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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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For Cinema Journal in 2009, Tara McPherson wrote the following:

The "we" in McPherson's sentence may be interpreted as media studies practitioners in particular or humanities practitioners in general. And in 2012, I took her statement seriously as a challenge to teaching and learning at the graduate level. That year, I designed and taught a graduate seminar in the Department of English at the University of Victoria (UVic). The focus of the seminar, titled "English 507, Digital Literary Studies: History and Principles," was multimodal scholarly communications—or the blend of multiple media (e.g., maps, video, audio, graphs, code, images, and text) with various modes of attention (e.g., close listening, distant reading, distraction, computer vision, and repeated watching) toward persuasive, research-based argumentation.

Throughout the semester, students in English 507 combined knowing and doing in response to various prompts. For practically every seminar meeting, an exercise in multimodal methods was due. I would post the prompts on the course site, and then students would publish their responses in the seminar's collaborative "Scalar" book, a screengrab of which is below. (Learn more about Scalar, if you are not familiar with it. It is also the platform used to compose this book.) 

I have never learned so much from teaching a course, and my learning was largely due to the range, sophistication, and curiosity of the students' work.

Since English 507, the students and I collaborated to produce the Scalar book in front of you, a revision of the collaborative original. This book includes not only the prompts from English 507 but also example student responses for each. Additionally, for this publication, the students went an extra step in the writing process: they added a layer of both analysis and commentary to their own work. These added layers are rich and informative, demonstrating self-reflexivity and exhibiting perspectives too often marginalized by the pace of a quarter or semester. Such perspectives are also rarely represented in faculty publications on teaching and learning. 

That said, the ultimate aim of this book—a revision, analysis, and commentary on a semester's worth of multimodal communications produced in Scalar—is to give audiences a concrete sense of how graduate students are actively engaging the emerging and experimental terrain of digital scholarship. It is not a book brimming with hypotheticals. It is instead rife with actual instances of what multimodal composition in Scalar can afford, and what graduate students can do with and through it.  

The audiences for this book include people who want more examples of how to use Scalar (in and beyond the classroom) as well as writing studies instructors, literary critics, cultural studies scholars, digital humanities and media studies practitioners, transmedia artists, and anyone who develops and facilitates university curricula and related infrastructures.

To help all of those audiences carve their way through the 35,000-plus words contained here, not to mention all of the media files, annotations, and comments, we have structured the book through eleven "paths" (i.e., linear sequences of often overlapping content) based on the following:

(1) English 507 prompts (seven total paths: "Workflow," "Metadata," "Granulation," "Map," "Review," "Proposal," and "Roundtable")

(2) a student analysis of using Scalar in English 507 (one path)

(3) the authors of this book (one path) 

and (4) student commentary on this book, Scalar, and English 507 (one path).

Again, each prompt path provides audiences with a specific English 507 prompt and example student responses. The "analysis" path (written by Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, and Emily Smith) then navigates its way through the prompts and example responses, using student work from the graduate seminar as evidence of the various scholarly inquiries and problematics involved in contemporary multimodal communications. The "authors" path gives audiences a sense of the students and faculty contributing to this book, and—finally—the "commentary" path informally adds frequently overlooked or unspoken perspectives on the intellectual, affective, and technical processes involved in composing multimodal communications. 

All of these paths have been bundled below, in the "welcome" path, which allows visitors to survey the book and dive into their particular areas of interest (e.g., research on multimodal communication, teaching materials for digital literary studies, or sample work by graduate students contributing to digital humanities curricula) through a specific path. 

The use of Scalar aside, audiences will likely notice at least two unusual things about this book: first, beyond the prompts and introductions to each path, the instructor has written little. My motivation for this approach to the book was to facilitate student work rather than overshadow it (e.g., by speaking for or about it). As such, most of my contributions—beyond designing and teaching the seminar—assumed the form of feedback, consultation, editing the book, designing it, and sparking collaborations amongst students.

Second, analysis and commentary—especially in the "proposal" and "roundtable" paths—frequently reference the students' final projects and papers for 507. However, those actual projects and papers are not included here. The rationale for this decision was to give students the opportunity to continue developing and perhaps publish elsewhere the research they began (or furthered) in the seminar, making this book primarily a space for documenting research procedures, processes, and reflections. With support from the Department of English at UVic, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at UVic, the Maker Lab in the Humanities at UVic, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and the HASTAC Scholars Program, that research has indeed continued well into 2012, and I encourage audiences to continue following the work of the authors included here. Not only is it inspiring; it is gradually changing the contours of scholarly argumentation and expression. 

Let the active construction of knowledge in and through our objects begin. 

Author: Jentery Sayers
Word Count: 951
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