brain harmon working on a concept in 60 video

Techne in 60: The History and Practice of the Concept in 60

Scott Lloyd DeWitt, Brian Harmon, Dundee Lackey, and Christina M. LaVecchia

Introduction | In Context | In Their Own Words | Archive | Credits

In Their Own Words
(Dundee Lackey and Christina M. LaVecchia)

In this section of the webtext, we present an insider’s view of the Concept in 60 projects as made; our work shows how the principles and pedagogy shared by DeWitt move into practice for (and reveal the background stories behind Harmon’s archive of projects by) DMAC participants. Drawing from videotaped interviews with participants in the 2013 DMAC Institute, we present here a view of the composing processes of DMAC ‘13-ers, conversations that evolved past our original vision into exchanges on multimodal composing broadly, touching on the discipline(s), teaching, and more.

This section is comprised of videos, which represent responses to particular interview questions, as well as keywords and summaries of each video that we trust will help readers to find moments of interest to them within our video archive. Rather than focusing on the stories and decision-making processes behind specific projects completed by DMAC ‘13-ers (an end that Dundee and Christina hope to achieve in future work), we chose to remix these interviews in ways that emphasize common patterns in participant responses so as to bring forward general statements about teaching, learning, and professional development.

In what follows, you will hear DMAC 2013 participants consider process and product, taking on the role of student, their students’ literacies, the germination and development of their ideas, and the affective dimensions of their forays into multimodal composing. We hope our readers find these snapshots from the fascinating and productive conversations we shared with our fellow DMAC participants a useful illustration of the wide-ranging and considerable influence that digital professionalization opportunities like DMAC have on composing and teaching practices in the field.

Forming a Collaboration

When asked by DMAC facilitators Scott Lloyd DeWitt and Cynthia Selfe to develop a final project to culminate our two-week institute experience, both of us were interested in conducting interviews. Christina was drawn to invention: to capturing a sense of its associations with wandering, finding, sketching, collaborating, improvising, and making practices—many of which she was experiencing in new and strange ways as she undertook video composing for the first time. And Dundee was inspired by the rapidly forming community at DMAC, the literacy events taking place around her, and the emotions attached to the processes of composing in what was, for many, a “new way”—all under the pressures of an extremely rapid turn-around. So, we both conceived of separate interview projects—Christina’s on participants’ Concept in 60 invention practices, Dundee’s on participants’ development and experience in/plans for teaching digital literacies in completing that same exercise—for our DMAC projects, which would would eventually join together into what you see before you.

Our initial plan, for sake of ease and efficiency, was to conduct our separate interviews simultaneously: Dundee would ask her questions, then Christina would ask hers, and the conversation would be recorded as one video file that could be split between the two separate projects later down the road. But after conducting the first few interviews, we realized that there was more overlap between our two separate projects than we had anticipated; our questions began developing and feeding off of one another and soon, it felt like one big project instead of two.

After talking to the community about the possibility of collaborating on a large project, like the one you are now reading, we asked a couple of folks we know who edit various publications to see if anyone but us thought such a project was worth reading. Then with help, input, and support from these friends and colleagues and our DMAC community we collected the necessary permissions and spent the remainder of the institute sequestered in a borrowed office (thank you, Cindy!), with a series of borrowed cameras and DVRs (thank you, Brian and Trauman!), capturing conversations about making, learning, and teaching—conversations that interrogate what “academic writing” should mean today.

Our collaboration has changed the nature of our outcomes for these interviews, of course, but it has also made it possible for us to do more than we could have done on our own. Neither of us alone could have collected as many interviews in as little time as we did together, nor would the conversations we shared with the DMAC ‘13-ers you are about to meet have been quite the same. And the project has continued to grow, into this polyvocal and even-larger collaboration with Scott and Brian that allows our readers to contextualize our study of Concept in 60 composing practices at DMAC 2013 within the history of the assignment, and with an eye to how it has manifested within the institute and also moved beyond it into classrooms across the country.

Ways of Making

This section of the webtext is an archive of our video-recorded DMAC 2013 interviews, which took place over a whirlwind of four days, lasted anywhere between 6 and 30 minutes each, and involved twenty-five participants (see the credits page), as well as facilitators Selfe and DeWitt. We conducted most of our interviews together as a team; however, toward the end we each conducted some of the interviews on our own, in the interest of both time and energy.

