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Among other activities, participants will:
—design, create and use web texts, online portfolios, video projects, audio essays, and other digital compositions;
—experiment with different genres of digital representation (e.g., documentary, literacy autobiography, interview) and primary resources (e.g., letters, photographs, maps, sound recordings);
—discuss the complex issues of access, equity, agency, and literacy using the perspectives of both theory and practice to unpack these important concepts.
2010 DMAC Institute Registration Announcement
I should begin this piece with a confession: the words that most appealed to me in the DMAC announcement as I read it on WPA-L in November 2009 had nothing to do with digital media. This is not to say that I wasn’t interested in the role that new technologies could play in a composition curriculum. Earlier that year, I had taken a two-week intensive graduate course at Rutgers University on writing and technology, and I was in the midst of teaching a first-year composition seminar that focused on the rhetorical possibilities of blogging and online discourse communities. Despite these interests, however, what really caught my attention were the terms that I recognized from scholarship on working with diverse student populations in basic writing and community college contexts: literacy autobiography, access, equity, and agency. During my two weeks in Columbus, Ohio as a DMAC attendee, my understanding of these concepts was complicated by readings such as Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe’s “Politics of the Interface,” Stuart Selber’s “Reimagining the Functional Side of Computer Literacy,” Melanie Yergeau’s work on autism and rhetorics of disability, and many stories from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. Considering the role of digital media composing from these varied perspectives made clear to me its potential to disenfranchise students whose access to technology is limited, while at the same time providing opportunities for intellectual inquiry and self-expression for students who have had few opportunities to engage with Standard Academic English.
After DMAC, I returned to my adjunct position at City College of New York (CUNY) eager to implement new multimodal assignments in my sophomore-level “writing for the humanities” course. To invigorate our work with traditional print literacy, I created a Ning site so that students could develop their own blogs. I reframed an essay assignment for Persepolis: Story of a Childhood to focus specifically on visual rhetoric. I explored options for online video editing and found a web-based program available for students to compose a final video project for the course. When the first night of class finally rolled around, I was eager to share my carefully plotted syllabus with my new class.
CUNY’s history of serving students from a wide range of racial, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds has been well-documented (Shaughnessy; Sternglass; Gleason; Soliday), and on that first night of class, I fully expected to meet a very diverse group of students. What was surprising about this group, however, was an unusually high number of returning adults. Roughly 36% of the student population at City College is aged 25 and older, so it was certainly not uncommon to see several returning adult students in any given course, but this was the first time that nearly all of the students in one of my classes ranged in age from the mid-20s to the mid-50s. This phenomenon raised a number of important questions regarding the possibilities and limitations of working with multimodality and digital media, all of which are particularly relevant to this student demographic.
As Nuckles points out in the introduction to The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Adult Learners, however, scholarship in composition has not thoroughly examined the needs of returning adult students. Unfortunately, this is even more true when the disciplinary scope is narrowed further to computers and writing. As Kristine Blair and Cheryl Hoy have noted:
Writing instructors’ depictions of undergraduate student writers, whether they be face-to-face or online, often presume students to be traditional 18–22-year-olds. As a result, although much research exists on online instructional design and computer-mediated communication, there is limited discussion of teaching adult learners in the online writing environment, even as emphasis on teaching online courses for adult learners occurs more within corporate-based training rather than computers and writing scholarship. (32)
Although research in the field of adult learning has examined the impacts of online instruction for nontraditional-aged students, Blair and Hoy are right to point out the virtual absence of this topic in computers and writing scholarship. And despite the attention that has been paid to online instruction and distance education in the field of adult learning, far less attention has been paid to the ways in which adult students interact with technology in a face-to-face setting.
