THE IDEA OF A MULTILITERACY CENTER: SIX RESPONSES
Texas A&M University
Michigan Tech University
Jackie Grutsch McKinney
Ball State University
David M. Sheridan
Michigan State University
University of Michigan
This essay—which began its life as a roundtable at the 2011 Computers and Writing Conference—juxtaposes six responses from different administrators and faculty engaged in the turn towards multiliteracy centers. Although our title invokes Stephen North’s 1984 essay in which he tried to assert an identity for the “new” writing center, ours is influenced in approach more by North’s 1994 follow-up article “Revisiting The Idea of the Writing Center” and Beth Boquet and Neal Lerner’s explication of the influence of North’s work in writing center studies. North’s reconsideration critiques his overly “romantic idealization” of writing centers and moves from global axioms to local action (10). Likewise, within this essay, the six authors grapple with local contexts and offer local solutions; none have tried to “romanticize” the difficult trade-offs involved in the changing identities of writing centers, and still none have dismissed the idea outright because it isn’t convenient.
While the authors’ experiences are varied, each response demonstrates a sense of responsibility on the part of writing centers to forge ahead within their institutional contexts toward a vision of multiliteracies that promotes access, awareness, connection, and currency. David Sheridan compares two models of multiliteracy centers in order to map anxieties that writing centers tend to experience as they broaden their missions to include multimodal compositions. Jackie Grutsch McKinney wonders if writing centers ought to call themselves multiliteracy centers. Nancy Grimm recounts the reactions as Michigan Tech’s Writing Center was renamed the Michigan Tech Multiliteracy Center to better reflect their practices. Sohui Lee explores the question of how tutor training at her center might be adjusted to effectively engage undergraduate tutors in “multimodal thinking” through situated practice. Valerie Balester discusses how a move to communication-in-the-disciplines at her institution provided an opportunity to build a multiliteracy center with a focus on new media. Naomi Silver advocates that writing centers play a role in teaching new media writing via course offerings as well as tutor training and faculty outreach.
Boquet and Lerner suggest that the lesson to take from North and the cult-like (yet perhaps suffocating) success of his 1984 essay is that the field’s status “cannot be grounded in the words of one theorist, from one article, from one line; instead, it is represented in richly textured accounts that are concerned with the full scope of literacy studies, as befits the richness and complexity of writing center sites and the people who populate them” (185). To that end, the following accounts do not try to cohere to a common, seamless argument. At points, the various authors converge and diverge, agree and disagree, resulting in an essay that we hope gets at the “richly textured accounts” that Boquet and Lerner promote while engaging the key question of how writing centers can best address multiliteracies.
“You Have Made Me Very Angry!”: Mapping Writing Center Anxieties about Multiliteracies
David M. Sheridan
In 2002, I was working with colleagues at University of Michigan’s Sweetland Writing Center to establish something that we called the “Sweetland Multiliteracy Center" (SMC). Just as students had historically come to the Sweetland Writing Center to receive peer support for their writing projects, students would now be able to come to the Sweetland Multiliteracy Center to receive support for new media projects—including digital videos, websites, and desktop-published documents. The idea was that knowledgeable peers would engage student composers in conversations about all aspects of multimodal composing—including words, images, sounds, and other media components. Importantly, while the SMC was staffed by specially trained consultants, included new technologies, and required the reconfiguration of existing space, it was still part of the writing center. It was not a separate facility.
My presentation for the 2002 Computers and Writing Conference focused on this effort to establish a multiliteracy center. During the Q&A session, one of the folks in attendance raised her hand eagerly and announced that my presentation had made her very angry. The source of her anger was my brazen disregard for disciplinary boundaries. I was transgressing long-established divides between visual and written communication. Writing centers, she warned, should stick to writing.
That experience at Computers and Writing was not an isolated incident. As I have talked, over the past decade, to local and national audiences, about how writing centers might conceive of themselves as multiliteracy centers, anger was not an unusual response. I have frequently encountered warnings: You shouldn't do that! You can't do that! Writing centers should stick to writing!
For the past two years I have been the director of a different kind of multiliteracy center, a small technology-rich space called the Language and Media Center (LMC), located within Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. At the LMC, we provide just-in-time peer support for a wide range of media, including digital video, web compositions, desktop publishing, and more.
