Introduction: The Current Moment in Composition

Denecker, Christine
Tulley, Christine

The impetus for this special issue came from multiple avenues over the past several years as we have journeyed professionally and concurrently as students of multimodal composition; authors of multimodal scholarship; faculty members implementing multimodal projects into our courses; and mentors guiding colleagues, adjunct faculty, and high school dual enrollment instructors in their own construction and production of multimodal assignments. Specifically, our time as students in Summer 2007 at The Ohio State University’s Digital Media and Composition (DMAC) Institute, as well as our own Summer 2008 “mini-DMAC” offering at The University of Findlay with dual enrollment instructors demonstrated to us the need for on-going professional development so that we (and others) might grow beyond our base knowledge of multimodal composition production and instruction.

Luckily, the two of us had been afforded a strong theoretical and practical grounding in this area thanks to the tutelage of Dr. Kristine Blair at Bowling Green State University where we both completed our doctoral degrees. However, we were left to wonder: where and under what circumstances are secondary and post-secondary writing instructors currently supported in their efforts to learn about multimodal composing theories and forms? Not everyone has the guidance of a Dr. Blair or is geographically situated near a DMAC. Furthermore, multimodal composition, by nature, is not and cannot be static; therefore, the learning and support must be on-going. And those who want to grow and develop multimodal composition practices often need technical training—or at the very least, technical support—in order to keep up with the changes in the field. So, in this special issue of The Writing Instructor, we ask: What multimodal composition training opportunities currently exist? How might we develop additional opportunities based on current templates? Where can writing instructors turn for help? What best practices might be readily adapted in our composition classrooms?

The Current Moment

These questions, derived from our professional experiences, have led us to deeply appreciate Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia Selfe’s contention that “digital composing environments are challenging writing, writing instruction, and basic understandings of the different components of the rhetorical situation (writers, readers, texts) to change. Such changes are both significant and far reaching—and they promise to be disruptive for many teachers of English composition" (1). With that said, we do not set out here to argue the relevance of multimodal texts or digital literacies—an argument which has already been convincingly made (see New London Group; Kress; Takayoshi and Selfe; Yancey; Brandt; Daley; Faigley et al., and many more). What we would like to suggest, though, is that—understandably—many practicing writing teachers, like us, are trying to catch a collective breath while simultaneously advocating and integrating multimodal writing forms into our curricula. And although many writing instructors (again, like us) acknowledge that the concept of what it means to write is evolving, we must also acknowledge our own place in composition studies’ historical continuum as “digital immigrants” (Graupner, Nickoson-Massey, and Blair 18). In other words, many current writing instructors are among those “raised and educated in the age and the landscape of print” (Takayoshi and Selfe 2), and as a result, distinctly feel the pedagogical tension between what was and the possibilities of what can be in the composition classroom.

In fact, according to recent research from the National Education Association (2010), today’s typical high school English teacher is age 40 or older, holds a master’s degree, and has been teaching for fifteen years or more. These markers suggest a large number of current secondary writing teachers who likely graduated from college in the early-to-mid 1990s (or before)—an era that predates the integration of technological pedagogy into most teacher education programs. Similarly, in regard to the post-secondary level, Meredith Graupner, Lee Nickoson-Massey, and Kristine Blair note that “not all graduate programs equally foreground the role of technology in the composition curriculum or even as part of the rhetorical tradition” (13). The work of Daniel Anderson et al. from a 2006 CCCC’s research grant corroborates this claim and suggests that although many institutions strive to prepare “graduate students for future academic work, such as teaching in composition classrooms…survey data did not indicate robust programs of professional development in digital contexts for these students” (74).

