Ideas for Multimodal Writing Class

I’m teaching ENG 491: Multimodal Writing for the first time this Spring, and I’m looking for examples of good multimodal compositions and thinking about assignments that might draw on those examples.

Daniel Kolitz’s, The Data Drive

As far as multimodal compositions go, The Data Drive excels as an argument, and its execution is uncomplicated enough not only for students to navigate, but to model their own work on: with some paper, scissors, a scanner and a little bit of html (and yes, ingenuity), any number of webtexts can be parodied, critically dissected and argued in a unique way.

This gives me an idea…I could use this as an example of parodying a website and ask students to then create a parody of a site of their choice and write up an analysis.The problem is that to make it look polished and to be functional, you need HTML knowledge. I don’t think any blog is going to let you create something that looks like this or functions in this way–or in any way that would really look good:(


Paul Ford’s, What is Code?

“What Is Code?” exemplifies the best of webtext capabilities by using a range of textual features—linguistic, visual, interactive, collaborative–to enact the argument that it’s important to understand software code.

An assignment might be: create a webtext where you explain how to do something you (and maybe not many others) know how to do.

This is presented in a blog form, as it was published on and is a journalistic writing. Unlike The Data Drive, the formatting of this could be achieved with a blog. However, what is cool about it is all the animations (I think they are animations) that SHOW how what the author is saying is true. Without these multimodal examples, the piece would be dry–and feel incomplete. So this assignment might end up being a bunch of text with a few still pictures, maybe even a video, or through a series of workshops, it could end up working well…



The Memory Palace
This tells stories about family using varying background music and tones of voice that help convey meaning. Just over 9 minutes long. I found it a little hard to follow, but it’s an interesting piece. I was going to do a literacy narrative and confine the assignment in that way, but perhaps no confines (just tell a personal story in blank amount of time) is a better idea. It could be more interesting.

I wonder, though, if telling a personal story really requires writing a personal story (and workshopping and revising that personal story)–and this one assignment could take the whole semester. Maybe it could take 1/3 of the semester, 4 -5 weeks, and then leave another 7 weeks or so for the video I want to include this semester and that I envision as the main assignment. That would leave some time to intro and conclude the course.


Grammar Girl

While these short podcasts normally stream online really easily and effectively, I can’t get them to stream today at VCU or at Panera on their wifi, which sucks by the way. You can listen to them for free on iTunes or…well it just started streaming. Apparently when you go HERE and click play, you just have to wait a couple minutes, like 2-3 to be exact. This link takes you to one of her podcasts on how to include URLs in sentences in print and online.

There are not a of effects in these short podcasts. They begin and end with her theme music (does it change a little depending on topic?) and it fades in and out, but I think listening to her tone and intonation would be worth considering, not to mention the way she speaks so clearly and the pace at which she speaks, etc.

We could also look at the transcript. Students could be required to create a transcript on their blog and consider the way other transcripts of blogs are created. For example, if you look at hers, she breaks it up into sections with headings and includes some images at times, too. Links are correctly embedded, etc.

She has hundreds of thousands of listeners, so she is doing something right.


99% Invisible

This is a podcast that is described in this way:

The very concept of this show is cool. It is exploring “the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world”. The focus is on how design and technology impact the world around us in ways we don’t even really notice. It is beautifully produced and edited, telling compact and complete stories. The website offers interesting supplementary material to the features. If you like Radiolab this is one to check out. Sadly this lovely show is only between 11-25 minutes in length and comes out every two weeks.

These appear to be produced carefully and professionally, with polished background sounds, great fades and excellent sound as a whole during the interviews. The music is also used to segue between parts, not just as background.