I think it's productive to read these two kinds of multiliteracy centers against each other. On the one hand, we have multiliteracy centers (like the SMC) that begin with the writing center model. On the other hand, we have multiliteracy centers (like the LMC) that begin somewhere else, with the model of a media center or a digital studio or a digital humanities lab (Table 1 attempts to provide a point-by-point comparison of these two models). Comparing these two models reveals two broad sources of anxiety that writing centers tend to experience as they move toward a multiliteracy center model.
The first can be summed up with the accusation: That's not writing. Writing centers tend to get anxious and to make other people anxious as they explore forms of composing that don't involve writing in the narrow sense of the term. Q: Can you help me with my video? A: Can we call it a video essay? Can we call it a visual argument?
At the Language and Media Center, we don't use writing as the central reference point for our work. If you conceive of your video or photograph or sculpture in terms other than those privileged by the field of writing and rhetoric, no worries. No one will give you funny looks.
A second major kind of anxiety concerns the status of technologies. Writing centers, in my experience, still feel anxiety when conversation turns for long periods of time to technical instruction, to tool panels and pulldown menus, and all of those proper nouns (Dreamweaver, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, etc.). This feels reductive — a low, non-intellectual, non-rhetorical kind of work (For critiques of what Haas and Neuwirth call a “computers are not our job” (325) attitude, see DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill; Haas and Neuwirth; Rice; Selber).
At the LMC, we are not embarrassed when we provide technical instruction to composers. Composers need support as they navigate the complex interfaces that enable digital composing. They need help with software and hardware. And we provide that help with no apologies and no strings attached.
I feel a sense of relief and freedom at the LMC. No one gets angry if a media center supports “non-writing” forms like videos, digitized paintings, or 3D models made with our digital paper cutter. No one gets angry if we address the technological challenges associated with these forms of composing.
My colleagues at other institutions, who richly describe their experiences with writing-centers-as-multiliteracy-centers in the pieces that follow, reinforce for me the many ways that writing centers make excellent starting points for multiliteracy work. In fact, many of the assets that I took for granted in the writing center have proven difficult to reproduce in the LMC. I struggle to recover many facets of writing center practice, to get back the intellectual and infrastructural resources I once had (such as robust structures for training consultants).
At the same time, I think it is productive for writing centers to ask what might be gained by relinquishing some of their key anxieties about multiliteracy work. What might be gained, for instance, if writing centers didn’t tether their work to any form of alphabetic text and didn’t construct support for complex interfaces as beyond or beneath them. I think it is a real question as to whether or not those anxieties enforce important facets of writing center identity or whether they can be safely discarded as centers embrace twenty-first century composing practices. (see Table 1)
Jackie Grutsch McKinney
In the early 1980s, Coca-Cola was losing the cola wars to Pepsi. Coca-Cola researchers found that the American public favored the sweetness of Pepsi and in 1985 Coke reformulated their 100-year old soft-drink to appease the tastes of Americans, advertising their change as “new.” Quickly the formula became known as “New Coke,” and the fallout was immediate. Soda drinkers were angry—Southerners blamed the Northerners, Castro blamed capitalism, and groups like The Society for the Preservation of the Real Thing hoarded cans of “old coke.” Within 79 days Coca-Cola reintroduced (almost) the original formula as Coca-Cola Classic.
I think of this New Coke moment when I think of the evolution of writing centers to multiliteracy centers. I wonder: Is this our New Coke moment? Coca-Cola was responding to a change in tastes, and so are writing centers. The change—in particular giving the product a “new” label—created controversy and anger for consumers, and multiliteracy centers, as David Sheridan has suggested, can bring up issues for writing center users, too. For years, I’ve advocated addressing multiliteracies in writing centers, yet I haven’t been willing to take the final plunge and rename our center. This decision may have kept the peace, but isn’t without consequences. I’ll briefly trace through the murky territory where I live—directing a writing center which aims to address multiliteracies without being a multiliteracy center.