Although we went into interviews with preplanned questions, our approach could largely be characterized as flexible and emergent (which, given the context of DMAC’s fast-paced schedule, seems appropriate.) As we went along we sometimes changed the wording of questions in small ways, and we experimented with arranging the sequence of questions differently, meaning that sometimes Dundee would ask her questions first and sometimes Christina would. We also agreed that we would ask follow-up questions, even if it deviated from our original questions, and led us into unexpected territory.

Because this was our first foray into video-recorded interviewing, we faced some challenges with technology: focusing and framing the camera sometimes went awry, and microphone issues sometimes affected interview footage (e.g., Sara Cooper and Ginger Grey). In a few places the camera cut off interview participant responses. We also had to use a completely different kind of camera (a DMAC-provided Zoom Q3HD camcorder) for the last day-and-a-half because the DMACers who had loaned us professional cameras left the institute to catch a flight or start a long car journey. Less significant but also beyond our control were factors like noisy hallways, planes, and construction activity that worked their way into the audio environment of our interviews. Some of these complications have affected the content of interviews in small ways; some have affected the aesthetic quality of the videos we present in this webtext.

Because of the sheer breadth of our interview materials, our postproduction process involved much decision making: our primary concern was presenting this material in a way that best engages with our audience and threads into a special issue devoted to examining “best practices” for using technology in professional development. In addition, we worried that presenting too much of our corpus of interview footage would overwhelm readers. So, in addition to editing out long pauses, false starts, and the like, we chose to remix these interviews in ways that emphasize common patterns in participant responses: as a result, our selections focus more on general statements about teaching, learning, and professional development and less on the background and decision-making processes behind individual Concept in 60 videos.

We do believe, however, that the complete archive holds enormous promise and value to the profession that goes beyond what little we are able to share here. When we began composing these video remixes of the interviews, we soon realized that we had to resist the urge to “master” this material, to capture absolutely every important moment in our data for this publication. With such a wealth of material, so many wonderful ideas, and so many ways to find meaning in these interviews depending on one’s perspectives, questions, experiences, and interests, this archival “story” is merely one of many stories that can be told about these interviews, and about what DMAC means and can do for the profession.

We hope, in future projects, to more fully represent our conversations through more analytical presentation of recurrent themes published alongside an archive of less heavily produced videos—a truer archive of the interviews—choices we feel are more respectful to both our interview participants and our audiences. The resultant (and relatively raw) interview archive should also prove a useful resource for future researchers—so that others, too, can find ways to represent the stories these interviews tell.

Last, we think it important to reflect on our positioning within the DMAC ‘13 community and its implications for this project, an always difficult task when researching communities of which one is a member. First, we would like to note that Dundee made the decision not to be interviewed for the project, sensing that her perspectives would already be heavily coloring the resulting synthesis and analysis of these conversations; meanwhile Christina did choose to be interviewed, early on, before we had decided to collaborate on the entire project. Second, although our role as observers who are investigating the literacy practices happening at DMAC necessarily means we often refer to our fellow DMACers as outsiders (“participants,” “them”), we have tried as much as possible to frame our discussions from a position that reflects our participation and investment in this community (“we”). Truly, though, we are neither “us” nor “them” but something in-between; accordingly, our pronoun usage sometimes slips according to whether we were thinking of ourselves as participants or observers at that point.

Our Project

This project is an answer to calls in the field to share and hear stories about literacy (the guiding mission, for instance, of the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives). Our intention is to share the stories behind the Concept in 60 projects of DMAC 2013 through the voices of the filmmakers themselves. We hope to capture the varied and significant ways in which this particular assignment at the institute challenges and develops participants’ writing practices, and supports them in teaching students to work with multimodality. DMAC is a rich site for documenting ever-evolving best practices in teaching and writing with technology, and we believe that the Concept in 60 assignment in particular provides a useful illustration of DMAC’s broader technological professional development.

As we prepared to gather our data, we were guided by questions such as:

  • What did participants discover about the tensions of process and product in new media composing?
  • What did they learn? What did it feel like for participants, to try a new mode of composing and fit into the shoes of the “student”?
  • Having composed their video, would participants be taking back new ways of relating to their students, or regarding their students’ literacies?
  • Where did their ideas come from?
  • What did their approaches to getting started with these videos look like? And did it differ from their print processes?
  • What did it feel like, for participants to compose these videos? What emotions came into play, and were there surprises involved?

click here to download a transcript of this video

The videos exploring each of these questions are stitched together and framed through our choices and perspectives, but they are the best way we have of presenting the multiple voices of participants themselves. One thing we quickly discovered over the course of these interviews (and indeed, when we arrived at the institute) is that there is no one “DMACer”; some came with backgrounds in technology, and others learned how to use a Macintosh computer for the first time. There were students of history, anthropology, rhetoric, math, literature, and more. There was frustration, and there was excitement; some dove into a new media composing process that differed from how they usually composed, while others started by writing alphabetically and found the process of multimodal composition, at times, discombobulating. Through these varied experiences, practices, people, and voices, this archive gives the field an insider’s view of the work, learning, and rapidly forming community that occurs at DMAC.

