Digital Composition

Digital composition involves the use of various technologies to approach composition within the classroom. This includes the way instructors teach, how students research, and how we all interact with texts--through creation, manipulation, production, dissemination, and even assessment. Digital composition is an umbrella term for many concepts, e.g. multimedia, multimodal composition, remix culture, multiliteracies, and the many forms and formats that digital writing encompasses.

The following pages provide more information about some of the concepts encompassed by digital composition:


The push for digital composition is necessitated by a technological shift in how we write and communicate via computers. The WIDE Collective lists three major shifts in writing that highlight the exigence of digital composition:
  1. Theory: Print theory does not adequately apply to digital writing.
  2. Space: Traditional classrooms are no longer suitable for teaching writing in ways that are responsible and effective.
  3. Praxis: Teaching practices require a shift for digitally mediated spaces. (WIDE).

The WIDE Research Center Collective published “Why Teach Digital Writing?” in 2005. They defined digital writing as “the art and practice of preparing documents primarily by computer and often for online delivery” (WIDE). This is a nice, succinct definition, but a more thorough definition is needed to appreciate the complexities of digital writing both in terms of praxis and theory.

The WIDE Collective offers another definition: “Digital writing often requires attention to the theories and practices of designing, planning, constructing, and maintaining dynamic and interactive texts—texts that may wind up fragmented and published within and across databases.”

This understanding of digital writing focuses on two interrelated aspects of digital writing: dynamism and interactivity. The push for digital writing is necessary for a new writing environment, which requires students to have the rhetorical skills to “produce documents appropriate to the global and dispersed reach of the web” (WIDE). In a dynamic and dispersed digital medium, students and instructors must recognize that writing is more than written text on a page. Digital writing extends to different modes and media that “allow us to weave and orchestrate multiple sign technologies (e.g. images, voice and other sounds, music, video, print, graphics), layered together across space and time to produce artifacts that can be interactive, hyperlinked, and quite powerful” (WIDE). In order to be part of a digital culture, students must learn the rhetorical skills to create powerful and effective texts.


The Humanities and Computers & Writing are two somewhat estranged fields. Questions regarding their similarities and differences circulate in academic discussions (see “Digital Humanities Questions & Answers” and “The Rhetoric of DH”) and in conferences (for example, Digital Humanities versus Computers and Writing).

In “What is Humanitistic about Computers and Writing? Historical Patterns and Contemporary Possibilities,” Michael Knievel seeks to answer “what, precisely, is humanistic about computers and writing” (92). Tracing the three major phases of humanistic arguments in computers and writing’s history—fear and loathing (1975–1992), moving the social turn online (1990–2000), and digital literacy and action (2000–present)—Knievel makes an argument about the rhetorical importance of digital writing that is similar to the WIDE Collective’s:

"By helping to shift humanistic conversation and responsibility toward an active, technologized literacy, computers and writing participates in re-imagining the humanities and its “outcome” at this cultural moment: now, a fully equipped rhetor must be equally capable of analysis and production for multimediated participation in the academy, the workplace, and both personal and public spheres" (Knievel 103).

Here, Knievel stresses the importance of an active and productive humanities that acknowledges its students (and its scholars) as effective “citizen-rhetors” (104). Arguably, this process necessitates that future citizen-rhetors are provided with the skills they need to succeed in a digital culture.

Similarly, Alex Reid explores the idea that the “future of all humanities is digital” in his blog post, “Composition, Humanities, and the ‘Digital Age.’” This echoes the idea that most of the writing that we do takes place in digital environments. Reid makes two important arguments here: 1) Though scholars don’t need to focus on technology as a research inquiry, it is necessary to develop pedagogies that account for technology; and 2) writing pedagogies have remained fairly static, even though writing spaces and technologies have changed significantly.


Even from these few examples, it is clear that digital composition requires a different approach to writing pedagogies. For example,
  • Pedagogies must be relevant. As our culture becomes more technologically advanced, so should our writing and rhetorical skills.
  • Writing can benefit from interactivity, which necessitates understanding the importance of using different modes and media to compose texts.
  • Digital composition is more than just writing: It involves consideration of theory, appropriate mediums for composition and production, an understanding of how various technologies can make texts more effective, and a new framework for assessment.