Below, I offer a reflection on my own experience working with adult learners on a multimodal video project. Aware of Cheryl Ball, Tia Scoffied Bowen, and Tyrell Brent Fenn’s warning that an emphasis on description and reflection might lend itself to a naive interpretation of the effectiveness of a particular assignment or curriculum, my goal here is not to generalize about best practices for teaching multimodal composing with returning adult students, but rather to highlight some areas for further inquiry. At the same time, however, I am also conscious of the reticence that many colleagues who work with returning adult student populations have expressed at the idea of working with multimodal composing and I do hope, if naively, that some of the positive outcomes from my own course might encourage others to experiment with new assignments and modalities.
Student Self-Perceptions and the Troubling Discourse of the Digital Native
“You want us to do what?”
This question echoed across the room on the first day of class. I was in the middle of outlining the semester’s assignments, which included an analysis of a graphic novel, regular contributions to our course blog site, and a final video project, not to mention several print-based writing assignments, and my non-traditional aged students were already beginning to panic. The semester was seven minutes old.
After assuring, reassuring, and finally promising students that they were all more than capable of analyzing and creating multimodal compositions, one woman in her 40s approached me and said, “I just want you to know that I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. You seem nice, so I’m going to trust you and I’m going to do the best I can. But,” she said, meeting my gaze directly, “I’m a little nervous about all of this digital stuff.”
Having assigned various multimodal projects before, I was not surprised by the reservations that my returning adult students expressed. In previous semesters, many of my of older adult students had expressed similar reservations when it came to projects that required the use of technology beyond MS Office or Internet searches. This is not to say that these students consistently initiated a “rhetoric of complaint” that is often inaccurately associated with returning adult undergraduates (Cleary, “What WPAs Need” 114). The vast majority of the returning adult students I have worked with over the years have, on the whole, been exceptionally motivated, invested in their work, and eager for feedback and opportunities to improve their academic skills. Having had such positive experiences with student engagement in the past, the reticence that students expressed towards multimodal composing raised some important pedagogical questions.
The first of these questions was centered around how students saw themselves in relation to the technologies I was asking them to use, and in my informal conversations with students, I began to realize that much of their anxiety was rooted in a broader cultural context of discourse surrounding the so-called “digital native.” Mark Prensky’s 2001 essay “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” initiated a series of publications suggesting that a person’s level of comfort and fluency with computer technologies is largely a function of the generation in which they were born. “Digital natives,” according to Prensky, “are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” (1), while “digital immigrants” do “learn—like all immigrants, some better than others—to adapt to their environment, [and] always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past” (2). Prensky’s work has been widely criticized as offering an overly simplistic analysis of how and why an individual’s technology skills might develop, one that glosses over issues of race, class, gender, and access. Yet, despite the degree to which Prensky’s work has been criticized in academia, these stereotypical representations of young people as “digital natives” persist in popular media and thus in students’ self-perceptions as well.
In his critique of Prensky’s work, Neil Selwyn argues that the discourse surrounding the term digital native “impl[ies] a profound disempowerment of older generations” (369). This observation highlights a problem with the digital-native paradigm that has been largely overlooked, particularly in composition studies; not only are young people not inherently fluent digital composers, but older adults are not necessarily inherently less fluent digital composers, either. Unfortunately, the notion that older adults are digital immigrants has been forwarded by well-intentioned research focused on teacher training and faculty development initiatives. These pieces follow a familiar pattern in which instructors who are apprehensive about facing a class of younger students who ostensibly possess superior technical skills negotiate their own identities as digital immigrants in order to be better equipped teach their digital native students (Ferris and Wilder; Skiba). Although these pieces tend to focus on adult instructors rather than on students, the emphasis on age-based concerns rather than the challenges that working with technology might pose for any user reinforces the misconception that age is the most significant determinant of a person’s proficiency with digital tools.
