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Coordinator's Corner: Pedagogical Possibilities - What We've Learned from Presenting in Digital Spaces

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By Jennifer Johnson

“Teachers of composition need to pay attention to, and come to value, the multiple ways in which students compose and communicate meaning, the exciting hybrid, multimodal texts they create- in both nondigital and digital environments - to meet their own needs in a changing world...We need to respect the rhetorical sovereignty of young people from different backgrounds, communities, colors, and cultures….”  (Selfe, 2009, p. 642) 

Winter quarter. Week 9. March 6. Friday. 8:23 PM. When we received the news that the last week of the quarter would move on line due to the pandemic, many PWR 2 instructors still had one more day of live in-person presentations of students’ final research projects. The flurry of slightly frantic Friday evening emails and Saturday morning caffeine-filled conversations with PWR 2 colleagues began. We discussed the inevitable shifts we’d need to make––from the modality of presentation to the nature of the Q&A and feedback process. Important for all of us was making sure the student presenters had the opportunity to share the research they had worked so hard on all quarter.

I reached out to my remaining student presenters on Saturday and provided them with various options to adapt their live and in-person presentations to on-line and pre-recorded, highlighting that I understood the constraints presented by the medium and unexpected circumstances. Yet, what I underestimated, in that particular moment, was the rich rhetorical, linguistic and semiotic possibilities of this new digital composing environment, a point that has been well-established in media and composition scholarship. Cynthia Selfe (2009), in her article, The movement of air, the breath of meaning: Aurality and multimodal composing, calls on us to pay attention to “the exciting hybrid, multimodal texts they create- in both nondigital and digital environments - to meet their own needs in a changing world”  (p. 642).  Butler and Gonzales (2020), in their recent piece, Working Toward Social Justice through Multilingualism, Multimodality, and Accessibility in Writing Classrooms, discuss how multimodal composing aids in “working toward accessible pedagogies specifically by recognizing that communicative practices are fluid, emergent, always in flux.” Thus, the modal multiplicity, rich hybridity, non-linearity and semiotic layers of digital environments position students with more communicative tools for meaning making. 

By Monday, just two days later, students refocused their multimodal composing strategies: offering new attention to their (non-live) audience (humor, sound, animation), creatively playing with what the space in the “zoom window” allowed for (depth, virtual backgrounds) and sharper attention to visual rhetoric supporting their argument, as the visuals were now centerstage in a pre-recorded presentation. What was also surprising? Some students in my class reported they had less speech anxiety with pre-recorded presentations, noting that with the agency to choose how and when they crafted their work (and how many times they hit record), they practiced considerably more than with in-person or without a recording requirement. Of course, it goes without saying, but should be said again, that the move online also created unthinkable life disruptions, unfamiliar exhaustion and shifting challenges around access and equity for both students and teachers. The experience in that first week, and over the next year, was different for each of us. 

One year later and still navigating challenges, PWR 2 students continue to expand the rhetorical possibilities, offering a diverse range of impactful multimodal approaches to the oral presentation research: video/image montagevisual and sound design editingvideography, powerpoint slides as zoom virtual background, visual mappingnarrative voice over, and speaker/video splicing . Amazed by the diversity of creative approaches and what we could learn, PWR moved from selecting two winners per quarter for the Lunsford Award for Oral Presentation of Research to recognizing honorees across all PWR 2 courses. The Lunsford Gallery features all the compelling, innovative exemplary work that students have produced since Spring 2020 in their fully online environments. 

The move on-line and continued disruptions to student learning also necessitated a rethinking of digital access issues and broadened our understanding of embodied rhetoric. Building on the work of former PWR 2 course coordinator Cassie Wright’s guidance to pre-record final presentations to provide equitable tech access and in conversation with the spring quarter PWR 2 instructors, Chris Kamrath and I teamed up to think about what pedagogical modifications to the PWR 2 curriculum would allow students to leverage their rhetorical, multimodal and linguistic choices in their oral delivery of research. Chris expressed that we could not, “turn the digital classroom into a facsimile of the physical spaces we usually inhabit”.  In other words, we needed to think about how to best take advantage of the transformed rhetorical situation of speaking online AND address potential issues around digital access. Another way to look at this is that we were now inhabiting students’ digital worlds. Why not embrace this? This sentiment was also echoed by Adam Banks in our professional development week in September, expressing that that as a program we need to “continually evolve our pedagogy to view tech as a site of inquiry as it bears on communication, not just as a site of production.”

The ways our students have transformed how they ask important questions and meaning make with and through tech is also shaped by the ways PWR 2 instructors reimagined accessible oral communication and presentation-focused pedagogy. When I am finally able to teach again in person, for example, I’d like to build in the practice of self-recording in presentation development, after seeing the benefits of self recording in creating lower stakes speaking opportunities and more moments of self-reflection. Also, in the zoom world, I’ve seen how captions/transcriptions of presentations benefit all viewers. As someone who grew up as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) and with the ingrained notion that captions shouldn’t have to be something one needs to ask for or fight for -- rather they should be always available as an access point to communication -- I’m embarrassed to say captioning wasn’t a standard practice or an option for presentations in my in person-classroom. 

