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Teaching and Learning Multimodal Communications

Alyssa Arbuckle, Alison Hedley, Shaun Macpherson, Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, Daniel Powell, Jentery Sayers, Emily Smith, Michael Stevens, Authors

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Building as Writing: Digital Literacy

The map prompt also demonstrates how, without the knowledge of how this kind of map is built, the process of building it risks becoming opaque, with the product collapsing the work into a fleeting experience that can be registered by the viewer almost immediately. This collapse is precisely the point Ramsay and Rockwell make when they describe the way in which the opacity of computational methods makes it difficult to evaluate DH work:
For tools to be theories in the way digital humanists want—in a way that makes them accessible to, for example, peer review—opacity becomes an almost insuperable problem. The only way to have any purchase on the theoretical assumptions that underlie a tool would be to use that tool. Yet it is the purpose of the tool (and this is particularly the case with digital tools) to abstract the user away from the mechanisms that would facilitate that process. (80)
This concern is in part why the map was an important assignment, and why it is important that digital literacy is something taught in the humanities: having built maps, we can now more adequately critique them. The same can be said of publishing our class work through Scalar: using a digital platform to build and write in a digital studies class provides students with the kind of literacy necessary to properly critique multimodal scholarly communications. 

And so (as is again the case with McLeod’s map), for critics to adequately evaluate this work, they would need to understand not only the amount of work that goes into mapmaking but also how that labour is performed. Without this knowledge, they must rely on something like McLeod’s commentary, which leaves us—as Ramsay and Rockwell put it—“back to depending on discourse” (81).

Scalar can then illuminate the way in which building and writing are fundamentally similar kinds of activities. Both can be used as modes of scholarship and can be mobilised toward similar ends (both providing “robust interpretations of the world” (82)). However, we are not convinced that humanities practitioners possess the kind of literacy necessary to read the products of such processes with the critical attention they require. The problem with this illiteracy, as Ramsay and Rockwell note, is that we end up producing sub-par tools which, while legible to the humanities, are ultimately of little use. In fact this issue is why, for humanities scholars like the students in English 507 at the University of Victoria, using Scalar as a platform for building digital objects and for writing seems so important. Doing so facilitates a certain kind of literacy pertinent to the humanities, while at the same time allowing us to think more critically about the humanities’ preferred mode of communication—writing—as its own practice and technology.

Authors: Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, and Emily Smith
Word Count: 457
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