I think a writing center can evolve its identity by pursuing four paths: (1) staff (re)education, (2) physical redesign, (3) user (re)education or rebranding, and (4) name change. In my time at Ball State University, I’ve done the first three of these: I’ve trained tutors to address multimodality; equipped the center with hardware, peripherals, and software to facilitate multimodal work; and have advertised formally and informally our ability to work with students on multimodal work. However, the number of students who actually bring in multimodal texts is quite small—despite the fact that all 7000 students (on paper at least) in first-year writing each year are required to do at least one project that incorporates multimodality.
Here’s where the name comes in—the Writing Center. Writing centers in higher education have been a success story. Though writing center insiders often feel misunderstood, I think the writing center story is actually fairly legible. Most higher education folks (faculty, students, and administrators) could tell you (or guess pretty accurately) what a writing center does. It is the legibility of the writing center name, I’d argue, that helps spread this story. Yet, so far, the name is inelastic—users can’t see how a writing center would be the place for feedback on poster presentations, storyboards, web portfolios, audio essays, or the like.
On the other hand, the name Multiliteracy Center, though it might communicate being a place for feedback on multimodal texts, seems to assert a break from the writing center tradition. Though writing centers often have various names—writing studios, centers for writing, writing labs—losing the word “writing” would be difficult for me. I’m not sure students would know they could get (alphabetic text) writing feedback, and it might complicate who is appointed to run and house such operations. Further, I’m afraid moving response to digital texts to multiliteracy centers allows writing centers to be off the hook, not responsible for multiliteracy.
In short, I have no answers, just nagging ambivalence: Can we have a multiliteracy center that isn’t called a multiliteracy center? The New Coke fiasco resulted in Coca-Cola Classic outselling both New Coke and its rival Pepsi. Flirting with reinvention of writing centers could bring to surface staunch loyalties as well.
Taking the Plunge: Renaming the Center
In the summer of 2010, I took the plunge that Jackie Grutsch McKinney writes about and renamed the former Michigan Tech Writing Center as the Michigan Tech Multiliteracies Center. Like the summer long ago when I finally made it off the high dive, the plunge was a long-considered, thoroughly debated, and highly collaborative decision.
The staff (professional, graduate, and undergraduate) advocated for the change because for years we had been doing “so much more than working on writing.”
Thus, our new name did not signal a sudden change in direction but a desire for a more apt designation of what we do in the Center. For years we had taken an approach to staff education that understood “writing” as moving among discourses, cultures, languages, modalities, and dialects, all with highly charged identities and communally recognized ways of making meaning and always situated within political and ideological contexts. More of our regular visitors brought fluency in languages other than English. The nature of the projects we consulted on was increasingly diverse, ranging from Prezi slides to accompany an oral presentation to videotaped research interviews for a final project to job audit forms. Many of our regular visitors came to participate in study teams designed to develop information management literacies and deepen their learning in large general education lecture courses that ask students to synthesize material from oral presentations, films, novels, lectures, and traditional textbooks. These daily realities of practice had expanded our understandings of the situated and pluralized nature of literacy.
The term multiliteracies was hardly new to us. Many dog-eared copies of the New London Group’s book, Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, could be found around the Center. We reasoned that a name change would signal our allegiance to its expansive theoretical framework, particularly the way it
- Recognizes English as a world language that breaks into differentiated Englishes
- Embraces the salience of linguistic and cultural diversity
- Imagines students as active participants in social change
- Reconceptualizes literacy from a singular noun promoting a ‘standard’ to a pluralized understanding that includes the metalinguistic and metacognitive competencies required to mediate varieties of English, discourses, modalities, and contexts of communication
The term ‘multiliteracies’ was, to borrow Grutsch McKinney’s term, far more elastic, and it suitably described the ways our practice had changed. The name change provided us with the opportunity to revise tired old brochures and posters and sparked creativity in a ‘rebranding’ exercise. For those of us inside the Center and for the students who use the Center, the name change was energizing. Not one student has questioned the relevance or even the meaning of the term: it assures them that the communication challenges they bring are ones we will engage with.
