The Problem of Plagiarism: Where the Educators Come In - Part 4 of 5

In my prior post, I took a look at some of the research behind what kinds of factors and situations might give rise to inappropriate use of sources in student writing.  The list of possible motivations to commit plagiarism in all its forms is complex and, for me, a little daunting.  There is a multitude of pitfalls and potential issues that accompany responsible source use; as our student bodies grow more diverse and our technological and digital access to resources grows more intricate and comprehensive, these issues continue to multiply exponentially.  Acknowledging this, the essential question is, what do we as educators do about it? The effort from academic institutions and educators everywhere to fight what is commonly referred to as the "Plague of Plagiarism" is immense.  As Rebecca Moore Howard points out in her article, an entire industry based on retroactively catching instances of plagiarism has developed, with sites like and regularly devising new strategies for catching the culprits.  Software is being developed, articles are being written, books are being purchased. Teachers everywhere are cracking down on plagiarism.

The problem with this mentality and one of the myriad of reasons it has been relatively unsuccessful is that this approach is fundamentally retrospective.  The instances of plagiarism are detected after they have happened, leading to a predominantly punitive set of responses that does not even attempt to address the reason the student plagiarized in the first place.  Keith Hjorthshoj and Katherine Gottscholk acknowledge that this problem has arisen from the overwhelming complexity of the plagiarism problem.  "Because it is impossible to prevent all forms and cases of plagiarism, teachers often devote their attention to detection and punishment, partly in the interests of deterrence" (Teaching English 119).

Another significant reason for the lack of success in recent efforts to combat plagiarism has to do with our modern understanding of what plagiarism is, which is something I get into in an earlier post in this series.  Howard touches on this when she says, "We like the word 'plagiarism' because it seems simple and straightforward: Plagiarism is representing the words of another as one's own, our college policies say, and we tell ourselves, 'There!  It's clear.  Students are responsible for reading those policies and observing their guidelines'."  This kind of simplistic, but well-intentioned thinking about plagiarism does indeed simplify our responsibilities as teachers, but at what would seem to be too high a cost.

It's not that simple! Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Given the ineffectiveness of retroactive responses to plagiarism as well as a general sense of confusion surrounding what plagiarism actually is, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk suggest a better way.  They believe that a proactive approach to writing education has the ability to counteract many of the reasons students have for relying on inappropriate source use.  "To a great extent... prevention is possible and coincides with the goals of education" (Hjortshoj and Gottschalk Teaching English 119). For starters, this approach requires that educators take a moment to deepen and stretch their definitions of what constitutes plagiarism (feel free to use this post as a launch point) and consider the humbling possibility that some of the instances of plagiarism in their classrooms may have stemmed from teaching practices as opposed to student dishonesty or laziness.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk explain that, in order to successfully combat plagiarism in the classroom, "you need to understand what plagiarism is, in its diverse forms, why it occurs..., and what kinds of teaching practices make these violations of academic writing standards uninviting and unnecessary" (118).

The teaching practices that Hjortshoj and Gottschalk reference here as possible suggestions to head plagiarism off at the pass are not necessarily additional checklist items to squeeze into an already crowded curriculum.  Ideally, the kinds of practices that would help oppose plagiarism in the classroom would be the same ones that we would use to help students develop strong, flexible writing skills.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk state that, "most of the strategies we have recommended for orchestrating the research paper are also strategies for preventing plagiarism of all kinds" (Teaching English 119).  The Council of Writing Program Administrator's statement on best practices concerning plagiarism supports this by encouraging classroom strategies that simultaneously support students "throughout their research process" and "make plagiarism both difficult and unnecessary."  If educators could find a way to implement positive and rigorous academic writing instruction strategies that also directly undermined student motivation to misuse sources before that opportunity for misuse presented itself, the problem of plagiarism would shrink to a much more surmountable issue.  Student writing skill would grow, teacher anxiety would decrease, and the student-teacher relationship as it pertains to the issue of source use in academic writing could work towards a much more positive and healthy condition.

Howard aptly summarizes the crisis surrounding the problem of plagiarism by saying, "In our stampede to fight...a 'plague' of plagiarism, we risk becoming the enemies rather than the mentors of our students; we are replacing the student-teacher relationship with the criminal-police relationship."  Her statement concisely captures my motivation in posting this series on plagiarism.  Through this blog series, my goal is to propose that we fight plagiarism in a different way than we have been.  My goal is to encourage and explore proactive approaches that mentor and coach students into a flexible ability and skill level with source use, making plagiarism in the classroom obsolete. My hope would be to move away from the criminal-police relationship that governs the way we handle plagiarism in order to replace that relationship with one of mutual understanding, respect, and generative productivity.  As a teacher with limited experience, I am sure I have nothing more than a tenuous grasp on the staggering magnitude of this undertaking; however, in my next and final post in this series, I'll be calling on some much more experienced educators to help compile concrete ideas on how to practically bring this kind of an approach to plagiarism into the classroom.

