This book review was written for a Visual Rhetorics class with Danielle Nicole DeVoss at Michigan State University. It will be compiled with other course projects and published on the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative.
Book Review: Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects
“Creating multimodal projects can seem daunting, but Writer/Designer streamlines the multimodal composing process and makes it manageable for students. Designed to work in any college course, this brief, accessible book is here to help students whether they are creating a poster, a webtext, an animated video, or any other kind of text. Write/Design assignments guide students through the process of researching the right genre for their project, finding the tools to work with different media, drafting with mockups and storyboards, and presenting their final projects to the world. Online examples, tutorials, and activities in e-Pages take advantage of what the Web can do, showcasing real multimodal compositions from both students and professionals."
(from the Bedford W/D website and ceball.com)
Introduction and Background
Over the past twenty years or so, we have “seen increasing calls for the integration of multimedia and multiliteracies into the disciplines of composition and professional communication” (Sheppard 123). These calls encourage writing instructors to acknowledge, support, and build on students’ diverse and always emerging literacies and composing practices (New London Group, Selfe, 1999, Hawisher and Selfe, 2004). More recently, there has also been an impetus to value both analysis and production in teaching visual and digital rhetoric. These moves push students to not only analyze but to also develop their own design principles by building and composing across a range of platforms, modes, and technologies (Ball, Sheppard). While writing pedagogy is increasingly valuing composing accross media, as Takayoshi and Selfe point out, “many composition teachers feel hesitant about the task of designing, implementing, and evaluating assignments that call for multimodal texts,” sometimes out of concerns regarding the often overwhelming task of creating and assessing assignments that span across and beyond the media and modalities instructors frequently engage with. After all, how do we design and assess assignments requiring the use of technologies that are not familiar to us?
Having struggled with these same questions in my own teaching, I found great comfort in the approach to multimodality enacted by Arola, Sheppard, and Ball in Writer/Designer. In particular, the authors of this book explicitly describe how they use a Rhetorical Genre Studies approach to teaching multimodal projects, focusing not on the rules and conventions of particular modes and technologies, but rather on the rhetorical context in which texts function. Through this approach, the authors encourage instructors to teach writing as rhetorically situated, using whatever tools and technologies students and teachers feel comfortable using. The shift and theoretical approach to multimodality as presented in Writer/Designer in turn allows teachers and students to reconceive all composing acts as flexible and rhetorically grounded, without solely valuing the use of any medium or technology.
Bridging RGS and Multiliteracies through Practice
As a researcher interested in digital and visual rhetoric and a teacher in MSU’s Professional Writing Program, I was immediately drawn to the balance between theory and practice presented in Writer/Designer. Arola, Ball, and Sheppard specifically claim Rhetorical Genre Studies as a theoretical framework defining their approach to multimodality. I have been interested the practical applications of Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) for quite some time, and was so excited to see a textbook that is directly positioned at the intersections of RGS and multimodal composition.
Rhetorical Genre Studies, guided in part by Carolyn Miller’s “Genre as Social Action,” aims to situate genres in their social and cultural contexts. Rather than understanding writing through rigid, arbitrary forms like “argument” or “persuasive” essays, RGS helps us reconceptualize writing (and writing rules) as fluid and contextually bounded. In this way, RGS provides a solid foundation for multimodal writing curricula, primarily by suggesting that students should be taught to compose through a variety of modes for a variety of audiences. In this sense, RGS, and more specifically RGS as it is enacted in Writer/Designer, does not focus on teaching “rules” or “criteria” for composing. Instead, Arola, Sheppard, and Ball use Writer/Designer to help students understand what questions to ask as they combine various modes to create meaningful projects. Stemming from Arola, Sheppard, and Ball’s belief “that writing and designing always work together,” Writer/Designer illustrates how genres, and in particular multimodal genres, are always socially, rhetorically, and culturally situated (v).
In addition to RGS, Writer/Designer theoretically draws from the New London Group’s (1996) “Pedagogy of Multiliteracies,” which helped (and continues to help) our field(s) “extend the idea and scope of literacy pedagogy” by allowing us to “account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” (61). Through this perspective, Writer/Designer is intended to “more richly prepare students for the diverse rhetorical and communicative practices they need to succeed as students, as professionals, and as citizens in the twenty-first century” (vi). This is undoubtedly no easy task. Yet the direct, guided, and practical structure and content of Writer/Designer guides both teachers and students to understand not only why multiliteracies are important, but also how these literacies can be incorporated into contemporary writing classrooms from various disciplines.
“The word multimodal is a mash-up of multiple and mode. A mode is a way of communicating, such as the words we’re using to explain our ideas in this paragraph or the images we use throughout this book to illustrate various concepts. Multimodal describes how we combine multiple different ways of communicating in everyday life”(1).
Structure and Summary
Writer/Designer is divided into eight concise, easy to navigate chapters. Beginning with Chapter 1: What are Multimodal Projects? and Chapter 2: Analyzing Multimodal Projects, the chapters of this textbook cohesively guide students through the conceptualizing, designing, implementing, revising, and publishing stages of multimodal composition, always integrating theoretical descriptions with practical applications.
