Multimodal Composition and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End

Over the summer, I’m taking an intensive, four week class on teaching college writing.  The course is led by Dr. Brian Huot, Kent State University’s Writing Program Coordinator, and for three days this week, Dr. Pamela Takayoshi is introducing us to multimodal composition.

Multimodal composition is the use of media other than paper and pencil for rhetorical communication and composition.  For example, blogs, Powerpoint presentations, Youtube videos, Podcasts, brochures etc. are other ways to make persuasive arguments and enter critical discourse.  In multimodal composition, the printed essay does not reign supreme.

There seems to be a push in writing programs, which are increasingly influenced by the growth of rhetoric programs to the detriment of literature programs, to teach students to compose by any means available.  This means that students should be encouraged to create arguments, whether it be with audio essays or videos for example, with the tools at hand in order to increase their own involvement in the increasingly technologized mediums of communication.

I like this idea, on the surface, because students should be aware of the ways they do and may be called upon to communicate in the twenty-first century.  Also, I engage in these practices in my own personal and professional lives with this blog, YouTube, and Flickr.  However, I first understood the basics of writing practices and composition before or in analog with my additionally technologized communication practices.

My belief is that a grounding in traditional writing practices and composition empowers the individual to translate and apply those to other means and mediums of communication.  In the introductory writing classes, I feel that I not be meeting my students needs if I didn’t guide them towards an increased proficiency in writing before allowing them to use multimodal composition practices in the classroom.  Analogously, a pilot must earn a single engine pilots license prior to earning a license in larger and multiple engine aircraft.  Our students should safely pull out of a stall on a small Cesna before experiencing an F-15 flame out.  Therefore, I assert that students are better prepared communicators if they build on tried-and-true translatable communicative practices before using expressive, yet not as directly translatable, modes of communication.

So what does this have to do with Vernor Vinge’s postsingularlity SF novel, Rainbows End (now available for free online here)?  In the novel, Robert Gu, a former great poet in the last throws of a slow Alzheimer’s death, is resurrected through regenerative medical technologies.  However, his disease has left a mark on his mind, and he has to relearn how to be a poet as well as learn about the changes in technologically mediated communicative practices.  Toward this end, he enrolls in a high school where he works with a teenage student, Juan Orozco, to create a multimodal final project in “shop class” that involves dance, music, holographic projection, and poetry.  There’s an exchange of ideas between the two characters–Gu introduces Juan to poetry and the power of the written word, and Orozco shows Gu the potential of story telling and art with the advances in technology during Gu’s illness.

For all of the good things in Vinge’s novel, his writing about the multimodal compositions fell flat for me.  In fact, I cringed at the possibility that we’d move away from reading and writing within such a short time.  With the rapid advances in technology, and technology’s relationship and impact on the classroom, it seems like there is not enough reflection taking place on its long term and post-graduation effects on our students.  It’s one thing to write about how great this brave new world will be, but I question if that will be so.

Granted, I haven’t been in the classroom yet, and I know that a large part of my own developing ideas on teaching practices are borrowed from the ways that I was taught, but m greatest rebellious response during the past couple of weeks in Brian’s class has been in regard to multimodal composition.  I don’t think it has a place in my introductory writing class, and I question to what extent I might employ it in higher level courses where students can demonstrate their ability to communicate effectively with the written word.

A final issue that I have with multimodal composition is the technical instruction aspect of it.  I don’t do fucking tech support.  In my previous life, prior to fully engaging my research interests in graduate school, I built more computers than I can count, I’ve repaired more Macs than I can imagine, and I gave phone, teletype, and email assistance to innumerable customers at the late, great Mindspring in Atlanta, Georgia.  I didn’t sign on to pursue research and college teaching to help students learn how to use iMovie, much less the poorly designed Microsoft Movie Maker.  I love technology, and it’s an integral part of my life, including  two World of Warcraft accounts, a 30″ Apple Cinema Display and Mac Book Pro, iPhone, building a Media Center PC, blogging, and keeping my girlfriend’s ailing Sony Vaio alive while she studies for her comps, but I strongly insist on keeping that separate from my goal of enriching the lives of my students by challenging them to think deeply, imagine new possibilities, and effectively communicate through writing before moving up to multimodal composition practices.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.