Although assumptions about technological proficiency based on age alone are problematic, the anxiety caused by students’ self-perceptions as digital immigrants can impact learning significantly and detrimentally, particularly for returning adult students. Michelle Cleary points to Anna Zajacova, Scott M. Lynch, and Thomas J. Espenshade’s study of stress, self-efficacy, and academic performance at CUNY to highlight the impacts of student anxiety, including a reduced sense of self-efficacy, failure to persist in college, and poor academic performance (“Anxiety”). In an earlier piece, Cleary also suggests that adult students experience anxiety associated with “fear of being a failure” and “fear of the unknown,” both of which can contribute to what is already a high attrition rate for adult students in college (“What WPAs Need”). Thus, although some might suggest that adapting one’s teaching to address students’ anxiety is tantamount to “giving in” to students who seem unwilling to engage with difficulty, there is clear evidence to suggest that acknowledging the anxieties that returning adult students might bring to the classroom has the potential to impact their learning in significant and empowering ways.
Building Confidence and Motivation: Working Towards Multimodal Composing
Thillainatarajam Sivakumaran and Allison Lux offer a three-step model to address computer anxiety with adult learners which includes (1) clarifying a purpose for computer use, (2) developing a positive environment, and (3) providing a support system for students [citation?]. While these may seem like obvious steps for any conscientious instructor to follow, it is worthwhile to note how they align with Raymond Wlodkowski and Margrery Ginsberg’s best practices for enhancing motivation among adult learners:
1. Establishing Inclusion—Creating a learning atmosphere in which learners and instructors feel respected by and connected to one another.
2. Developing Attitude—Creating a favorable disposition toward the learning experience through personal relevance and choice.
3. Experiencing Meaning—Creating challenging, thoughtful learning experiences that include learners’ perspectives and values.
4. Engendering Competence—Creating an understanding that learners are effective in learning something they value. (qtd. in Wlodkowski 145)
Although the creation of an inclusive learning environment is a common pedagogical strategy for all levels and contexts of instruction, the value of a student-centered classroom is particularly venerated by adult learning theorists who argue that an effective teacher of adults facilitates learning (Knowles) through collaborative work and by encouraging students to make connections between course content and their own lives. Reading Wlodkowski and Ginsberg’s framework alongside Sivakumaran and Lux’s steps for reducing computer anxiety suggests that classroom environment and course content can impact adult students’ work with new technologies in important ways.
In the sections below, I outline some of the assignments and activities that led to the completion of a multimodal video project in my “writing for the humanities” course. My aim here is to uncover potential intersections between adult learning theories and multimodal composing practices to argue that, despite potential challenges, research on adult learning and multimodal composing can and ought to be advocated and supported within a broader framework of adult education.
Multimodal, Collaborative Spaces
The benefits of collaborative learning have been well-documented in scholarship on adult learning and, as Stephen Brookfield notes, “the use of the discussion method [to foster collaborative learning] has become an unchallenged pedagogical given, an important element in the adult educational regime of truth” (210). Although Brookfield rightly cautions against accepting this assumption uncritically, the potentials that group discussion holds for alleviating student anxieties are worthy of consideration.
In an attempt to develop a collaborative workspace where my students students could also begin to experiment with digital composing for low-stakes assignments, I created a Ning site for our course, which allowed each student to create an individual profile page that they could customize with a background design and photos. Students had the ability to write blog posts and status updates from their profile pages and comment on posts shared by other students. Ning also allowed us to create online group spaces to which students could contribute synchronously or asynchronously, and I was able to post assignments, notes, and other materials for the students to access outside of class.
Although I had enjoyed a great deal of success with Ning in previous semesters, this particular group didn’t take to the site quite as much as others had. In fact, at times it seemed to produce more anxiety than it alleviated. I often had to email students reminders to post or comment on each other’s work, and students were apprehensive about posting content to the site that wasn’t part of a specific assignment (e.g., a YouTube video of an interview with an author we were reading) for fear of taking a discussion off topic, even after my repeated assurances that such contributions were welcome.