  • Frozen Music This is a podcast about music and how the form of music matters and the importance of freezing music on an album. (10 minutes) Good background sound effects and music. 
  • Episode 152: Guerrilla Public Service: This is about people who see mistakes, like on a road sign, and go out and do public service, even when it’s very dangerous. (15 minutes 51 seconds)
  • Episode 131: Genesis Object: This is about how design is the oldest thing on earth and argues that a particular type of ax is the oldest designed object.
    (13 min 42 sec!!!) Really great sound effects especially at start but throughout.
  • The podcast called The Landlords Game is about how creating games is a type of design. Seems to analyze monopoly in an interesting way. Makes an interesting argument.  (Just over 16 minutes)
  • The one called Bone Music is about getting vinyl into the Soviet Union and the demand for Western goods.  (around 16 minutes)
  • **Milk Carton Kids: Has a really engaging beginning. Sound effects are very effective. It’s about a kid who does the paper route and disappears.  (almost 20 minutes)
  • All in Your Head: this is about how horror movies use scary music. Since its thematically relevant to the course, it would be great (but it’s 32 minutes).
    • This could be one that they listen to for homework and respond to on their own in a blog post?
  • Game Over (#153). This one is (only 11 minutes) and it’s about an online version of Simms, the video game, and how it was about socializing rather than competition. But it also tells the story of a depressed guy who got obsessed with the game and freaks out when the site goes offline permanently. To me this seems kind of boring.



  • Update: New Stu
    This is about the first transgender mayor of a town (near Portland). Good sound effects. It’s an interview.  (about 22 minutes)
  • Patient Zero Extra: Ebola (9 minutes and 21 seconds). This is an interview about the ebola outbreak. Tells the history. Unfortunately the only sound other than narrative is at beginning and end, so not a great example of possibilities.
  • The Living Room: This is way too long but in the beginning, we could just listen to two minutes and hear the background music. As they start to tell the story, they use this music that I can only describe as inciting wonder, but the music is a cross between music and sound effects…

MOST of these seem really long, like 30 minutes or way more.


Science Friday

I read that these are 9-12 minutes, which sounds perfect!

Unfortunately, while these are short, they are mostly boring, at least in my opinion. And they don’t have a lot of multimedia, just talking.


Philosophy Bites

I read that these were interesting short podcasts on philosohpical topics explained in layman’s language, but they are just talk, no interesting media.




AD from assignment:

This is a 60 second story that is actually an ad that uses music effectively and some sound effects. Tells story of guy who was homely and compares to olives…

Could start with Unit called Sound as Evidence and focus on how all different types of sound constitute evidence. Then do the same thing with images as we begin the video project in the second half of the semester: images as evidence. There can be a blurb on the syllabus introducing unit 1: 

Unit 1: Sound as Evidence

When we write traditional researched essays, we know that we must find research that will serve as evidence for our thesis. In order to persuade our audience, we use Aristotle’s three primary modes of persuasion when we argue:

  1. Logos: logical appeals (facts, statistics, some examples)
  2. Pathos: emotional appeals (when evidence is used to generate sympathy–perhaps through a moving story or sad facts)
  3. Ethos: appeals that establish credibility (info used to convince the audience that the speaker has the authority to speak on the topic)

In multimodal compositions, we rely on these same three types of appeals, but our evidence is derived through alternate forms of media, such as sound (the focus on unit 1) and imagery (the focus on unit 2). Sound can come in many forms: vocal delivery, music, special effects and silence. 

In unit one, we will focus on sound as evidence. How can music generate pathos? How can an interview establish logos and/or ethos? What is the function of sound effects–a person crying, a door slamming, the sound of the wind, a bleep rather than a curse word, etc.? How does the intonation in our voice, the varying pitches we use when we speak, affect a listener, and what does it tell us about the attitude and emotion of the speaker?


Unit 1 Project: Podcast

In a 4-5 minute sound file made in Audacity. apply what you have learned about using sound as evidence to create your own polished podcast. There are two options for topics:

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. Personal Story

If you choose to share a person story, you will want to feature a slice of life, perhaps just a scene from the story that can stand on it’s own. 

Unit 2: Image as Evidence

In the first unit, we considered how sound can be used as evidence. In unit 2, we will continue to use what we learned in unit 1 but turn our attention to how imagery is a form of evidence. 

Since the turn of the century, images have become far more ubiquitous in our lives, and like it or not, we are all influenced by the images to which we are exposed. Imagery comes in many forms: they can be still (like a screenshot or photograph) moving (like a video), or still with an illusion of movement (commonly referred to as animated). In this unit, we will pay attention to how images are used as a form of evidence (both effectively and ineffectively and ethically and unethically), and we will work to use images (as well as sound) to effectively convey our ideas.

