Findings

Reid et al.’s (2016) survey of multimodal composition in the university concluded with confidence that multimodal composition is indeed happening, among faculty and students, in the academic disciplines. Their study was exploratory and somewhat smaller in scale than the one described here, but my findings corroborate theirs on this count: Faculty and students reported composing in modes beyond alphabetic text. My study actually found a higher percentage of academics producing multimodal texts (an average of 98%); respondents also reported basically equivalent production of multimodal texts across the STEM and humanities/social science groups, which was slightly different than what Reid et al. (2016) founds, as depicted in the graphs below.

Reid et al.’s (2016) study found that 83% of participants compose multimodal texts in their professional lives.

My study found that 98% of participants compose multimodal texts in their professional lives.

Beyond this near replication of Reid et al.’s (2016) central finding, my study—which were designed to capture somewhat more fine-grained quantitative data—led me to a number of novel findings suggesting how diverse texts across the disciplines are used and valued. I elaborate these findings below, before reflecting on their implications for teachers, researchers, and writing program administrators.

First, the big pile of numbers

Below is a table depicting the frequency with which faculty, staff, and graduate students (hereafter referred to simply as academics, as explained in the methods section) produced various text types in their professional lives, including research, teaching, service, administration, etc. Later in this section, I highlight and visualize some of these numbers and also combine them with some other variables, but I’ve tried to present a wide-angle snapshot here of the main question that questionnaire respondents spent most of their time answering so that you might explore and draw some of your own conclusions as well. If you would like access to the full data set for your own analysis, please write to me at gabriel.morrison@uconn.edu.

Survey Question:
How often do you produce or work on the following forms of communication in your academic work (including research, service, teaching, administration, etc.)?

Text type never rarely somewhat often regularly
Academic writing w/ multimedia*
(e.g. essays with photographs, reports with data visualizations, etc.)
26
35
36
57
Academic writing w/o multimedia
(e.g., essays, reports, etc.)
8
11
33
102
Animations*
107
33
7
2
Audio products*
(e.g., recorded lectures, radio interviews, music recordings, voice memos, etc.)
42
51
31
29
Computer programs*
93
35
21
6
Creative writing w/ multimedia*
(e.g., comics, slam poetry, photo journalism, etc.)
110
25
7
12
Creative writing w/o multimedia
(e.g., novels, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc.)
89
28
20
17
Installations*
(e.g., museum installations, agricultural installations, etc.)
134
18
3
-
Models/sculptures/prototypes*
147
6
1
1
Performances*
(e.g., dance, theatrical production, music, etc.)
146
7
1
1
Podcasts*
122
21
9
3
Prepared lectures or speeches
13
27
31
83
Presentations w/ multimedia*
(e.g. poster presentations, slides, etc.)
12
19
50
74
Presentations w/o multimedia
(e.g., reading a conference paper, etc.)
70
38
27
19
Professional or technical writing
(e.g., résumés, white papers, emails, etc.)
1
6
25
122
Public writing w/ multimedia*
(e.g., blogs, articles, etc.)
76
34
27
17
Public writing w/o multimedia
(e.g., blogs, articles, etc.)
58
49
22
26
Videos*
67
54
25
9
Visual products*
(e.g., schematics, photos, data visualizations, maps, event posters, drawings, etc.)
57
42
20
34
Websites*
62
39
37
17
Written logs/reflections
(including lab notebooks)
49
35
30
41

*Text types with an asterisk were coded as “multimodal” in the analysis that follows. While I acknowledge that “all writing is multimodal” (Ball & Charlton, 2015), for analytic purposes I found it useful to draw a distinction between the kinds of texts that have traditionally been assigned and that students have received instruction in within academic writing classes and texts that have not traditionally been considered to be “writing” in the academy.

Finding 1: Multimodal texts are being produced often and in diverse ways by academics across fields, though alphabetic texts are still used somewhat more.

This survey suggests not only that multimodal composition is definitely happening in the disciplines but also that multimodal texts are being used by academics in quite diverse ways—for as broad a variety of purposes as more traditional alphabetic texts are.

Survey Question:
Select all areas of your work where you produce the following.

Multimodal texts are being used by academics for diverse purposes.

How often multimodal and alphabetic texts were used overall for different purposes.

There do seem to be differences on this very broad level of analysis—for example, traditional alphabetic texts are used slightly more often for research, and multimodal texts are use slightly more often for teaching, but these differences are minor. More significant divergence could be observed by more closely examining individual text types. For instance, academic writing without visuals was clearly favored for research purposes. Meanwhile, videos were used most often for teaching. And podcasts were used in various professional domains, but seemed to be produced most frequently as part of academics’ public work.

Academic writing without visuals/multimedia was most often used for research.

% of participants who used this text type for a given purpose. (Since purposes are not mutually exclusive, numbers do not add up to 100.)

Videos were most often used for teaching.

% of participants who used this text type for a given purpose. (Since purposes are not mutually exclusive, numbers do not add up to 100.)

Podcasts were used in diverse ways.

% of participants who used this text type for a given purpose. (Since purposes are not mutually exclusive, numbers do not add up to 100.)

However, though this survey makes clear that most academics are engaged in multimodal work to some extent, data also seemed to show that respondents, in the aggregate, engage in multimodal composition less frequently than they do alphabetic writing.

Participants were more than twice as likely to report that they worked "somewhat often" or "regularly" on alphabetic text types than multimodal ones.

Percentage of text types participants produced somewhat often or regularly.