However, the legibility (again borrowing from Grutsch McKinney) of the term writing was one that higher administration preferred. They expressed concern that the name change would
- Indicate mission creep
- Confuse students
- Place us out of sync with other state universities in Michigan
- Employ a word that “didn’t exist”
- Distance us from our “service mission”
Their responses made it uncomfortably clear that little has changed in what the New London Group calls the “restricted project” of teaching English as a formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed skill. From the administrators’ view, the Center had become uppity, claiming a name for itself rather than dutifully accepting a designation that no longer suited our practice. In terms of the administrative response, the name change was, and continues to be, a risky undertaking. As Matsuda and others have argued, the restricted project of literacy teaching is linked to strategies of containment that allow faculty and administrators to “send” students to a writing center rather than rethink the cultural and linguistic assumptions underlying approaches to teaching.
To complicate matters further, the term multiliteracies is sometimes reduced to multimodality. While the New London Group recognizes the growing multiplicity of communication channels, its primary argument focuses on the need to examine literacy teaching in terms of “the disparity of education outcomes” (6). Thus, the multiliteracies project is not simply about multimodality but also about access, about difference, about learning how texts of all kinds function in systems of power that both enable and constrain our choices.
The variety of responses to our name change signal a number of issues, many of which my collaborators here address. Some of the administrative responses show the enduring power of what Brian Street calls the autonomous model of literacy, a model that encourages us to act as though the acts of producing and interpreting texts are guided by rules that are obvious, culturally neutral, and correct. The responses also reveal a resistance to the idea of writing centers as innovators and the social anxieties that circulate around literacy. But the impetus to take the plunge and embrace a term that more aptly describes what we do indicates the intellectual fertility of writing center work, its responsiveness to social change, its situated understandings of what it means to communicate in a global contexts, its embrace of emerging modalities, its awareness of students’ needs as 21st century communicators. I am pleased to be part of a conversation that is examining the tradeoffs.
“Multimodal Thinking” and New Media Tutor Training Practices
When I proposed in 2010 that the Hume Writing Center offer digital media consultations, our university administrators were eager to make the shift. The need seemed obvious, and they acknowledged the increasing number of academic courses at Stanford University requiring videos, PowerPoint presentations, and other forms of multimodal communication. While political, financial, material, and even spatial hurdles were easily overcome, I’ve wondered how we’d train peer consultants to, as Grutsch McKinney notes, “address multiliteracies.” The consultants in our Writing Center’s core staff are lecturers in the writing program, some who teach visual and multimodal communication; hence, we focused on recruiting and training these select instructors to pilot our digital media program. Looking forward, though, the Hume Writing Center—and, I imagine, many writing centers adopting digital media—will need to consider how peer consultants will learn and practice multiliteracies. One means of introducing tutors to multiliteracies is by encouraging what I call “multimodal thinking.”
Multimodal thinking is the ability to read and to give expression to content through a palette of modes that mixes and blurs “monomodal” representational practices (Kress and Van Leeuwen 45). Those who adopt it recognize that twenty-first century communication involves the exploration of a range of modal and expressive possibilities. Here, I explain two approaches that support “multimodal thinking” in peer tutor training: (1) the notion that consultants are producers not just users or readers (they should be able to “produce” the modes they are analyzing); and (2) the situated practice of multimodal text provides deeper learning. The first approach reflects the concept of learning by doing; the second approach emphasizes doing in context for a specific audience and purpose. The notion of “situated practice” comes from the New London Group, who pointed to studies in cognitive science and other fields suggesting that the mastery of knowledge requires the immersion of the community of learners in constant, contextualized practice. The New London Group’s point was not only that multimodal practice was evolving and shifting—but also that multiliteracies require practice through production.
For me, the implications for tutor training were twofold. First, the idea of “situated practice” would require that peer consultants perform their understanding of multimodal and visual texts. And while we (as other writing centers) apply situated practice in terms of traditional writing tutorials, I wondered how this would apply to our undergraduate tutor’s approach to multiliteracies. If administrators need to re-conceptualize “training” in multimodal texts, what would it be? At the Hume Writing Center, our professional staff of lecturers, not peer tutors, lead writing workshops: this is largely due to our access to lecturers with experience and expertise. However, we may need to see presentations as not only service but also training opportunities for all digital media tutors (professional and undergraduate tutors) to practice and expand their knowledge. Regardless, undergraduate consultants would need to continually “practice” their own multimodal communication skills—they could not simply observe others’ practice and comment on it during tutoring sessions.
