The WAT Institute faced a challenge that many burgeoning programs will encounter: With a limited pool of resources, it was tasked with accomplishing many things simultaneously—technology training, pedagogical development, curriculum reform, community building, and persuading instructors of the value of multimodal composition, to name a few. As a result, the WAT institute struggled to clearly articulate the areas of expertise it was most committed to helping participants develop. As this study’s first finding suggests, multimodal composition expertise is complexly multifaceted. It takes significant resources (time, effort, money) to develop advanced proficiency in any aspect of this expertise. If a program identifies many areas of expertise teachers need to develop, it may be tempting to try to tackle these all at once in one workshop or program. This can be a mistake, however, resulting in a TPD experience where participants feel they “didn’t get what they signed up for” or did not develop expertise deep enough to be able to operationalize it.
But what kinds of expertise are needed to teach multimodal composition? And what degree of expertise?
The above questions and the stakes of these questions are not new: Wondering about what writing teachers need to know in order to responsibly teach writing is arguably what brought composition studies into existence (Bizzell, 1982), and theorizing what expertise means in writing (see Carter, 1990; Geisler, 1994; Kelogg, 2018; Rice, 2015) and the teaching of writing (e.g., Penrose, 2012; Wardle & Scott, 2015) has formed a discernible thread in the literature since.
But what is expertise?
Sociological research has tended to define expertise in two ways: 1) expertise-as-performance, where expertise is the social consensus of those with the power to evaluate such performances; and 2) expertise-as-property, where expertise is “actual” knowledge or skill that an individual can “possess,” regardless of whether it is recognized by others (Collins & Evans, 2018). In the field of writing studies, the pendulum has swung between these two poles, roughly tracking the move from “cognitivist” to “social” models of writing, with most researchers eventually settling on the idea that there is explanatory power in both perspectives, and we need not view them as strictly binary (Carter, 1990).
In the more specific context of writing pedagogy, technology expertise has been conceptualized as a kind of cultural capital (Bourdieau, 1977), though the value of this capital is often ambiguous given that the field has tended to prioritize other kinds of expertise in, say, writing teacher education (Rice, 2005). Some scholars have even concluded that technology expertise may be a form of negative cultural capital (Rodrigo & Romberger, 2017), since humanities departments may see this work as non-intellectual and since it tends to create additional service obligations without commensurate recognition for this labor. And yet, even though such expertise is not always valued in traditional ways by the humanities writ large, more local communities (such as writing programs) can further define the kinds of expertise that are assigned value. In the program I investigated in this study, for example, the writing program’s new curriculum elevated the status of technology expertise while the department that housed the writing program continued to place little priority on this kind of expertise. Penrose (2012) explains that dynamics like this one create conflicts for practitioners: “When there is a mismatch between faculty members’ own sense of expertise and what the profession seems to value, one or the other may have to give.” We can see how this “mismatch” played out in participants like Emir and Grace who essentially had to “choose” between which community’s allegiance would best help them achieve their goals.
Because expertise is intricately entangled with professional identity, when instructors question their expertise and preparedness, they also question their professional statuses (Penrose, 2012). My study of the WAT Institute revealed deep anxieties—perhaps shame, even—that instructors associated with not feeling proficient with technology. These anxieties around expertise no doubt fed into why tensions ran high at certain points during the institute. They also highlight why it is important to keep multiple definitions of expertise—expertise-as-performance and expertise-as-property—in view when administering TPD programs. At the WAT Institute, there was a tacit understanding among participants that a certain threshold of knowledge (expertise-as-property) was needed to responsibly teach multimodal composition; at the same time, however, instructors looked to the authority in their community (the writing program’s representatives) to define (expertise-as-performance) the threshold that was acceptable. Part of the anxiety instructors felt may be attributable to the fact that, according to one of the WAT Institute’s graduate coordinators, the writing program had “never satisfactorily addressed” these concerns.
Writing programs, then, are often placed in the unenviable position of trying to equitably balance professional expectations for instructors and what is responsible pedagogy for students. Practically speaking, this balancing act may be untenable under current labor conditions, as the conclusion to this section suggests. But clearly and intentionally defining what expertise means and what forms of expertise are called for in the local context of a program may help alleviate some anxieties and set the stage for more targeted and effective professional development opportunities.