For example, after guiding students through a discussion of rhetoric (including an introduction to concepts like audience, purpose, context, and genre), the authors incorporate short analysis activities that can further help students operationalize rhetorical concepts. Brief “Case Studies” are incorporated throughout the book, allowing students the opportunity to practice analyzing projects through a rhetorical lens. For instance, the case study called "Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation" (depicted above) asks students to apply rhetorical concepts like audience, purpose, and context to an analysis of Washington State University's website. I found this activity particularly useful, and am interested in seeing how my students could apply these concepts to an analysis of Michigan State's website. In this case study, students are also asked to compare the university's website over several years, and to consider how the site design reflects shiting cultural and technological contexts through the years. This pushes students to consider how values and culture are always embedded in design.
As an instructor teaching professional writing, I really appreciate the opportunity to pull these case studies and bring them into my daily activities, regardless of whether I’ve assigned my students the rest of the chapter to read. Writer/Designer is set up in a way that allows instructors to make use of specific pieces relevant to various lessons in rhetoric, design, and technical/professional communication. As I read the textbook, I imagined specific ways that I could adapt the included activities and supplementary materials to first-year writing courses, editing/web design courses, as well as upper-level courses in digital and visual rhetoric. The versatility and adaptability of the content in this textbook is certainly one of the biggest assets.
In addition to foundational lessons in rhetoric and multimodality included in the first two chapters, Writer/Designer provides useful strategies students should keep in mind as they select genres for their multimodal projects. Chapters 3-8 guide students through “Choosing a Genre and Pitching Your Project,” “Working with Multimodal Sources,” “Assembling Your Technologies and Your Team,” “Designing your Project,” “Drafting and Revising Your Project,” and finally into “Putting Your Project to Work.” Rather than simply providing a list of multimodal genres and tools, this sequence again illustrates a connection to RGS by asking students to begin with analysis, emphasizing connections between “the What and the How” in multimodal composition (42). In Chapter 3: Choosing a Genre and Pitching Your Project, students are taught “how content and form are dependent on one another and on the rhetorical situation” (42). That is, rather than simply providing “skills” or “strategies” for making Prezis or writing effective Tweets, Arola, Ball, and Sheppard explain how these genres are used for specific purposes at specific times. The focus here is not necessarily how how to create Prezis, but rather on how Prezis can be used to reach specific audiences (preferably without making these audiences dizzy!).
Aside from helping students pay careful attention to genre selection, I really appreciate the way Writer/Designer helps students understand ethics and citation practices for multimodal projects. In Chapter 4: Working with Multimodal sources, students are taught to differentiate between sources and assets. As the authors explain, “Assets are the pieces of content that you’ll actually use in your project. An asset might be a quotation, an image, a video clip, or a screenshot” (61). Assets are particularly important in relation to web sites and digital media, where content is constantly being updated. For this reason, teaching students about identifying, preserving, and documenting digital assets is incredibly useful. In this chapter, students are also introduced to resources such as Zotero, which can be helpful for storing and documenting assets in multimodal projects. Lastly, students are guided through a discussion of Copyright, Fair Use, Creative Commons, and Citation Practices, where the authors provide their two basic rules for citing:
1) Provide enough information about each source so that readers can find it themselves.
2) Use a citation style that is credible within the context of the genre you’ve chosen to       produce.
Instead of providing rigid citation “rules,” the authors draw on the rhetorically-situated aspect of genres by helping students make citation decisions appropriate to the rhetorical situation in which they are composing. The focus of digital/visual rhetoric and multimodal composition, as presented in Writer/Designer, is to consider rhetorical context as the guiding factor for all design and conceptual decisions.
Conclusions and Takeaways
Overall, the pages of Writer/Designer are filled with activities, readings, and digital resources that help students understand the rhetorical aspects of writing and design. The book’s readability combined with incredibly useful supplementary materials make this an invaluable resource for teachers and students of digital/visual rhetoric at various stages in their careers. Though Writer/Designer is primarily positioned as a practical guide for teachers and students, I also think this book makes an important theoretical contribution to composition scholarship. By grounding their approach to multimodality in Rhetorical Genre Studies, the authors provide a much needed illustration of how RGS principles can and are already enacted in practice. While connections between multimodality and RGS have been emerging, the clear examples embedded in Writer/Designer illustrate both the value of continuing to move away from rigid conceptions of genres and the potential for helping students understand and implement these reconceptions into their analysis and design. In turn, Writer/Designer helps teachers and students not only theorize but also practice writing as it happens both in and outside of the classroom.
About the Authors
Ball, Cheryl E. "Show, not tell: The value of new media scholarship." Computers and Composition 21.4 (2004): 403-425.
Bawarshi, Anis S., and Mary Jo Reiff. Genre: An introduction to history, theory, research, and pedagogy. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2010.
Hawisher, Gail E., et al. "Becoming literate in the information age: Cultural ecologies and the literacies of technology." College Composition and Communication (2004): 642-692.
Miller, Carolyn R. "Genre as social action." Quarterly journal of speech 70.2 (1984): 151-167.
New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review. Harvard Educational Group, 1996. Web. 15 July 2014.
Selfe, Cynthia L. "Technology and literacy: A story about the perils of not paying attention." College Composition and Communication (1999): 411-436.
Sheppard, Jennifer. "The rhetorical work of multimedia production practices: It's more than just technical skill." Computers and Composition 26.2 (2009): 122-131.
Takayoshi, Pamela, and Cynthia L. Selfe. "Thinking about multimodality." Multimodal composition: Resources for teachers (2007): 1-12.