The second implication for tutor training is how situated practice can heighten our tutors’ awareness of new media’s kairotic instability due to variations in technology, audiences, and contexts. New media forms can change dramatically—and, in turn, change how we make arguments as well as how we use them to make arguments: websites in 2000 are visually and interactively distinct from websites of today. PowerPoint of 1990 is radically different from PowerPoint 2007. As Valerie Balester will argue next, there is fluidity in the rhetoric of different media, but there is also fluidity in the media itself: tutors who “practice” making new media arguments themselves can greatly benefit writing centers by keeping administrators informed of the shifting cultural, technological, and social contexts of new media. This coming year, our Writing Center hopes to turn a small team of our undergraduate consultants into digital media consultants. In our plan for their training is a pedagogic practice that, I hope, invigorates their “multimodal thinking.”
The Multiliteracy Writing Center: Fostering Curricular Change
In this story, a multiliteracy writing center has become the agent of curricular change. Like Nancy Grimm, I believe the writing center and the university must address multiliteracies. To achieve this goal, the center at my institution initiated curricular change, even though we retain the name of University Writing Center. The change involves three groups: (1) writing center tutors, (2) faculty, and (3) students. Tutors must revise their identities from experts in writing to experts in rhetoric; they must feel as confident advising about writing a script or editing a video as they do advising about writing papers. Faculty must be able to imagine literacy beyond traditional forms of paper and oral presentation and to understand how to assign and evaluate new media. They need to have a better sense of what learning outcomes can be addressed with new forms of literacy. Students need to understand the genres and composing processes for new media and know that they can get help from the writing center (or whatever we eventually decide to call ourselves). And all have to understand “writing” more broadly, as composing in different media.
Our changes began four years ago, when under my direction the University Writing Center spearheaded a move to communication-in-the-disciplines, requiring me to sponsor a motion through the faculty senate. The motion, which passed, gave students the opportunity to produce and present posters, podcasts, videos, speeches, and web pages in courses that count for a graduation requirement. Four years later, the courses are being proposed, although most don’t venture beyond the oral presentation with slides. We have seen a marked increase in requests for help with oral presentations and slides at the center. Our next step, moving into audio/video and web-based genres, will require another push from us to educate faculty and tutors.
To provide some continuity for our tutors between their work with written academic genres and new media, we continue to invoke classical rhetorical principles such as audience, genre, and purpose. However, we also have to deftly explore and adapt to less-well defined genres. What are best practices for an academic video or blog? Does anyone use the terms “podcast” anymore, and how is it different from a “screencast”? The media we teach are not always set in stone. Changes over the past decade in how best to create oral presentation slides exemplifies how much fluidity exists in the rhetoric of many of these newer media, and disciplinary differences continue to be as salient with slides as they are with articles or essays. Writing about a topic in a handout or an article requires very different strategies from creating a screencast about it, even when the purpose and audience are the same. As a result, our tutors and our faculty have to learn to think rhetorically and strategically as they engage students in new media projects.
Creating curricular change that resonates with the whole campus requires that we develop the expertise and resources that will give faculty confidence in assigning new projects and that will give students confidence that they can get help composing them. The process is slow. We are incrementally changing the way we are perceived through our marketing and through the materials we offer for help. We are working with our library to expand our facilities to add a media studio and oral presentation practice rooms. As we generate possibilities, we also create change.
Scaling It Up
Sohui Lee and Valerie Balester provide powerful examples of how training tutors to support multiliteracies and providing the resources students and faculty need for effective multiliteracy learning and teaching can transform the work of writing centers, as well as broader understandings of writing at our universities. I want to take this focus on teaching new media one step further to describe what happens when writing centers themselves start teaching new media writing classes.
At the University of Michigan, the Sweetland Center for Writing began doing just that in Fall 2008. Our aim was to address the paucity of new media writing on our campus—both in first-year general composition classes and upper-level writing in the disciplines classes. We knew some students and faculty in a range of departments were working with PowerPoint, websites, and blogs, and that electronic portfolios were gaining ground in several professional schools and programs. We also knew the emphasis in these classes was primarily on technical matters, and that little attention was being paid to rhetorical principles of audience, genre, and purpose.