Unit 2 Project: Video

In a 4-6 minute file, apply what you have learned about using images as evidence to create your own polished video. Your topic should be nonfiction: either an exploration of a personal story, an investigation of an important issue, or an argument with a main claim and clear use of appeals. Either way, you should show that you understand the power of imagery and that you can apply what you know through construction of your short. 



Unit 2 Ideas:

TED Talk by Talking Heads Singer about connection between music and architecture. Would be good segue between units since we would look at images but he’s talking about sound.



The school of podcasting (most of this is poorly done)

A Brief History of Sound Design: short article that explains how sounds became important and references Luigi Russolo. He says Russolo

“is generally considered to have invented the use of sounds and noise, rather than music, to enhance the emotional impact of a film or image – effectively, what we now call sound design.”

Read more at pair this with The Art of Noise.  This article might be a bit TOO brief though.

The Art of Noise: Luigi Russolo, who is considered the father of sound, wrote this manifesto to explain how since the industrial revolution, sounds have become ubiquitous in our environments.

I wonder if the band Art of Noise is based off Luigi Russolo’s work???


Re-educating the senses: Multimodal Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Bodily Experiences
This is a peer reviewed article aimed at teachers of composition, but the author makes the argument that listening is not just done through the ears but also through the body and explains how this is true. Would not be something to assign students but might learn some activities from it.

Sound matters: Notes toward the analysis and design of sound in multimodal webtexts by Heidi McKee
This is also written to composition teachers, but it starts with a story and seems like an easier read than the previous article. It also seems a bit more applicable to students.

Journal of Sonic Studies
Intro done in sound

It’s Probably Just Me: The Literacies of Pervasive Sound Narratives, by Elisabeth Evans

Voice, Narrative, Place: Listening to Stories
Sound art is rarely associated with storytelling. While it is widely recognised that sound is deeply connected to narrative and imagery (e.g. Emmerson 1986Wishart 1996), it is sound’s relationship to physical space that often defines this medium. While this aspect of sound is important, I argue that the combination of sound and oral storytelling engages the listener’s imagination with the unseen and indefinable qualities of sound through its invisible dialogue with our mind. In addition, when this combination is applied to specific locations or sites, this listening experience profoundly contributes to our construction of ‘place’.


Sound Design for Media: Introducing Students to Sound
This article is awesome and filled with great lessons to actually use in the classroom. 












3 thoughts on “Ideas for Multimodal Writing Class

  1. I see what you mean about being drawn into the podcasts. I was mesmerized by Radiolab’s “The Living Room.” I’m also struck by how much of the podcast doesn’t include music — just her narration. So when the music comes in, it’s really noticeable. I couldn’t help thinking about how this story would make a good essay — (still thinking about the written word!)
    This is a great way to document your early course thinking / planning. I really love what you have here, and your reflections afterwards.
    If sound is used to create emotion, reinforce emotions like wonder or fear or nostalgia, do we say, then, that the sound serves as “evidence?” Isn’t sound a rhetorical tool, more so than “evidence?” So in the same way writers choose language, or choose to frame a story in a particular way — sound serves as a rhetorical strategy, a personal choice made by the writer/producer in order to have some effect/impact on the audience?

  2. From Heidi McKee
    Sound matters: Notes toward the analysis and design of sound in multimodal webtexts:

    “To work against this tendency toward isolation, film theorist Rick Altman (1992b) proposed the concept of the sound envelope as a way to understand sound-in-relation (p. 18). The sound envelope includes not only the moments when a sound is present but also the moments before and after as well. By situating sound as an event in time, Altman sought to emphasize the temporality and situatedness of sound so as to be able to consider it within a “multidimensional analysis”
    (p. 15).
    I find Altman’s term sound envelope not only helpful for analysis but also for guiding design,providing a language for considering how a sound event might occur in a text and helping to shape the design of that text. Writers of multimodal, aural web works need to consider what readers will see and do prior, during, and after a sound event occurs, and they need to consider the rhetorical effects of the before, during, and after of a sound event. Sound is not something to be added as an afterthought. Sound and all the elements of sound play crucial roles in such important areas as setting the mood, building atmosphere, carrying the narrative, directing attention, and developing themes in multimodal works.”

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