A Reflection on Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s On Multimodality: New Media in Compostion Studies
Increasingly, I’m finding that much of compositional scholarship has evoked a response from me akin to ‘duh.’ After remembering moving past the fact that this feeling is often informed by my tendency to adopt the role of know-it-all-young-scholar-who-actually-knows-nothing asshole, I realized this time that perhaps the asshole in me was recognizing something productive to consider, that the generational gap between me and older instructors has left me better able to perhaps not teach new modalities but recognize the infectivity of them or be less entranced by their newness. I am the product of my own generation, likely within the range of student video composers’ discussed in chapter 2 ‘Direct to Video: Rewriting the Literacy Narrative’ of Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s On Multimodality New Media in Composition Studies, and like those people as a writing instructor in my first year, I learned quickly that the way me and my colleagues were working to use non-alphabetic composing platforms was laughable at best. Therefore when Alexander and Rhodes state that they “may be arguing for a reconceptualization of composition studies that questions its most basic assumptions about what kinds of communicative practices should be privileged and what kinds of rhetorical affordances should be taught as we work with students to create rich, multimodal and multi mediated compositions,” (22-23) I was on board already, looking up from my own table where I’ve been doing that sort of reconceptualizing to answer “totally, let’s do it.’
All that said, I have found reading On Mutlimodality so far really informative for how it provides me substantial amount of evidence and summaries of the ways multimodal work has been approached in prior generations. In its first chapter ‘Refiguring Our Relationship with New Media,’ the authors state “The field [of composition] largely fluctuates between (1) the instruction of traditional alphabetic literacies and the creation of the ‘composed’ text and (2) an attempt to reconfigure the ‘essay through multimedia and multimodality” (45) midway through their consideration of the field’s attempts to integrate multimodal work. As relates to our class on rhetorics and technology, what I found fascinating about this is that I think part of the issue originates from forgetting that ‘tradtiional alphabetic literacies’ are also a technology and therefore subject to certain affordances and constrains, ones that cannot be easily transposed onto different modes without thoughtful and thorough remediation. Alexander and Rhodes repeatedly use the term techno-inclusionism when discussing how composition tends to use technology, integrating it into existing structures and making use of them for pre-existing goals. In my own past efforts at integrating multimodal literacies, I think this was also my failure despite having that feeling at the back of my neck that I was not using these modes to their fullest effect. I would equate it to instances where a person brings candles to a birthday party, but no one brings a lighter or even a cake. The candles may look gorgeous and be the right amount for the person who’s birthday it is, but they can’t be used as intended even if arranged ironically on someone’s crappy banana bread.
The above video is the first that came up when I Googled video literacy narrative.
Once I got into chapter 2 Direct to Video: Rewriting the Literacy Narrative, I really started to dig this book for Alexander and Rhodes’ approach to their work. In a bold move that may be written off as unacademic by some, the two watch Youtube videos of literacy narratives done by students to get a sense of how this genre has been adapted to a ‘new’ medium in the wake of wider access to video-composing hardware and composing platforms. After looking at many of these videos, the scholars determine “the video essay is perfectly fine in its own right. However, many such texts are overwhelmingly linear in structure, with stated theses and expository narratives, and occasionally with obligatory references to experts” (78). Fascinating about this observation to me is its connection to progressive technological narratives, the way that this genre is being used to reify the idea on an individual level that progress is linear and achievable in a direct manner. Students are using the medium in a way that is just as detached from them as the domesticated genre of the college essay, the only difference is that now they have access to filters instead of margin sizes to manipulate audience’s sense of the work invested into the project.
That’s why I found the chapter’s latest discussion of avant-garde film a great moment of, if not epiphany, jubilation. Discussing avant-garde film, Alexander and Rhodes state it has taught them “that, in a media-saturated society, playing with multiple media in new and challenging ways is a necessary condition for (1) approaching media-overloaded audiences often dulled by media saturation and (2) expanding the rhetorical horizon of possibilities for meaning-making and critical engagement” (87). This evoked jubilation from me because it made me recognize the importance of contemporary art house and experimental film beyond my enjoyment of them, which is immense and innately valuable without other cause, and it made me realize a new way I can collaborate with friends in the school of visual and performing arts to shake loose linearity from video composing. To find another means of taking patriarchy by showing students how Luis Buñuel slit a grape and made you believe it was an eye, causing a moment of simultaneous blindness and sight. No one thing will save composition, not iMovie or Garageband.