The 2015 CCCC Statement on Preparing Teachers of College Writing differentiates between several kinds of expertise writing instructors should be proficient with: “rhetorical knowledge,” “linguistic knowledge,” “instructional knowledge,” “ethical and effective research methods,” and finally “technical knowledge: an understanding of how to prepare students to address the evolving nature of persuasion and written communication in the 21st century.” However, one of the findings of my study of the WAT Institute is that the expertise needed to teach 21st-centure communicative skills is substantial and multifaceted. Part of generating a locally-applicable definition of expertise for teaching multimodal composition means getting more specific than “technical knowledge.”
Scholars since Aristotle have at various points turned to taxonomies to break down the expansive and nebulous terrain of rhetorical expertise into more narrow and manageable domains. Many of these taxonomies have been represented visually. This section visually synthesizes some of these taxonomic diagrams before presenting my own taxonomy, which combines elements of several of the ones reviewed here, and which aims to map the kinds of expertise needed to teach multimodal composition in the context of a First-Year Composition curriculum.
Collins and Evans (2009) taxonomize expertise in a “periodic table of expertises.” Their model aims to capture all kinds of expertise, so it is necessarily broad. The kind of expertise we most often deal with in the academy is “specialist tacit knowledge,” which Collins and Evans subdivide into interactional expertise and contributory expertise. Interactional expertise is the kind of expertise needed to talk with experts. It’s perhaps analogous to “conceptual” expertises in my taxonomy or to the “rhetorical knowledge” domain in Beaufort’s (2007) taxonomy of discourse community knowledge (below), which has been studied extensively by writing in the disciplines (WID) scholars. Although experts will naturally develop this expertise through immersion in expert communities, interactional expertise is also needed by journalists and managers who need to be able to functionally understand what’s going on even if they can’t do what a true expert could do. Contributory expertise is the expertise needed to make meaningful contribution’s to the expert’s field. It might be most closely aligned with the “applied” expertises in my taxonomy or the “process knowledge” domain of Beaufort’s taxonomy.
Geisler (1994) is more interested in differentiating novices and experts than carefully subdividing expertise (her model includes just two categories of expertise: rhetorical process and domain content). Her diagram is useful for understanding the question of “how much” (next section) rather than “what kinds” as it argues that experts define problems in completely different ways than novices do. In other words, novices aren’t just doing what experts do more more clumsily; they’re doing completely different things but don’t usually realize it. Rice’s (2015) concept of para-expertise (discussed in the next section) helps us understand how non-experts can “bridge” to expert problem spaces without necessarily developing an expert’s effortless skill.
The figure above attempts to map the various domains of expertise needed to teach 21st-century literacies, with categories drawn from this study’s data and from the literature. The outer circle represents conceptual expertise domains (knowledge about something; declarative and analytic knowledge), while the inner circle represents applied expertise (ability to do something; procedural and embodied knowledge). The diagram taxonomizes pedagogical expertise on the left side and content expertise on the right side. The fields at the top of the diagram (above the bold lines) are expertises TPD programs will be most concerned with.
Each kind of expertise is valuable yet distinct, even though the distinctness of each may not be immediately intuitive. Decades of research on writing in the disciplines has taught us, for instance, that the ability to write effectively doesn’t automatically confer the ability to teach writing effectively or even accurately describe how writing works (Russell, 2002). And the field of writing studies has made many of its arguments for disciplinary status on the premise that conceptual expertise of writing and writing pedagogy are a legitimate research specialty that the academy needs and teachers of writing should possess (Malenczyk et al., 2018). It’s clear that writing studies and writing program administrators have struggled to meet the expertise demands of delivering even conventional, linguistic-dominant writing courses (Wardle & Scott, 2015). Multimodal composition multiplies these issues and adds some. While WPAs can generally rely on the fact that new graduate students or WID faculty have a firm foundation in applied writing expertise (even if they lack conceptual or pedagogical dimensions of writing expertise), the same assumption generally can’t be made when it comes to multimodal composition. WPAs themselves may feel they lack expertise in many of the fields represented in this chart because this kind of expertise hasn’t been a requirement to attaining these kinds of positions. Meanwhile, digital humanists and technology experts within English departments might have specialized technology conceptual expertise, but are far less likely to have developed commensurate applied expertise (more on this below).
