Jody Shipka and Multimodality

Jody Shipka’s “A Multimodal Task-Based Framework for Composing” presents a pretty strong argument that teachers of writing have been cutting students off from certain aspects of the writing process.

Her discussion of a typical assignment (p. 285) is particularly telling in this regard:

Choose three of the five essays listed below and compose a four-to-five-page argumentative typewritten essay in response to those essays. Double space your text, use a 12-point standard font and 1-inch margins all around, and make sure your thesis statement is clear, arguable, and underlined; make sure the piece is structured logically and that your work is carefully proofread.

Her argument in the paragraph below seems to be: look at how many writing choices students DON’T have to make.

Here, the scope and purpose of the work are already established for the student [ . . .] The methods, materials, and technologies he or she is expected to employ are also predetermined: reading and critically engaging the assigned texts, using at least three of these as the basis for a logically structured linear argumentative essay, the use of paper plus some device that produces print text, etc. Equally problematic is the way the prompt suggests a logic of composing that proceeds in an orderly, top-down manner [ . . .] More troubling still, nothing about the ways in which, or the specific conditions under which, students’ work will be collected and assessed. In fact, to imagine the assignment reading “Once the paper is finished, you will pass this forward in class, and the instructor will read it, respond to it, and then provide you with a grade,” could seem silly, a way of stating the obvious. After all, what else might one possibly imagine doing?

Her snarky tone, I think, is indicative of her more radical point.  It could make sense to some that removing questions of design from a piece of writing might free up the writer to concentrate more on her words.  However, when framed against the world of rhetorical decisions people make in order to compose things–not just the paper and font choices but considerations about the production, uptake, reception, and potential response to their compositions–it seems imperative that we use the composition course to introduce students to the “complex communicative tasks” they will face the rest of their lives.

Shipka summarizes:

Taken together, these accounts suggest that, when called upon to set their own goals and to structure the production, delivery, and reception of the work they accomplish in the course, students can: (1) demonstrate an enhanced awareness of the affordances provided by the variety of media they employ in service of those goals; (2) successfully engineer ways of contextualizing, structuring, and realizing the production, distribution, delivery, and reception of their work; and (3) become better equipped to negotiate the range of communicative contexts they find themselves encountering both in and outside of school.

So let’s look over the accounts she offered in this article.  In groups, perhaps at your tables, select one of the following “case studies”:

  1. Lindsay Freeberg
  2. Prakas Itarut
  3. Maggie Christiano
  4. Karen Rust
  5. Mike Ragano

And scan for that name in the article.  (Remember that many of these students appear throughout Shipka’s essay–not just where you first found them!)  Then work with your team to answer these questions:

  • What was their composed product, their piece?
  • What kinds of planning did they engage in to get the piece completed?  How did they figure out WHAT they wanted to do and WHY?
  • What evidence did you see of their critical engagement or rhetorical flexibility?
  • How did you think the form of their piece enhanced our understanding of their point, their purpose for writing?

We’ll have brief presentations on each of their compositions.  Then I’d like you all to tackle the same questions in your project groups!  Please discuss your answers to them and make sure you’re all on the same page.

  • the product(s) [you] will formulate in response to a given task—this might take the form of a printed text, a performance, a handmade or repurposed object, or, should students choose to engineer a multipart rhetorical event, any combination thereof
  • the operations, processes, or methodologies that will be (or could be) employed in generating that product—depending on what students aim to achieve, this might involve collecting data from texts, conducting surveys, interviews or experiments, sewing, searching online, woodworking, filming, recording, shopping, staging rehearsals, etc.
  • the resources, materials, and technologies that will be (or could be) employed in the generation of that product—again, depending on what they aim to achieve this could involve, paper, wood, libraries, computers, needle and thread, stores, food, music, glue, tape, etc.
  • the specific conditions in, under, or with which the final product will be experienced—this involves determining or otherwise structuring the delivery, reception, and/or circulation of their final product. (Shipka 287)

I hope that through this process questions will emerge about ways to get started on your final project.  But what Shipka really seems to show us is the engaged and useful but difficult task of realizing a document or text in the “outside world,” where questions of what I’m writing/building, for whom, and why often can’t be answered with “anyone” and “to inform them.”  Perhaps another problem with formulaic school writing is that students aren’t taught to wrestle with these real rhetorical issues more often and more directly as they compose–in fact, as Shipka says, that those choices are denied them?

Well, with this project, your teams won’t be!

I also hope that with teams as big as these, each member of the group has a good idea of their role in the entire project and that as a group, you can establish a timeline so that work gets done efficiently.

And check these out, just for fun:

Drawings that students from a few years ago did of their writing process.  What kind of multimodal artifact could you make of all of these drawings?


Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.

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