I was curious to know what other instructors have learned from the pivot to on-line presenting (and the pre-recorded genre). So, I asked them: What have you learned from teaching PWR 2 online that may reshape you PWR 2 in-person pedagogy, specifically around the presentation process?  A few instructors were kind enough to share their thoughtful reflections and ideas. 

Three themes emerged: presenting online offered a deeper consideration of diverse audiences, formed an opportunity to rethink accessibility through the use of multiple modes and created new possibilities for asynchronous engagement, as a complement to synchronous instruction. 

Broadening notions of audience

Shannon Hervey “Over the last year, teaching PWR 2 online has meant giving more space and energy to conversations pertaining to how audiences engage with media presentations from afar (youtube, instagram, tiktok, news segments, etc.). We've also spent time considering the ways in which the professional sector has increasingly done business online and/or collaborated from afar, using video conferencing/presenting to do so.” 

Eldon Pei “In an increasingly mediated world, the pre-recorded talk or webinar or video blog seems to be a more relevant assignment than the live ODR. I favor preserving this as an option for students after we revert to F2F instruction. Perhaps it’s time to rethink some of the ways we continue to privilege a mystique of ‘presence’. Net net, pre-recorded video could be a more equitable format when teaching students of diverse backgrounds, identities and abilities.”

Rethinking Accessibility

Shannon Hervey “When I go back into the classroom, I think it's important to continue conversations pertaining to rhetorical tools/strategies especially suited to these mediated forms of distance presentation. Something that became especially important this last year is the Universal Design for Learning's philosophy around options for students. (Sidenote: I owe thanks to my colleagues, Jenae Cohn and Lindsey Felt, who did a September Sessions preseentation on UDL.) Giving students options (show your face or don't!; record or do it live!; explore new editing tools or stick with zoom!; etc.) gave students some sense of control/agency over how best to deliver a message via presentation, and this control helped highlight for them that careful decision making is a big part of rhetorical awareness; projects are just richer, and students are invested more when they have some say. When we go back to the classroom, I want to continue offering a multitude of choices for students, especially around presenting.” 

John Peterson: "No doubt, the video format can dull energy in comparison to live, especially for users with little experience who are basically working solo with no one else in the room. But it can be a convenient space for rehearsal, and with rehearsal can come discovery and experimentation. I'm encouraging students to use it as a space for rough drafts, even as a space to compose for transcription onto the page for their written work."

Seeing the value of asynchronous engagement 

Cassie Wright “When moving to online, importing pedagogical commitment to community and trust into Zoom through the use of stable workshop groups (*I call these community of inquiry or COI groups) that met in breakout rooms every week for at least 30m helped establish the groundwork for fruitful and honest conversations about their work; for the presentation, this meant better more constructive live and async feedback using platforms like Harmonize and Box comments to support revision, and this also meant really vibrant and dynamic Q&A sessions about their projects because they were more emotionally and intellectually invested in supporting their group members. When back in person, I will keep using Harmonize as a place to encourage supplemental async feedback that accommodates students' schedules and allows for more flexibility in their workshop and revision timelines.”

Eldon Pei “Producing an initial draft version of the pre-recorded video presentation opened up peer- and instructor-review possibilities that I wouldn’t have thought of had the task remained teaching live ODRs (Oral Delivery of Research). During the week students were working on producing their final versions of the assignment, they were able to use VideoAnt to provide one other feedback and I had the chance to offer them new ideas by spotlighting promising and/or more developed drafts from the other section, thus also creating a bit of cross-section dialogue.”

Sarah Pittock “In my online PWR2 last spring, pre-recorded presentations and asynchronous feedback -- in a google doc -- encouraged more thoughtful and thorough feedback from the whole class. I've always had some students prepare written feedback for each presenter in class (because we don't usually have time for a question or comment from everyone), but moving forward, I think I will continue to ask everyone to write their feedback out for each presenter. For the presenter, all-class feedback makes patterns and outlier comments more visible. The class, meanwhile, is more engaged with all the projects and practices reviewing more rigorously.”

Threaded throughout the instructors takeaways remains the core of PWR pedagogy--- building a supportive and engaging writing and research community, rich with inquiry and collaboration. Whether in digital or non-digital environments, multimodal composing should encourage rhetorical agency and diverse meaning making potential, facilitate accessibility, and both sustain and nurture students’ unique identities as communicators. 

While I can’t wait to return to in-person presentations, lively Q&As and the celebratory Lunsford Award Ceremony in Hume in the spring, I’ve been blown away at how PWR 2 students, oral communication tutors and teachers met this digital moment.  Thinking about what we’ve learned from this is an on-going conversation---one that will likely fundamentally change our pedagogy and how we think about learning and access in years to come.


Gonzales, L. & Butler, J. (2020). "Working toward social justice through multilingualism,multimodality, and accessibility in writing classrooms." Composition Forum, 44.

Selfe, C. L. (2009). "The movement of air, the breath of meaning: Aurality and multimodal composing." College composition and communication, 616-663.

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