Indeed, we hope that these interviews show how we were all so different, but we all came together in pursuit of one common question: how to use modality in the service of our teaching, research, and writing. And we threw ourselves wholeheartedly into the daily tasks aimed at giving us the skills needed to fully explore this unifying question in ways that could remake not only us, but also our classrooms, our students, our writing, and by extension, even our disciplines.

In Their Own Words

Each of the following videos gathers responses related to a single interview question, or a small set of related questions. Although these videos unavoidably appear linearly on the screen, we encourage readers to interact with them in whatever order they choose; to help readers find conversations that speak to their interests, we have provided keywords for each video. As a further aid to readers we also offer brief summaries, but as much as possible we have checked our impulse to analyze these videos, and instead focus on presenting the experiences of the participants in their own words.

In the following, you will hear participants discuss (1) reflections on DMAC itself, (2) thoughts about digital composing more broadly, (3) thoughts about teaching, and (4) thoughts about their own research and/or academic disciplines. You might also want to review the assignment prompt for the Concept in 60.

Did you have previous experience with multimodal composition?

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Keywords: yes, no, not like this, I’ve assigned it, immersion, play, skill development, assignment development, logocentric, text-based literacy, “take it back to my classroom,” PowerPoint, presentations, composing, Moviemaker, production, consumption, criticism, curriculum development, academic publication, Speech, Journalism, coursework, class project, Digital Media Concentration, traditional scholarly essay, writing about visuals, material culture, architectural sites, persuasion, socialization, Visual/Textual Exchange, excitable images, trauma, news, documentaries, “The Other”, textual habit

Most interview participants had not previously engaged in multimodal composition, but there were a few who (to varying degrees) had.

Most of those with previous experience note having “played with” modes primarily for personal purposes (like making a multimodal birthday card using iMovie, creating a music playlist for a friend, or doing some slight video clipping or sequencing for use in a presentation.)

Van Hillard notes he has written about the visual, and Renee Shea mentions having advanced skills in (and previous experience teaching) visual analysis. Eddie Singleton, Renee Shea, and Danielle Williams, among others, explain that their primary experience came through assigning this type of work to their students, not having produced it for formal or academic purposes themselves. A few had previously completed coursework on multimodality (most, notably, with Selfe or Dewitt). Of those participants, some had gone on to write multimodally, primarily in research related to their course work.

By and large, most participants echo Annie McGreevy (who says, “Everything I’ve written has been pure, alphabetic text”), Henrietta Rix Wood (who talks about DMAC as constituting “immersion”) and Jeffrey Kaufmann (who notes that despite previous experiences creating videos, slides, and photoessays, text was his habit: he was “just trained and ingrained in text”).

Pay attention to the fact that many respondents use the word “play” in speaking of previous informal experience with multimodal composition; this is notable because they will come to discuss play in another, more reverent, sense later in our conversations.

What did it feel like to be the student instead of the teacher?

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Keywords: hybrid, ability levels, preparation, empathy, reminder, student’s perspective, assignment re/development, open mode assignment, changing practices, framing, mentoring, resources, new tools, topic, process, lifelong learners, technology, text-based literacy, constraints, deadlines, Super 8, ask questions, embarrassed, struggling, understanding, framing, (articulating) expectations, classroom interaction, ten thousand hours, emotional, expert, optimism, colleagues, opportunity, humbling (uncomfortable, stressful, confusing, frustrating, apprehensive, jarring, challenging, terrifying, disorienting), fun (amazing, exciting, delightful)

At this stage in their (academic) lives, DMAC participants are advanced writers, but many (as noted in the last set of interviews) had little to no skills or previous experience in working with image, video, and audio, key aspects of the DMAC experience. They were, then, forced back into the position of “novice” writers while creating their Concept in 60 videos.

When asked how it felt to “be the student again” for a few days, they often responded, as the keywords above suggest, in terms of emotions. Many say the experience was “humbling” (a word Cindy used in session one day to describe teaching with technology) and reminded them what our students must feel when faced with the kinds of tasks we often take for granted. Erin Kathleen (Cahill) Bahl sums up the group’s thinking on empathy nicely when she says, “this will help me, I think, in teaching my students this fall, to be able to put myself much more easily in their shoes.”

