Defining Multimodal Composition Affordances
Reflections References


Hawisher and Selfe (1997) assert that electronic portfolios link portfolio assessment to computers in the writing classroom. Using their discussion as a starting point, I argue that portfolios (both physical and digital) showcase process as a pedagogical tool in a way that allows scholar-practitioners to understand similarities between portfolios and multimodal composition. The pedagogical implications are the same, but eportfolios must be compiled digitally rather than manually.  In fact, as noted here, it is impossible to create an eportfolio that is not multimodal because all digital writing is inherently multimodal (Lauer, 2009). Utilizing an electronic portfolio is not the only way to bring portfolio assessment and teaching with technology to a harmonious balance, though. Kathleen Yancey (1992) argues all portfolios have three characteristics in common: “They are, first, longitudinal in nature; second, diverse in content; and third, almost always collaborative in ownership and composition” (p. 102). I suggest these three essential qualities are  found in multimodal composition, which is also longitudinal, has diverse content , and is collaborative in nature. Below, I outline how longitudinal qualities, diverse content, and collaboration are defining characteristics of both genres (multimodal composition and portfolio assessment). After explaining the parallel characteristics of these genres, I explain how the essential qualities highlight the similarities between considerations of audience when working with multimodal composition and portfolio construction. Understanding how these genres and audience interpretations compare and overlap allows readers a view of mutlimodal composition and portfolios as parallel pedagogical tools, closely aligned with contemporary values of composition. A quick-reference guide to the explanations below can be accessed here.

Longitudinal: Pedagogies that help writers grow

Multimodal composition is longitudinal, taking time to master.
  1. It may take a whole semester to master visual rhetoric and to craft a compelling multimodal argument.
  2. It may take years for a student to develop a baseline of technological literacy followed by a time that may span anywhere from five minutes to five months to fully understand and learn to use a new program (and thus, craft a new composition using that program).
  3. A student's critical attention to multimodal compositions (those they are exposed to daily or weekly through pop culture or class periods) develops over substantial amounts of time.
  4. Student may begin with weak multimodal composition skills. As they become immersed in multimodal composition, they will start to develop their skills and a sense of visual rhetoric (which can also be fostered during class time). By the end of the semester, students' skills will have grown.
Portfolios are longitudinal, taking time to compile and time to craft.
  1. Students begin compiling the content for their portfolios the minute they begin brainstorming for their first paper.
  2. Throughout the semester (or possibly the year), students continuously add to their portfolios by producing multiple documents for multiple parts of their writing processes.
  3. When students have come to a point where they are "finished" writing and revising for the semester, they may begin crafting their portfolios; however, students might also begin crafting their portfolios at the start of the semester, putting pieces of their writing processes into it as the semester progresses (Desmet, et al., 2009). With either technique, the version of the portfolio that gets handed in will take time and careful consideration to construct, revise, and present.
  4. Portfolios are often used as a means for students to consider their own progress in a course; often, this is an explicit objective for the portfolio itself. In using a portfolio to identity growth, students can more effectively see their growth as writers.
Diverse Content: Pedagogies that help writers learn about rhetorical strategies

Multimodal projects might take a variety of forms, allowing students freedom to think both creatively and critically about the relationship between form and argument.
  1. Some students hand in life-size cardboard replicas of Lady Gaga to critique cultural sensationalism.
  2. Other students produce a mashup of pop and rap (and post it to YouTube) to demonstrate the life differences between rich and poor in the US.
  3. Still more students create podcasts to experiment with future careers while incorporating many layers of sound (and images for vodcasts) to convey meaning.
  4. As writers work with diverse content, they must adapt their knowledge of rhetorical strategies (even those as simple as the rhetorical triangle) to the types of work they are crafting. Students might be encouraged to ask themselves when a visual can draw on both pathos and logos to create just the right viewer-response, for example.
Unless teachers give very precise descriptions of what the portfolio should look like (or what form it should take), portfolios can be just as diverse as multimodal projects.
  1. Portfolios may be digital or physical.
  2. Students may use forms they are comfortable with (such as three-ring binders with dividers) or push themselves beyond their comfort zones by crafting pop-up books, gift bag assortments (Shipka, 2005), and other physical representations of databases containing snapshots of the writing process.
  3. Students may learn to identify the shape of the portfolio as a rhetorical strategy. The medium must fulfill a rhetorical purpose. Students may come to see a digital portfolio as a logical choice if they are going into a technology-related field. Others may see a hardcopy portfolio as more appealing to the needs of their audiences.
Collaboration: Pedagogies encouraging teamwork