This statistic doesn’t tell the full story, though. Some of the multimodal text types seemed to be quite uncommon in the academy. For instance, only 5% (n=8) of respondents ever produced models/sculptures/prototypes in their professional lives, and only 6% (n=9) ever put on performances. While alphabetic text types were more likely to be frequently used, the overwhelming majority (94%) of participants in this study still worked on at least one kind of multimodal text in their professional work either somewhat often or regularly, and 68% did so regularly.

94% of participants* "somewhat often" or "regularly" worked on some kind of multimodal text.

68% of participants* "regularly" worked on some kind of multimodal text.

*Academics in STEM fields (97%) seemed slightly more likely than their counterparts in humanities/social science fields (91%) to work on multimodal texts somewhat often or regularly.

Ultimately, certain text types seemed to be more common than others, regardless of whether or not they made extensive use of modes besides alphabetic text (see table in next section below).

Finding 2: There was no substantial difference between how respondents valued multimodal text types compared to alphabetic ones.

Instead, value seemed to correlate with how often a given text type was used and how often it was used for research.

Survey Question:
How valued are [X text type you produce] in your field?

Most frequently produced text types

Text type % of academics who produced it "somewhat often" or "regularly" % of academics who rated this text type "very valuable" or "extremely valuable" in their field % of this text type's producers who used it for research
Academic writing w/ multimedia*
(e.g. essays with photographs, reports with data visualizations, etc.)
60.4%
89.1%
88.3%
Academic writing w/o multimedia
(e.g., essays, reports, etc.)
87.6%
86%
90.4%
Prepared lectures or speeches
74%
82.4%
74.5%
Presentations w/ multimedia*
(e.g. poster presentations, slides, etc.)
80%
87.4%
90.2%
Professional or technical writing
(e.g., résumés, white papers, emails, etc.)
95.4%
70.8%
77.1%

Least frequently produced text types

Text type % of academics who produced it "somewhat often" or "regularly" % of academics who rated this text type "very valuable" or "extremely valuable" in their field % of this text type's producers who used it for research
Animations*
6%
41.7%
66.7%
Installations*
(e.g., museum installations, agricultural installations, etc.)
1.9%
28.6%
14.3%
Models/sculptures/prototypes*
1.3%
75%
62.5%
Performances*
(e.g., dance, theatrical production, music, etc.)
1.3%
11.1%
22.2%

There were, as the above tables demonstrate, outliers. For example, models/sculptures/prototypes were produced very infrequently by survey participants, but still rated as valuable to their field by those who did make them. And prepared lectures/speeches were actually used less often for research than they were for teaching—86.5% of those preparing lectures/speeches used these for teaching compared to the 74.5% who used them for research—but speeches/lectures were still considered valuable by composers.

Finding 3: There was a large discrepancy between how often academics reported producing multimodal texts and how often such texts were assigned as projects for students.

The previous findings confirm that at least certain kinds of multimodal composition are fairly common across disciplines. However, for participants who taught classes, that did not necessarily translate to tasking students with creating multimodal texts: 63% of respondents who taught students reported that they never or occasionally assigned multimodal projects.

Survey Question:
How often do you ask your students to create projects besides writing? (Examples include video projects, podcasts, presentation slides, data visualizations/charts, drawings, skits, collages, etc.)

Faculty didn't often assign multimodal projects in their teaching.

One problem with the way this question was formulated is that it only asks about assignments; this survey doesn’t illuminate whether rhetorical instruction ever accompanied the text type assigned. Another problem is that the scale is subjective. While a previous question asked participants to rate their frequency each text compared to all others, I felt it would be too cumbersome to ask participants to do that again here. Since participants taught different loads, and some courses include more writing than others, the above results are necessarily subjective. The companion questionnaire, administered to students who had visited the writing center, helped to correct this issue and provide a fuller picture of how students composed multimodal texts across the curriculum. Student responses corroborated what teachers reported.

Survey Question:
About how often do you create multimodal projects for classes you take?

Multimodal means using communication outside of written prose and includes things like websites, data visualizations, social media, and presentations.

Less than a quarter of students produced more than one class-related multimodal project per semester.

43% of students reported they neveralmost never, or rarely worked on multimodal projects for class. These percentages were fairly consistent regardless of whether student were first-years or not first-years, STEM or humanities/social sciences. While these responses affirm that alphabetic writing is still the most common form of communication assigned in courses at this university, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of students have been assigned a multimodal project at some point during their time at college. In addition students reported using a wide variety of digital technologies to complete class projects, as depicted in the chart below.

Students used diverse technologies to complete course assignments.

% of students who used the technology to complete a course assignment (since options were not mutually exclusive, numbers do not add up to 100)

82% of respondents had completed some kind of multimodal project for a class at some point.

Finding 4: Students rarely received tutoring support for multimodal projects.

Interestingly, writing tutors rarely see any of the multimodal work that students are doing.

Survey Question 1:
Select projects you have worked on for a college-level course at any point. (Select all that apply.)

Survey Question 2:
Which of the following have you brought to the writing center for tutoring? (Select all that apply.)

Students rarely sought writing center tutoring for projects that didn’t fall under conventional definitions of writing.

Unless it was academic writing, creative writing, informal writing, or professional writing, it very rarely showed up at the writing center, according to survey participants. This was despite the fact that students worked on certain text types—such as presentations with multimedia and videos—quite often in their coursework. In sum, students worked with multimodal texts and digital technologies more than one might expect given how infrequently faculty reported assigning such work. But even students who made use of tutoring for writing projects and produced multimodal projects for coursework rarely accessed tutoring support for multimodal composition.

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021

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