Simply put, a large segment of practicing writing teachers at secondary, post-secondary and even graduate levels have had scant professional opportunities to study, let alone integrate, the theories and practices of composing through a variety of modes including video, audio, new media, and visual arts (see Takayoshi and Selfe; McNabb et al.). And this lack of exposure to digital pedagogies has the potential to perpetuate itself. To borrow from Ellen Cushman, “Few English scholars at the university level are themselves prepared to teach their students, many of whom will go on to teach high school language arts, in the textuality of new media” (75). Peggy Albers shares a similar worry in her essay, “Imagining the Possibilities in Multimodal Curriculum Design,” where she writes, “If high school students’ impression of English instruction is ‘doing only book work,’ working with preservice teachers in designing curriculum from a multimodal perspective becomes essential” (80). Graupner, Nickoson-Massey, and Blair are among those leading the charge at the post-secondary and graduate levels and argue that rhetoric and writing instructors must “make the commitment to multimodal literacy in the graduate and undergraduate curriculum the collective concern of the larger discipline” (21).

Granted, integrating multimodal composition instruction within writing teacher education involves several contextual aspects as Danielle Fahser-Herro and Constance Steinkuehler note, including “a restructuring of [secondary] teacher training programs, a redefinition of literacy practices, and a reworking of traditional print-based curricula” (60). For their part, the National Council of Teachers of English has reworked the English curriculum to include instruction in multimodal composition for students and has redefined literacy practices to include technological literacies. Likewise, the Common Core Curriculum, currently adopted by public schools in forty-five states (“In the States”), includes what might be considered a step toward multimodal composing in two of its standards for high school English Language Arts (ELA) students. ELA-Literacy standard 9-10.2a challenges students to “include…multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension,” and ELA-Literacy standard 9-10.6 requires students to “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing projects, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically” (“English Language Arts Standards”). Thus, instructors in various places and at varying levels are facing mandates to include at least elements of multimodal composing in their curriculum.

Updating standards and restructuring pre-service training programs are just the first steps in moving composition instruction beyond “the precipice of change” described by Takayoshi and Selfe (3) to a place where “students can constructively respond to audio and visual compositions, developing critical perspectives that will serve them well as citizens who respond to any texts” (Takayoshi and Selfe 3). Still, the quandary remains: how best to support writing instructors who are already in the field? Some may be pursuing multimodal approaches because of their own interests and/or an understanding of technology’s relevance in the writing classroom; others may be looking to incorporate multimodal assignments because of mandates. Regardless of the impetus, support is needed. However, according to the aforementioned 2006 CCCCs research grant, “Few respondents who wanted to learn about digital media and multimodal composition have enjoyed the support of comprehensive, cohesive, or effective professional development opportunities offered by their departments or universities” (Anderson et al. 79). Furthermore, workshops that are available are often “tool-oriented,” not pedagogy-oriented (Anderson et al. 74). In other words, participants might be trained in how to prepare a podcast; unfortunately, this training is not always accompanied by grounding in why a podcast might be the best, or at least a relevant, semiotic channel for composing. In addition, faculty, regardless of discipline or rank, are “already presumed to command content expertise” (Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone 13); an assumption that discounts the challenge facing teachers who are new to the theories and practices of multimodal composition and leads to professional development opportunities, which are “overly remedial, technical, and generic” (Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone 13).

It should come as no surprise then, when participants in the CCCC’s research grant were asked “how they learned the technologies they needed to teach multimodal composition” they replied that they “were primarily self-taught” (Anderson et al. 73). Respondents also “reported being largely on their own as they planned, implemented, and assessed multimodal learning experiences for students” with 97% explaining that "they trained themselves how to implement multimodal pedagogies into their classrooms…” (Anderson et al. 74). According to Graupner, Nickoson Massey, and Blair, training might also become the domain of one person in the department who is looked to for “all things technological, from research in the discipline, technical support and technological literacy training…” (16). At The University of Findlay, we have become those point persons who provide professional support to faculty and adjuncts (Christine Tulley) as well as dual enrollment writing instructors and pre-service English teachers (Christine Denecker). Fortunately, we also have the help of student coaches at our Student Technology Center (STC), who can answer our (and, more importantly, our students’) technical questions when they create multimodal compositions—a point which suggests the need for collaboration among multiple areas in these professional development ventures.

