and when they reflect some level of continuity with established forms. For example, the development of the WYSIWYG screen appearance—“what you see is what you get”—“helped less-adventurous writers make the jump to computers” (71, 80); what they saw as they composed was the visual equivalent of typing on a page. By the time I encountered the digital technologies I was learning, they had made this shift to ease of use and generally WYSIWYG appearance. (The one surprise was that digital audio work would prove the most difficult of the tasks the film involved me in—difficult, but still not too complex to use well in a short time.) This, in part, accounts for why the technologies were, as Takayoshi and Selfe have claimed, "intellectually demanding and...also engaging" (4).
Beyond what I was finding out about the accessibility and invitingness of the technologies, as my multimedia work unfolded over the course of the Institute I also experienced the truth of two reassuring claims of Elizabeth Daley: that such composition “is most often an act of collaboration”; and that its final product is typically “most successful when it emerges in large part during the process of creation” (36). But as I moved past understanding a handful of new technologies to the detailed intellectual and artistic work of creating Mr. Secrets, I was experiencing new things about the nature and meaning of multimedia composing, both its process and its products: how it makes meaning—something of its epistemology, if you will—and how it matters that the meaning is multimodal.
Two of Daley’s foundational arguments for an expanded definition of “literacy,” a definition that includes multimedia work, are that “the multimedia language of the screen is capable of constructing complex meanings independent of text,” and that it “enables modes of thought, ways of communicating...that are essentially different from those of text” (33-34). Given the unusual resources I had to work with, and the inchoate nature of my own aims, I found myself being “instructed”—about possible meanings, and about ways of embodying them—by the varied media I was working with. I was being taught what might emerge, for myself and for my eventual audience, when a particular piece of music is experienced while also reading or hearing a distinctive passage of text; or when a voiceover of one of the letters is matched up with a series of images, or—again—a short stretch of music. I was learning, by immersion and in a very basic way, those “rhetorical codes and narrative strategies of cinema” which are, Daley claims, little understood by many humanities faculty and yet “critical to the creation of meaning” (38). Most surprising of all, I was learning how work with multimedia resources, and the collaborative nature of multimedia composition, can unsettle one’s common sense of narrative—how it is made, its vulnerability to newly fluid senses of variable structuring, and how it works as rich multimedia product.
In Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration, James Phelan reminds us that “narrative itself can be fruitfully understood as a rhetorical act: somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened” (18). Clearly, the film Mr. Secrets would inevitably be a rhetorical act; but I was finding that the complications of working to learn new technologies, in connection with the unusual and emotionally resonant resources I would be bringing them to bear on, blurred my awareness of and control over every other part of this definition. As the film’s creator, and within its reality as final product, what would I be as the “somebody” doing the telling—and what of Millie as the somebody inadvertently and unknowingly telling me, and through the film, yet another audience the story (and is that even the right word?) at the film’s heart. I was also completely uncertain of the “somebody else” being told, and must admit that during the intense work of learning the technologies and wandering through the details of the letters, and the possible ways of understanding them, I gave almost no conscious thought to any “audience” (even though I knew there would be one, on the last day of the Institute). The whole process of learning and constructing felt, very deeply, like an interior monologue: immersed in the curious examination and hesitant use of new media, meditating upon the meanings of the letters, hearing musics and seeing images from a very distant past, I felt as if I were speaking only to myself, creating only for myself. And what might my purpose be in telling myself the varied possible stories about this something that had happened? Clearly, the creative situation that DMAC put me in had forestalled my typical sense of narrative-creation, and I was uncertain whether this was due to the unfamiliar affordances of the technologies, the collaborative nature of the composing process, the nature of the particular story I was trying to find, or some combination of all these elements. Daley had promised me that I would encounter “modes of thought...different from text” (33); what I had not anticipated was how deeply different these modes might be, and how my work with and through them would challenge my traditional/textual sense of rhetoric, narrative, and composition.