Our first course in 2008 focused on the “Rhetoric of Blogging,” and since then, we’ve offered multiple sections on fourteen different topics, in both 3-credit and 1-credit versions. The goals of this course, which does not fulfill any college requirement, are to provide a space where students analyze and apply rhetorical principles in their writing with new media, work with multimodal forms of communication, and become more informed and critical consumers of new media writing. Our enrollment has been quite diverse, ranging from first-year students to seniors in a wide variety of concentrations and disciplines. And interestingly, in entrance surveys a majority of students report they elected the class not for any particular academic purpose, but rather because it allowed them to further a personal interest of some kind—from gaming to political action to nonprofit work. And as it turns out, it also has fulfilled employment goals of several of our students who have taken what they’ve learned in these courses directly into the workplace.
We feel these courses have been quite effective, and that they meet an important need for our students, who come to the university with widely varying levels of experience and expertise with new media. A key component of their success, I would argue, stems from their location in the writing center:
- Writing centers operate according to an ethos of collaboration and process-oriented problem solving. This is the future of much new media writing, which is by necessity highly collaborative and distributed.
- Because writing centers work with writers from across the University, and at all levels, we have extensive practice with the rhetorical moves and genre expectations of many disciplines, which allows us to move nimbly into new media and new literacies as they arise.
- The authority structure of writing centers enables genuine questioning of genre and mode, allowing us to place critical rhetorical analysis at the center of our multiliteracies pedagogy, which in turn promotes genuine critical literacy and student ownership of the learning process. This is a political goal as much as an educational goal, as Nancy Grimm points out.
- Writing center pedagogy enables “coherence-within-diversity” (Thaiss & Zawacki 139) regarding new media genres, that is, it enables us to foster the self-reflection and confident flexibility that twenty-first century writers need to approach the varied writing tasks created by an ever-changing media landscape.
But as far as we know, we’re one of the few writing centers around engaged in teaching of this kind—for reasons of resources and institutional location, among others, to be sure. I’m interested in thinking about how writing centers elsewhere can take up this new challenge. As Valerie Balester suggests, we have a responsibility to shake things up, to go to our Dean or Provost to make the case that while we should certainly be training our tutors to work with new media writing and developing the infrastructure to help them do so, we should also be taking the lead in teaching these forms and in creating a spread of effect for multiliteracies within the university. The payoff for our students, our faculty, and our institutions is well worth the effort.
The goal of our essay was to explore and even question the idea of multiliteracies in writing centers in a way that does not flatten out the discussion into useless binaries or unreflexive lore. As these accounts suggest, writing centers are powerful because of how richly they conceive of tutors and tutor preparation, because of their deep connections to curricular structures, and because they adopt sophisticated models of composing and learning processes. In short, writing centers are powerful because, over the last thirty years or so, they have developed a rich tradition of praxis through self-critique, research, and theory-building.
We can gain important insights into many of the theoretical concerns explored here if we shift our perspective, for a moment, from the day-to-day concerns of operating a writing center to the broader project of envisioning a 21st century university. Universities need places where composers can come to access the infrastructural resources (intellectual, technological, and interpersonal) that enable 21st-century composing. These places will necessarily be multiliteracy centers.
Effective multiliteracy centers will require all of the resources that writing centers already have in place: structures for recruiting and training tutors, strong connections to the curriculum, and robust theories of communicating, composing, and learning. Writing centers already have these things. Starting a multiliteracy center from scratch amounts to re-inventing the wheel. The challenge, then, is not (only) to cram multiliteracy practices into an already overwhelmed learning ecology. Instead, the challenge is to convince stakeholders (including students, faculty, and administrators) that universities will serve learners more effectively if they establish multiliteracy centers.
These centers, in turn, can function most productively if they are strongly connected to existing writing centers and their traditions. In this way, despite our differences, our varied responses concur with the claim recently put forward by Christina Murphy and Lory Hawkes that “Writing Centers [...] are the academic units best positioned by their philosophies and histories to capitalize on the importance of e-literacies for the transformation of academics in the 21st century” (174). This claim is not “idealized romanticism” (North, “Revisiting” 10), but good pedagogy and good policy.
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