One of the obvious limitations for this study is its single-site nature. The communicative culture of each institution is doubtless quite different, and there is no guarantee the same things would be found elsewhere. However, a large and diverse sample size coupled with the triangulation of the dual-survey design and also Reid et al.’s (2016) similar core findings at a different institution six years earlier does help mitigate this limitation to some extent. Another limitation is the fact that both surveys relied on self-reporting and also imprecise measurements for things like how often text types were worked on, which makes interpretation of the findings difficult in some cases. What does it mean, for example, that 68% of academics worked regularly on multimodal texts? How did each academic define regularly? How much of the work of those individual texts involved composition processes besides drafting and revising prose?
This study also encountered an issue described by much of the research I reviewed: Multimodality is hard to communicate about, hard to observe, and hard to categorize in survey research. Grouling and McKinney (2016) noted that the student participants in their study often struggled to understand what multimodality meant, often perceiving it “as disciplinary-specific language” (p. 64), and Moore et al. (2016) puzzled over counter-intuitive results (such as reports of students composing text messages with pencils) that suggested students had trouble understanding what information they were being asked to supply. It is likely participants in my surveys experienced similar challenges, as evidenced by this comment from one of the participants: “I don’t really understand the categories that you were asking about. There is so much stuff out there now that I feel it is overwhelming and hard to make sense of.” Vocabulary choices had other consequences that limit this research: In an attempt to keep both the questionnaire and the analysis processes streamlined and comprehensible, I used broad text categories definitions and the reductive typologies of “multimodal” and “alphabetic” texts. Multimodal/non-multimodal is a false binary Powell (2020) argues our field must move beyond. While I am supportive of this argument, I felt pragmatic compromises had to be made in order to learn about real technological and modal variation across the academy.
Finally, while this study was able to collect a wealth of data capable of being parsed in a number of ways, the bluntness of this kind of questionnaire as an instrument meant that it couldn’t capture what multimodal texts actually looked like or even how participants decided to define the texts they reported. Nor could it account for the multimodal processes and “mediated multimodal genre systems” (Prior, 2009) that went into text production. These process texts are not necessarily less important than the products this survey asked about, but they likely remain largely unaccounted for unless insightful participants thought to include them: We really can’t know that, no matter how closely we look at this data.
Many of these limitations could be mitigated by a mixed-methods approach that doesn’t rely questionnaires as the primary data collection instrument. Including focus groups and/or collection of texts—for example, through program assessments or writing centers—as part of the study would be a feasible way to extend this research, increasing its validity and no doubt leading to a more nuanced portrait of the diverse ways multimodality is used in disciplinary communication.
In the opening to Toward a Composition Made Whole, Shipka (2011) recounts a story, quoted at length below, of a faculty member’s reaction to a writing across the curriculum workshop in which Shipka shares a multimodal student project—an essay written on a pair of ballet shoes:
[A] teaching assistant in the history department, interjected, “I have a question. So where did she put her footnotes? On a shirt?” Despite being phrased as a question, his tone, facial expression, and body language suggested this was not a genuine question or attempt at a clever pun so much as his way of signaling his discomfort with the kinds of texts I was proposing students might produce.
This was certainly not the first time the shoes received this kind of reaction, nor would it be the last. Whether implicitly, as was the case here, or explicitly stated, some of the questions lurking behind the reaction seem to be, “How is that college-level academic writing?,” “How can that possibly be rigorous?,” or “How can allowing students to do that possibly prepare them for the writing they will do in their other courses?”
In the rest of Toward a Composition Made Whole, Shipka (2011) makes an extended and compelling case for how multimodal composition can do and be all of these things. Dozens of others in the field of composition studies have and continue to make that case. But I suspect that these well-evidenced arguments still would not have persuaded the dismissive history department TA from Shipka’s anecdote. What may persuade him, or perhaps already has since Shipka’s monograph was published, are the intervening years and the changes that have occurred to disciplinary communication during that time. In the open-ended comment box at the end of the questionnaire distributed to academic professionals in this study, some participants volunteered precisely this perspective: “It is not possible anymore to publish an article in the natural sciences without some visuals,” wrote one respondent. “No scientific presentation is ever given without visuals. Articles and presentations without visuals stopped years ago as the necessary technology involved improved and became more widespread.” Another spoke to the ways the COVID-19 pandemic may be accelerating these trends: “The shift to online (distance learning) teaching during the pandemic period affected the importance and frequency of use of digital/multimedia forms of communication in my field. Even in the case of classes that were previously taught in hybrid format, the shift to being completely online has had a significant effect.”