Although our digital collaborative space was not much of a success, students were eager to work in small groups and collaborate on assignments when our class met face-to-face. In order to prepare students for discussions about the assigned reading and writing, I routinely began class with 15-20 minutes of group work. The tasks varied but often included responding to reading questions, developing discussion questions, or critiquing a writing sample. After a few weeks of class, it became clear that the most significant benefit of group work in this class was time. Many of my adult students were coming to class after a full day of obligations to work, family, and other courses, so it was not unusual for a few people to be running late on any given evening. Since the class was broken up, students could slip in discreetly and their classmates would quickly catch them up on the assignment. Further, working in groups allowed students to engage in the kind of deliberate, close reading that was not always possible outside of class. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly from an instructional perspective, regularly working in small groups allowed students to build relationships with their classmates, something that is often difficult for students on a commuter campus, and even more so for returning adults.
“Reading” Multimodal Texts
In order to scaffold our work towards the final video project, our first major reading assignment for the semester was Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis: Story of a Childhood. Rather than focusing our discussions on traditional literary elements such as symbolism or character analysis, I sought to engage students more deeply with what Susan Bernstein has termed the “visual/textual hybridity” (86) of Satrapi’s work. After defining some terms for visual analysis from Anne Wysocki and Dennis Lynch’s Compose, Design, Advocate, including juxtaposition, contrast, and emphasis, students worked in groups to identify examples of those techniques in the novel with particular emphasis on how the visual elements of the text shaped a message associated with a central theme. Although a number of students struggled to write their essays, this early Persepolis assignment helped us to develop a vocabulary for the video composing that would take place later in the course.
Valuing Multimodal Texts
Considering students’ initial reactions to the idea of a multimodal final project, I knew that it would be crucial to frame the project in a way that would lend itself to student buy-in. By coincidence, many of the returning adults in this section of writing for the humanities were education majors at CCNY, so I appealed to that interest first. Together we read and discussed Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, a text that one adult student described as “something you read, you keep, and you pass down to your kids.” Nussbaum argues that humanities-based education provides essential opportunities for developing critical thinking skills that are necessary in order to participate actively in a democratic society, and my students were quick to see the relevance to their own experiences and to the educations that their children were receiving in the NYC public school system.
To bridge the discussion about the value of humanities-based learning with our multimodal final project, we viewed the YouTube video of Richard Miller’s 2008 Presidential Address to the MLA, “This is How We Dream,” together in class:
Certainly, Miller’s talk is, even six years later, inspiring to anyone with an interest in composing with digital media, and the students in my writing for the humanities course were indeed inspired. Yet, Miller’s presentation raises significant questions about access that were particularly relevant for our context at CCNY. At the conclusion of his call to “pay attention” (Selfe) to new media composing, Miller acknowledges that few of us have the spaces and resources to do the kinds of work he envisions and, to be sure, the CCNY campus proved to be no exception.
Composing Multimodal Texts
“Well, you don’t really need a computer lab for an English class.”
I was sitting in a staff member’s office, trying to locate an available lab for my students to use as they composed their final video projects. The lab in the Writing Center had long been my go-to space, but recent budgetary constraints had reduced the Center’s hours and they would no longer be open in the evening when my class met.
There were a few labs open in the evening that were maintained by other departments and I was advised to try to ask for special permission to use one of the labs. Each of my requests was declined. In order to complete the final project, students would have to rely on their own personal computers or the open student labs that were available for use on campus.
The term “access” is commonly used to refer to the physical presence of technology with questions such as does the lab have webcams? and does the lab support audio editing? Yet, as the above anecdote suggests, access to particular computing tools or technologies is often embedded within a broader ideological framework. In their analysis of the intersections between infrastructure and new media composing, for example, Danielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeff Grabill note that “on campuses where technology budgets are limited, writing is still often seen as a low-technology subject, and writing classes as low-technology spaces” (26). Particularly when this image of writing as “low-tech” is held by staff who control access to technology, instructors working with new media or multimodal composing can face significant challenges that impede possibilities for multimodal composing.
