Weekly Response: Selfe’s "The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing"


Selfe is arguing that FYW and Composition courses need to include other modes of communication besides writing. I am most certain that they contain discussion and often presentations. Many colleges now use CMS that allow for digital reading and writing, videos, tweets, linked readings, and online references. I understand her argument: that students now create aural compositions. If they are doing this on their own, do they need more in-class instruction? Why teach them what they already know? It seems that their writing skills are significantly weaker than their media skills. I have noticed that while students write electronically, compose in mixed media, and read tweets and texts, they lack the ability to read deeply and write clearly. Therefore, that is where teachers should be focusing their efforts in the classroom. Can we use pieces of other modalities? Sure, but they should not be the focus.

I wonder if Selfe had had less instruction in writing, whether the CCCC would have published her article? Would she have been able to digest and synthesize as much research, if the research material was in the form of podcasts or digitally remixed media? From her works cited, it seems she relied heavily on the written word. Should colleges deny or dilute formal writing instruction because it isn't popular or fun or cool?

The history of aurality she presents is admittedly "selective," meaning she only talks about the historical events that support her theory and omits those that don't. I agree that there is a place for aural composing. Perhaps there should be a class by that name. First Year Writing is called "writing" for a reason.

Selfe quotes Dunn who suggests that Composition teachers think writing isn't one way of knowing, but the only way. Such a silly generalization. How many Comp teachers did Dunn survey? While it is indeed one way of many, it is the way that students struggle most in, and will likely need instruction in.

Our HUM 101 and 102 courses at NJIT are subtitled "Writing, Speaking, Thinking." We read silently and aloud, discuss, present, and write. We compose for paper and electronic reading, and focus on the writing process. We think critically about texts and ideas, discuss in small and large groups, and learn different "genres" of writing and why we use them. We take researched essays and turn them into electronic and spoken presentations. Talking is important, of course. But again, most of the students are at least accomplished speakers one-on-one or in small groups. Their writing skills lag far behind, so that is where we emphasize instruction.

Dangerous! Don't "resist the literacy practices of the dominant culture" as Selfe suggests (624), or you will remain outside of it. Learn the literacy practices of the dominant culture and use them to your benefit. Then, and only then, can you change the rules and culture.

I disagree with much of what she says, and I firmly support English-Only education not out of racism but out of inclusion, opportunity, and enfranchisement.  It's important socially, civically, and financially. To enable school children in America to NOT speak English should be a crime.

Warning! Rant: Selfe advocates that composition teachers should "encourage students to deploy multiple modalities in skillful ways- written, aural, visual- and that they model a respect for and understanding of the various roles each modality can play in human expression, the formation of individual and group identity, and meaning making." This would then be a content course and not necessarily a writing course. How much do you want to cram into one year of writing instruction? Why is it that every time anyone thinks freshmen need to learn a skill they try to lump it into Composition, which is usually only 2 semesters of FYW instruction? Need to learn public speaking, don't create a class in the department, just tell FYW to handle it. Aural comp--FYW! How about composing in digital environments--give it to the FYW instructors. End Rant

Of course oral tradition has strong historic and social importance and is a valuable component of composition. Don't try to lump it into written composition, though. Give it its own course.

OK--the quote on page 629. So if the suppression and neglect of other modalities have dampened  human potential, then how did the emergence of all the new multimedia genres develop in the last few decades? Shouldn't print have squelched them?

Oooo, compose a PSA...I'm going to make a lesson out of that. The students in 102 have to make a poster to present at the end-of-year research showcase. I'll have  each group compose a PSA for their project and upload it to their eportfolios. I like it!! (643) I'm glad to have found something useful in this article.
As teachers of rhetoric and composition, our responsibility is to teach students effective, rhetorically based strategies for taking advantage of all available means of communicating effectively and productively as literate citizens. (644)
Really? I wonder if my department would agree with the word "all."

I understand Selfe's point. She doesn't want rigid teachers who value writing and only writing. However, I need to understand where in the curriculum she intends to place teaching of aural works and aural history and tradition. For many schools, and many students, composition instruction lasts only 2 semesters, and that isn't enough to produce accomplished writers.

The Last Post…..

