Computers and Writing Reflection: Writing is Multimodal

All writing is multimodal. It’s one of 37 “threshold concepts” in writing studies published in Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know. The word “multimodal” appears across FYWP outcome statements. Multimodality appears to be a central value in writing studies, but how is it implemented, how is it defined, and how is it assessed and housed in FYWPs?

Many of my early conversations with faculty around multimodal composition alluded to some of these questions. One even compared it to many notions of literacy that too easily become some sort of apparently “neutral good” that has a tricky definition. It doesn’t quite mean computers; it doesn’t quite mean words in a row writing.

In my reading Jody Shipka’s “Rethinking Composition/Rethinking Process” chapter in Toward a Composition Made Whole, I am understanding a definition of multimodal composition that may not utilize a certain technology, but rather, argues for an understanding of composition that calls attention to the technologies used to produce that writing. She writes, “By asking students to examine the communicative process as a dynamic, embodied, multimodal whole–one that shapes and is shaped by the environment–students might come to see writing, reading, speaking, and ways of thinking and evaluating as “a function of place, time, sex, age, and many other elements of life” (Malstrom 1956, 24)” (26). This sort approach mixes object-oriented ontology with multimodality in a compelling way that forces an understanding of technologies and environments for writing that shape the writer and what is produced as a function of that space, time, object, etc. This kind of encounter with an object unessentializes and deinstrumentalizes objects and process for the production and evaluation of a given text. Instead, it calls for an encounter with the impression the objects of production have on the composition through the recognition of the liminal spaces objects and environments afford.

I can hear this echoed in composition’s past in Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2004 CCCC address, where she calls attention to the way that technology is rapidly and dramatically creating and changing genres and understandings of literacy. She writes that students are writing more on their own than ever before with these (then) new technologies. Though not articulated in quite the same way as Shipka’s (2011) chapter, Yancey seems to be calling attention to this same understanding of composition; one that encounters the modes of production and recognizes their contribution to the production of that text. The idea that all writing is “interfacing,” I find a compelling way to conceive of texts as creating interaction and invitation.

This is certainly something that I strive for in my own pedagogy. The idea of making as composing is language that I’m slightly more familiar with, largely coming out of the hacking vs. yacking debates in the digital humanities and the maker movement. I’ve attempted to structure the courses I teach around this idea of multimodal composition and emphasize the means of making a text to call attention to the underlying assumptions about what a text is and the technologies that go into its production.


Notes: Sean Michael Morris, “Risk, Reward, and Digital Writing”

Keywords: critical digital literacy, digital humanities, digital literacy, new materialisms, pedagogy, technology, writing technology


Morris, Sean Michael, Pete Rorabaugh, & Jesse Stommel. (2013). Beyond rigor. Hybrid Pedagogy. Web.


“Algorithms control the way we write, the way we interact with one another, the way we find each other in the digital, and whether or not what we say ever gets heard how and by whom we intended. Writing and interacting to outwit the algorithm has become a digital literacy all its own, a new savoir-faire. Resisting the algorithm, on the other hand, is a minute rebellion, a disassembly, even in the smallest way, of the systems that control our words and relationships.”

“I am offering an additional challenge: to make the act of digital writing truly political. To rouse and incite, to question and provoke, to mark our territories on the spaces delimited by their designers. By creating, hack; by writing, rebel. We must make the sites of our work little bitty Bastilles, our tweets and Vines and sound clips tiny marches on Versailles. Imagine a blog that flies the Jolly Roger, a podcast that bows to no one, a Vimeo channel that riots and runs amok. These are the ways the insurgence begins.”

“I speak of rebellion playfully when in truth most revolutions are terrible, bloody affairs. That playfulness, though, is the invitation. We are creating a revolution of digital handicraft, of makers and shakers. We shall not throw our bodies upon the machines, but we shall throw our words there — and our images — and our voices. The approach may look joyous and celebratory, and the fervor may delight and inspire, and the result will have meaning.”

Notes: Laura Klein, “Hacking the Field: Teaching Digital Humanities with Off-the-Shelf Tools”

Klein, Laura. (2011). Hacking the field: Teaching digital humanities with off-the-shelf tools. Transformations, 22(1), 37-52.


Klein works toward an understanding of where the digital humanities lies in education and links the digital humanities with educational technology. Klein works through several “off-the-shelf” or open-access technologies utilized within a classroom and analyzes this link.

Keywords: digital humanities, digital literacy, hacking, literacy, new materialisms, pedagogy, technology


Bianco, Jamie. (2007). Composing and compositing: Integrated digital writing and academic pedagogy. Fibreculture, 10.

Drucker, Johanna. (2009). SpecLab: Digital aesthetics and projects in speculative computing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Neary, Mike and Joss Winn. (2009). Student as producer: Reinventing the student experience in higher education. The future of higher education: Policy, pedagogy and the student experience. London: Continuum.


“By offering material models of openness and access, by fostering community and facilitating collaboration, and by illuminating the importance of process and method, these tools also offer an opportunity to address the increasingly hierarchical relationship between the fields of the digital humanities and educational technology” (p. 38).

“If the field of digital humanities is truly to define itself, as Drucker proposes, as “the study of ways of thinking differently about how we know what we know,” and about how the “interpretive task of the humanist is redefined” in the “changed conditions” of the present age, the field must focus on how ways of knowing are linked to the institutional structures that support scholarly work, and how those structures shape interpretive—and pedagogical—tasks. By facilitating collaboration across classrooms and disciplines, by emphasizing the contributions of free, open-source, and/or off-the-shelf tools, and by foregrounding the process of teaching—and learning—that takes place within the university, the creative application of platforms and design of projects, such as those described in this essay, are poised to challenge, to redefine, and to reintegrate ways of teaching and knowing in the digital age” (p. 48).

“Just as instructors and scholars must train themselves to harness the power of “constraints-based approaches” and off-the-shelf tools, they must also acknowledge the limits of tools, access, and knowledge itself. This way of knowing must be conveyed to students in the form of engaging classroom discussion, flexible assignments, and opportunities for personal exploration and growth. Only then can students arrive at their own understanding of their “interpretive task” as students—and as scholars— in response to the range of media forms that they encounter in the cultural fabric of their everyday lives” (p. 49).

Questions and Reflections:

In what ways can we get students to engage with open-source or off-the-shelf resources to invent stakes for student writers, to put them in a position that invites them into the inventive process through risk? In what ways can these sites become sites of hacking and disrupting of normative literacy practices?