There is also some discussion of how this expert/novice dichotomy played out in the writing. Sara Cooper’s comment is a good illustration of this thread of our conversations: “The biggest challenge has been coming up against my ability levels over and over and over again. There are all these things that I really want to be able to do that I can’t really manage because I have….the skills level of like a second grader. And yet…conceptually, I’m thinking about these really big concepts.”

How did you get started?

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Keywords: excited, easy, gel together, stymied, new idea, nervous, experience, different, unfamiliar, chaos, technology, limitations, space, time, at hand, possible, practical, topics, constraints, collect(ing), shifted, tools, evolve(d), struggle, initial idea, realistic, slow down, inspiration, prompt, figurative, literal, play on words, close pallette, fun, emphasize, creative writing, existing material, walking, keyword search, pieces of a bigger whole, (Prelinger) archive, generative, options, specific, find, research question, develop, concepts, related, cutting, filtering, reading, mulling, planned, formed, alphabetic work, significant form, cognitive style, form finds form, seed

Many participants began their responses to this line of questioning by talking about original ideas they had for their projects—which were, in a great many cases, extremely different from the final product they turned in at deadline. For several, this was a process of constantly re-evaluating their project holistically as they added in layers (still images, audio, video footage they shot, etc.). Although it was difficult to represent these evolutions and re-visionings in our archive in the interest of concision (and therefore many of these interesting transformations could not be represented in the video you see here), what we hope you will take note of is the different catalysts that came into the composing process for participants and resulted in changes to their topics, methods, and outlooks.

Many reference the practical constraints of time and material at hand: Laura Michael Brown said she had to abandon her original direction, “slow [her]self down a little bit,” and take stock of what she had on hand; Erin Kathleen (Cahill) Bahl had wanted to work on an interview project related to her involvement with the Harvard Pluralism Project but realized she would not have the time or resources and so scaled back her plans. Several note that their idea came about because they took stock of the material they had available to work with and found a direction.

For some, their idea came in a moment. Annie McGreevy talks about accidentally filming her notebook as the wind blew its pages and letting that moment slowly lead her to a project centered around “turning back time.” Sara Cooper discusses how important it was to “have something to start with,” and took the approach of wandering around outside and gathering footage. Many others describe wandering around—physically, with a camera in hand, or virtually, on a keyword search—staying open to ideas and inspiration.

Were you more focused on the final product or on the process of making the video?

click here to download a transcript of this video

Keywords: object, image, speak, iMovie, getting there, teaching, learning, programs, Audacity, stumble, focused, aesthetic, concept, articulate, craft, in mind, edit, ready to go, weight, alphabetic equivalent, funneling, reciprocal influence, investment, process-product distinction, invention, arrangement, relationships, connections, finger exercise, way in, paralyzed, practice, goals, comfortable, perfect, struggle, control, strange, something to say, anxiety, valued, assess(ment), consumed, polished, comparison, separate, tools, grade, play, research, teaching (how to teach, classroom, coaching)

Participants tended to respond to this question, in fairly equal measure, by answering that they were concerned about product, process, or a mixture of both. But interestingly, those who answered they were only concerned with one or the other (product or process) tended to blur the distinctions between process and product as their conversation continued.

Common threads surfacing in product-based conversations concern achieving a particular image or goal (Van Hillard: “how a certain material object might be brought to significance”; Michelle Cohen talks about an aesthetic goal). Many also talk about anxiety (Kara Poe Alexander wanted “to have something to say”; Randy Gonzales reflects on how large the viewing party loomed for him as he worked on his video, getting in the way of considering process).

Those who talk about process talk about learning, and about wanting to know how to use the technology and the programs. Many also note that they focused on immersing themselves in the process and treating the product as something low-stakes so that they would understand this kind of composing and the assignment itself and thus be able to teach it to others in their classrooms.

Was anything particularly difficult or easy about this process? Any surprises along the way?

