Finding 1: The expertise needed to teach multimodal composition is multifaceted and often underestimated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, expertise emerged as a salient theme in the data I collected. In an open-response question on the questionnaire distributed at the start of the WAT Institute, most respondents (77%) cited gaining skills or confidence with multimodal composition as their main motivation for registeringParticipants’ self-reported confidence in their abilities varied widely, however (see fig. 1). In addition, the kinds of expertise participants felt they had varied by task. Questionnaire respondents seemed to feel more confident in both assigning and assessing multimodal compositions than they did in producing such compositions themselves.

Figure 1. Participants’ confidence in their abilities varied widely.
Fig. 1: Participants’ confidence in their abilities varied widely.

During interviews, participants offered a more complex picture of expertise as multifaceted and contested concept. When asked about her confidence with multimodal composing, Grace, a graduate student in literature, said:

I felt capable of evaluating the projects that my students were doing. And I felt comfortable giving them a little bit of direction, but certainly if they were like, "How do I use Audacity?" or, "What are my options for a video essay?" I would have like really struggled and had to get help.

When pressed for why this gap in comfort levels existed, Grace continued: 

[V]ideo editing or image editing or like Audacity are not at all intuitive. Even if you're a person who watches a lot of videos or reads a lot of—or listens to—a lot of podcasts, the actual like mechanics of doing that are like fairly complicated. And it's intimidating to just kind of like be like, "I'm gonna figure out how to edit a video with no support, and I'm going to do it on my own." And I know people do it, but like, it just seems like overwhelming to me to try to do that without any kind of support.

As Grace’s comments demonstrate, instructors often differentiated between the expertise needed to analyze multimodal compositions (conceptual expertise), the expertise needed to teach multimodal composition (pedagogical expertise), and the expertise needed to create multimodal compositions (applied expertise). Participants didn’t always value each facet of expertise equally. Some fretted at length about their perceived technical deficiencies, while others wished the institute had spent more time focusing on developing pedagogical materials.

Institute coordinators also seemed conscious of the different kinds of expertise multimodal composition calls for as well as their own limitations in this regard. One of the faculty directors commented:

I'm good at it. . . . But technically, no. And I gave up feeling bad about that. Because I think many people like are really good like technically with English, right? But . . . they're not the world's greatest fiction writer, but they know their way around a prepositional phrase, you know, how to write a perfect sentence in perfect English. But they can't do anything that's snazzy or cool... So it takes all kinds of—all kinds of that.

It can be tempting to downplay concerns about technical expertise when designing TPD programs, as Jessie, one of the WAT Institute’s graduate student coordinators, did in an interview:

I think [instructor anxiety] has to do with people not knowing how to use the software and tech stuff, or being like, "I'm not a techie person," or "I feel like I have to be an expert in this in order to be able to grade my students on it." Where you don't. Like I'm not an expert graphic like web designer. The web pages that my students are making are fine, and they're meeting all the requirements, but some of them look beautiful, and some of them don't, but those people are still going to get good grades, because they're doing the work. So I think it's out of insecurity, mostly. Or defensiveness.

The idea that teachers don’t need to be technology experts in order to teach multimodal composition is one that has often been promoted by the field of composition studies as a matter of necessity, the alternative being to risk becoming, as Selfe put it in 2004, increasingly irrelevant.” There has not been time to completely retrain the workforce, so programs and scholarship have consistently reinforced the rhetorical dimensions of multimodal composition over the technical (e.g., Sheppard, 2009) in part as a way to make writing teachers feel more expert in something unfamiliar. Some scholars, such as Graban et al. (2013), have explicitly critiqued the concept of expertise entirely. “[W]ho better to work with a student in PowerPoint than a teacher with little PowerPoint experience?” they ask.

Like DMAC, the curriculum redesign in the writing program I studied was premised on “the imperative that doing digital work in classrooms and in the profession can’t wait for experts” (Boyle et al., 2015), and it sometimes incorporated this rhetoric into the ways it communicated the curriculum to instructorsHowever, even if it is true that deep expertise is not needed to teach multimodal composition, instructors perception of lacking expertise still creates real barriers. Ultimately, the WAT Institute’s coordinators recognized that the rhetorical construction of the ideal-teacher-as-beginner breaks down at a certain level. Theresa, the leader of the team of graduate coordinators, said in an interview:

[T]o me, [the writing program] has never satisfactorily addressed people's tech concerns in the sense that like... initially we were saying, “You don't have to be an expert.” I think that's still true, but then also like... you do have to know something—you know what I mean? It is a lot easier to assign these things when you have some measure of comfort or expertise.

And in fact, instructors can experience real discomfort and sometimes even lasting damage when they are called on to teach something they do not feel adequately prepared for. Emir, a tenured faculty member and writing program director participating in the WAT Institute, recalled what “was probably my worst teaching experience”—being assigned to a multimedia writing class as a graduate student. Since he didn’t know how to code or use multimedia software programs like Photoshop, students began to doubt his credibility.

