In the 1990s and early 2000s, there arose a scholarly push toward discussions of creating texts that explored “alternative, blended, diverse, mixed, or experimental discourses” (Shipka, 2011, 7). Today, multimodality is explored in a number of scholarly journals—Kairos, Computers and Composition Online, Enculturation—and is discussed in a variety of ways. One of the great things about embracing multimodality is its variety: It allows students, scholars, and teachers to use any number of media to understand, evaluate, and create rich, rhetorical texts.

Bloom's Digital Taxonomy Pyramid via University of Southern Indiana


The easiest way to define multimodality is by breaking apart the word. Because "multi" is widely known, the importance of multimodality is within the mode: What is a mode? How can we compose using multiple modes?

Gunther Kress, a member of the New London Group and a leading scholar of communication and literacy, argues that modes are semiotic channels that are used to compose texts. That is, modes are ways of representing information. Kress and Van Leeuwen have argued that all modes can be created and manipulated by a single person in a single interface (2001, 2).

In Multimodal Composition, Cynthia Selfe defines multimodal texts as those that "exceed the alphabetic and may include still and moving images, animations, color, words, music and sound" (1). Though this definition doesn't specify digital technologies, all of these different modes can be manipulated digitally (e.g. images through Photoshop, animations through Flash, sound through Garageband).

Coming from a critical studies perspective, Tara McPherson defines a multimodal scholar (or creator) as someone who "aims to produce work that reconfigures the relationships among author, reader, and technology while investigating the computer simultaneously as a platform, a medium, and a visualization device" (120).

Ambiguous Definitions

There are some ambiguities concerning multimodality and what exactly the term means. In 2006, Daniel Anderson, Anthony Atkins, Cheryl Ball, Krista Homicz Millar, Cynthia Selfe, and Richard Selfe conducted a study and published their findings in "Integrating Multimodality into Composition Curricula: Survey Methodology and Results from a CCCC Research Grant." According to their survey, 62% of participants defined multimodal texts as those that "included a range of communicative modes including media such as audio, video, animation, words, images, and others"; 7% defined multimodal texts as either "digital" or "analog"; and 15% responded that their department had yet to come up with a definition "that would support pedagogical applications of multimodal composition" (68-9).


Along with these ambiguities, there are many discussions that revolve around the notion that multimodality 1) is not new, 2), is often thrown into curriculum to make it more “relevant” without thinking critically about its benefits and drawbacks, and 3) is an often-conflated term that people associate with digitally-created texts.

Conflated Terms

Multimodal texts can include any kind of media, not necessarily those that are limited to the digital realm, which is why it is problematic to associate “multimodal” with “digital.” Jody Shipka addresses this concern in Toward a Composition Made Whole: “I am concerned that emphasis placed on "new (meaning digital) technologies has led to a tendency to equate terms like multimodal, intertextual, multimedia, or still more broadly speaking, composition with the production and consumption of computer-based, digitized, screen-mediated texts” (8). So while multimodal texts are not necessarily digital texts, for a discussion of the Digital Humanities, it is important to recognize that with an increasing access to user-friendly software and technologies, much of the recent interest in multimodality is technologically grounded.

Undertheorized Curriculum

Like many discussions of technology, integrating multimodality into the classroom is something that must be carefully planned prior to implementation: Will students have access to the software and technologies that they are encouraged to use? Do the projects serve the curricular goals of the course? How will such projects be assessed?

In Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing, Johndan Johnson-Eilola discusses the need to critically examine our technological practices in the classroom: “The growth of technologies requires us to rethink what we mean by composition. We cannot merely add these technologies to our classrooms and theories as tools with which our students arrive at their primary task (a common stance)” (7). Here, Johnson-Eilola asks us to reconfigure not only our teaching practices, but the field of composition itself. He continues, stating that “we must take these forms of communication to be at least as important (and often more culturally relevant) than singly authored papers arguing a single, clear point forcefully over the course of five, neatly typed, double-spaced pages” (7). This reads not only as a critique of the employment of technology (in 1997), but it is also an argument for the benefits of multimodality—for texts that can communicate in ways that are richer and more collaborative than the traditional text-only student paper.

