Literature Review

Much of the discourse on multimodality in writing studies has centered on incorporating genres and practices often situated outside of the academy into first-year composition courses (e.g., Fraiberg, 2010; Sheridan et al., 2012; Yancey, 2004). Although clearly “practical” justifications are often used for teaching multimodal composition in FYC classes, such as preparing students for the realities of 21st-century workplace writing (Lauer & Brumberger, 2019), what about the writing students need to do right now in the academy? Some faculty and students might question whether multimodal composition instruction will benefit students at all in the short term. If you regularly read scholarship in writing studies, you might assume that the field has collectively prepared a confident answer to this question. After all, prominent scholarship in writing studies is published digitally through venues like Computers and Composition Digital Press, Kairos, and the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, and instances of academic professionals creating multimodal texts have been well documented, prompting some WAC specialists to claim that “every discipline or profession in higher education demands more advanced levels of multimodal and technological communication skill” (Bridwell et al., 2009).

We know this… right?

How sure are we?

Case Study Research

There is ample evidence that suggests multimodal composition is practiced by disciplinary experts in a variety of academic fields and that multimodality plays a critical rhetorical role in certain genres of the academy. Several researchers have especially noted the persuasive power of visual arguments in disciplinary knowledge formation, particularly in certain fields, such as the physical sciences or architecture. Buehl (2016), for instance, documents several case studies of scientific discourse where an “assembled” argument (a visualization from disparate data sources) provided evidence that initiated a paradigm shift in a discipline. Alongside Buehl (2016), researchers (e.g., Bazerman, 1981; Camiciottoli & Fortanet-Gómez, 2015; Fahnestock, 2003; Gross et al., 2002; Ross, 2017; Whithaus, 2012) have used textual case studies to understand what multimodal composition in disciplinary genres does, especially how visuals make often implicit rhetorical claims in technical texts in addition to facilitating reader comprehension. The accumulation of such studies has led some researchers, such as Lemke (1998), to form bold conclusions about multimodality’s importance to science in particular: “Science is not done, is not communicated, through verbal language alone,” Lemke writes. “It cannot be” (p. 87). Such claims are further supported by a number of ethnographic case studies that have examined the centrality of multimodal methods to the sociality of disciplinarity; such methods, these studies conclude, are often uniquely emblematic of how one “does” the work of the discipline or “thinks” like a member of that disciplinary community (Allan, 2013; Medway, 2002; Poe et al., 2010; Reid, 2019; Walsh, 2018; Wickman, 2010). Additionally, through ethnographic case studies, new materialist writing researchers are increasingly drawing attention to what Prior (2009) terms “mediated multimodal genre systems” (p. 28), or the chains of ephemeral and often invisible multimodal genres (Fraiberg, 2010; Roozen, 2020)—storyboards, whiteboard sketches, spreadsheets, conversations, etc.—and the multimodal practices (Canagarajah, 2018; Rule, 2020) that go into producing texts that may on the surface appear primarily alphabetic and conventional.

The majority of research on multimodal disciplinary has taken the form of case study research. According to Yin (2018), case study research is particularly well-suited to exploring “why” and “how” research questions, but case studies have their limitations. Although accretion of many case studies can eventually lend generalizability to their findings, case studies are less able to accurately answer “what” and especially “how much” questions, like the ones posed in the introduction to this chapter. In addition, so much of the scholarship that exists on multimodal disciplinary communication investigates scientific or technical writing, with comparatively sparse inquiry into multimodal practices of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. (The digital humanities presents one possible exception, though digital humanists, by definition, are not particularly representative of their discipline—otherwise the modifier “digital” would be superfluous). In sum, you might walk away from the sizable body of case studies in multimodal disciplinary communication thinking that multimodal composition is common across the disciplines. But we don’t necessarily know that. What we know from these case studies is that multimodality is important and rhetorically effective (or even problematic) in some fields. But we don’t know about multimodality in many fields, and we don’t know how frequent or important multimodal composition is relative to alphabetic writing across all fields, and we know even less about how often students are engaging multimodal composition in courses across the curriculum. The following section synthesizes what we may suspect about some of these “what” and “how much” questions based on previous survey research.