Although not a topic addressed in DMAC’s readings, autobiographical theory and criticism have been at the center of my own academic work for over a decade. And within a few months of the film’s completion, its showing at DMAC, and its use in an academic conference, I began to consider how it might be critiqued as an autobiographical text. When I first began to consider making Mr. Secrets, I envisioned the final product as a decidedly biographical text, one which would present a small but telling slice of my father’s life, and one revealed only through another’s understanding of him, another I had no knowledge of beyond letters to him (letters being, of course, a traditional resource for any biographer). But as the process of composition unfolded, I came to realize that the film would inevitably also be—since I was creating the script that would “contain” whatever texts and images and music I selected and combined to craft the final product—a part of my autobiography. In Reading Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson describe life narratives as “a set of ever-shifting self-referential practices that engage the past in order to reflect on identity in the present” (3). I was now engaging with a newly uncovered past, one in which I had not been present, to reflect on identity in the present—both my father’s and my own. The work of creating the film, and its final form, would become a part of my life narrative, and yet...In some inexplicable way, that work felt like a third and an impossible thing: the creation of a small but important arc of time in Millie’s and my father’s inadvertent, unwritten autobiographies.
This sense came, I think, from the affordances offered to me by the digital nature of my work. Elizabeth Daley notes that multimedia texts can embody many of the elements of traditional print text (concepts, abstractions, comparisons, etc.), “while at the same time engaging our emotional and aesthetic sensibilities” (34). In allowing me to create a living voice to present Millie’s letters, to present the actual handwritten texts as they were being voiced, to present images of the man to whom they were written, to sometimes lend to these music he had himself played, and to speak my own understanding in connection with all of these elements—through all these affordances, digital technologies granted me an unexpected intimacy with all the human realities the letters embodied. They granted a new life to these lost people, to their long-buried emotions and hopes, to their disappointed love; and they granted me the possibility of a new and deeper understanding of all these things as well, and a deeper imagining.
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson remind us that the foundational element of autobiographical narratives is “imaginative acts of remembering,” but they also caution that those acts “always intersect with such rhetorical acts as assertion, justification, judgment, conviction, and interrogation" (6). Mr. Secrets, I am sure, bears out the truth of these assertions. The work of composing it would necessarily be imaginative, given the scant though rich textual resources I began that work with. Fortunately, the visual and audio resources I was able to bring into connection with those textual ones allowed me to extend my imagination, to see and hear and feel them with altered understanding. I was adding to what memories I had of my father something new—not a direct or recaptured memory of my experience with him, but something that would now become a new memory concerning who he had been, who he would be to me from now on, my continued sense of him changed by what I had read and what I was creating. But the fact that I would put these richer imaginings to the task of creating a public text would also make my composing inevitably rhetorical.
In one sense, Millie seems the only true “autobiographer” in the film—though an inadvertent one, without any of the usual autobiographical intentions. She is, in her letters, the narrator/protagonist, that double textual being who, Philippe Lejeune claims, guarantees the identity of autobiography as a genre (5). But she is not completely or primarily, given the nature of her textualizing, the observing subject/object of “investigation, remembrance, and contemplation” described by Smith and Watson as the central figure of life narrative (1). Ironically, in taking up the making of Mr. Secrets, that role falls to me—and with it come all the theoretical complexities of life writing. At the center of those complexities is the fact that “truth” in autobiography emerges within “an intersubjective exchange between narrator and reader aimed at producing a shared understanding of the meaning of a life” (Smith and Watson, 15). That exchange occurred first between myself and Millie, in my reading of her letters, to which I brought my previous understanding (such as it could be) of the meaning of my father’s life, and my desire to produce a new “shared understanding.” It continued and developed as I engaged in the work of composing Mr. Secrets, both aided and in important ways created by the affordances of digital technologies of representation. And it now passes into a realm over which I no longer have control: the intersubjective truths that will be created by those who encounter the film.
W. E. B. Du Bois, quoted in Reading Autobiography, notes that—given the limits of memory and the intricate complexities of intention—his own autobiography must finally be seen as “a theory of my life . . . the Soliloquy of an old man on what he dreams his life has been . . . and what he would like others to believe” (13). In the end, Mr. Secrets offers a dream—my own—of what my father’s life had been during the time Millie’s letters were written, and a theory: of an important part of my father’s life, and of his life in mine.
As a promised “narrative of discovery,” this essay was originally conceived as a work of retrospection, which would integrate memory and reportage with critical/theoretical ideas current in scholarship on multimodality. But in its composing, it inevitably moved beyond retrospection to embody and enact another narrative of discovery—the narrative of its present-time making.
