Handbook: Synergy in Teaching Multimodality

Synergy in Teaching Multimodality

From DevLab

A distinctive characteristic of Georgia Tech’s Writing and Communication Program is its focus on multimodal communication—what we call WOVEN communication. Therein lies a challenge: the multi- in multimodality is comprised of different modes that students need to analyze and practice. However, a risk occurs when we treat the modes as discrete: when we have a writing assignment, an oral assignment, a visual assignment, and perhaps even a nonverbal assignment as a way to meet the letter rather than the spirit of multimodality, our students might miss the synergy that characterizes most effective communication.

Excellent course design includes lessons that focus on each mode individually but equally emphasizes activities and assignments that showcase the ways in which modalities are integrated. Put another way, we understand multimodality as the synergy of written¬–oral–visual–nonverbal communication, whether in print or digital form, whether face to face or at a distance. Even when we have an activity or assignment that focuses on writing or orality or visual displays, we need to help our students understand how all the modes are at play even when they are not spotlighted. To help students to reflect on this synergy, WOVENText, the e-book for English 1101 and English 1102, has a custom chapter called “Multimodal Synergy.”

When we consider individual modes, we generally use an approach summarized in the following five subsections.

Multimodality does not eclipse the importance of written communication. Examples of traditional lessons include formulating thesis statements, developing paragraphs, and structuring sentences as well as stressing writing as a recursive process involving planning, drafting, revising, and editing. Well-developed written competence provides a foundation on which to build proficiency in other modes. Written artifacts might include traditional essays, research reports, feature articles, creative non-fiction, narratives, proposals, and brochures.

An end-of-semester poster session in which Kirsten Ryen (right) explains her project about deforestation in the Amazon to a visitor who stopped by Kirsten’s multimodal display

Oral communication encompasses all spoken language. Examples include not only platform speeches and presentations but also effective dialogue within small groups and the creation of effective recorded presentations, ranging from mock NPR shows to PowerPoint voiceovers.

Much like oral communication, visuals are broadly conceived, including videos, still images, and all other extra-linguistic visual communication. While tasks such as poster design are clearly visual, other examples of information design include formatting written papers, crafting PowerPoint presentations, and designing websites.

Electronic communication is virtually always multimodal. While most Georgia Tech undergraduates are digital natives accustomed to text messaging and software interfaces, instructors can help them recognize both the implicit and explicit rhetorical aspects of these tools. Georgia Tech provides certain electronic tools that Brittain Fellows might find helpful. For example, T-Square provides a common space for turning in assignments, furthering class discussion, and sharing resources. In the past, Brittain Fellows have also made successful use of T-Square’s support for discussion lists, wikis, and blogs.

The importance of nonverbal elements—for example, hand gestures, posture, body language, inflection, vocal pacing, eye contact, and proxemics—is often overlooked by traditional English and communication courses. Instructors should make students aware that both their bodies and their voices are communicating in face-to-face-and distance situations, including presentations, peer review sessions, teleconferences, videos, and group meetings.

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