A number of larger survey studies have been undertaken that, taken together, give us glimpses and guesses at the scope of multimodal writing across disciplines.

Surveys of technology use among teachers have been undertaken periodically by writing studies researchers, but these studies have almost exclusively focused on teachers of writing, who are situated in a field that has been intentional about embracing multimodal composition technologies in the 21st century. For example, both Robinson et al.’s (2019) and Lee’s (2018) surveys find evidence for increasing use of digital media and multimodal assignments within writing studies, but it isn’t possible to generalize this trend to courses across other disciplines.

Systematic studies in the writing across the curriculum literature have mostly elided or failed to substantiate evidence of existing activity in the disciplines that falls outside of WAC’s “W,” even as some WAC programs have been reimagined as communication across the curriculum (CAC or CxC) programs. In one of the largest-scale studies in WAC research to date, Melzer (2014) reviewed a large corpus of 2000 assignments from 100 different institutions between 2006 and 2007 to pick up on broad trends in the kinds of writing students are asked to do across the curriculum. Melzer does not specifically consider multimodality in the study, and it is noteworthy here mostly for Melzer’s observation that “assignments that call on students to use technology like blogs, hypertext, wikis, etc. were rare” apart from discussion board writing-to-learn activities, although he goes on to note that “given the time frame in which I conducted my research, it’s likely that instructors are now making more use of technologies” for digital composition now (p. 26). In another influential WAC study, Thaiss and Zawacki (2006) conducted an investigation into “alternative” discourses in the academy, which included “alternative media.” In their mixed-methods study of faculty and students at George Mason University, they do uncover one rich example of a faculty member making extensive use of multimedia, though their analysis also points to the fact that such work is still regarded as uncommon, “alternative,” and treated with suspicion by many academics. In general, Thaiss and Zawacki conclude from their study that disciplinary writing is much more heterogeneous and experimental than it is often assumed to be. Ultimately, however, they acknowledge that they may not have asked the sorts of questions or used the right methods to turn up widespread evidence of multimedia, noting they “expect that future studies of disciplinary rhetoric, including student writing and departmental rubrics, will feature… a wide range of other multimedia expectations for student and professional discourse. But that time is not here yet” (p. 93). It’s not entirely clear when that time will be here. Eodice et al.’s (2016) extensive multi-site study of meaningful writing across the curriculum also noted multimodal composition’s absence in the survey and interview responses of their informants, which they took to suggest that “multimodal composing is still in a nascent stage for many student writers and their teachers at our institutions” (p. 70).

Recent studies explicitly surveying of students’ multimedia composing have reported ambiguous results. Moore et al.’s (2016) impressively expansive survey of over 1300 students’ writing lives at seven institutions reveals students using digital technologies ubiquitously and in diverse ways, but the sturdy didn’t ask students about forms of composition that didn’t include text in some way. Grouling and McKinney’s (2016) study of writing center users and their texts found that less than 20% of writing center appointments featured multimodal texts, and that even fewer writers—just 6%—actually identified such work as multimodal, even when the researchers determined it was. However, Grouling and McKinney note that they were not able to tell from their study how often students were asked to produce multimodal compositions, only how often such work showed up at their writing center.

The most focused and optimistic view of multimodality across the curriculum to date is Reid et al.’s (2016) survey of 65 faculty a large, land-grant university in the southern United States. The researchers asked faculty to inventory the kinds of communication they assign to students and also compose themselves. In analyzing survey responses, they conclude that “for those wondering whether faculty across the disciplines compose and/or assign multimodal texts, the answer according to our participants is clear: yes.” While their methodology did not allow them to make precise statements about how frequently faculty compose multimodal texts relative to others, qualitative responses pointed to the increasing importance of multimodal composition and digital media in several fields. As noted in the methods section, Reid et al.’s study to a large extent paved the way for my study, which was designed to replicate and expand on some of the things their exploratory survey wasn’t able to capture.

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021