The Problem of Plagiarism: Asking Why - Part 3 of 5

Courtesy of Creative Commons In my last post, I attempted to investigate and complicate the way in which we commonly define plagiarism.  It is impossible, however, to discuss a more multifaceted understanding of plagiarism without then going on to consider how that understanding complicates our assumptions as to why students plagiarize. When we perceive plagiarism to very simply be cases in which students "steal" the words or ideas of others in order to pass them off as their own, we reduce the list of potential motivations down to laziness and deceitfulness.  Either a student couldn't be bothered to complete her own work or she just wanted to cheat the system and get away with literary theft.  If, however, we are going to consider plagiarism as occurring over a spectrum, as we did in my prior post, then we must be willing to consider the corresponding spectrum of situations and rationales that might prompt students to engage in these different kinds of plagiarism.

In her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rebecca Moore Howard captures the danger in a simplistic rationale for why students plagiarize, saying, "by thinking of plagiarism as a unitary act rather than a collection of disparate activities, we risk categorizing all of our students as criminals." It is not only demoralizing and harmful to minimize all our students in this way; it is also inaccurate according to the often-quoted-in-this-blog Keith Hjortshoj and his co-author Katherine Gottschalk.  In their own classroom experiences, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk found that instances of plagiarism did not "correspond with integrity among the students" (Teaching Writing 118).  Drawing from their time teaching, they recount many instances in which an ethical and motivated student committed some form of plagiarism.  When reflecting on the numerous occasions in which they had to respond to plagiarism in their classrooms, Hjortshoj and Gottschalk say, "while all of these cases involve misrepresentation, their motivations and implications can be entirely different" (Teaching Writing 118).

Several recent scholars and organizations have begun theorizing on what exactly some of these different motivations might be.  Based on their research, I have compiled a list of just a few alternative reasons students could have for committing some degree of plagiarism.

  • A General Lack of Ability: Jennifer Rabold has said, "I see plagiarism as an issue of students trying to enter the academic conversation unskillfully."  For a motivated student who wants very much to succeed in an assignment, but who does not have the skills to do so, it may be easy to either intentionally or unintentionally rely too heavily or incorrectly on outside sources.  As part of the process of further investigating this idea, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), Hjortshoj, and The Citation Project have identified a few specific skills-based pitfalls that students may fall into when attempting to incorporate outside information and voices into their writing.
    • Inability to Critically Read and Summarize Complex Sources: Work done by The Citation Project shows that, when citing sources in their papers, students summarized an outside work only 6% of the time, "indicating that they either could not or would not engage with extended passages of text."  The Citation Project's position on this is that plagiarism is unavoidable in situations where students are not able to critically read and interact with complex sources.
    • Lack of Established Personal Voice: When writing within the different academic disciplines, students are developing and exercising the ability to write using different voices and lenses required by the individual disciplines.  Students are being asked to write as experts in particular fields on particular topics, even though writing from that perspective and in that manner is very unfamiliar for them.  (I discuss this in more depth in my post on disciplinary literacy.) This lack of familiarity can cause students to lose track of where their ideas and words are original and where they borrow from outside sources.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk explain this by saying, "The difficulties novice writers face in establishing an authoritative voice and position can make the task of quoting and citing real authorities very confusing.  Many students therefore drift into minor forms of plagiarism because the approach they have used does not give them a sense of position from which they can easily distinguish their ideas and voices from those of other writers" (Teaching Writing 119).
    • Confusion Surrounding the Technical Mechanics of Citation: It doesn't take much more than a casual thumbing through the most current MLA or APA handbook to establish that the list of rules governing correct documentation of the ideas of others is overwhelming for developing writers.  The WPA's Statement on Best Practices for Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism acknowledges that "students may not know how to integrate the ideas of others and document the sources of those ideas appropriately in their texts."  A student writer may be genuinely overwhelmed or confused when trying to understand the guidelines and, as the WPA reminds us, "error is a natural part of learning."
  • Cultural or Language Difference: American school systems and academics have a very specific understanding of what is appropriate and necessary when attributing credit for ideas and words.  This understanding is not objective and it is not shared equally on a global basis.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk point out that "in some cultures... repeating what authorities say is almost a definition of learning."  It is understandably difficult for students coming from an international or multilingual background to understand what it means or why they would be asked to "take an independent or original perspective, especially when they truly have learned from others everything they know about the subject, including the language required to discuss it" (Teaching Writing 119).
  • Time Constraints:  The modern American student has more demands on their time and attention than ever before.  A 2008 New York Times article reported that a high-performing high school had to enforce a lunch period after their students became so entrenched in extra-curricular activities, AP classes, and part-time jobs that they were skipping their midday meals.  The expectations on students to build resumes and accumulate accomplishments at an overwhelming rate have only grown since this article.  The WPA points out that students may make time-management or planning errors and "believe they have no choice but to plagiarize" in order to meet important deadlines.