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Keywords: everything, hard, unfamiliar, second-language acquisition, ability, expected, (technical, conceptual) challenge, craft, expertise, (re)learn, iMovie, Final Cut Pro, forgotten, experience, Audacity, WordPress, principles, intuitive, practice, teaching, valuing, potential, anxiety, short, productive, perfectionist, students, time, decisions, choosing, audio-video matching, approach, possibilities, 60 seconds, long, short, firm requirement, condensing, composing off the page, Word document, cohesive, arc, compelling, narrative, creative, poetry, sound, finding material, research literacy, come together, whole, layers, pacing, outsider, in it, what you have, revising, let stuff go, connections, amount of material, sorting, convey, concisely, starting big, narrow down, how much to show, editing, print drafting, invention, figure something out, know the process, second nature, new medium, in your head

When asked what surprised them about making the Concept in 60 video, participants frequently discuss using technology—difficulties in using it, more often, than what was easy. Some also reference the particular constraints of the assignment: the deadline, the 60-second length requirement, the instruction to use nonliteral means (that is, no matching audio and video, which Alli Hammond describes as a “refreshing” way to approach composing, for her).

As well, participants shared fascinating insights into their composing processes and the nature of composing in digital modes. Sara Cooper reflects on the difficulty of finding audio “sources”—sound clips—as someone without the previous knowledge and/or literacy to do so. Kara Poe Alexander reflects on how the video “editing” process looked “more like drafting in print; and so maybe we need a new term.” She also shares how video drafting was more difficult for her, in part, because unlike print drafting where ideas are “in your head,” she “didn’t know what [assets, layers she] would use to make the point.”

Many participants compared their video composing processes to their print-based practices, though there was no one consensus on how that comparison looked: some noted similarities, and others spoke at length about fundamental differences between the two.

What did you learn from the process?

click here to download a transcript of this video

Keywords: skills, play, protected time, labor intensive, arrangement, purpose, options, choices, rhetorically effective, editing, focus, rethinking, patience, humility, being a student, lifelong learner, software/programs, introduction, expert, student perspective, academic literacy, access, assumptions, (recognizing) expectations, empathy, mentoring, collaboration, peer review, emotional, workshops, invention, empowerment, delivery/publishing, isolation, innovation, bravery, skills, Mac, bodies in the classroom, impact, alphabetic text, transferability, affordances, representation, research ethics, digital dissertation, embodiment, teaching, support, peer review, celebration, emotional, impact, pragmatism, professionalism.

In this video, participants discuss what they learned (from the project, and/or the DMAC experience as a whole.) They reiterate how “being the student” has increased their empathy for students and their access to a student’s perspective on the classroom, and they discuss possibilities for reshaping their assignments, classrooms, and teaching practices.

Participants also consider issues of access, research ethics, and the notions of “academic literacy” and academic genres. We are reminded of the need to examine our assumptions and expectations, and the need to consider bodies in the classroom.

Another recurrent theme centers on the importance of “play” in learning when participants raise the issue of the time commitment involved in multimodal learning and authoring, and reflect on the difficulty of “protecting” time for the learning through play required to do so (a double bind we return to in our conclusion).

What emotions or affective processes came into play during the composing process? How/did they shape your video text? How did new programs and/or media affect your process?

click here to download a transcript of this video

Keywords: enjoy, filming, capturing, excited, learn, creative, aesthetic sensibility, fun, exploring, finding, joy, accomplishment, lucky, wonder, inspired, empowered, surprised, frustrated, obsessive, (using) technology, wrangle, editing, revising, determined, self-doubt, academics, expertise, control, embarrassment, investment, apprehensive, nervous, anxiety, losing work, body, sharing, performance, transmutation, constraints, self-consciousness, peers, (being) satisfied, product, emotions, (autobiographic) resonance, making, personal space, audio, images, powerful, rethink, parallels, relationships, weight, academic work, teaching, Aristotelian appeals, logic, authority, conventions

Most agree (or indicate implicitly, through their responses throughout the interview) that composing the Concept in 60 was a very emotional experience. And many of our interview participants indicate that they experienced feelings at opposing ends of the spectrum: frustration, but also joy. Empowerment but also anxiety. This experience many participants communicate, of experiencing greatly conflicting emotions at the same time, was difficult to represent in this video (particularly given its organization); nonetheless, we hope that by hearing the variety of experiences and feelings brought on by the Concept in 60 assignment, our readers will understand that there was no one affective stance to this experience.

Both Crystal Gorham Doss and Eddie Singleton talk about how the academy and/or the conventions of the long-form intellectual prose academics typically engage with discourage emotion. Crystal saw the Concept in 60 as a rare opportunity to engage in a creative process; Eddie (and many other participants) used it to complete work that was personally meaningful or resonated with personal experience. (Interestingly, Van Hillard notes that his piece had an “autobiographic resonance,” which was not an effect he intended to communicate to his audience but rather a by-product of the process of making the film).