In this episode of TED Talks, Lawrence Lessig discusses user-generated content. He defines read-write culture as a “culture where people participate in the creation and the re-creation of their culture.” The opposite of read-write culture, which he argues is dominant in our society, is read-only culture, a “culture where creativity was consumed but the consumer is not a creator.” Lessig believes that digital technologies may be able to revive the read-write culture of the past, creating an “amateur culture….where people produce for the love of what they’re doing and not for the money.” Lessig stresses that the importance of this kind of culture is that these digital tools of creation are now “tools of speech,” a “literacy for this generation.”

Rip! A Remix Manifesto:

Remix Scholarship


Multiliteracy is similar to multilingualism in the sense that a person must have knowledge of multiple literacies, but these literacies do not manifest within different languages; instead, they derive from technological ability. In an increasing digital age, multiliteracies is a term used to discuss the different technological skills (or literacies) that a person must have in order to communicate effectively through electronic means.



The New London Group first termed "multiliteracies" in 1996: "Multiliteracies" as "the multiplicity of communications channels and media, and the increasing saliency of cultural and linguistic diversity." They expanded this definition to explain that muliteracies is a term meant to embody two different arguments:
  • "The first relates to the increasing multiplicity and integration of significant modes of meaning-making, where the textual is also related to the visual, the audio, the spatial, the behavioral, and so on."
  • "Second, we decided to use the term "multiliteracies" as a way to focus on the realities of increasing local diversity and global connectedness. [...] Effective citizenship and productive work now require that we interact effectively using multiple languages, multiple Englishes, and communication patterns that more frequently cross cultural, community, and national boundaries."

Kathy A. Mills (2011) uses the New London Group as a framework for her book, The Multiliteracies Classroom, citing their definitional work as her foundation. She adds that "a digital communications environment" requires more than our former understandings of literacy, that these older models "of literacy as monolingual, monocultural, and monomodal--one language, culture, and mode--have been transformed for the new times as multiliteracies" (124). In her concluding statements, Mills writes, "Multiliteracies is an innovative attempt to combine the strengths of past approaches, while addressing the need for multimodal, digital, culturally diverse and dynamic literacies for the changing times" (136).


In 1994, ten educators met in New London, New Hampshire to discuss literacy pedagogy, which they claim "has traditionally meant teaching and learning to read and write in page-bound, official, standard forms of the national language." These educators formed the New London Group:

The New London Group has led the way in multiliteracy research. In 1996, the group published "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures" in the Harvard Educational Review, introducing the term for the first time. Within this article, the authors argue that multiliteracies are a way to move beyond the "limitations of traditional approaches" of literacy pedagogy that focus on print-bound, rule-regulated standards of learning. The authors see multiliteracies as a way to negotiate the "multiple linguistic and cultural differences in our society," which is necessary pedagogically in order to reach the various facets of a diverse student population that combines "working, civic, and private lives." This multiliterate pedagogy focuses on "modes of representation" that extend beyond language itself, advocating for a wider variety of literacies that are inextricably linked to culture and context.

In 2003, Gunther Kress published Literacy in the New Media Age. Although he doesn't explicitly address multiliteracies, he does explore the concept of literacy as it is evolving through developing technologies. Kress begins by claiming that "it is no longer possible to think about literacy in isolation from a vast array of social, technological and economic factors" (1). Here, he situates a cultural shift from writing to the image and from the book the the screen, emphasizing the importance that different modes have in our writing societies. Kress's main claim is that literacy can no long be the sole means for communication, that other modes and media have a prominent role in writing environments (35). In this way, Kress advocates for multiliteracies by emphasizing the value of writing students expanding their literacies to encompass the "cultural and linguistic diversity" that multiliteracies allow.


Multiliteracy Centers

David M. Sheridan and James A. Inman (2010):
  • Multiliteracy centers should be spaces equal to the diversity of semiotic options composers have in the 21st century.
  • Multiliteracy centers should be staffed by consultants who have the rhetorical, pedagogical, and technical capacities to support this diversity of semiotic options.
  • Multiliteracy centers should facilitate the competent and critically reflective use of technologies and other material, institutional, and cultural resources. 6-7

Eastern Kentucky University's Noel Studio for Academic Creativity:

Michigan Tech's Multiliteracies Center:


There have been many book series and journals dedicated to the work done within the digital humanities. New Dimensions in Computers and Composition, edited by Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe, is a book series published by Hampton Press and dedicated to "groundbreaking scholarship on the teaching, practice, and theory of computer-based composition."



Alexander, Jonathan. "Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Composition Classroom: Some Possibilities for Transformation." College Composition and Communication 61.1 (Sept. 2009): 35-63.