This list is in no way meant to be comprehensive.  My only goal is to offer some different options to consider when thinking about why students fall into plagiarism.  While I emphatically acknowledge that blatant and intentional literary theft does indeed occur and demands response, I am attempting to advocate for the increasing number of student writers who authentically struggle with the ethics and complexities of citing sources.

In my admittedly limited experience and untested opinion, students are generally trying to learn, create good work, and live up to the expectations that are placed on them. The increasing levels of plagiarism in the academic system are much less an indication of decreasing interest levels and morality among students than they are of a sharp incline in the complexity of navigating outside sources.  The internet's limitless access to an impossible range of sources makes choosing, interacting with, and incorporating those sources a very challenging task.  This challenge is layered onto the already-difficult undertaking of composing a piece of academic writing.  Hjortshoj and Gottschalk identify that this process is, for almost all novice writers, characterized by "helplessness and confusion" (Teaching Writing 120).  Based on some of the research summarized in this post, it appears to be the case that this helplessness and confusion can fairly easily lapse into an incorrect use of the works of others.  I believe it is up to modern educators to remain sensitive to the variety of reasons students engage in different types of plagiarism.  This sensitivity is what leads to effective responses to plagiarism when it does occur, which is what I plan to address in my next post!

The Problem of Plagiarism: A Definition - Part 2 of 5

As I suggested in my post introducing this series, one of the primary sources of our trouble with plagiarism in the classroom centers around the way we define it.  Our impulse is to resort to the standard dictionary definition, which simplistically holds that plagiarism takes place when writers try to "use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your [their] own words or ideas."  Unfortunately the concept of assigning credit for or ownership of words or ideas is much more complex than this concise definition suggests. The general inadequacy of our reductionist understanding of plagiarism has recently prompted several different organizations and groups of scholars to work towards developing a much more nuanced and flexible characterization of what plagiarism really is. One of these groups, the Citation Project, compiles and analyzes empirical data drawn from real-life student papers in order to characterize and quantify how students use sources in their writing.  Based on their research, they point out that plagiarism as we define it is really only ever practically used as a legal term in order to enforce penalties in cases of blatant dishonesty. However, according to Citation Project findings, if we focus too heavily on the legalistic and punitive definitions for plagiarism, we "are forced to ignore the more nuanced-and much more frequent- misuse of sources that may be the product of ignorance, carelessness, or a failure to understand the source."  Unless we are going to focus our teaching efforts with regards to plagiarism entirely on retroactive and punitive approaches, the definition we currently rely on is not, in most cases, tangibly helpful or applicable for use with our students. Keith Hjortshoj and Katherine Gottschalk reflect on the struggle to characterize and define source misuse by saying that, "the offenses most colleges [and schools] include in the loose category of 'plagiarism' vary from deliberate theft and fraud to minor cases of close paraphrase and faulty reference" (Teaching Writing 118).  When it comes to practically responding to the wide array of incorrect source use seen in the classroom, our definition of plagiarism becomes inadequate and is of no real use at all.

In response to this dilemma, several attempts have been made to counteract the common black-and-white definition of "literary theft."  The Council of Writing Program Administrators has released a statement on best practices which urges educators to see plagiarism as "a multifacted and ethically complex problem." The Citation Project has developed a definition of "patchwriting" that reflects "more nuanced definitions of misuse of sources that exist side-by-side with but separate from definitions of plagiarism."  Among this work, what I have found to be the most effective alternative to our common understanding of plagiarism has come from the plagiarism prevention company, Turnitin.

Turnitin has released a study in which they define different types and degrees of plagiarism along a spectrum of severity based on student intent.  The image below is taken from the Turnitin study and captures the types of plagiarism as they fall on the spectrum of student intent; the types of plagiarism are ordered from the most to the least severe.