[S]tudents pretty much like, I think, looked down on me because they were like, "Here's the professor. You don't know what you're talking about." And then my [liberal arts] students was like, "I don't know how to do this assignment." You know? And that was—I guess that was my only experience trying to teach like, quote unquote, "multimedia writing" or "multimodal writing." But that was kind of a disaster, I have to say.

Years later, after securing tenure at a Research I university, this experience still made him hesitant about teaching multimodal composition. This finding suggests that expertise often provokes anxiety and ambivalence for TPD participants and coordinators and also that TPD programs may need to be explicit and realistic about the kinds of expertise participants can hope to develop.

Finding 2: Both the writing program and participants had multiple competing goals, which led to lopsided institute design and uneven usefulness for participants.

One primary challenge the WAT Institute faced was that there were multiple competing goals and expectations for the institute—both in terms of how it was designed and in terms of what participants wanted. When planning began, the coordinators struggled to determine what to prioritize. One graduate student coordinator sketched out several outcomes that were “vying for attention.” “I guess there’s really three competing things: Studio pedagogy in generaltechnological needs, and then the curriculum. And so those are kind of like the three things that we’re trying to fulfill all at once. This goal complexity can be seen clearly in the event poster on the institute’s registration page.

A poster for the WAT Institute reads: "Writing Across Technology Institute: Situating Studio Pedagogy within the WAT Curriculum. September 13: Curating Images; October 11: Engaging a Conversation through Sound; November 8: Theorizing through Video; December 6: Circulating through Web Design."

The institute’s subtitle, “Situating Studio Pedagogy within the WAT Curriculum,” addresses both the studio pedagogy and curriculum goals of the institute, while the schedule of events clearly emphasizes technologies of composition, with participants being coached on a different software (e.g., Audacity, Wix) during each session. Some participants appreciated this attention to technical skills, while others wished there had been less time spent learning how to create multimodal projects and more time learning how to teach them. These preferences often reflected the various motives participants had in registering for the WAT Institute. When asked why they registered for the institute in questionnairesfew participants identified an intrinsic desire to develop teaching or composing skills, while others cited more utilitarian concerns, writing things like “I had to, “certification to teach the studio section” and “diversifying my teaching experience.”

During interviews, participants articulated these motives further. Grace, a graduate student preparing to defend her dissertation who was quoted in the previous section, said: 

I had a couple motivations. One was fairly mercenary, possibly, in the sense that I thought that if I took the WAT Institute, I might be more likely to . . . be allowed to be an adjunct if I didn't get a job. But also, I really felt like I don't have a lot of experience with different modes of communication. And whether that is really fundamentally a part of my teaching in the future or not, I thought this was a really good opportunity to have some structure and support for trying to learn about and think through different ways of composing digitally.

Grace’s comment makes it clear that her participation was as much about her imagined professional futures as it was her current context. It also highlights the fact that even as pressures mount for instructors to cultivate expertise in multimodal composition, doing so as a humanities academic often necessitates labor-intensive autodidacticism rarely incentivized or supported by writing programs or graduate programs. Grace welcomed the chance to have “structure and support” for this learning, but she also emphasized that she needed incentive (in the form of the professional opportunities that institute participation could open up) to get her there. Emir, one of the few tenured faculty members who participated in the WAT institute, elaborates on this point:

[T]he main block I came to [in participating fully in the Institute] was . . . it just doesn't feel organic to me. . . . I guess I'm still sort of operating in the very traditional print literacy that I think that I learned about in grad school, and then my department has sort of validated and awarded, you know, on the tenure track. And I know, that sounds terrible, because I'm like okay, you made it. You don't need to do any of the new things. You know, that's not keeping up with the times. But I'm telling you—it's really hard to find the sort of the motivation when you're still busy developing all those other things that you do.

The challenge of making time to fully engage with the institute cut across several interviews and survey responses, with many participants admitting that they didn’t complete all the online preparatory work or even the work within institute sessions. One survey respondent wrote:

[F]or me, it would have been useful to have my work graded. Not with extensive comments or anything, but to have accountability for completing the various portions of the [institute]. . . . I hate to admit that I need that kind of incentive, but I do.

Although most faculty have experience with teaching and writing in a variety of contexts, they often do not have time for—or are not rewarded for—acquiring the literacies associated with multimodal composition. The data I collected suggests that if writing programs cannot find ways to tap into existing motivation or create their own incentives, participants may end up frustrated or fail to engage.

Finding 3: Participants took on new roles during the workshops, but certain realities of their institutional positions still presented challenges.