Anderson, Daniel, Anthony Atkins, Cheryl Ball, Krista Homicz Millar, Cynthia Selfe, Richard Selfe. “Integrating Multimodality into Composition Curricula: Survey Methodology and Results from a CCCC Research Grant.” Composition Studies 34.2 (2006): 59-84.

Birr Moje, Elizabeth. "Standpoints: A Call for New Research on New and Multi-Literacies." Research in the Teaching of English 43.4 (May 2009): 348-362.

Briand, Paul. "Turned on: Multi-Media and Advanced Composition." College Composition and Communication 21.3 (1970): 267-269.

Dubisar, Abby M, and Jason Palmeri. "Palin/Pathos/Peter Griffin: Political Video Remix and Composition Pedagogy." Computers and Composition 27.2 (June 2010): 77-93.

Eldred, Janet Carey. "The Technology of Voice." College Composition and Communication 48.3 (Oct. 1997): 334-347.

Fraiberg, Steven. "Composition 2.0: Toward a Multilingual and Multimodal Framework." College Composition and Communication 62.1 (Sept. 2010): 100-126.

Heid, Jim. "Getting Started with Multimedia. What Is It? Can You Use It? What Will It Cost?" Macworld 8.5 (May 1991): 225.

Jewitt, Carey, and Gunther Kress. Multimodal Literacy. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1997.

Knievel, Michael. "What is Humanistic about Computers and Writing? Historical Patterns and Contemporary Possibilities." Computers and Composition 2.26 (2009): 92-106.

Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge, 2003.

---.Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. New York, Routledge, 2010.

Kress, Gunther R., and Van Leeuwen, Theo. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Lauer, Claire. "Contending with Terms: 'Multimodal' and 'Multimedia' in the Academic and Public Spheres." Computers and Composition 26 (2009): 225-239.

McPherson, Tara. "Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities." Cinema Journal 48.2 (2009): 119-123.

Mills, Kathy A. The Multiliteracies Classroom. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2011.

New London Group. "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures." Harvard Educational Review 66.1 (Spring 1996).

Reid, Alex. "Composition, Humanities, and the 'Digital Age.'" Digital Digs. 11 May 2011. Web.

Reynolds, Nedra. "Composition's Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace." College Composition and Communication 50.1 (Sept. 1998): 12-35.

Rockwell, Geoffrey, and Andrew Mactavish. "Chapter Ten: Multimedia." A Companion to Digital Humanities. Ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford, Blackwell: 2004.

Selber, Stuart. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Selfe, Cynthia L. Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. Eds. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. New Directions in Computers and Composition. Hampton Press, 2007.

---. "Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention." College Composition and Communication 50.3 (Feb. 1999): 411-436.

---. "The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing." College Composition and Communication 60.4 (June 2009): 616-663.

Selfe, Cynthia L., and Richard J. Selfe Jr. "The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones." College Composition and Communication 45.4 (Dec. 1994): 480-504.

Selfe, Richard J., and Cynthia L. Selfe. "Critical Technological Literacy and English Studies: Teaching, Learning, and Action." The Relevance of English: Teaching that Matters in Students’ Lives. Ed. Robert Yagelski and Scott Leonard. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2002. 356-93. Print.

Sheridan, David M., and James A. Inman, eds. Multiliteracy Centers: Writing Center Work, New Media, and Multimodal Rhetoric. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc., 2010.

Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

---. "Negotiating Rhetorical, Material, Methodological, and Technological Difference: Evaluating Multimodal Designs." College Composition and Communication 61.1 (Sept. 2009): W343-W366.

---. “This was (not!) an Easy Assignment: Negotiating an Activity-based Multimodal Framework for Composing.” Computers and Composition Online (Fall 2007).

---. "A Multimodal Task-Based Framework for Composing." College Composition and Communication 57.2 (2005): 277–306.

Spooner, Michael, and Kathleen Yancey. "Postings on a Genre of Email." College Composition and Communication 47.2 (May 1996): 252-278.

Stein, Pippa. Multimodal Pedagogies in Diverse Classrooms: Representation, Rights, and Resources. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

WIDE Research Center Collective. “Why Teach Digital Writing?” Kairos 10.1 (Fall 2005). Web.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Looking for Sources of Coherence in a Fragmented World: Notes toward a New Assessment Design.” College Composition and Communication 56.2 (Dec. 2004): 89-102.