Paying critical attention to technology-mediated classroom practices is a persistent theme throughout the work of Cynthia and Richard Selfe. In “Critical Technological Literacy and English Studies: Teaching, Learning, and Action,” the Selfes discuss the importance of designing a curriculum that employs multimodality in relevant ways: “The challenge becomes one of designing courses that speak to students' past, present, and projected interests, needs, and concerns, and that help prepare them to "work in and understand electronic literacy environments” (359). The main message here is that multimodality is necessarily student-centered. It must not only address students’ interests in using technology, but must do the more critical work of addressing particular learning needs and concerns, too.

In “Negotiating Rhetorical, Material, Methodological, and Technological Difference: Evaluating Multimodal Designs,” Jody Shipka takes up the issue of how to assess multimodal texts when the final products can vary so significantly from one another. Shipka discusses a “statement of goals and choices (SOGC)” (W353) that she asks students to create that asks students to reflect critically on the creation and production of their multimodal texts. These statements ask students “to catalog the various rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices they made with their work” (W356) in order to share student “understandings of that work’s purposes, potentials, and consequences” (W364). Shipka sees these student statements as a way for teachers to familiarize themselves with multimodal texts as rhetorical artifacts, thus framing assessment in terms of what students were able to rhetorically accomplish.

New Media or Old Media?
Many scholars have argued that multimodality is not a new concept; rather, the way we are addressing it is what has changed (Birr Moje 352). Kathleen Blake Yancey has stated, “That we live in a fragmented world is not news. That textuality has pluralized is, likewise, not news. […] Rather, the layered literacies Cynthia Selfe (1989) described have become textured in interesting ways: Print and digital overlap, intersect, become intertextual” (89). So it’s not a matter of print texts becoming digital; instead, it is the blending of multiple media and mediums to create multimodal texts.

Likewise, many have argued that literacy and writing have always been multimodal. In Multimodal Literacy, Gunther Kress and Carey Jewitt argue that there is no such thing as monomodal communication. Pippa Stein takes up this argument when she argues that all texts are multimodal because they invariably involve multiple modes of communication. Stein argues that even the classroom where composition occurs is a multimodal place—its visual displays and furniture arrangements combined with the teaching and composing practices that take place within those spaces create a space where multiple modes converge to “shape the production of curriculum knowledge and pedagogic practices that lead to learning” (122).

So multimodality isn't new in the sense that students have always bridged different modes of communication in order to compose and create texts. However, "new media," such as audio and video software, online presentation tools, and an increased access to communicative technologies add an extra layer to multimodality that many comp/rhet scholars are engaging (see Daniel Anderson, Chris Anson, Cheryl Ball, Steven Fraiberg, Claire Lauer, Jason Palmeri, Alexander Reid, Cynthia Selfe, Jody Shipka, Pippa Stein, Karl Stolley, and Anne Wysocki).

Effects on Learning

These issues could arguably be true of any shift that significantly affects teaching, learning, and composing practices. And despite the issues mentioned, there are a number of advantages to adopting multimodality within the composition classroom, particularly in terms of student learning.
From "Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says," a study by the Metiri Group.

In Multimodal Pedagogies in Diverse Classrooms: Representations, RIghts, and Resources, Pippa Stein uses the term "multimodal pedagogies" to refer to "curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices which focus on mode as a defining feature of communication in learning environments" (121). A common theme in multimodal pedagogies is a multiplicity in teaching, learning, and composing practices. In terms of teaching practices, multimodal pedagogies are those that present information in a number of forms and formats. In terms of composing and writing practices, multimodality promotes the use of any number of media to create cohesive rhetorical texts. Stein advocates for multiple pedagogies because they "acknowledge learners as agentive, resourceful and creative meaning-makers who communicate using the communicative potential and multiple resources of their bodies and of their environment to interconnect" (122). This perspective emphasizes the importance of multimodal pedagogies to bring together diverse voices and resources to create knowledge and meaning. By promoting the use of different modes to create texts, multimodal pedagogies encourage students to take learning into their own hands, to “learn by doing” (Shipka, 2005, 291).
Cone of Learning: We Tend to Remember Our Level of Involvement

Briefly mention Universal Design and multiple means of learning/composing/etc. Also, relevance.

Multimodal Scholarship

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