Obviously, professional development opportunities do exist to prepare writing teachers in creating, assigning, and assessing multimodal compositions; however, most, like ours at The University of Findlay, have not been widely discussed. One notable exception is the aforementioned DMAC Institute at The Ohio State University (described in detail in this collection via an interview with founders Cynthia Selfe and Scott DeWitt). DMAC’s yearly summer workshop has an established history as a space for training secondary and post-secondary writing teachers in the practices of multimodal composition using a mix of theoretical and hands-on teaching approaches. Other venues, such as DMAC’s forerunner, Computers in Writing Intensive Classroom (CWIC) at Michigan Tech, as well as the Digital Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, have established histories of advocating and providing training in digital literacies. Still, as Fahser Herro and Steinkuehler lament, the “nonexistent corpus of research detailing teacher preparation programs or current practices with digital literacies [within programs] makes it difficult to measure their existence or success” (57). They suggest that a look at local preparation efforts is an essential first step to determine characteristics of successful multimodal training programs in order to understand how we might prepare a large population of practicing writing teachers, many of whom will teach for 20–25 more years.

For example, how might such programs best take into account the varying degrees of preparation for and understandings of multimodal composition that participants might bring to the table? Although the statistical evidence cited earlier suggests the majority of current writing instructors are “digital immigrants,” we cannot naively assume that writing teachers are hesitant to incorporate multimodal approaches into their instruction. In fact, as we have argued elsewhere, “Integrating multimodal writing assignments into high school English classrooms seems a natural fit in many ways since students' earlier experiences in language arts instruction often includes multimodal elements,” (Denecker) such as collages of pictures made with scissors and glue, chalked graffiti on the sidewalk, or slam poetry recited aloud to create an oral storytelling (Tulley). Many of the elements used to create these compositions such as cutting, pasting, pastiche, and/or orality can be replicated in a technological-rich environment. In addition, many writing teachers are likely experienced and enthusiastic technology users as they regularly engage in the very same social media that their students use both inside and outside the classroom (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, blogs, YouTube, etc.). A brief review of research from the past five years indicates that growing numbers of college faculty use Facebook (Read and Young), high school teachers blog about their personal lives (“This Time”), and more people, in general, subscribe to podcasts (Rainie and Madden). Moreover, the recent in-flux of second career writing teachers who hail from other fields are also often familiar with multiple technologies from previous employment (Tulley).

Still, familiarity with multimodalities and technology does not automatically equate to confidence in crafting, assigning, or modeling contemporary multimodal works. Jeff Grabill and Troy Hicks argue that “critically understanding how these writing technologies enable new literacies and meaningful communication should also be a core curricular and pedagogical function of English education” (307, emphasis ours). In addition, if composition is to champion “multi-literacies,” i.e. reading and composing the “ variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” (New London Group 61), faculty development which focuses on instructors’ “responsibility of introducing students to all available means of communicating effectively and productively” (Takayoshi and Selfe 8) is also essential for current writing teachers regardless of technological experience.

This Special Issue

The current moment of writing instruction, then, calls for a clearer view of how pre-service training and professional development is and might be designed for and implemented among consumers, producers, and purveyors of multimodal composition. From English faculty who are the point persons for technological pedagogies to those who teach or will teach writing at graduate, undergraduate, and high school levels—we are all in need of sustainable, effective, relevant, and practical opportunities to learn, adapt, and improve composition instruction in multimodal environments. Sure, some writing instructors may be willing to forge ahead and experiment with new approaches, but others may move more slowly and with more trepidation in embracing multimodal composing strategies and pedagogies; still others may fall somewhere in between the two camps. The essays in this collection speak to all these populations. From suggestions on incorporating more mindful approaches to our students’ Web practices to developing and implementing professional development workshops, the essays to follow provide a snapshot of the current moment as writing teachers embrace, develop, and even pioneer multimodal composition studies.