In 2007, Ohio State University’s Digital Media and Composition Institute plunged me into an unfamiliar world of digital media production—its technologies, its epistemology, its innovative compositional and rhetorical practices, its insights into the nature of graphical design, and its lively culture of collaboration. Now, over the months devoted to creating this chapter, I have been returned—less intensively but more persistently—to the lessons and the processes of multimodal composition. At the suggestion of one of this volume’s editors, Ryan Trauman, I chose to use Dreamweaver as the program through which I would design this chapter. Lacking the DMAC context, I turned again to basic textual resources first: Garrick Chow’s Dreamweaver CS3: Video Training Book, and his more detailed Adobe Dreamweaver CS3: Hands on Training. This slow but very instructive process of working with text and video instruction, and their design exercises, allowed me to craft the basic website that once was the chapter’s “first draft.” Quite naturally, the completion and submission of that first draft began a new process of collaboration.
Though we typically don’t think of it as collaboration, editorial comment and advice is just that. And so my first collaborative help in creating the final version of “Mr. Secrets: Multimodality’s Complex Invitation to Remake Text, Meaning, and Audience” was the “chapter-specific feedback” from Cheryl Ball, Debra Journet, and Ryan Trauman: two pages of detailed and thought-provoking suggestions about textual content, further critical reading, and graphical/rhetorical design. The resources I developed in response to those suggestions were then integrated into the final chapter with the direct technical help of Ryan Trauman, whose own deep expertise provided the crucial foundation of the chapter’s full redesign.
And collaboration is, perhaps, the most important and enduring lesson of digital multimodal composing—a lesson that alters and deepens one’s fundamental understanding of all the elements of traditional composition: how meaning is made; how it is made persuasive to an audience; the role and nature of language—dramatically reframed when language and image are embedded in each other. Just as a multimodal document is an integration of varied and complex resources, so its creation is a necessary integration of varied people’s complex skills, expert assistance, and supportive judgement. There is, of course, much individual effort on the part of a piece’s “originator” (“author” hardly, by the end, seems the appropriate word), and that should be recognized as well. For me, multimedia work suggests an image borrowed from that physiology on which our lives depend: the systole of individual, solitary work which leads inescapably to the diastole of collaborative sharing, for both judgement and further development. Without both of those actions, the small story that is Mr. Secrets would never have come to its own surprising life.
Comments about the collaborative nature of multimodal work are threaded throughout this chapter, but it is certainly necessary to recognize directly those people whose work and generosity essentially made both the film, Mr. Secrets, and this chapter possible.
Ohio State University’s Digital Media and Composition Institute provides a remarkable experience—intellectual, communal, and emotional. Its director, Dr. Cynthia Selfe, is unstinting in her generosity of spirit and unmatchable in her range of knowledge. She, and the faculty and graduate students who assist and inspire DMAC’s participants, can never be thanked enough.
Dr. Debra Journet, who first persuaded her reluctant husband that DMAC was a professional obligation (chairs should know what it means for young scholars in English and Composition to ground their research in digital media) and could be a great pleasure, deserves thanks for both preceding me to DMAC, and bringing home to me the expertise and enthusiasm that it generates. She was also generous enough to be the voice of Millie, creating the central auditory experience on which so much of the film’s power rests.
Dr. Cheryl Ball, first encountered at DMAC, has provided conversation and inspiration since those June days. Her own scholarly work is a model of informed digital research, and her editorial expertise and advice have been crucial to me, in crafting both Mr. Secrets and this chapter.
And finally, there is Ryan Trauman—the indispensable digital co-creator of this Dreamwoven document. His range of textual and digital expertise is truly daunting; his vision of what digital multimedia can bring to both the composition classroom and the conduct of research has changed my own understanding—very late in my career—of both. And his time—shared so often and so helpfully with me—is an irreplaceable gift.
And I continue to hope that the day will come when my end of the collaborative experience can begin to prove useful to any and all of these great friends.
Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies. Ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1999. 15-33.
Chow, Garrick. Adobe Dreamweaver CS3: Video Training Book. Berkeley: PeachPit Press. 2007.
---. Adobe Dreamweaver CS3: Hands on Training. Berkeley: PeachPit Press. 2007.
Daley, Elizabeth. "Expanding the Concept of Literacy." Educause Review, March/April, 2003. 33-40.
Lejeune, Philippe. "The Autobiographical Pact." On Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1989. 3-30.
Phelan, James. Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2005.
Scholes, Robert. Protocols of Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1989.
Sheppard, Jennifer. "The Rhetorical Work of Multimedia Production Practices: It's More than Just Technical Skill." Computers and Composition. 26 (2009) 122-131.
Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2001.
Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L. Selfe. "Thinking about Multimodality." Multimodal Composing: Resources for Teaching. Hampton Press: Crosshill, NJ. 2007.
Vandome, Nick. Digital Video in Easy Steps. Berkeley: Publishers Group West. 2003.