How will this impact your classroom and pedagogy?

click here to download a transcript of this video

Keywords: confidence, conversation, progressive programs, rethinking, assignment re/development, assignment delivery, assessment, play, protected time, hands on learning, breaking habits, affordances, choices, Fair Use, the available means, student anxieties, empathy, public, audience, rhetorical situation, humbleness, constraints, time, process, revision, environment, fun, surprising, decisions, priorities, finger exercises, low stakes assignments, disciplinary conventions, teaching style/genre, mimicry, student-centered classroom, rhetorically effective writing, audience, publication, critical thinking, deliberation, genre, social rules, listening, access, assumptions, options, computer labs, open source, open mode assignment, control, adaptation, support, mentoring

In this video, participants discuss how DMAC and the Concept in 60 project will impact their classrooms, assignments, and pedagogy. They discuss some very concrete plans, like the fact that many DMAC ‘13 participants intended to use the Concept in 60 assignment in our own classrooms after leaving the institute.

This video also captures participants wrestling with larger, more theoretical, concepts as they touch on topics like assessment and teaching audience. The importance role of play in learning is revisited, and there is discussion of pushing the boundaries of mode in research-based, academic writing. Participants also note the importance of considering multimodality in various disciplines.

How does this experience impact how you regard students and the literacies that they bring into the classroom?

click here to download a transcript of this video

Keywords: alphabetic/print literacy, academic writing, multiliteracies, genre, social conventions, topoi, visual texts, literacy sponsorship, reflection, patience, learning teaching from colleagues, mentorship, student engagement, meeting students where they are, optimism, opportunity, openness, emotional investment, excitement, anticipating student frustrations, (communicating) expectations, framing, scaffolding, options, open mode assignments, course documents, Blackboard, WordPress, assumptions, five paragraph essay, meeting students where they are, opportunities, asking questions, building on existing literacies, public speaking, skills, digital literacy, interactive classroom, decentered classroom, collaboration, digital natives, collegiality, professional literacies, developing disciplinary practices

In this final video, participants respond to the question of how their DMAC experience will impact their relationships with students, and how they think about the literacies students may bring with them to the classroom—a space focused on specific disciplinary literacies that varied across participants.

The increased empathy participants have remarked on throughout turns up again here as motivation for many possible changes. It called on many to interrogate their assumptions about students and their knowledge. There is conversation about honoring the literacies students bring with them to our classrooms, and interrogation of what literacies we “should be” teaching. There is much discussion of giving students the freedom to pursue choices that help them build on their strengths as they reach for other literacies (“generally academic,” disciplinary, and/or professional).

Towards these ends, several participants remarked on the ways they would like to open up writing assignments, both in terms of the modes students may use to respond, and the technologies they will likely use in creating those responses. This leads to further discussion of how participants will need to change practices—considering, for example, the affordances of multimodal assignment sheets, and the ways in which writing a response to an assignment yourself can help you anticipate problems and support student learning. Accessibility is also a recurrent point of discussion, including access to software, course documents, examples, skills, tech support, and more.

Most notable, in terms of this webtext, are the comments that relate to DMAC as a professional development site through which we learn from being with other teachers, an issue addressed in our conclusion.


click here to download a transcript of this video

This video is an interview with Cynthia Selfe, conducted by Henrietta Rix Wood, and filmed by us during DMAC 2013. In it, Selfe discusses multimodality: defining it, exploring why it is important for writers across disciplines, explaining how it benefits students, and addressing challenges in integrating multimodal practices. These challenges include both material constraints programs face and the difficulty of talking to naysayers who may think including multimodality in the classroom is a “dumbing down” of academic writing.

Both this interview and the institute itself are an argument for multimodality: for the affordances of continuing to fold multiple ways of making into our scholarship, for the ways in which members of the profession might teach non-alphabetic composing, for regarding students (and the literacies they bring with them into writing classrooms) differently, and perhaps most crucially, for the possibilities of this work. In our interviews and experiences, we observed a contagious kind of optimism that many DMACers leave the institute with: work in new media suddenly seems within reach, and it seems to take us places that were hard to get to through other kinds of texts. DMAC is a place where we build skills in specific content areas, but also a starting point for further exploration and growth. In Maurine Ogbaa’s words, “when I leave [DMAC], the ripple just gets wider and wider.” So, reflecting back on the institute and using Selfe’s interview as a jumping-off point, we’d like to consider how our interviewees connected DMAC to their teaching, writing, and broader professional practices.


The DMAC experience maximizes professional development opportunities for teachers, almost effortlessly, by providing countless opportunities for us to learn from observing others teaching, something Randy Gonzales noted when he said, “It was interesting. I was able to see how another teacher teaches.”