Specifically, a theme among the essays in this issue is the importance of meeting writing instructors “where they are” in their individual professional development processes. At times that juncture might equate to creating a space or providing suggestions for instructors to explore and try out best practices at their discretion; at other times, collaboration, change, and challenge may be more appropriate. Equally important is the authors’ shared belief that writing teachers must be taught to critically read/ view/listen, assess, and even create multimodal texts, themselves, so they can pass these practices onto their students. A final overarching theme in this issue suggests that appreciating the intersection of writing and technology is essential to understanding the significance of multimodal work, particularly in recognizing how technology, inherently, influences the composing process for diverse populations of students.

What follows is an overview of the contributions found in this issue:

  • In "Free and Easy: A Rubric for Evaluating Everyday Technologies,” Chris Gerben suggests narrowing the overwhelming scope of what can be considered multimodal composition to make it manageable for coordinators of training efforts. He argues that preparing teachers to incorporate new methods of composing, such as video essays, does not require expensive software or in-depth training—a good lesson for cash-strapped programs and an excellent starting point for this special edition, as these are frequently cited concerns for teachers and program organizers (see Takayoshi and Selfe). Gerben contends, “The best technologies for instruction should be accessible and intutive, both in their functionality and how they relate to course goals in writing instruction,” and offers a roadmap of how to train teachers in user-friendly, potentially time saving technologies.

  • In essay two, “It's Not 2.0 Late: What Late Adopters Need to Know About Teaching Research Skills to Writers of Multimodal Texts,” Randall McClure addresses the question of effective research in the college writing classroom and provides strategies to help “late adopters” of multimodal composing approaches to see writing and researching as webbed activities. According to McClure, “If [instructors] are going to learn how to help students author multimodal texts,” then they must also “learn how to help students conduct research for [those texts] as well as help students make sense of the information contained in multimodal compositions.” Here, by focusing on a cornerstone of writing instruction—the research process—McClure provides a useful avenue for rethinking how multimodality changes aspects of researching and composing as well as the instruction of such.

  • Essay three is the written transcription of a video interview we conducted with Cynthia (Cindy) Selfe and Scott DeWitt of The Ohio State University in February 2013. Selfe and DeWitt are the founders of the Digital Media and Composition Institute, which is held each summer at OSU. In this interview, Selfe and DeWitt trace the history of DMAC and its strong connections to CWIC, share a few laughs, and reflect upon the impact digital technologies have had on writing instruction. They also explore the gaps in training that have resulted from emerging technologies and concur that the goal of “better teaching,” not mastering technology, should drive professional development efforts.

  • Our fourth selection features the work of Laura McGrath and Letizia Guglielmo, who offer useful recommendations for programs that are challenged to develop in-house workshops in multimodal composing practices with college writing faculty. Their essay, titled, “Supporting Faculty in Teaching the New Work of Composing: Colleague-Guided Faculty Development within an English Department” focuses on “how departments, in particular, can support tenure-track and contingent faculty who may not have received graduate training in technology-enhanced teaching and multimodal pedagogy.” McGrath and Guglielmo also provide helpful workshop tools and surveys that may be adapted for others who may also take on or be charged with the task of convincing, as well as preparing, writing teachers to take on the important work of multimodal composition instruction.

  • In essay five, “Training in Multimodal Technologies Requires Training in Assistive Technologies,” Joe Wilferth makes the case that “training in multimodal technologies and the pedagogical implications of these technologies simply falls short when it fails to include assistive technologies that are designed to maximize access for students with disabilities.” Writing instructors at all levels can benefit from his discussion of access issues that are often left out in professional development forums.

  • Finally, anchoring this collection is the work of our mentor, Kristine Blair. In her piece, entitled, “Professional Development as Shared Responsibility: A Response,” she argues, “We cannot ignore the ongoing ideological, generational, and resulting curricular divide between those who have access to technological literacy sponsorship in the form of sustainable professional development throughout their professional careers and those who have not.” According to Blair, it is our charge as a profession to collectively share the responsibility of assuring that divide is lessened and, ultimately, erased.