Although we ideally want well-rounded practitioners proficient in all the domains represented in this taxonomy, the reality is that many gaps will likely exist among the instructors who deliver writing curricula in a given local context. This study suggests it is unrealistic to develop all these areas of expertise simultaneously, so it is important for program coordinators to make strategic decisions about what domains will receive emphasis in TPD. The expertise instructors most need to develop will depend heavily on local context, and this study’s findings do not indicate that one domain of expertise is universally more important than others. This diagram doesn’t aim to prioritize expertise; instead, it attempts to give researchers and administrators a “bird’s eye” perspective on everything our field expects its (usually contingent) faculty to do.
The following two sections explore “how much” expertise teachers in such contexts can reasonably be expected to attain.
Expertise is a challenging thing to “measure.” Expertise-as-property frameworks struggle methodologically, particularly since people often erroneously estimate their own expertise (Dunning, 2011). How can you observe expertise? Even if you can observe it, meanwhile, an expertise-as-performance view would prompt us to ask: expert according to whom?
This study did not attempt to measure participants’ actual expertise. Instead, I asked participants to report their confidence, which revealed different domains of expertise as well as the anxieties and consequences associated with expertise that instructors experienced, but not necessarily actual ability level. The WAT Institute and the writing program it was embedded in likewise did not attempt to assess participants’ expertise, although it seemed to assume that participation conferred some level of expertise (even if this was largely symbolic/social expertise) by credentializing instructors to the digital composing studio course.
While this study does not provide a clear answer to the question of “how much” expertise in various domains of multimodal composition practitioners “should” attain, this remains an important area for future research in the professionalization of multimodal composition. In the meantime, writing programs may nonetheless need to define stand-ins for expertise (such as credentializing, which the final part of this section touches on) as well as what kind of expertise will be “good enough” for the purposes of a specific program and curriculum making the transition to multimodal composition instruction. Rice’s (2015) concept of para-expertise, which she defines as a form of tacit, nonspecialist knowledge, perhaps serves as an instructive model here. Rice argues that para-expertise is “the activity of posing problems (and, consequently, solving them),” or knowing how to engage a situation that calls for expertise when that expertise is lacking. While Rice focuses on students, the concept of para-expertise might be easily extended to teachers as well. For example, the fact that many teachers in my study felt greater confidence evaluating multimodal projects than producing such projects themselves may reflect tacit para-expertise acquired from both engaging with multimedia as a consumer of popular culture as well as responding to more conventional student prose. Six months after participating in the WAT Institute, Vivian, an adjunct instructor, spoke about a sense of potentiality she developed during the institute, which might be analogous to Rice’s idea of expertise.
Rice writes that the “advantage of employing para-expertise as a category is that we may reimagine ways of increasing the rhetorical efficacy of those who lack expert ethos.” This does seem to be what the WAT Institute may have done for participants like Vivian. In the short term, writing programs might find it more pragmatic to define the kinds of problem-posing strategies—or para-expertise—that in-service teachers of multimodal composition should be equipped with rather than trying to make up for the considerable time that acquiring conventional expertise generally demands.
It may be helpful to have explicit conversations about expertise with instructors early in professional development programs, since instructors can be leery about relying on para-expertise and experience stress (as Emir recounted) when under-equipped. However, I do not mean to suggest that para-expertise should necessarily be thought of as a substitute for specialist expertise in the long-term. Developing specialist expertise in multimodal composition more widely among teachers remains a broad challenge for the field that may not ultimately be solvable through discrete professional development opportunities, an issue the next section of this page takes up.
Despite the fact that so much writing research has focused on expertise, achieving consensus of what kinds and how much expertise is actually needed to teach writing is one of the field’s oldest and most contested issues. The current push toward disciplinarity in writing studies most clearly exemplifies these tensions, and this debate is far from settled (see Malenczyk et al., 2018). However, there seems to be growing support for the idea that compositionists do indeed have specialized knowledge in common (Adler-Kassner, 2017) and that not just “anyone can teach writing” (Kahn, 2017), crystallized in research volumes like Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s (2015) Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies as well as in professional documents, such as the 2015 CCCC Statement on Preparing Teachers of College Writing.