Even though I didn’t ask about participants’ subjectivity in interviews, nearly all reported feeling like students at some point. Most found this shift in perspective valuable, if uncomfortable. “[B]eing forced to do that, even if it was painful, I felt was like something that I should do,” said Josephine, a graduate student in literary studies. Josephine was a self-proclaimed skeptic of multimodal composition instruction. “I’m still a little concerned about bumping the craft of writing in favor of other technologies,” she confessed. However, the experience of taking on the role of one of her students as she struggled through editing videos and sound files ended up persuading her of multimodal composition’s value more than the many rationales the writing program had provided her up to that point.

Because I've done it myself, I'm like, "Okay, I understand like how you're making this for an audience." And doing it myself reinforced that, I guess. I didn't believe it before. I'm like, yeah, okay, that's what people say, but I don't know students are really working as hard. But now that I've done it, I'm like, "Oh okay." So this legitimizes it a little bit more in my mind.

Although the most common experience was feeling like a beginner, familiar hierarchies of expertise were sometimes inverted in other ways during the WAT Institute. For example, graduate students—both those coordinating the institute and those participating—often took on the role of teachers and coaches supporting senior faculty members who were less tech-savvy, including writing program directors and the head of the English department.

Questionnaires and interviews indicated that most institute participants found trying on the role of student to be valuable, but some participants reported negative responses to this role change. Sybil, a graduate student, found this slippage between roles disorienting, “I was never sure if my positionality in that room was like as a student, like pretending to take this class, or as an instructor.” Sybil, who had taken design classes as an undergraduate, resented being put back in a student role, describing this aspect of the institute as “top-down” and “a weird role-playing experience.” When she wanted to contribute as a teacher possessing expertise, she felt she was “trespassing on the territory of the facilitators.”

Even amid these role changes, however, certain realities of participants’ institutional roles remained fixed and problematic. Vivian, an adjunct faculty member, reflected on the challenges she faced in developing multimodal composition skills due to constraints imposed by her institutional role.

It's been a struggle. Because I wanted to [incorporate multimodal composition into my teaching.] . . . Especially given the confines of my type of job . . . [w]hich doesn't usually allow for promotion or evolution. You know, it's not like I'm gonna have a chance to design my own class, which I would. Oh hell, I would.

This finding suggests that regardless of how an institute is designed and despite the ways TPD ideally can allow participants to take on new viewpoints and break down familiar hierarchies, labor realities and rehearsed institutional roles influence how participants approach the experience and ultimately what outcomes are possible.

Finding 4: Although peer-to-peer dynamics and participant-initiated discussions allow conflicts to occur, these processes were valued for learning and consensus-building.

Data from this study corroborates the prevailing conclusions of other research on professional development (e.g., Alexander & Williams, 2015; Brewer et al., 2018; Dysart & Weckerle, 2015; Maimon, 1986) that peer-to-peer collaboration enhances learning and builds community. In questionnaires and interviews, participants consistently signaled the value they placed on being able to share their experiences and learn alongside peers. “Being able to work with others and see their creations was inspiring,” wrote one questionnaire respondent. Another participant, in an interview six months after the institute had concluded, reflected that the time spent “working through” new technologies alongside other instructors was the most memorable and valuable aspect of the WAT Institute, including when this process became occasionally “contentious.”

During the WAT Institute’s second workshop on Audacity and soundwriting, a tense discussion that one coordinator called “a twenty-minute blowup” erupted. A small handful of participants, growing increasingly agitated, lobbed questions antagonistically at facilitators— “belaboring points,” according to one institute participant, “and just using it as a point to kind of block any kind of learning.” This moment of conflict revealed that some participants were operating on a set of assumptions about the role of technology in a writing course that were fundamentally different from the coordinators’ assumptions—these participants saw technology as a liability, a danger whose pitfalls needed to be anticipated and avoided, while coordinators preferred to focus primarily on technology’s possibilities. The ensuing discussion, while “contentious,” led to more collective understanding of the affordances of technology and the personal and cultural responses it provokes.

Sybil, the graduate student participant who most resented being placed in the student role, actually found the peer-directed discussions most exciting when they caused friction, since these conversations were usually about teachers’ core values, and participants had the chance to emerge with a shared sense of consensus afterward. “Some of the arguments that happened, or some of the concerns that were raised I think were like pretty interesting and revealing and might change maybe how I’d introduce like a multimodal project to my students,” Sybil said. She explained that the process of debating what was meant by the new curriculum’s vocabulary felt much more productive than when they were explained by facilitators, and she wished there had been more time for this kind of “sustained conversation.”

Findings of this study suggest that collaboration was important to participants’ learning, but also that such collaboration was not always easy and conflict-free. Indeed, moments of conflict could be productive and even valued by participants. Some participants, such as Sybil (quoted above), appreciated the new perspectives that “contentious” discussions with peers gave rise to, while other participants pointed to the ways initial frustration with tools led to new understandings of technology’s possibilities and limitations.

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021