What We Have Learned

Collectively, the working models and practical advice offered in this special issue of The Writing Instructor teach us that training in multimodal approaches can and does occur despite barriers typically associated with professional development initiatives, such as high costs, lack of buy-in, lack of access to technologies or technological support, and lack of time. Beth Brunk-Chavez and Shawn Miller rightly point out, though, that removal of these barriers is essential for any real multimodal composition initiative to work, suggesting “Any considerations of a sustainable faculty development program for teaching effectively with technology must acknowledge and seek to alleviate the pressures faculty face in adopting and adapting to new technologies” (6). In addition, Takayoshi and Selfe’s argument that “…all teachers have to seek their own level of comfort in digital communication environments” (10) should not be ignored when discussing and designing professional development models.

Furthermore, despite our, our contributors’, and countless others’ acknowledgement of multimodal composition as composition and not just an “add on,” we must remember that not all writing instructors share this view. Therefore, training efforts must include an emphasis on rethinking the dominance of print in the English class. In other words, the instruction should include discussions on why technology and writing should no longer be separated. Such a rethinking need not negate traditional literacies, though. In fact, it is important to convey in these training sessions that traditional literacies associated with the composition classroom such as writing, speaking, and listening are already used daily to understand multimodal texts outside of class, “challenge[ing] our easy acceptance of traditional modes of communication and push[ing] on our time-honored practices of teaching and assessing learning through books and print” (Fahser Herro and Steinkuehler 60). Jennifer Sheppard suggests that when professional development in multimodal composing reaffirms “traditional” concerns of the composition teacher, such as audience and style, participants realize that many traditional concepts persist and multimodality seems like a natural fit.

Finally, professional development for practicing writing teachers should be embedded, repeated, and allow for collaboration among colleagues (The National Council of Staff Development; Kanaya and Light). Writing teachers need time to discuss technology use with other teachers to form networked learning communities from individual classrooms in order to be effective teachers in a digital age (Fulton, Yoon, and Lee). This might happen by expanding training outlets for composition instructors that already exist, such as National Writing Project sites, graduate seminars, and community outreach projects. Moreover, collaboration among teachers in mentoring programs and between teachers and students also offers opportunities for these stakeholders to learn from one another. Said another way, cultivating an atmosphere of collaboration emphasizes that writing teachers don’t have to be technological experts to be successful; instead, they might even take on the “role of co-learner in the class” (Graupner, Nickoson-Massey, and Blair 18). Perhaps most importantly, both student and faculty projects now have publication venues to make co-learning and collaboration a pedagogical benefit of multimodal composing. These venues include undergraduate journals such as TheJUMP, peer-networking sites embedded within first-year writing programs such as Commonplace at Ohio State, and professional journals that emphasize multimodal composition approaches, such as Computers and Composition Online and Kairos.


Debra Journet, in describing her training efforts with senior faculty, writes: “Primarily, I talk about how much fun it [multimodal composing] is, how responsive my students are, how exciting it is to learn new genres and new ways of making meaning, and how necessary these forms of teaching and learning now seem to me” (116). The range of professional development approaches featured in this special issue underscore both the excitement and the work involved “for both teachers and students new to thinking about different modalities” (Takayoshi and Selfe 4). And although, as Kathleen Yancey argues, “Teaching student writers to navigate between digital and predigital technologies in their writing—and even to use new technologies to reflect on their writing process—makes for an ambitious, complex writing curriculum” (40), the interactive pedagogies adopted and the end products that can be created by students, teachers, and students and teachers—from podcasts to videos, wikis, blogs, and more—all showcase reflection and praxis. These are the very elements of multimodal composing that serve to invigorate and challenge us as writing instructors. These elements define the current moment in composition. Our challenge as writing instructors is to seek, demand, develop, record, and share professional development opportunities, all in the effort to better prepare ourselves and our students for writing in a multimodal age.

Works Cited

Albers, Peggy. “Imagining the Possibilities in the Multimodal Curriculum.” English Education 38.2 (Jan. 2006): 75-101. Print.

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

Brunk-Chavez, Beth, and Shawn Miller. “The Hybrid Academy: Building and sustaining a Technological Culture of Use.” Technological Ecologies and Sustainability: Methods, Modes, and Assessment. Eds. Dickie Selfe, Heidi Auchincloss McKee, and Dánielle Devoss. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State UP, 2009. Web. 4 March 2013.