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The most problematic form of plagiarism, representing the most severe end of the spectrum, is called "cloning" and occurs when a student submits "another's work, word-for-word" as their own.  The least problematic form of plagiarism, representing the least severe end of the spectrum, is called "re-tweeting" and takes place when a student "includes proper citation, but relies to closely on the text's original wording and/or structure."  The Turnitin study goes on to define 8 other types of plagiarism that fall in between cloning and re-tweeting, offering the frequency with which these types of plagiarism were seen along with examples of what this type of plagiarism would look like in student work.  This fairly detailed overview of student source misuse covers a wide range of student intents, misunderstandings, and ethical choices, effectively undermining the depiction of plagiarism as a straightforward, objective offense.

In studies like the ones discussed in this post, we see plagiarism being described as a much more complex and multifaceted obstacle to education than it has been in the past.  As more organizations like Turnitin, The Citation Project, and The Council of Writing Program Administrators work to collectively define the problem of plagiarism, a more complete and comprehensive picture of how and why students misuse sources in their writing emerges.  This increasingly meaningful and practical understanding carries a wealth of implications for educators in the way we communicate responsible source-use and idea-generation to our students.  In the following installments of this series, I am going to be exploring some of these implications and how we as educators can employ a more nuanced and personalized understanding of plagiarism in our own classrooms.

The Problem of Plagiarism - Post 1 of 5

At the recent and previously blogged about Disciplinary Literacy UnConference I attended, one of the day's events was to break into teams of educators and work together to generate ideas on how to go about solving a literacy dilemma.  I opted to work on a dilemma put forth by Masconomet Regional High School's Jennifer Rabold which dealt with plagiarism in the English Department of a high-performing school.  Her dilemma featured a highly qualified staff of teachers working with a motivated and capable group of students who were increasingly struggling with instances of plagiarism.  The department had yet to harmonize on an approach to dealing with and working against these instances, which was the starting point for our group's brainstorming.  The conversation and analysis that followed Ms. Rabold's presentation of the dilemma was extremely thought-provoking and challenging, prompting a fair amount of research and reading on my part in the days following the conference.  In my next series of blog posts, I hope to share some of that research exploring what plagiarism is, why it happens, and what skilled educators can do to help equip students to avoid the pitfalls surrounding it. At both the start of our dilemma brainstorming and of my independent research, it was clear that plagiarism as it is generally understood is fairly straightforward.  A quick definition essentially tells us that plagiarism happens when a writer uses someone else's "language and thoughts" without their permission or without giving appropriate credit.

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At first glance, this seems reasonable.  Both professional and student writers should be able to adhere to this definition.  If it isn't your work, it deserves a citation.  Simple, right?

However, as New York filmmaker Kirby Ferguson asserts in his four-part video series, "everything is a remix."  He defines the act of remixing as "combining or editing existing materials to produce something new." Ferguson makes the point that, in today's digital, collaborative age, essentially everything we do builds on something that has been done before.  This idea echoes what C. Jan Swearingen points out to be a longstanding idea dating back to Plato which held that "individual ownership of truth was impossible because truth and, to a certain extent, meaning, existed full apart from any individual author" ("Originality, Authenticity, Imitation" 23).  Ultimately everything we use in our idea-generation, composition, and invention can be traced back to the work of someone else.  We build on what has been done before.  So exactly how thorough does our material-using and credit-giving have to be? What is the role of citation and are there objective standards for what needs to be cited and what does not?  How do we account for the collaborative invention upon which our own work relies? Is anything we create or invent really uniquely ours?

I don't have the answers to those questions and my goal with this blog series is in no way to go mining for those answers.  My point is simply to explore the complexity and confusion that we ask students to engage in when compiling research and compositions of their own.  The idea of citing the work of others in our own work is often much more convoluted than we as educators make it out to be and I look forward to investigating some of these complications in my next few blog posts.

And So It Begins

The time has come.  I am starting my graduate thesis, which is required to complete my MA in English from Salem State.  The expected tension, anxiety, excitement, and sense of impending discovery and possible doom is officially upon me as I begin compiling reading lists and brainstorming avenues of analysis.  IMG_5031I am finding this whole process so helpful in remembering and examining the experiences students undergo when we ask them to navigate new and uncharted academic territory.  The lack of direction, sense of disorientation, and feeling of potential inadequacy that I feel when approaching my thesis is not the least bit different from high school students' as they attempt their first research paper or a particularly challenging piece of literature.  The act of engaging in any real intellectual work requires courage, even at the high school level.  I hope to keep this in mind throughout the process of composing my thesis in order to better understand and guide my future students through their own intellectual undertakings.