While these efforts appear to have brought some organization and stability to what kinds of knowledge our field expects teachers of writing to have, the proliferation of communication technologies in the 21st century has shaken this consensus almost as soon as it became established. Hesse (2010) reflects on the anxieties and identity crisis our field faces in the wake of Selfe (2009) and other multimodal composition scholars, who have promoted the expansion of composition’s beyond academic and essayistic prose. Hesse asks, “Is the curricular space that our field inhabits ‘rhetoric/composing’ or is it ‘writing/composing?'”
The field hasn’t produced a satisfactory answer to this question. It seems to have moved ahead with the idea that multimodality is of central concern to writing scholars and teachers at the same time as it relegates this knowledge to niche journals and the purview of only certain specialists. Both Naming What We Know and the CCCC Statement on Preparing Teachers of College Writing make only fleeting mention of new modes of composition. In Naming What We Know, this mention is in some ways a hedge (“All writing is multimodal”), while in Preparing Teachers of College Writing, “technical knowledge” is just one broadly-defined category of expertise among many. If rhetoric and composition/writing studies has only recently been able to confidently declare “what we know” about writing, it still seems a long way off from being able to say with the same confidence what’s known about the many more forms of composition that have not traditionally been considered “writing.” And if disciplinary experts can’t come to consensus about what is known about multimodal composition, how can we expect composition teachers—the majority of whom are contingent and whose allegiance to writing studies as a knowledge community is often tenuous at best (Penrose, 2012)—to develop this expertise on the job?
I decided to include expertise domains needed to teach conventional writing genres in the taxonomy of expertise I present above because writing program administrators struggle to ensure that teachers have acquired expertise in even the bottom two wedges of the wheel. Writing and writing pedagogy expertises are not irrelevant, however, since they may at least open the door to operationalizing para-expertise in multimodal composition instruction. In other words, without firmly grounded principles for teaching linguistic genres, it may be difficult or impossible to extrapolate strategies for teaching less familiar multimodal genres.
Cultivating composition expertise with conventional writing among in-service teachers is difficult—though perhaps not impossible, as Wardle and Scott (2015) explain—under current labor realities. But is multimodal composition expertise a realistic goal for most (contingent) writing program workforces? Our field has tended to assume that professional development can fill this gap (Mina, 2020), but data from this study calls into question whether significant (specialist) expertise can truly be achieved in this way. In follow-up interviews six months after the WAT Institute concluded, most participants felt their expertise had not increased measurably, even if their comfort level had. For example, Vivian, the instructor quoted above, noted, “I don’t feel like I got a lot of—I have a lot of—lasting skills, simply because we did so many projects. We had so little time to work…. It was really kind of like a dabbling.”
According to scholars like Geisler (1994) and Wardle (2014) (quoted above), “dabbling” is not enough. Dabblers can’t authentically frame problems for students the ways experts can because they don’t fully understand those problems themselves. But deeper, specialist expertise takes years of immersion and practice—kinds of practice that aren’t rewarded by the disciplinary structures of the academy. Of all the areas of expertise represented in my taxonomy, the domain likely least commonly found among teachers (and supported by my study’s survey responses) is “multimodal composition applied expertise.” Not only is it the case that teachers of college writing rarely receive graduate coursework in technology expertises (Hauman et al., 2015), the kinds of knowledge work privileged by the academy don’t call for applied multimodal production (Palmeri, 2012). Until we change the kinds of practice developing scholars receive during graduate school, not only in writing studies but in all fields writing teachers are hired from, this “gap” (Hauman et al., 2015) will persist.
As more writing studies scholars begin to insist that specialist expertise is indeed a requirement for the job, does it make sense to extend the same expectations to multimodal composition?
The answer to this question may depend in part on how much one ascribes to the “strong” argument for writing expertise coalescing in the field. But the stakes are high. If one answers “yes,” there may be few programs that would be positioned to deliver multimodal composition curricula. But is it fair to students for writing programs to wait until they have an expert workforce? Or can we not afford to “wait for experts?”
I would argue that we cannot wait to teach the literacy skills the 21st century demands. Composition has always developed knowledge messily, from the ground up. Our disciplinary knowledge can and has been imagined “as practice,” according to Horner (2016), “whose always-emergent outcome is disciplinary knowledge… always subject to and in need of being reworked through ongoing practice.” We understand that knowing comes from teaching and doing. But we cannot wait for experts to materialize either. We must do the hard work of revising our academic spaces to allow for new forms of expertise to emerge.
© Gabriel Morrison, 2021