Cushman, Ellen. “New Media Scholarship and Teaching: Challenging the Hierarchy of Signs.” Pedagogy 11.1 (2011): 63-79. Print.

Daley, Elizabeth. “Expanding the Concept of Literacy.” EDUCAUSE Review Magazine March/April 2003: 33-40. Print.

Denecker, Christine. “[Re]fresh[ing] Perspectives: Multimodal Composition and the Pre-ServiceEnglish Teacher.” Computers and Composition Online, (Spring 2008). Web. 2013.

“English Language Arts Standards: Writing: Grades 9-10.” Common Core State Standards Initiative. National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, 2012. Web. 4 March 2012.

Faigley, Lester, Diana George, Anna Palchik, and Cynthia Selfe. Picturing Texts. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004. Print.

Fahser-Herro, Danielle and Constance Steinkuehler. “Web 2.0 Literacy and Secondary Teacher Education.” Journal of Computing in Teacher Education 26.2 (2010): 55-62. Print.

Fulton, Kathleen, Irene Yoon and Christine Lee. “Induction into Learning Communities.” National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. August 2005. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Grabill, Jeffrey T. and Troy Hicks. “Mulitliteracies Meet Methods: The Case for Digital Writing in English Education.” English Education 37.4 (2005): 301-311. Print.

Graupner, Meredith, Lee Nickoson-Massey, and Kristine Blair. “Remediating Knowledge-Making Spaces in the Graduate Curriculum: Developing and Sustaining MultimodalResearch.” Computers and Composition 26.1 (2009): 13-23. Print

Hutchings, Pat, Mary Taylor Huber, and Anthony Ciccone. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered: Institutional Integration and Impact. Rochester, NY: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2011. Print.

“In the States.” Common Core State Standards Initiative. National Governors Association and Council for Chief State School Officers, 2012. Web. 4 March 2013.

Journet, Debra. “Inventing Myself in Multimodality: Encouraging Senior Faculty to Use Digital Media. Computers and Composition 24 (2007): 107-120. Print.

Kanaya, Tomoe and Daniel Light. "Duration and Relevance of a Professional Development Program: Using Intel Teach to the Future to Illuminate Successful Programmatic Features." Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2005. Norfolk, VA: AACE. n.d. Print.

Kress, Gunther. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

McNabb, Mary L. “Raising the Bar on Technology Research in the English Language Arts.” Journal on Research on Technology in Education 38.1 (2005): 113-119. Print.

National Council of Teachers of English. Writing Now: A Policy Research Brief Produced by the National Council of Teachers of English. Urbana: NCTE. 2008. Print.

National Education Association. Status of the American Public School Teacher. 2005–2006. Washington D.C. 2006. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

National Staff Development Council. NSDC Standards for Staff Development. 2001. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

New London Group. "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures." Harvard Educational Review 66.1 (1996): 60-92. Print.

Rainie, Lee and Mary Madden. "Podcasting Catches On." Pew Internet and American Life Project. Pew Research Center, 3 April 2005. Web. 28 March 2013.

Read, Brock and Jeffery Young. “Facebook and Other Social-networking Sites Raise Questions for Administrators.”Chronicle of Higher Education 53 (8 Aug. 2006): 37. Print.

Sheppard, Jennifer. “The Rhetorical Work of Multimedia Production Practices: It’s More Than Just Technical Skill.” Computers and Composition 26.1 (2009): 22-131. Print.

Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L. Selfe. “Thinking about Multimodality.” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. Ed. Cynthia Selfe. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2007. Print.

“This Time It’s Personal.” Teacher Magazine 15 (Oct. 2003): 31-33. Print.

Tulley, Christine. “Negotiating Digital and Traditional Literacies: Training Non-Traditional Pre-Service Writing Teachers.” Computers and Composition Online. 2008. Web. 30 March 2013.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Using Multiple Technologies to Teach Writing. Educational Leadership 62 (2004): 38-40. Print.


This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

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