Reaction Paper:
Made Not Only in Words:  Composition in a New Key, Kathleen Blake Yancey

A remediation of her 2004 multimodal CCCC’s address, Kathleen Yancey’s  Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key, admittedly, reads like a “call to action” directed at the collective composition community.  Yancey optimistically rallies members of the discipline to reflect upon the imminent changes, or tremors as she calls them, headed for the composition studies landscape, and to be instrumental in shaping and guiding these changes.  Specifically, Yancey grapples with defining writing in light of new technologies and probes how this new interpretation may impact the future of college composition.  Too, Yancey warns of the potential negative effects of the growing disparity between what students do in and out of the classroom.  

In “Quartet one” of her talk, Yancey acknowledges that the birth of new genres (resulting from technological advances)has led to the development of a new writing public that mimics the development of the (then) new reading public of Britain in the 1800’s.  Patterns of circulation and new forms of writing are identified as commonalities.  Serial installments of the novel and the reading circles of long ago are paralleled with today’s online platforms and communities, respectively.  Yancey bolsters her argument by stating that like the early reading group, today’s new writers have learned “...to write, to think together, to organize, and to act within these forums- largely without instruction….They need neither self-assessment nor our assessment: they have a rhetorical situation, a purpose, a potentially worldwide audience, a choice of technology and medium- and they write.” (301)  

In addition to these observations, here, Yancey paints a harried picture of the current state of English Departments in academia.  She asks: are they being eliminated? Merged?  Redefined?  Nevertheless, she plants the seed to make us wonder:  Are we, too, at risk for seismic change?  Also, shifting views on the importance of higher education in America and the increased link between screen and print literacies are used to emphasizes the importance of having a clearly-defined and accepted view on what it means to write and what it means to be truly literate in today’s world.  

Quartet two juxtaposes the previously-held view of first-year college composition as a gatekeeping moment with the idea of seeing it, instead, as a gateway.  While the numbers she provides supports the fact that college enrollment is up from 50 years ago, they also reveal a dishearteningly low graduation rate, particularly among minority groups.  Yancey propositions us with envisioning a curriculum that prepares students to “negotiate life,” rather than precluding students who have had unsuccessful experiences with traditional writing courses.  A case is made for the notion that we (educators) already rely on digital resources and, therefore, are already- digital, at least in process.   

The next three “tremors” poised to hit the writing studies field are disclosed in the third quartet: developing a new curriculum, revisiting/revising our WAC efforts and developing a major in composition and rhetoric.  Curriculum development is explored in detail, beginning with a brief tracing of the history of  composition studies- from the process movement to cultural studies to the post-process movement.  Yancey notes what students are accustomed to outside of the classroom is in direct contrast to the teacher-writer centric practices seen inside today’s classrooms.  Yancey details five activities students are currently NOT asked to perform and suggests they be infused into a new curriculum model.  Considering the best medium for an intended message and transferring meaning from one medium to the next are just two examples of the kinds of tasks she enlists.  Circulation of composition, canons of rhetoric and deicity of technology are identified as the key expressions of such a model of composition.  

In the final Quartet, Yancey asks composition educators to think about the importance of weaving technology into our pedagogy to minimize the divide between the school and public realm.  To do this, she explains, we must rethink our WAC practices and consider emerging majors in order to secure our relevance in the future.  Thinking of technology as an important component of writing rather than as an afterthought is at the heart of her argument.  

Yancey’s conclusion is unapologetically lofty, touting  her agenda as one with potentially far-reaching and transformative possibilities led by a new writing public with global sensibilities.

Although written in 2004, Composition in a New Key remains relevant on nearly every point.  Not unlike a fine wine, this article may have gotten better with age.  The “moment” Yancey spoke of  more than 10 years ago is now-more than it was, perhaps, back then.   How we think about writing continues to be an area of exploration for our community.

The writing public has surely has grown and evolved into an even more complex entity since 2004-one which continues to require convergence with academia.  Any pedagogical progress made in the last decade related to Yancey’s charge is likely to have been met by just as much advancement in technology, thus negating its effect.  We are, still, poised to facilitate the conversations which can minimize this gap.  The inside/outside classroom dilemma can become blurred with activities that more closely align with real-world experiences.  

As a new member of the composition studies community, I have found myself- on more than a few occasions-contemplating one of Yancey’s recurring questions:  What is writing?  I agree that writing should no longer be considered merely words on a page.  To that end, our pedagogical practices must be revamped to reflect that thinking.  The term “composition studies” connotes a much broader sense of the field as opposed to “writing studies,” in that it conjures up images of musical and visual components.  We need to shift our thinking, first, in that direction.  

