English is both rest-home and nursery of the liberal arts. Whether a liberal art is fading from the general education (public speaking, applied civics, ethics and philosophy), or nascent (visual rhetoric, podcasting, webdesign), there is space for it at CCCC’s, in experimental First-Year Composition classes, in writing prompts. Sometimes we justify this broad interpretation of our discipline by adding the word “literacy” to the end of the field: studying music and the spoken word becomes “aural literacy” while a study of art and design is “visual literacy.” While this practice may stretch the literal (no pun intended) interpretation of “literacy,” it becomes the link that gives us the right to dabble in the specializations rightfully belonging to experts of both ebbing and flooding disciplines.
Despite our forays into oration and technology, we still base ourselves in the discipline of writing. Cindy Selfe rightly identifies in her chapter of Writing New Media that writing teachers are highly “invested” in alphabetic literacy (72). Yes, we are. We have invested in literacy through hours and hours of training and specialization and experimentation. We have become invested financially through paying a lot of money for advanced degrees in composition and writing, and joining professional organizations. We are also invested in alphabetic literacy through our academic practice in writing articles, book reviews, marginalia, and peer responses. We have become writing teachers in part because of some personal conviction that the written word matters and in part because our education has honed our capacities to identify methods and patterns of effective written communication. It is natural that we would feel comfortable coming back to teaching written text; this is what our job description and course description asks of us.
So if we are trained practitioners and pedagogues in word-literacy, what are we doing teaching outside of our specializations? Surely no one expects the biology faculty to stray into economics, or the business school to delve into natal development, so why is it “natural” for FYC instructors to wander so far afield of teaching writing?
One explanation may be in how FYC classes are situated: these classes are aimed at first-year students, and often these students are in their first semester at the institution. In this situation, FYC continues on the work started in first-year orientation week. We show them how to use to use the library and online databases; we expose them to research and writing resources across campus; we introduce them to practices of study groups, peer review, and, in many cases, orient them to the higher standards in collegiate work. In this setting, we are general education’s general education the way chauvinists used to refer to a “man’s man.” If our colleagues in Biology 100 and Economics 110 expect their students to know how to navigate the general facilities (library, academic counseling, writing center, etc.) and expectations of our institution, it’s because FYC has provided that general information.
Another reason why FYC picks up so many other disciplines could be that these too-old or too-new fields lack the institutional clout that “composition” enjoys. While no administrator, parent, or member of the board of trustees would object to a GE course on “composition,” requiring students to take a class just on visual rhetoric or civics may seem a wasteful drain on institutional resources as well as families’ meager college funds. These fringe fields are unlikely to receive the funds and support to become a GE. Without the administrative imperative to require a specialized class in these types of literacy, composition teachers (almost eagerly, without objection or call of exploitation) embrace all orphaned liberal arts into our discipline.
I don’t think we are jealous pedagogues. I think that we really do love the written word, in all its forms, more than InDesign, more than the categorical imperative, more, even, than the image. But we think that these types of “literacies” are important for our students. Some of what we teach is going to be applicable in combination with other fields. It’s true: our students are going to have to apply the stases to podcasts; they’re going to have to understand the kairotic moments of brochures; they need to apply principles of introduction and organization to the online communication in which they participate. However, these examples don’t require that we teach technology or design in FYC any more than our (ever great) hope that our students are applying principles of written composition to their other classes requires that we become specialists in nursing, theater, gender studies, or engineering. If we could rest in our cubicles over stacks of persuasive essays with the complete assurance that somewhere on campus there were diligent, well-trained, and well-educated instructors giving our students the background they need in ethics, visual design, civic responsibility, video production and every other new and old field we have sought to incorporate, I think that we would sigh a sigh of contentment and go back to evaluating thesis statements.
But, alas, we can’t. Most institutions can’t spare the money for extensive general education requirements. Most students resent every class peripheral to their declared major. Most parents and donors would like to see students graduating in, at most, four year, with plenty of “real world” skills to recommend them to the institution’s high job/graduate school acceptance rates. So while the title on the business card says “composition” or “English,” we must keep teaching all the fields that are either too grey or too green to be granted their own GE course.
And what does this mean to BYU in specific? We’re lucky, at least, in two respects: (1) We have an extensive list of GE requirements which successfully (mostly) frees us of teaching religion, civics, and civilization. The large number of GE’s (including classes in fine arts, oral communication, and technology) also takes off some of the pressure of providing “cultural induction” into the academic world. (2) Not only are we blessed with many GE’s in general, but we are lucky to have two required composition courses, while many institutions struggle under the pressure to teach students “everything writing” in only one semester course. We get to check-up on our freshmen writers as they advance in their fields and enroll in our Advanced Writing courses.
Still, with this relative good luck, teaching multi-modal assignments presents a challenge to BYU composition instructors. In deciding what assignments to teach, and how to teach them, instructors must, in a sense, perform triage of other disciplinary knowledge. It may be useful to ask a few questions while designing a multi-modal assignment:
- Is this assignment worthwhile?
It’s not fair to create a multi-modal assignment for the sake of having a multi-modal assignment on the syllabus; make certain the assignment fits into the general objectives of the course.
- Is this assignment useful for the student’s academic/professional/personal goals?
In Advanced Writing, you can have more direction in answering this question than in a general FYC course. For example, since many students in the Writing for Arts and Humanities Majors course may aspire to be independently-employed wedding photographers, theater actors, and documentary filmmakers, learning to design a self-promoting website portfolio may be more useful than it would be for the business and engineering students in a technical writing class.
- Is this assignment likely to be reproduced in GE or major classes?
No need to reinvent the wheel; if you know that the Bio 100 class requires students to participate a poster conference, then you may decide this particular assignment isn’t necessary, or at least that you will be reinforcing, rather than teaching, principles the students may already have. This is especially important for “linked” classes, such as Freshman Academy. If you don’t know what instructors in other fields are requiring in terms of multi-modal assignments, this is important enough that it may warrant sending out a couple of email to other instructors or, if your institution is lucky enough to have one, a Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing In the Disciplines coordinator.
- Does this assignment require students to do significant “prep work” with a specific program? Are they any alternatives that can teach the principle without the technical work?
Do you want to teach students visual design or do you want to teach them Photoshop? If you’re requiring them to educate themselves outside of class to complete an assignment or if you will spend a significant portion of time in class teaching technical navigation of specific program that may or may not change significantly by next year, you may consider finding alternatives that teach the same principles (say, using crayons and paper to design a website, or recording a “podcast” on a cassette tape). If you have to do intensive research and experimentation to manage a certain program, don’t assume that your students will, by benefit of their generation, have it any easier. If you really are intent that you want your students to be familiar a certain program, you might consider scheduling a professional to come into your class or have a “tech night out” to a Photoshop or Quark class. BYU’s Multi-media Lab has classes on specific programs offered at regular intervals, often in the evenings, in both large- and small-group formats. I’m willing to bet that they would be thrilled if you even told them about the specific project that your class seeks to accomplish.
In short, there’s no “multi-modal assignment fits all”; each class must create assignments that fulfill the literacy requirements for those students situated in that class, at that institution. Sometimes trying teaching all types of literacies to a class feels a little like turning on the firehose and having everyone line up for a drink. Be thoughtful and considerate of your students, and remember that even if your students don’t learn everything about every mode you find important, there are many resources available to them. Other GE or major classes, roommates, library classes, personal experimentation, workplace training, and a hundred other sources can aid your students to navigate the accumulating literacies for which they, like you, are increasing responsible.