The Danger of a Single Story: Why ELA Classrooms Matter

I have wanted to write this post for awhile, as I've loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie since the moment I learned about her and her work.  Adichie is an incredible author who was born and raised in Nigeria and has written several novels and short stories that have been published in over 30 languages.  She is an articulate and talented individual; she uses her identity and skillsets to create beautiful work, but also to actively promote values and ideals she holds important.  I could spend an overwhelming number of words describing her books, talks, and life accomplishments and I'd actually be happy to do that, but, I wanted to dedicate this particular blog post to a TED talk that Adichie gave in July of 2009. [embed][/embed]

In her talk, Adichie reflects on the danger of only knowing one story, one narrative, or one perspective.  She shares how growing up with a "single story" depicted in the literature she read hindered her own ability to express her culture and life as a child in Nigeria.  As an adult, the "single story" myth caused her to accidentally develop one-dimensional and inaccurate images of peoples foreign to her.  Coming out of those experiences, Adichie poses the questions: How can we really know anyone through a single story?  How can a single story ever capture the complexity of a culture, a people, or a nation?

Adichie goes on to push this one step further by analyzing how the myth of the single story not only puts the hearer or reader in the position of having an incomplete or simplistic impression of people or places; it also heavily represses and misrepresents the individuals depicted.

'Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.' - Adichie

This TED talk captures, in essence, what I believe to be the most important role of the ELA classroom: to teach students to demand multiple stories, to question suspiciously unified narratives, and to embrace the duality and complexity that comes with gathering information about the unfamiliar.  Developing students who insist on more stories and refuse to accept any single story as representative of a people or a place not only respects and honors our increasingly diverse classrooms and societies; it also creates the kinds of citizens our increasingly complex world needs.  I want my classroom to produce individuals who have meaningfully read white, Western literature, but who have also wrestled with female, multicultural authors and who have considered the multitude of perceptions that exist in any given topic.  These are the students who will be able to operate meaningfully, intelligently, and justly throughout our globalized society.  These are the students who will hear, respect, and respond to voices speaking for and from all classes, races, and genders.  These are the students that I make it my goal to cultivate.

"I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise." -Adichie

The Video Composition of a Multimodality Convert

As promised in my last post on the importance of incorporating multimodal assignments into the classroom, I am dedicating this post to a multimodal composition of my own!  I thought that, since I am wrapping up my blog series on 21st century literacies, it might be time to blog about something a little more interesting than my own general thoughts and research on said literacies. This is also the blog post in which I confess that it was not so long ago that I would have stood with the crew that said things like, "Seriously?  A video project? This is why modern students can't write; because we assign things like video projects."  Composing multimodally was totally foreign to me. I had no experience with it and, because of that, I had absolutely no meaningful knowledge of the process that went into it. This was mostly prior to my taking the majestic Tanya Rodrigue's digital writing class, in which I was asked to complete this assignment as well as fundamentally challenge my understanding of what it meant to compose something.

The assignment is called "Concept in 60" and was designed by Dr. Scott DeWitt.  The task is to create a 60-second video that illustrates a concept, any concept you’d like. Your video may take a critical, reflective and/or interpretive approach to the subject matter, but you need to follow these rules:

1. Your video MUST be 60 seconds–not one second more, not one second less. 2. You must strip your video of all actual/matching audio. You may layer audio in your project as long as you avoid all video/audio matching. 3. You must include a title screen somewhere in your video. You must also give yourself credit as the video artist/composer somewhere in the video text. 4. You must secure permissions for all materials used in your project by their rightful owner or use creative commons and public domain material. Also, you must include a works cited page for all materials used in the project.

I came up with this:


I love it and I loved the process of making it, as I imagine most high school students would.  Videos are cool; everyone loves them.  However, the thing that made this assignment productive for my personal composition skills was the accompanying reflection paper.  In this paper, I was asked to think about the choices I had made when composing this video project and tie those choices back to some very literary strategies and scholarly research.  I was asked to become aware of the process I went through, concretizing some of my relatively savvy (if I do say so myself) decisions.  This involved me thinking critically about how I identified my purpose, structured my argument, appealed to my audience, and concluded my thoughts.  I noticed points in which I used symbols and how those symbols made my composition more effective.  By the end of the whole reflection, I was aware of how complex and intentional my process had been; it was very essay-like and I hadn't even noticed.  I began to think how equipped I would be if someone then asked me to write an essay outlining the idea of home.  I was prepared to write something fairly complex and compelling.

