Introduction: Multiliteracies, Multimodality, and Social Media
Though there are world “Englishes” (Ding and Savage 2013), Standard Academic English (SAE) is used in higher-education classrooms in the United States. However, English-only policies (Flowers 2019) and grading policies where white teachers judge students’ language (National Council of Teachers of English 2019) perpetuate racism by privileging certain identities (Andalzúa 2001; Lippi Green 2012). As such, teachers need to actively promote other literacies to challenge the hegemony of SAE (Paris 2012). However, reacting to SAE also reinforces boundaries and fails to recognize the labor of rhetors (Horner and Alvarez 2019). As such, pedagogues have wrestled with how to value students’ Englishes with multiliteracies (The New London Group 1996) and translingual pedagogies (Horner and Alvarez 2019; Flowers 2019).
Scholars have sought to value multiliteracies by incorporating multimodality (i.e. linguistic, visual, gestural, auditory, and spatial design) into their assignments (Kress 2010; Hung, Chiu, and Yeh 2012) and many have turned to social media. In writing classrooms, social media can be a useful tool for instructors because students can transfer their existing social media writing skills into academic settings (Vie 2008).
However, social media poses several challenges; online compositions put vulnerable students at risk of harassment (Gruwell 2017) and they expose students to surveillance technologies (Beck 2018). Furthermore, students may not see social media writing as connected to academic writing (Shepherd 2015). However, teachers can prompt students to form connections between social media and academic writing through metacognitive reflections about their rhetorical choices (Shepherd 2018). These metacognitive choices are important because they promote “high-road” transfer (Perkins and Salomon 1988), which is the process by which learners derive abstract and general principles to “transfer” their knowledge to other situations (3). Ultimately, when teachers help students to derive general principles from their social media writing, students can then apply those concepts in the classroom.
The Multiliteracies Profile Assignment
Taking up Shepherd’s (2018) call for instructors to facilitate high-road transfer, I developed a Multiliteracies Multimodal profile assignment (see Appendix A) and sequence. I built from Lee, Ardeshiri, and Cumins’ (2016) work with world Englishes, which included a multimodal profile (604). In my assignment, students can make the multimodal profile offline and they compose a paper explaining their rhetorical choices.
Readings and scaffolding
My readings and discussion board posts reflect my institutional context, so students have readings from Language Diversity and Academic Writing and Naming What We Know. Additionally, students read an article about the rhetorical situation, which generally refers to the writer, audience, constraints, and exigency of the composition (Grant-Davie 2017). However, teachers should alter these readings for their contexts.
My discussion board posts (see Appendix B) scaffold the assignment over four weeks. The posts help students to create knowledge and consider their audiences (Warnock 2009, 71–72), but they are low stakes to give students space to think (83–84). Prompts encourage students to connect to their personal lives, but the questions connect back to the readings (MacMillan, Forte, and Grant 2014).
The multimodal portion of the assignment
The multimodal portion of the assignment has clear and specific guidelines, though I tried to anticipate student questions by including links to resources (Jackson 2019). These links are important, as they can motivate students, invite them to interact, and engage them in a kind of conversation (Ho and Yao 2019). Furthermore, I tailored this assignment to my institution and local community. In particular, following Madruga (2020), I included a hyperlink to a Spanish version of the assignment for my Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) (see Appendix C).
Ideally, the assignment would require all of the different modes. However, in practice, pedagogy should guide the use of technology (Gibson and Martinez 2017). To include aural and gesticular components, students would need both technical skills and recording software, which I could not guarantee that they had. As such, I prioritized access and made those components optional.
The supplemental paper portion of the assignment
The assignment includes a supplemental paper to promote metacognition. Teachers will need to decide whether they will require students to code-switch (consciously switch to SAE) or code-mesh (consciously blend multiple languages) (Young and Martinez 2011) in grading. There is a paradox in grading these papers based on SAE, as this would reinforce the hegemony of SAE. However, as with all assignments, this assignment reflects the language policies of my circumstances as a graduate student. Ideally, teachers would design multiliteracies assessments (Jacobs 2013) and use grading contracts (Inoue 2019).
The paper is important for several reasons. First, as a white woman whose knowledge is situated in my experiences, the paper gives students another way to express themselves beyond the profile. Second, the paper prompts students to make connections between their social media compositions and their classroom compositions; they must connect back to readings, use metalanguage, explain their rhetorical choices, and consider their audiences’ prior knowledge.
Teaching Reflections on Implementation
Overall, students responded positively to the assignment when I implemented it into two of my face-to-face class first-year composition classes in Fall 2019 in a large, research-oriented, HSI in the Southeastern United States. The assignment had to be modified to fit my position though; I had to alter the readings, so students did not complete the discussions, though they did complete similar reflective quick-writes. I did not seek IRB approval and, for the privacy of my students, I only report holistically on the assignments and my experiences.
Since I created an example of the assignment in PowerPoint, many students also used PowerPoint. Though I told students about the risks of harassment, some created online profiles, with some creating their own websites. Allowing students to create their own websites as a compositional tactic opened doors to computer science and information technology students. This is important because students in these majors often see composition classes as pointless.
Many students created profiles reminiscent of a social media profile, though some created their own formats entirely. Both designs demonstrated spatial and rhetorical choices. Furthermore, students were aware of the fonts, sizes, and colors in their compositions. Finally, students demonstrated rhetorical awareness and directed their readers through their non-linear text with symbols.
Students also represented their multiple intersectional identities (Crenshaw 1989). They highlighted the different literacies that they used in the different roles that they played in their lives, including their (inter)national, athletic, and musical roles. Importantly, about one-third referred to their “social media literacies” directly, while many others referred to their “computer” or “Internet” literacies. When they did talk about social media, they often referred to how they rhetorically used different platforms differently. This highlights the possibility that those students began to build a bridge between their extracurricular and academic composing practices. Though one-third is less than ideal, this is a crucial step for students to develop high-road transfer (Shepherd 2018).
There were some challenges. Some students resisted seeing their social media writing as a form of writing, and others were (understandably) skeptical of social media. Though we talked about literacy explicitly in the course, the assignment would have been more successful if I had dedicated more time to talking about literacy, as some students struggled to grasp the concept and it became too abstract. In their papers, some of the students were still wrestling with the vocabulary. However, by the end of the semester, students acquired the metalanguage critical for high-road transfer (Jacobs 2013; Shepherd 2018).