As scholars including Adam Banks and Annette Powell have argued, however, it is crucial to expand our understanding of access beyond the material alone. To this end, Banks offers a multilayered taxonomy of access which includes material access, functional access, experiential access, and critical access (41-42). For Banks, issues of access operate on a continuum from the availability of physical tools, to to the knowledge necessary to use those tools, to the ability to use those tools in a personally meaningful way, and, finally, to the ability to make informed choices about which tools to use or resist for a particular purpose. Powell extends this discussion further by proposing that access be considered as a practice which “encourages compositionists to incorporate the varied literacies students bring with them into existing institutional structures so that our notion of literacy access is located in the cultural, perhaps the political, but certainly the everyday realities of our students” (18-19). Viewing access as a practice necessitates that we not only recognize the new literacies that we are demanding of our students, but also that we consider how these literacy practices intersect with and, at times even challenge, our students’ existing knowledge paradigms.
In the case of my writing for the humanities course, adopting this more nuanced understanding of access occasionally meant disregarding some of what I had come to understand as “best practices” for multimodal composing. Our concerns about material access were quickly resolved. I had two Flip cameras that students could borrow, and the campus had a general computer lab for students with extended evening and weekend hours. Further, I directed students to create and edit their video projects with the free, web-based program Jaycut. The narrated screen captures I provided to instruct students how to navigate Jaycut ensured that functional access was also quickly achieved—students were able to navigate Jaycut and upload files with relative ease.
The more significant obstacle revealed itself when we began to discuss boundaries for working with copyrighted material, a topic that was afforded a great deal of attention at DMAC. After we watched A Fairy Use Tale I directed students to the Prelinger Archives and encouraged them to use their own still image, audio, and video content. Conceptually, students demonstrated a clear understanding of both the legal aspect of copyright as well as its implications for maintaining academic integrity.
When students submitted drafts of their video projects, however, I was surprised to find that many of them relied heavily on copyrighted images and music. After conferencing with students, I quickly realized that the issue was not one of following directions or understanding expectations, but one of acquiring new literacy skills. Describing their own experiences as both teacher and student involved in the development of a digital multimodal project, Danielle DeVoss (teacher) and Suzanne Webb (student) highlight the level of technical knowledge required to compose a multimodal digital project. They note that “[s]tudents in our classrooms…may have a deep rhetorical sophistication about how audio, video, and other elements can affect a particular composition–that is, they ‘get’ how these elements ‘work’ in a composition. They may not have, however, the technical skill to create or converge these elements into a multimedia composition of their own” (81). This analysis certainly applied to my own students as well. Though today it is relatively simple to search major file sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr with a Creative Commons filter, such was not the case in 2010. Often, students’ initial searches would begin with a source available for use under a Creative Commons license, but by clicking on associated content, students would often move to other websites or outside of a prescribed search filter without realizing it.
In addition to the challenges associated with simply locating files to use in a video project, students were also frustrated by the limitations of Jaycut. Although the site would allow them to layer audio, video, and text files to create a final project, it was not possible to create these layered pieces in small segments that could then be uploaded as a piece of a new project. To get around this, students often relied on content from YouTube or Vimeo that was already layered, rather than creating their own. Though I encouraged students to ask for permission to use other people’s work in their own projects, requiring this of students, as DeVoss and Webb note, “risk[s] pushing them into a wall—a wall that they likely will not be able to climb and conquer within the 15-week semesters in which we typically teach” (95). Not only does asking permission mean that students might wait several days or weeks for a response (if they are lucky enough to get one at all), but the only available contact for students—whoever posted the file online—may well not be the actual copyright owner. In these cases, requiring students to seek permission to use files complicates the already difficult process of gathering material to use in a video project.
As students described their work, it became clear that they were prioritizing rhetorical choices and that emphasizing copyright concerns would create a burden that could easily feed into the computer anxiety that many had expressed early in the term. Because students were beginning to demonstrate an enthusiasm for multimodal composing that I had not anticipated, I chose to allow students to focus on meaning rather than on ensuring that their work met professional standards for use of copyrighted material. During class discussion one evening, students agreed that the value they saw in completing the video project was an opportunity to communicate ideas about their topics in ways that words alone wouldn’t allow. In particular, students emphasized the emotional impact that sounds or images might have on the viewer, an observation that confirmed my sense that they were considering their rhetorical choices as carefully as their technological abilities and access to content would allow.