As a writer, I learned so much from this process.  I believe that the secret to strong multimodal assignments in the classroom lies in the reflective paper.  Modern high school students are smart; they can often toss together a compelling video or audio project with minimal guidance.  Let's not dismiss that as irrelevant, but let's also not accept that without analysis.  Let's channel their abilities and ask them to reflect on what strategies they are using to compose something effective or powerful.  If our assignments ask this well, students will learn how those strategies can be applied to other types of compositions, making multimodality an invaluable classroom tool.

Multimodality: What is it Good for?

In my previous post on the importance of multimodality in 21st century literacies, I defined my understanding of what multimodality is and explored the idea that our culture's commonly dismissive and condescending view of multimodality in the English classroom is, at the very least, up for debate.  In this blog post, I'm going to raise some of what I consider to be fairly compelling arguments for the use of multimodal assignments in the modern high school classroom.  These arguments are somewhat varied in scope and are listed in no particular order of importance or otherwise! 1) Modes of communication are inextricably linked to one another; a composition is never composed entirely in a single mode without some reliance on additional modes. Reading musical compositions, while largely an audio endeavor, has a necessary visual component in that music is recorded and printed with a complex set of symbols.  Music is also a gestural, physical meaning-making process; any music lover will tell you that you never get the full meaning of a song until you watch the artist physically perform that piece, factoring in body language, facial expressions, and musical technique.  These modes all interact with one another to create the integrated meaning of a musical composition.  Even our beloved default of the alphabetical mode is actually a very visual mode in that it is a complex series of symbols that students learn to recognize.  Print alphabetical texts are rarely devoid of visual, nonalphabetical cues; authors can communicate necessary information to readers through font, spacing, layout, and a wide array of other visual tools. Understanding how different modes interact with one another and with the audience creates students who can critically and meaningfully analyze pieces composed in any combination of modes, enabling them to interpret complex cues and messages.

2) Teaching students to apply the rigorous approaches of literary analysis to multimodal compositions enables them to meaningfully and insightfully approach a wide variety of interdisciplinary compositions.  Art, music, drama, mathematics, and a host of other disciplines rely heavily on modes other than the alphabetical in their compositions.  When we teach students to read, analyze, respond intelligently to, and produce multimodal compositions, we equip them with valuable tools to apply their literary skills across the disciplines.

3) Multimodal projects often work well as digital assignments.  Multimodal assignments do not necessarily require digital tools; however, they do present the occasion for students to test and develop their technological skills while strengthening complex rhetorical and analytical skills.  See my prior blog post for more reflection on how necessary it is for our modern students to be fluent and creative in digital spheres.

4) Offering students an opportunity to compose multimodally is a fun and alternative way to engage ELL students who might otherwise have difficulty connecting with and completing a composition assignment in the traditional, alphabetic mode.  Students who struggle with English as a nonnative language may thrive when given an assignment in which they can compose freely without the added concern for grammar, academic language, or spelling.  This gives ELL students a chance to build confidence and fluency while also developing and utilizing complex composition and critical analysis skills.

5) Integrating academically rigorous work that appeals to a student body demonstrating a variety of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences can be challenging.  Multimodal work, digital or non-digital, can respect, engage, and develop students of all learning styles.  Assignments that ask students to make intelligent and strategic choices in modes that come naturally to them in order to intelligently create meaning are tasks that both challenge and encourage academic identities.  The ability to use sound, motion, color, or image in order to convey what may be a very insightful or intelligent idea can often be a huge relief for a student who struggles to convey those ideas in the traditional alphabetic mode and whose primary intelligence is not verbal/linguistic.

6) The real world is multimodal.  The social, career, and recreational spheres of modern life are all multimodal, featuring complex combinations of sounds, images, and text.  If we don't teach our students to be smart consumers of the information and entertainment that they are bombarded with, they will struggle to navigate the fast-paced culture in which they live.  Assigning challenging and rigorous analyses of composer choices in multimodal pieces as well as asking students to make those choices in their own compositions helps our students grow into smart, savvy individuals capable of functioning expertly in their society and culture.