We must heed the beeps from Yancey’s Earthquake Early Warning System before a tsunami washes away our community.  Yes, a dramatic analogy, but who know how long we can stay in this “moment.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you define writing?  In light of this article, has your thinking changed?  If so, how?  If not, why?
  2. Should students be expected to compose a mix of traditional and “new” genres of writing in a freshman comp course?  Is there anything currently being taught in freshman comp that seems outdated or irrelevant to you?
  3. Do you think changes in composition curriculum like those suggested by Yancey might weaken the discipline?  If so, how?

Reaction Paper:
The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning:  Aurality and Multimodal Composing
Cynthia L. Selfe

Cynthia Selfe, in The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning:  Aurality and Multimodal Composing, urges the composition community to expand our understanding of writing.  She challenges us to think of it more in terms of a “multimodal rhetorical activity” and to revamp our instruction accordingly.   Aurality and other modes of composing, she argues, must be used (and valued) in conjunction with traditional print.  Doing so, Selfe asserts, will positively impact traditionally-marginalized groups who continue to value alternative modes of expression.

To make her case, Selfe goes to painstaking lengths to trace the history of literacy in America, beginning with a look at the early 1800’s, a time when English literacies were still very strongly rooted in oral traditions, through today, a time when these sensibilities have been significantly diminished.  To this end, she cites the work of countless scholar in order to provide evidence for ways in which aurality has persisted in our culture.

Selfe acknowledging that not all focus on aurality has been lost in academia.  She notes how desired traits of the written word are oftentimes based on the characteristics of aurality (tone, voice, rhythm, etc.).  In addition, Selfe highlights a number of scholars over the past 50 years who have kept the writing-speaking connection alive in their literature.  The irony of the metaphor of one’s voice in writing adds to the persistent nature of aurality in composition, she continues.  Pop culture, and teachers who embraced the power of tv, radio and music in the classroom further serve as evidence that aurality has remained alive in spite of its back-burner status.   Next, Selfe recounts a number of classroom practices, including assessment feedback and textual analysis assignments (in addition to lecturing), which utilized oral pedagogical components.

In addition to aurality’s presence (or lack thereof) in academia throughout history, Selfe explores its consistency in marginalized groups.  Through this scholarship, she urges us to consider the disadvantages inherent in today’s college composition classrooms with regard to these communities.  

Today’s highly-digitized world, Selfe says, has shaped our “communication forms, practices, values and patterns.” (636)  In addition, she notes how technology continues to create social inequalities along race, class and gender lines.  New technologies have conjured up some interest in aurality and diverse modes of expression over the printed word alone.  Selfe cites the work of these scholars, along with examples of such new technology in order to demonstrate the need for a new way of envisioning composition: one which infuses multimodal resources to create meaning.

Selfe concludes by stating that a number of factors contribute to the discipline’s reluctance to widely accept, and put into practice, the use of aural and multimodal pedagogy, including political/power and financial factors.  She ends by reiterating her points in no uncertain terms:  we must continue to value writing in its print form in addition to placing value on new ways of composing in today’s digital world.  This will ensure we stay relevant, minimize the achievement gap for students, and foster critical thinking and an increased sense of control over agency.  

As Selfe noted in her introduction, this 30-plus written text (excluding the embedded sound files) arguing the importance of aurality and multimodality feels counterintuitive, as does her persuasion strategy of providing evidence for how aurality has persisted.  A reading of the first two pages of the study left me more convinced of her argument than did the entire article combined.  For me, the numerous citings did not served their intended purpose.  I was convinced of the concept after reading the title alone.  The real irony here may be that after 30-plus pages of written text I was left with a stronger sense that composition needs to include multimodal/aural components.  It makes me wonder if that was Selfe’s intention all along.  

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do you as a teacher, or have you as a student engage in multimodal composing practices in the classroom?  If so, please describe.
  2. In reference to Yancey’s observations concerning the disadvantages inherent in the non-aural classroom, do you think a pedagogical shift away from print-only composing could result in other groups (ones for whom other modes of expression are not commonly utilized) experiencing a similar disadvantage?
  3. Do you think the multimodal composing debate is just a swinging of the pendulum, or do you think this is a trend that will continue to follow technology as it evolves?