Brian Harmon, who has a life as a filmmaker alongside his life in the academy, indicates learning not just a content area to be taught, but a way of teaching. He says:

I think this experience of kind of swapping roles [teacher to student] will be immensely helpful…I think Scott’s explanation of iMovie…his working through of that process was magical. It really helped me understand things that had frustrated me a lot before. And so I think I’ll teach it better. I’ll teach this process, this way of thinking, more coherently.

Eddie Singleton (Director of First-Year Composition at The Ohio State University, and a colleague of Scott and Cindy’s) concurred when he said of our fearless leaders, Cindy Selfe and Scott Lloyd Dewitt:

I learn so much from my colleagues about teaching and about what it means to engage students at varying levels…Their incredible sense of optimism…I love the way both of them, when a student suggests that there is a complication or a problem or a frustration, how they turn that into an opportunity for talking about something great, and interesting, and hopeful. That’s one of the great things I learn from something like DMAC is, remember: channel Scott and Cindy. Be positive. Be open to new ideas.

This was echoed by many other participants. These “model” teachers we had available to learn from also included “core” staff members who were with us throughout sessions and lab hours, the many visitors who facilitated workshops, and, finally, fellow participants. We spent incalculable hours helping one another along as we worked in the labs, and even late at night from our hotels (where we often offered support to one another via social media, sometimes tweeting questions to or tips for each other). In other words, we taught each other. As Kaitlin Clinnin commented, “I guess I haven’t felt as much like a student in this space as, maybe more of an advanced student, who can help out other people…I feel, kind of like this hybrid student and teacher role.” I (Dundee) think we all felt this way at different times.

DMAC participants included teachers at all stages of their careers, and we all worked to help one another. Even those who felt they could do little to help others with the technology had much to offer in other ways; a lab hours collaboration that began with, say, a digitally advanced participant showing another how to do some task (which she found fairly mundane) ended with her walking away from the exchange having learned, for example, lessons about research methods or research ethics, pedagogy, or just plain thriving in the academy.

Writing and Professionalization

One of the most important lessons we think many DMACers took home was a pragmatic one: fitting work into a limited timeframe. In her interview, Christina LaVecchia noted this as a guiding principle in the production process of her Concept in 60:

[The assignment] reinforced that idea of getting done what you can in the time you have to do it, which I think is kind of a pragmatic professional thing to learn…How can I make the best use of the means available to me and the time available to me?

One of the things I (Dundee) think is lost across a lifetime of learning through professionalization is learning through play. This was an important precept in how professional development was approached at DMAC. You may have noticed, for example, the number of participants who comment on how generative the time constraints (less than 48 hours) were for producing the Concept in 60 project. Others comment on the usefulness of implementing more low stakes “Finger Exercises”—exercises that “earn” an A through completion, because the point is to learn through experience, not necessarily to create a flawless product. Both of these are excellent examples of how DMAC took a bunch of Type-A personalities, who have mastered the “game” of academia, and kept us focused on learning about the technology and about the affordances of mode, not who could make the best text.

I (Christina) also think that play is important; in fact, it became one of the guiding principles of the Digital Composing course I taught immediately after DMAC. Dundee did the same, requiring her Digital Rhetoric graduate students to complete low stakes “Finger Exercises,” including the Concept in 60, as well as an exercise that required them simply to play with a new-to-them technology. I believe play can help to fuel and energize an unfamiliar—or perhaps even uncomfortable—composing process, keeping the focus on learning and enabling writers to work through challenges without getting discouraged. My views align with recent arguments in feminist rhetorics for recognizing play as a critical practice. In her chapter in Rhetorica in Motion, Laura R. Micciche works through Donna Haraway (and her “Manifesto for Cyborgs”) to introduce play as “an underdeveloped yet highly suggestive rhetorical and pedagogical element in feminist writing projects. Play encourages dissonance, reminding us that writing is an imaginative, world-building activity” (174). I think the play at DMAC channeled this view; I found play to be transformative for my pedagogy and my own making practices, and our interviews indicate that many participants also felt its significance.

Indeed, the importance of play was referenced frequently in interviews; for one, Maurine Ogbaa highlights the importance of playtime, and how difficult it is to protect it. In fact, I (Dundee) share that feeling; I enrolled in DMAC, even though I already knew how to use most of the software we’d be taught, just to have protected play time for re-engaging with multimodal publication in ways that teaching a 4/4 load had made difficult. Asked how the DMAC experience would change her classroom, Maurine responds:

Just the process. In my classes, I do try to build in exercise time, example time, writing within the class time, and then, sometimes, when, you know, the storm happens or something’s cancelled or whatever, that’s what goes out the window, because I kind of think about that as bonus, as now I see that’s actually…it’s not bonus. It’s integral. It’s not the part of the arm that can be chopped off.