These are just a few points in a litany of what I consider to be very valid arguments as to why multimodal composition is important, if not essential, in the modern English classroom. In all of these points, I make repeated mention of rigorous and challenging academic analyses of multimodal compositions.  Given that multimodality is somewhat unfamiliar in an academic context, it can sometimes be difficult to envision how a multimodal assignment can be intellectually and analytically demanding for a student in the same way an essay or paper can.  How can a video assignment help students develop tangible skills that may translate into their paper writing?  How can a student's compositional skills in the alphabetic mode really be tested and stretched in a non-alphabetic mode? To help shed some light on this, in my next blog post, I will be posting a video composition of my own that I completed as part of a graduate class.  Along with that video composition, I'll include some discussion of the fairly complicated compositional choices I had to make in compiling it as well as some of the academic research I relied on in making those decisions.  My hope is that this will offer a little bit of insight into the complexity and potential for pedagogical use that well-designed multimodal assignments can have for a 21st century classroom.

I also recognize the great irony of relying so heavily on the traditional, alphabetic mode to write about the need for multimodality and the unprecedented communicative power of multimodal compositions. But, in my defense, would you take my points seriously if I communicated them in an alternative mode?

The Importance of Multimodality in 21st Literacies

Carrying on in my series on what it takes to create literate students in the 21st century (as introduced in this blog post), I'd like to take this post to discuss the way we as teachers and as a society think about multimodal texts.  A mode, in the words of Gunther Kress, "is a socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning.  Image, writing, layout, music, gesture, speech, moving image, sountrack are examples of modes used in presentation and communication" (54).  So, essentially, modes are systems we use to make and communicate meaning.  We can make and share meaning through pictures, graphics, gesticulation, and any of the modes Kress lists above.  A multimodal text is any composition that conveys meaning using multiple modes or nontraditional modes like the ones listed above. When we engage in discussions about academic literacy and composition pedagogy, however, we are referring almost exclusively to the alphabetic, written mode. Generally, we view alphabetic texts as the most academic and rigorous forms of scholarship.  Multimodal texts, texts that exceed the alphabetic, incorporating still or moving images, sound, color etc., are commonly viewed as less intellectual, less academic, and less scholarly.

Here is where I'm going to bring us right back to the NCTE 2013 definition of 21st century literacies, which states...

“Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to...

    • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
    • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
    • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts

I've added the bolded words to make my point, which is essentially that our commonplace dismissal of all texts that are not alphabetic is, at the very least, up for questioning.  The NCTE statement above lists flexibility and fluency in multimodal texts and textual design as necessary skills when defining literacy in the modern age.  The NCTE actually has gone so far as to publish a statement specific to multimodal literacy; this statement gets into the complexities of meaning production in our current cultural climate, encouraging teachers to push students to read and write critically and skillfully in a wide variety of media.

As an aside, in order to head off any confusion, for the purposes of this blog post as well as any others that may follow in this series, I am using the terms "multimodal" and "multimedia" interchangeably.  Claire Lauer's article, "Contending with Terms: 'Multimodal' and 'Multimedia' in the Academic and Public Spheres," analyzes the difference between these two terms, coming to the conclusion that "rather than the use of these terms being driven by any difference in their definitions, their use is more contingent upon the context and the audience to whom a particular discussion is being directed" (225).  So, while I will stick mainly to the term "multimodal," I am considering the term "multimedia" to be synonymous.

The NCTE is not the only voice challenging our culture's dismissive view of the complexities and scholarship behind multimodal composition.  Kress feels that the reliance that mainstream culture and society has on alphabetic language and scholarship "is a consequence of histories of power and misrecognition due to power" (67).  Kress bases his point on sign-language; sign-language is a fully functioning, complex system for making meaning that does not use the alphabet in the least, but relies entirely on a system of symbolic gestures.  Kress argues that, since sign language developed out of the necessity of the disabled community, it is not held in the same esteem as alphabetic language.  Collin Gifford Brooke holds that "the composition classroom... with its slow and steady approach to writing, may not prepare students to seize upon" the impactful and trending potential that multimodal and digital writing has to offer (181).  In her recent research, Cynthia Shanahan makes a point of saying that, when she refers to texts, she is "referring to a rather broad conception of that word, in that I refer to graphical or pictorial representations of ideas and spoken discourses as texts."  She clarifies that she does so because "often these representations may seem more accessible than written discourse but are deceptively abstruse" (143).

My general point here is merely that the casual disregard we have for texts that are composed in modes other than the alphabetic may be based more on cultural biases than on real reflections of scholarship, intellect, or complexity.  If my point has any validity, it would follow that, in a modern high school classroom, our exclusive focus on alphabetic texts is not only limiting, but insufficient in the goal of creating literate students in the 21st century.


