A couple of thoughts on “Aurality and Multimodal Composing”

I read/skimmed Cynthia Selfe’s CCC article “Aurality and Multimodal Composing” essay while on the bike at the gym the other day. It’s a good read and something I’ll probably assign the next time I teach English 516 in winter 2010. It made me think about two other things that are kind of/kind of not related to the point she was trying to make:

  • A lot of the piece is historical in that Selfe is discussing how writing pedagogy evolves and emerges out of an 18th/19th century tradition of education where being able to speak well and present one’s self with good elocution skills was frankly more important to college graduates than writing skills. This reminds me of a project I did as a PhD student oh so many years ago about elocution, especially as it evolved as a popular “home learning” and primary/secondary school activity in the mid to late 19th century in the U.S. Basically, as elocution lessons became passe in higher ed, it became popular in the homes, and presumably the homes of people of a certain class who would never go to college. It’s one of those projects that I keep thinking about coming back to, and this article might help me do that.
  • The lingering thought I have with this article and most others in comp/rhet publications (not to mention many/most presentations at conferences like Computers and Writing) is about university departments and divisions. We “do” writing in composition and rhetoric and we “do” reading, writing, and literature in English departments because that’s our slice of the discipline pie. When we then try to do stuff like web design/usability, we’re kind of crossing over into (taking pie from?) computer science; when we incorporate graphics and graphic design in writing classes, we’re kind of taking pie from art; and when we have students do stuff like make movies and podcasts and give speeches, we’re kind of taking pie from communications.

    So, for me, there are two problems with this. First (and this is perhaps an institutional problem that is more acute at EMU than it is at other places), there is a lot of guarding of turf in academia. Two brief examples: we’ve had various challenges over the years in my department proposing courses with the words “communication” or “film” in them because my colleagues in the Communications department basically claim those terms as theirs. We have similar turf claims about terms like “literature” and “writing,” too. Second, as a student I had years ago reminded me, just because you give someone a video camera or a tape recorder doesn’t mean they are going to be able to make a movie or a radio show.

    Don’t get me wrong– I’m not saying we shouldn’t be doing these things, and I don’t disagree with Selfe at all. We’ve been doing these multimodal and aural compositions for a long time, probably forever. I have my students in a wide variety of classes make little videos, web sites, recordings, etc., etc. In a theoretical and ideal world, these things are all a form of “writing” and the borders we’ve built between text, images, movement, and sound are all fictions. But in a practical and materialistic world, these borders are what defines institutions, academic departments, and individual courses. And in a time of tight budgets and assessing things like who should get what tenure-track lines and on-going funding, those theoretical fictions have a material value of real dollars and cents.

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