Multimodal compositions almost always rely on student collaboration.
  1. Students help each other build physical artifacts (collages) or digital ones (websites).
  2. They offer and provide tech support to each other or willingly figure out the technical problem together.
  3. Students work with teachers during workshop days and office hours to understand the goals and objectives of the project to successfully meet those needs and objectives, often using the teacher has an additional sounding board for ideas and problem-solving strategies.
Portfolios emphasize attention to the writing process, with a key component of that process being feedback.
  1. Similar to the pieces they contain, portfolios are strongest when they have been reviewed by others.
  2. Students help each other compose portfolios every time they offer feedback or choose to include peer feedback in their portfolios (Desmet, 2009).
  3. Not only do students collaborate with their peers to produce the writing within the portfolio, but teachers frequently encourage workshops to collaborate on portfolio design and implementation. This is especially true for eportfolios, where students may collaborate with others to trouble-shoot their digital portfolios.
A longitudinal nature, diverse content, and collaboration are the three essential qualities of both portfolio and multimodal work in regards to composition. When teachers assign multimodal projects and implement portfolio assessment, they have an opportunity to help students see the parallels between these two genres. With guidance and critical class work, students can develop an awareness of audience as they craft multimodal portfolios: after critical discussions about what it means to write using multiple modes and how portfolios can help students meet the goals of the course, students can then engage in more robust, critical discussion with each other. They can revise based on peer review and teachers' or writing center consultants' comments with the idea of multimodal portfolios planted in their subconscious (or consciousness) for the course. As they compose multimodal pieces and work on their portfolios, they may begin to understand that the conventions of a definitional essay for one class may be very different than the argumentative research paper they write for another. Fostering these types of discussions and cross-disciplinary rhetorical skills can be made easier with the focus of multimodal writing and portfolios. Revisiting these techniques frequently throughout the semester can help studnets remain focused on trasnferable rhetorical skills. With teacher-support (the process used to produce a portfolio often requires much scaffolding), students can make better choices about who to address and how—they even begin to make their own decisions about genre (Murphy, 1999; Callahan, 1997; Yancey, 2004, 1992) and about which rhetorical strategies to implement when.

Assigning a multimodal project or a course portfolio will not be enough to emphasize purpose and audience for students, however, unless teachers lead conversation about these assignments. These assignments have the potential to open class discussions and increase students' growth and skill building: they can be students' keys to understanding how different rhetorical techniques work within diverse rhetorical situations. Therefore, when portfolios are combined with mutlimodal assignments, the three qualities of these genres resonante more fully with students, especially if teachers take the time to speak with students about the similarities and differences or ask students to critical identify the overlap between these genres. Multimodal assignments urge students to take into consideration various purposes and audiences for writing (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008), which can then be highlighted in the portfolio. Such assignments further encourage students to think critically about why they are creating the document, helping them to be more cognizant of the rhetorical realities represented by their compositions (Wysocki, et. al., 2004). When multimodal assignments are linked together in a writing portfolio, students can better understand the changing contexts of their writing. The portfolio can act as a document that visually demonstrates all of the audiences and contexts the students have written to and for over the course of the semester.

Hopefully, growth as a rhetorically savvy writer is demonstrated throughout the semester, but portfolios and “finished” multimodal texts also suggest growth outside of the classroom. By using multimodal texts in the classroom, and reflecting on their uses of those texts in portfolios, students are more likely to bridge their academic and everyday lives, carrying that growth into different realms. For example, students might think critically about the web pages they use, the flyers they see, and the commercials they view (Gruber, 2003; Selber, 2004): as an audience, they become more aware of the (frequently multimodal) texts they consume. Additionally, by involving students in multimodal composition, and then asking them to reflect on those compositions in their portfolios, instructors make learning more applicable to students’ lives and more engaging, which leads to a new understanding of the purposes of being enrolled in a writing course or other liberal education requirements (Handa, 2003; Williams, 2008; Murphy & Smith, 1999). When asked to, students are able to reflect critically on the audiences for their texts, but they also come to see themselves as audiences and consumers of texts, which helps reinforce rhetorical awareness.

The balanced qualities of portfolios and multimodal composition provide a powerful combination when the two techniques are used together in a course. An aware and present teacher can use these assignments together to strengthen students' understandings of composition: both offer students real affordances in analyzing and utilizing rhetorical principles. Multimodal composition fosters composing development over time as does portfolio use. Both genres emphasize a process approach and ask students to think critically about their imagined audiences. The portfolio often asks students to actually remark on who they have composed for and how they have met the audiences' needs while multimodal composing asks students to make the same connections during their thinking processes to craft stand-alone pieces that rely on multiple modes rather than print-linguistics analyses and articulations.

I have argued above that using both portfolios and multimodal in one course can contribute to a more positive experience for students. I do not mean to imply that teachers must always use the two together. Assigning multimodal compositions and portfolios separate of each other can also be powerful for students. However, when students begin to see that one assignment reinforces and builds on the skills other assignments fostered, they have the potential to learn or grow more. For example, while a student who composes a life-size Lady Gaga cultural critique may have learned much about the use of conveying an argument without words, she may not transfer this immediately to the document design of either a hardcopy portfolio or an eportfolio. She might not think about the binder and tab dividers as rhetorical work or the way the nav bar, pages, and use of white space contributes to how her eportfolio is read. She may not realize an icon for her downloadable final draft might be more appealing than a phrase linked to the document. In order to help students start seeing connections between settings. As Jackson (2010) argues, "To ensure our students take analytical skills with them at the end of the semester, we must simplify the task we assign and teach deliberately for transfer" (p. 18). He maintains that in order for students to really learn transferable skills and begin to use them transferably, teachers must deliberately reinforce the transferable nature of the skills. Using multimodal composition and portfolios in tandem will help facilitate teachers' abilities to "teach deliberately for transfer" because the projects reinforce each other. Using both assignments and having specific discussions about the transferable nature of skills used to complete the assignments will strengthen students abilities to transfer rhetorical skills between separate situations.

Although these genres do have powerful affordances, the way the projects are implemented and brought into the class has an effect on how students understand and utilize the assignments. For example, if a digital portfolio is assigned but never discussed or critiqued, students may not garner any of the benefits such composition might afford them. Instead, they will complete a required project and move on. A classroom where students are asked to continuously assess the transferable nature of rhetorical skills makes for a more robust composition classroom, and such a classroom can be encouraged by teachers who are willing to help students see and use the bridges built by composing portfolios and mutlimodal documents.

Defining Multimodal Composition Affordances
Reflections References