For skeptics and holdouts, the findings from this study may also prove persuasive: It may not look look like an essay written on ballet shoes, but presentations, data visualizations, videos, and websites seem to have become mainstream academic practices, no longer the niche practices of earlier adopters but integrated components of disciplinary knowledge-making. What’s more, the finding that there are close similarities between how alphabetic and multimodal texts are used by academics is noteworthy. It suggests that multimodal composition is not perceived as less suited to research or “academic” pursuits than conventional forms of composition are by academics themselves. It suggests that academics don’t necessarily perceive a separation between conventional and multimodal texts in practice—even though there is still a lag in the frequency of the uptake of such texts.
This survey, then, provides a rationale for compositionists like Shipka (2011) to continue their work. Multimodal composition instruction is perhaps preparation for disciplinary communication. But this survey also identifies a need. Just as Wardle (2009) worries about composition instructors’ capacity to teach the genres of the university, compositionists likely risk mostly helping students learn multimodal “mutt-genres” without the disciplinary expertise of faculty outside of writing studies. There is, as Harris (2020) recently argues, probably real pedagogical value to doing exactly this. But to compose multimodal disciplinary genres, students and faculty need support.
At the dawn of the millennium, WAC scholars seemed to understand this, with edited collections like Reiss et al.’s (1998) promising a new direction for the field. Interest seems to have waned since then, however, with sporadic publication in the area and only two presentations (one of which was by the author of this study) at the (fully digital) 2020 IWAC conference mentioning the word “multimodal” in its abstract. It’s possible this tepid interest in modes beyond writing has tempered faculty’s willingness to assign multimodal projects, as the responses from students and faculty in this study suggest. Even outside of providing direct support for multimodal composition instruction in the form of workshops and consulting as numerous scholars have advocated (Fordham & Oakes, 2013; Hocks, 2001; Fodrey & Mikovits, 2020; Mikovitz et al., 2021; Sabatino & Blevins, 2018; Summers et al., 2018), WAC leaders certainly have a role to play in shaping the policies and cultures of their institutions to support multimodal composition. One of the striking implications of this survey is that students and academics may not necessarily think of their multimodal composition work as “writing,” as evidenced especially by students’ marked reticence to make appointments at the writing center for multimodal projects. I strongly suspect the fact that the university guidelines for writing-intensive courses specify requirements for pages of writing also influenced the kinds of projects instructors assigned. For assignments and writing center traffic to reflect the diverse, multimodal disciplinary communication practices this survey finds evidence for, WAC policies and writing centers need to explicitly invite modes beyond the W.
Of course, such rebranding is not simple or easy. Disciplinary debates continue in writing studies around whether a field that includes “writing” in its name should consider itself expert on communicative practices that are not writing, or at least not legible to outsiders as writing. When it comes to cross-curricular work, thinking outside WAC’s W also raises issues of disciplinary “turf.” Should multimodality across the curriculum more properly be the domain of communications or media studies or art and design? Personally, I think WAC specialists might do well to let English departments or communications departments worry about such questions. One of the defining elements of WAC theory and practice is the realization that writing is not “owned” by writing studies or English departments. If writing studies professionals’ expertise does not completely overlap with all aspects of multimedia work, what of it? Writing studies’ expertise does not overlap with many aspects of disciplinary writing. WAC professionals are probably positioned better than just about anyone in the academy to work across disciplinary boundaries and tap into others’ specialist expertise. A field that concerns itself with crossing should be able to productively push the boundaries of what we consider writing to be: Writing isn’t big enough.
If this feels like risky work, that’s because it is. WAC programs may only occasionally be starting to enjoy some of the benefits of the hard-won recognition institutions have granted to writing. Disrupting that can feel like a gamble, and it will necessitate the hard work of developing new evidence-based pedagogical practices for learning and communication. But nearly two decades ago, Selfe (2004) and Yancey (2004) warned of composition becoming irrelevant if it fails to adopt multimedia meaningfully. WAC may already have become irrelevant to a substantial portion of the work of academic disciplines. But it need not stay that way. WAC could serve a valuable role bridging and broadening communicative practices in the academy. That means expanding not just how we but also how universities think about writing.
© Gabriel Morrison, 2021