Brooke, Collin Gifford. "New Media Pedagogy." A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. 2nd ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. 177-193. Print.

Kress, Gunther. "What is mode?" The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Ed. by Carey Jewitt. USA: Routledge, 2010. 54-67. Print.

Lauer, Claire. "Contending with Terms: 'Multimodal' and 'Multimedia' in the Academic and Public Spheres." Computers and Composition 26 (2006): 225-239. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Shanahan, Cynthia. “Research in Multiple Texts and Text Support.” Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013. 143-162. Print.

The End-Of-The-Semester Blues

It's time to face the facts: I am running way behind on my blog posts and more than a little short on the golden commodity of time.  Alas, grad school final projects have gotten the better of my past week.  On the upside, my faithful study buddies are in it to win it with me. IMG_2591 IMG_2784

I'll be back on my blogging game ASAP, so please accept these snapshots of their sleepy faces in the interim.

Digital Writing Assignment Ideas!

This is my third post in a mini-series of posts I am writing on 21st century literacies in the modern high school classroom.  My first post explored the idea behind what it means for a student to be literate in today's post-high school environment, focusing on the roles of technology and globalization in current academic and career workplaces.  My second post focused on digital writing in particular, discussing the worth and complexity involved in rhetorically sophisticated digital composition as well as how those digital compositions can be used to teach writing in the classroom. For this post, I'd like to lighten up the heavy mental lifting for a bit and discuss some practical and accessible assignment ideas for bringing digital writing into the classroom.  I found several of these ideas in Joan Lange, Patrick Connolly, and Devin Lintzenich's article in the English Journal; their article stresses the idea that digital assignments "build essential skills for success in college: developing curious minds and an ability to analyze and synthesize ideas to communicate insights with an audience."  Their article focuses exclusively on the use of digital writing in teaching Shakespeare; however, their assignments are relevant for use with most readings!

  • Text Message Paraphrases - This assignment asks students to select a portion of a play or dialogue in a novel and paraphrase the conversation into a text message conversation.  Emojis and gifs are fair game.  The goal is to have students connect with the literary dialogue and make it their own by putting the words into a conversational diction in which they are fluent and comfortable communicating.  This activity encourages close, careful reading of a text as well as exploration of tone and emotion behind the words being said.  It also makes sometimes removed or complicated texts feel real, personal, and relatable.
  • Facebook Profile Page for a Literary Character - In this assignment, the teacher will have created or found a Facebook profile page template.  Students have to choose a character and create a profile as if they were that character, selecting which bands they like, their favorite quotes, a profile picture, and their bio.  Lange explains that "this exercise challenges students to emulate tone and diction associated with a character."  It also pushes students to insightfully analyze an author's characterization in order to make decisions and assumptions as to what that character would like or dislike, who their friends would be, or what they would sound like.  Jane Mathison Fife has actually written about how Facebook pages are fairly sophisticated meaning-making devices, making strategic appeals and communicating messages about an individual to a wide audience.  She holds that using Facebook as a classroom tool in order to get students thinking critically about the strategic, communicative functions of social media has the potential to connect the study of literature and rhetoric with their daily lives. This assignment asks students to perform a literary analysis of a character within the situational context of a popular and familiar social media site. (The esteemed Megan of Breaking Grad(School) has shared this perfectly suited Facebook profile page template for classroom use with this assignment!)
  • Tweet a Summary - Any tweet on Twitter cannot exceed 140 characters.  This is a fairly limiting constraint; and yet, Twitter is frequently used to express complex political, philosophical, or social sentiments.  In this assignment, students are asked to summarize a recent reading in one paragraph.  Once this has been completed, students are asked to review their summary and condense it into a tweet.  This tweet would capture the main idea and heart of the reading in 140 characters. This asks students to identify the main message or purpose in a composition and put it into their own words in a conversational genre with which they are very comfortable and familiar.

Lange's article discusses many of these digital writing assignments as helpful pre-writing activities.  They encourage students to slow down, search for textual clues and connotations, elaborate on their ideas about a text, and develop complex, textually-supported trains of thought that they can then proceed to use in more traditional writing assignments.  When working with students who are not particularly comfortable with the text at hand, assignments like these, which rely heavily on literacies that students are fairly fluent in, can give students the confidence they need to wrestle authentically and connect with a new text.  These assignments also build digital and computer literacy, which, for high school students, is an increasingly invaluable skillset.  Not to mention, they just look like a ton of fun!