In other words, Maurine sees play as crucial to learning. Other references to play in the interviews highlight still more conversations regarding multimodal composition. For example, in her interview Christina said:

[The Concept in 60] also taught me how important it is to play around with things, and how important it is to have time to do that. I’ve been wanting to tinker with iMovie for a while, I just never got around to it. And I’d tell myself, “Oh, I’m just going to make a digital installation for a conference I’m going to go to, to make my presentation more interesting.” I never actually did it, because in the end it was like two projects, and they were both competing for my attention and I said, “Well, I feel like it’s more important to deliver the presentation orally than to have a shorter presentation with a video at the tail end,” so it always got pushed to the side.

There have long been calls in our field that argue that we must compose more scholarship in multimodal forms (e.g. Ball, 2004) , and that doing so may even make it possible to get to ideas that were hard to process in alphabetic text alone (e.g. Wysocki, 2005). Christina’s comment makes clear why this is challenging.

The conversation reveals, in our disciplines, a clear recognition of the importance of teaching and using digital and multimodal texts, but (as Katherine Heenan said) “It’s a lot of work.” As several participants noted, we, as academics (particularly as academics in language-based fields) are comfortable with alphabetic literacies. When it’s hard to protect time to do something new—even if it is something you think would benefit your practices, your message, and your readers—then we tend to default to the habit of alphabetic text, which has long stood us in good stead, whether or not it is the most rhetorically-sound decision. Perhaps this is why Kara Poe Alexander said:

In a lot of ways composition is somewhat behind, in that multimodality has been happening in other disciplines for years…we are on the cutting edge, and yet we’re also not. So one of the questions I’ve been asking is what is the purpose of composition? what are we preparing students to do? what literacies do they need to know?

DMAC provides a space that protects “learning through play” time, and support for skills, in ways that allow us to focus on the affordances of mode, and what it could mean for our work as both teachers and researchers. Kaitlin Clinnin points out the importance of this: “we’re on this, precipice, I guess, of trying to figure out what the standards for our profession are, in terms of digital literacy, and what they are going to be in the future.” There was much discussion, in these interviews, about how greater choice in mode can help us as authors of academic, research-based texts.

We think it’s safe to say that all of us left DMAC with plans to share our learning, and with the hopes that those we shared it with would pass it on. For example, Dundee used the Concept in 60 this spring (in both First Year Composition and a graduate-level course in Digital Rhetoric) and found it just as impactful for her students as it was for DMAC participants. Christina saw similar effects in her Digital Composing class: her students felt empowered by their ability to edit and produce a video, something almost none of them had done before. And the concept of “finger exercises”—low-stakes, high skills-building projects—has changed Dundee’s classrooms (and maybe even those of many of her graduate students, also teachers) forever. The work of these “academic grandchildren” of DMAC marks another of the very many ways that DMAC makes an impact.

DMAC helps us write in new ways and to accomplish things that were harder—maybe even ideas that seemed “unavailable” (Wysocki, 2005)—through the alphabet alone. As Laura Michael Brown noted, working in “other” modes can be generative, and also helps us address, in some ways, ethical concerns inherent in other forms of writing by giving us a better way to represent participant voices. We hope this project has also done that: representing the behind-the-scenes practices, philosophies, hopes, insecurities, pedagogies, and learning that flows beneath the surface of DMAC in order to inspire others to find the play time, and the nerve, to write themselves off the pages.


dundee lackey head shot
Dundee Lackey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Speech, and Foreign Languages at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, TX and a graduate of Michigan State University’s Rhetoric and Writing program. Her special interest areas are digital/community literacies and she has a special love for first-year composition and multimodal pedagogy.

christina lavecchia head shotChristina LaVecchia is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Cincinnati, with research interests in writing pedagogy and theory, the rhetorics of media and culture, affect, feminist theory, and writing program administration. She is currently an editorial assistant for Composition Studies, and served as Assistant to the Directors of Composition at UC in 2010–11. Her Harlot essay on the rhetorics of Modern Family recently was reprinted in the textbook How Writing Works, edited by Jordynn Jack and Katie Rose Guest Pryal.

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Approaches to Teaching and Learning in Digital Environments