The Politics of ReMEDIAtion: Multimodal Composing in Basic Writing
Lynn Reid, Farleigh Dickinson University
“Our own academic positions are authorized by the hegemony of expertise that legitimizes a stratified and antidemocratic educational system. It is now time for us to contest the prevailing representations of literacy and the systems of tracking in secondary schools and of selective admissions to higher education that literacy measures, regulates, and certifies.”
~John Trimbur, “Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis”
In the introduction to a recently published special issue of the Basic Writing Electronic Journal (BWe) on multimodal composing, Barbara Gleason (2012) notes that, despite efforts by scholars in the broader field of composition studies to seriously consider the role of new technologies in the teaching of writing, “a focused discussion of multimodal composition [has] yet to make headway in basic writing classrooms and publications” (p. 2). The few notable exceptions—Klages’ and Clark’s (2009) work on ePortfolios at LaGuardia Community College, Dighton’s (2012) “All Along the Watchtower: Some Kind of Way Out of Basic Writing Using Emerging Technologies,” and the thematic special issue of BWe guest edited by Gleason—barely scratch the surface of this complex issue.
Despite the paucity of published scholarship that directly addresses multimodal composing in basic writing, online forums, email lists, conference presentations, and corridor conversations with colleagues make clear to me that basic writing faculty are, without question, employing a wide range of digital pedagogies in their courses. While there are many potential reasons for the gap between scholarship and classroom practice in this case, I would argue that it is the expectation that basic writing classes teach students to be fluent in print-based literacy that at least partially accounts for this silence. At the end of conference sessions and workshops that invite faculty to consider how and why to bring multimodal composing opportunities into basic writing classes, I often hear attendees say: “I would never get away with doing that in my basic writing class.”
The local politics involved in asking basic writing students to compose “texts that exceed the alphabetic and may include still and moving images, animations, color, words, music and sound” (Selfe, 2008, p. 1) quickly become clear as panelists and members of the audience begin to share their stories. For example, one community college instructor adjusted a lesson plan and computer lab reservations on the day of her scheduled teaching observation so that another member of her department wouldn't see her students working on digital projects. A faculty member at a state university created an “extra-credit” digital project for fear of her department chair’s reaction to replacing a traditional essay with a multimodal composition. Another instructor admitted to coupling a multimodal project with an extensive writing assignment so as to validate the work his students were doing. And more than once, I have even found myself admitting to having backed off of a planned multimodal project for fear of a supervisor questioning why, when as Yancey (2004) notes “what our colleagues expect us to deliver in the composition classroom [is]: the print of CCCC—coherence, clarity, consistency, and (not least) correctness,” (p. 438) I would “waste time” with something “fun” instead of what students “need” to be successful in college and beyond.
Decisions about what basic writing students in particular will “need” from any given curriculum are often made in response to complaints about skills those same students lack. As Trimbur's (1991) “Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis” suggests, however, there is more than one way to measure or quantify what precise literacy skills students may be lacking. Framing his discussion in terms of literacy crises, Trimbur (1991) offers two possible narratives: “The first explanation asserts that literacy crises occur when the ability to read and write actually and demonstrably declines. The second holds that literacy crises result not from deteriorating performance but from heightened expectations and increased social and economic demand for reading and writing” (p. 281). While these two narratives may, at first glance, appear to rest on opposite sides of the spectrum, Trimbur makes clear that “literacy and its crises are always interested, always articulated in relation to power and the negotiation of cultural hegemony” (p. 285), regardless of what specific skills are under debate.
In the years since Trimbur’s work was published, much has changed and much has, unfortunately, remained the same. Evidence has continued to mount demonstrating the validity of Trimbur’s argument that literacy is deeply intertwined with cultural hegemony—particularly in the academy. This is particularly visible in the basic writing classroom. What has changed, however, is the possibility of discussing literacy in terms of a single mode—alphabetic text. Even a cursory glance at a university curriculum in any discipline reveals that students are expected to demonstrate the ability to complete a wide range of composing tasks, ranging from print-based, alphabetic essays to emails, blog posts, podcasts, videos, PowerPoint or Prezi presentations, videos, and much more.
For basic writing, a field that is simultaneously sustained and threatened by discourses of literacy in crisis, the stakes of these conversations are especially high. Basic writing courses and programs exist in order to serve academia's least-prepared students, but the same “literacy crises” that point to students’ lack of basic skills and justify the existence of a program in one moment can also quickly become the impetus for dismantling one (a point which I will explore in detail below) in the next. As a field and at local levels, basic writing must constantly reposition itself in response to discourses of literacy in crisis—expanding our reach when our work is constructed as the solution to a skills-based crisis, and guarding our turf when our presence suddenly makes clear that students who have not mastered the “basics” might actually be sitting in a college classroom. The video below sketches the difficulties faced by the field of basic writing in stark terms.
In order to protect basic writing courses (and, especially, the students who populate those courses), faculty must work carefully to ensure that those “basics” are clearly defined and delivered. Thirty years ago, Mike Rose (1983) suggested that the “basics” that were often the focus of remedial courses frequently lead to the creation of “a writing course that does not lead outward to the intellectual community that contains it” (p. 114). The crux of Rose’s argument then was that a reductive, over-simplified pedagogical approach to basic writing, one that focused on correctness over complexity, does little to prepare students for the work that will be required in more advanced courses across the disciplines. If we reexamine this claim today, in light of all that we now know about the complex, digital literacies that students must engage with throughout their academic and professional lives, a basic writing curriculum that is grounded solely in the realm of print-based, alphabetic literacy clearly fails to “lead outward to the intellectual world that contains it” (Rose, 1983, p. 114).
But what happens when basic writing teachers turn to respond to a literacy crisis based on a narrative of progress, particularly one that is linked to multimodal composing? When multimodal composing is added to the mix, faculty, courses, and programs that are already vulnerable thanks to a discourse of declining skill must proceed with caution as they implement curricular changes that further distance students from what some perceive to be the “authentic” work of the academy. Although multimodal composing is becoming increasingly integrated into conversations about college writing curricula, this work also pushes against long-held conceptions of what a college-level “composition” should look like. Ironically, basic writing scholars and teachers often find themselves already pushing against these same standards when students who lack the “appropriate” set of college-level literacy skills fill our classrooms each semester. It is the intersection of these narratives—Trimbur’s crisis of skill, his crisis of progress, and the institutional politics that potentially surround both—that I will focus on here.