Jason Palmeri begins his book, Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy, by taking a view on composition in which English and composition teachers are imparters of transferrable skills rather than purveyors of a limited bit of subject matter. He starts in Chapter One with Janet Emig’s idea of creativity, noting that it is an English teacher’s job to, in his words, “help students gain a global understanding of creative processes that is not tied to any specific modality—an understanding that they can use to help guide their composing with diverse alphabetic, audio, and visual materials.”
This idea that we as teachers must reach beyond the written page and help students learn to “write” (that is, create) in a variety of modes and media, means that our students are not given a formula but rather a deeper understanding of multiple approaches they may use to solve new problems. It’s common opinion when we think about “twenty-first century skills” and the digital age that we as teachers are preparing students for challenges—and careers—that we cannot predict or that may not yet exist. In order to tackle this evolving world, students must learn to not only solve problems thrown at them, but also identify problems and the most effective way of approaching and resolving them (a critical step in composing, as articulated by Linda Flower and John Hayes). This makes composition all about empowering students to take agency rather than simply follow a five-paragraph (or some other) formula.
If our challenges are inherently multimodal, it only makes sense that a productive and effective approach to reacting should be as well. This brings me back to the prior quote; Palmeri says we must facilitate “global understanding” and teach students to compose in diverse ways. His word choice here—“global,” “diverse”—speaks directly to our current educational zeitgeist. We are acutely aware of our globalized world (internet!) and the need to understand and teach to the growing diversity in the United States and—hopefully—within our classrooms. Palmeri’s discussion of the composition process ties directly to a point he addresses in Chapter Two of “the ways rhetorical practices can both reinforce and/or subvert hierarchical structures.”
He writes, “Challenging the academic tradition of viewing print texts as the most authoritative sources of knowledge, [Paulo] Friere ultimately argues for a literacy pedagogy grounded in spoken dialogue in which students and teachers collaboratively come to name and transform the world (at least in part) through the process of speaking and listening to one another.” While students of all backgrounds should learn to understand a variety of ideas and ways of communicating them, many students do not place inherent value on written texts, especially when they don’t understand them. I recently shared with a group of students what I felt was an incredibly thoughtful, complex, and well-written New Yorker article. They immediately disregarded it, bitter and defensive at the dense writing style and feeling condescended to by an author they had never even heard of. When I showed a video clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that expressed similarly complex perspectives on the same issue with touches of humor, the students’ interest and investment grew, and they were able to access the written text in deeper ways—no longer was it an un-contextualized heap of gibberish; it was now yet another resource they could attempt to connect to. They had an entry point. How we value texts intersects not only with background, culture, and accessibility, but also with learning styles and differences—if the same idea may be accessed through various media, then students will gain a deeper understanding of those ideas and have a more productive conversation about them beyond the texts.