Mapping Our Digital Enclosures

Multimodal Assignments in the Time of COVID-19

by Thomas Watters

As a composition instructor concerned with how students make meaning across a variety of technologies, I’m seeking to leverage my students’ increasingly enforced engagement with digital platforms during this unusual time to develop a sense of how “composition” can be conceptualized alongside more traditionally, essay-based course assignments. This is why I am invested in implementing a version of the relatively popular (at Baruch) multimodal or multi-media Re/Mix or Remediation assignment in my current 2150 course.

The evidence is inescapable that all of us—instructors and students—have been measurably more engaged (much more, in fact) with screens and digital media during the COVID-19 lockdown. Whether enforced through the mode of Zoom and lack of access to physically-based resources (like libraries) or merely a lockdown-induced magnification of existing trends, our increasingly online realities also represent an opportunity to engage with students on the terrain they already inhabit by virtue of generational trends.

I remember a time when old-school professors balked at even the idea that students might consult Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for serious research – now I know many academics who admit to beginning cursory research there as a matter of course. The initial resistance to Wikipedia as a serious knowledge venue is especially interesting because it was a crowd-sourced, radically democratic platform, where anyone was entitled to apply to a particular sub-“wiki” as an editor, and debate with other “editors” about a particular page’s content, much as we would like to encourage our own students to imagine themselves as active editors/critics of the content they encounter every day.

In the same way that Wikipedia’s editorial and reference hyperlinks mirror and replicate certain forms of more institutional academic citation and peer-review, the algorithms that drive short video platforms like YouTube and TikTok are opportunities for instructors to frame how online social media platforms replicate (and often distort) the path of knowledge acquisitions that academia tries to instantiate through citations, references, bibliographies, and acknowledgments.

YouTube, in fact, has emerged as a crucial site of knowledge production that academics and college instructors ignore at their peril; in a recent survey split among three CUNY composition courses I was teaching, nearly 50% of students listed YouTube as a primary resource they consult for information about a wide range of topics: political news and guidance; moral and behavioral advice; how-to or DIY or self-improvement videos; even summaries of intellectual trends and college-level material or lectures they are using to supplement, fill gaps, or suggest research directions in their own CUNY courses.

I strongly believe that to dismiss engagement with these platforms – rather than preparing our students to be active and critical participants in them – does a disservice to our responsibility as professors seeking to equip students with the tools necessary to grapple with such a kaleidoscopic multiplicity of media bombardment. 

The Re/Mix or Remediation project is a popular assignment sequence among Baruch’s First-Year Writing faculty. While its implementation naturally differs from instructor to instructor, there are some commonalities:

  • Utilization of media other than or in addition to the written word 
  • A range of formats that reflect media our students are likely to encounter in their online lives (short informational, musical, or rhetorical YouTube/TikTok/Vine videos; various photo/video/meme platforms such as Instagram)
  • An encouragement to consider non-academic forms of media/internet discourse as pedagogically and rhetorically valid; and
  • A recognition on the part of students that almost all of them are producers as well as consumers of this media discourse, merely by virtue of engaging with their online realities

Examples or templates I intend to share with my students:

Since this is the first time I’ll be formally assigning this project, I have dedicated two class sessions as “Re/Mix, Remediation workshops” (May 11th and May 13th) in the run up to the assignment’s due date during Finals week. In the first workshop, I’ll be introducing the general concept of the Re/Mix assignment via the above examples. The second part of that class session will consist of targeted survey questions for breakout groups intended to solicit other ideas for digital “interventions” in a student’s research topic. While I suspect that most students will suggest Re/Mixes or Re/Mediations such as informational YouTube videos and montages (the “research essay as music video”) I look forward to some surprising results from these breakouts.

Some questions I intend to include in the class survey for May 11th:

  • Where do you go online for information, opinion, or guidance when you have a question or issue that’s bothering you or which you are interested in?
  • What makes you decide to follow a particular page, stream, account, or blog once you’ve initially discovered it? What makes a particular online source worth going back to or worth consistently checking?
  • When have you found an online resource more informative, accessible, or stimulating than a class lecture or discussion on the same topic? Why?
  • When has an online resource (be it a YouTube video, an Instagram account’s posts, or a TikTok video, et al) ever changed your opinion or influenced your perspective on an issue or topic? In what way or style did it do so? Can you identify why it could have been more influential than simply reading a news article or essay about the same topic?

For the second “workshop,” I will ask several students (based on breakout room results from the first workshop) to share with us examples from their own online media consumption that resemble something close to what they have in mind. We’ll take this opportunity to address technical concerns for less digitally-savvy students (and no doubt the instructor will learn something in the process!).

Because this is a capstone assignment that I haven’t explained in much detail to the students thus far this semester, I am keeping in mind that some students without much digital content creation experience may feel overwhelmed by the options at hand. I am considering a sort of safe “off ramp” form of the assignment, such as a PowerPoint or “digital poster” presentation as an option for those students, as much as the assignment itself is trying to move beyond that familiar format. This may prove unnecessary, if in fact I’m underestimating my students’ content creation experience, but I think it’s important to keep these “off ramps” on the table for students who may not conform to our assumptions of being “digital natives” by mere virtue of their generational position, or perhaps more importantly for CUNY students, by their access (or lack thereof) to the technologies and digital competence that stems from such access.

With these caveats in mind, I’m looking forward to piloting this assignment sequence and building upon the lessons I learn through it in subsequent semesters. I would encourage any instructors reading this who are interested in collaborating in ongoing efforts to build both an archive of student work on such Re/Mix assignments – as well as resources or guides for instructor’s instituting such assignments – to reach out to me. If there’s anything I’ve learned in this “very online” era, it’s that one of the least alienating implementations of the online tools we are forced to employ is sharing experiences and knowledge with the goal of augmenting and enlarging our own collective knowledge.

Thomas Watters is a writer, adjunct lecturer, and union activist at Brooklyn College and Baruch College at the City University of New York. He is a published fiction writer and essayist. His latest work appears in Spectre: A Marxist Journal.