From an instructional perspective, students were learning not simply about how to craft an effective message, but also about how to locate and follow directions for downloading and uploading materials, converting files, and basic video and audio editing techniques. As a result, students were moving away from being passive consumers of digital media and were beginning to create and modify digital media in order to create original compositions, an activity that is very much aligned with the values of the computers and writing community (DeVoss and Webb) as well as the overarching message of DMAC. Considering students’ initial anxieties and the limited access we had to hardware and software, it seemed worthwhile to focus students’ time and attention on composing rather than on what have been perceived as simply following the rules of the game.
My usual practice for final papers or projects was to offer students the opportunity to submit work at the end of the final exam period, usually about ten days after our last class meeting. Although initially students in my writing for the humanities course seemed pleased to have this extra time, there was a resounding disappointment when they realized that they wouldn’t be able to view everyone’s projects. Students unanimously elected to come in for an additional class meeting at the end of exam week to present their video projects and I offered to order pizza for the event. On 22 December 2010, I headed to my office at CCNY expecting that only a handful of students would make an appearance for our 6:30-7:45 class meeting. Shortly after I arrived, however, students began to trickle in to do some last minute troubleshooting on their projects or to return the cameras they had borrowed from me. By the time 6:30 rolled around, the entire class had already been gathered for a while, organizing all of the extra food that students had contributed to our gathering—none of which I had expected. When I invited the first student up to play her video project, I was surprised to see that she had prepared a formal presentation that included background on her project and a rationale for the choices she made for her video, a precedent that each of the other students followed. The hour and fifteen minutes that would typically have been allotted for our class time stretched to three hours of students presenting, viewing, and responding to each other’s work.
Without question, new media composing had a positive impact on students in this particular course. Not only did many overcome significant fears related to multimodal composing, but the sense of community and individual pride that resulted from students’ work was clearly evident. Despite these successes, however, in most cases these final projects were far from polished, relied heavily on copyrighted material, and weren’t able to stand completely on their own as texts with a clear audience and purpose in mind. In these instances, students were able to verbally express what they had tried to do, but the limited access to technology during class time made it virtually impossible for me to help troubleshoot these issues as they arose.
Yet, teaching this course was very much an exercise in troubleshooting. From easing students’ fears to developing a plan to compose videos outside of class time and finally letting go of the expectation that students demonstrate an understanding of fair use and copyright, this experience challenged me to redefine what I imagined that a “successful” multimodal composition might entail. While I believe that the emphasis on the content and quality of multimodal compositions that DMAC encourages is a laudable goal, the students in this course made clear that these goals should, at times, be secondary concerns. A particular example that has stuck with me is the student who was so nervous about “all this digital stuff” at the onset of the course. She concluded the semester with a five minute video that attempted to demonstrate how attention to visual rhetoric can raise awareness of social issues. Drawing on the 2010 Haitian earthquake as an example, she argued that democracy needs the humanities so that people can learn to create the types of messages that her video was trying to communicate. Did her video make these ideas clear on its own? Not really. Was the video composed of copyrighted materials? Absolutely: every last image and sound. But this project was, undeniably, a success.
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Bob the Lomond. “No Access.” CC-BY-NC 2.0.
Ioan Sameli. “A copyright will protect you from PIRATES.” CC BY-SA 2.0.
Mykl Roventine. “Panic Button.” CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Lynn Reid is Lecturer and Coordinator of Basic Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus and is ABD in the Composition and TESOL Program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is also a member of the Executive Board for the Council on Basic Writing and has been involved in the CCCC SIG on Adult Learners since 2009. Her work primarily focuses on the intersections between Basic Writing and Computers and Writing, with an emphasis on Writing Program Administration.