Reflections in Multimodal Teaching

Reflections in Multimodal Teaching

My course begins today with the sound of Run, Run, Mourner Run by Sweet Honey In The Rock, one of a series of songs about five minutes long that daily not only welcomes students into the space but also countdowns the beginning of class. On the smart screen at the front of the room is the first slide in my deck, a quote by Jamie Redford: “New ideas and information alone are not enough to change things. They need to become stories that touch the human heart.” It floats atop a photograph I took this summer of banners in El Museo del Oro in Bogotá, faces representing the Colombian population.

Kathleen Tarr's course image

Once the music stops, the students stand almost automatically, ready for our warm up: folding of the spine, hanging the torso to the ground without competing against self or others in flexibility, then standing up one vertebrae at a time with the head rising last; then students shake their jaws, loosening up their facial muscles as much as possible; next, power posing, even though Amy Cuddy’s research has in large part been debunked … but students know it has and pose because of how it makes them feel, not because they seek an actual chemical reaction; finally, today’s tongue twister, one most people know well – she sells sea shells by the sea shore. Actually, last in this warm up is my call Rebels! What is your profession?! and students’ guttural response Ah OO ah OO! Adapted from the movie 300 when King Leonidas meets Daxos and the other Arcadians, the response intentionally has no words. After all, this course is A Rebel With A Cause: The Rhetoric of Giving a Damn, and I mean for my students to embody their rebellion, to feel it, to be it, and sense less the urge to name it.

We move on to The Circle of Disputation, a tool I developed based upon a Model of Argumentation developed by Stephen Toulmin in 1958. The goal is to mark the center of the circle with the Claim – otherwise known as thesis – and surround it with Reasons that the Claim is true, backing the Reasons with Evidence and justifying why the Reasons and Evidence Warrant the Claim. Each slice of the Disputation pie draws closer to center with each step, now also including Counterarguments (from the perspective of a reasonable skeptic, not a devil’s advocate), and Responses to those Counterarguments. This review is followed by theory practice. We watch Paolo Cardini’s Forget multitasking, try monotasking, not only because it’s a short Ted Talk presented by someone with a significant accent that does not deter its persuasiveness but also because I would like students to consider minimizing their own attempts at supertasking. We don’t discuss either aspect. Instead, students work toward agreement about what Cardini’s Claim actually is and then delineate his Reasons, Evidence, Warrants, Counters, and Responses . We discuss how the Circle can be used to reverse engineer an argument, illuminate possible transitions between Reasons, identify gaps in Evidence , and craft an outline. … and yes, the work is captured on whiteboards with multicolored markers.

Next, we revisit Jamie Redford’s quote, reprinted onscreen, and add a discussion about George Lakoff’s assertion that we think in metaphors (similes, too: argument is as a Circle). Darren Tay Wen Jie helps us explore the idea further with his award-winning Toastmaster’s presentation and his riveting introduction to the topic of self-bullying that starts with him putting on a pair of briefs over his slacks. Students search their own caches of metaphors for one that captures the heart of the argument they will be making in the written and oral delivery assignments, the story that will capture their audience’s emotions and prime the claim that follows. They bounce their ideas off each other after I call back a previous assignment – the first of the course, in fact – during which they walked the Labyrinth at Windhover contemplating the world they wish to see and answered one of the follow-up questions, “In your vision, does the world feed everyone?” Today, “What did ‘world’ mean to you? For what did it serve as metaphor?” For some, government. For others, earth itself. For one, humanity. A student tries to argue that his interpretation is the correct one because of what he believes the word “feed” means, but other students are quick to counter. The Circle in action.

After a five minute break to the music of Stevie Wonder – I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It – with a .gif meme on deck of a cat fitted in scuba gear who acquiesced to swimming with an eccentric guardian – “I’m getting real tired of your shit, human.” – students regroup to create collages, an activity adapted from David Silverman’s visual arts workshop. We first talk about the Journal of Neuroscience’s Cover Art description for authors revising and finalizing their manuscripts. We then incorporate Visual Thinking Strategies into our discussion of Pittsburgh Memory, the 1964 Romare Bearden collage of printed papers with graphite on cardboard. “I notice….” “I wonder….” Students then disperse throughout the room to tables that provide colored pencils, canvas panels, glue sticks, scissors, and magazines. During a half an hour scored by nonstop Bhangra music, they make collages reflecting their topics. Class ends with a brief walking art gallery: students hold their creations in front of them and move about the room discussing each other’s work. With a quick reminder about homework and what we’ll be doing next class, I bid them adieu and a great weekend, happy to hear “Thank you!” as they depart and conversations about how quickly this two hour class goes by, how it’s their favorite class this quarter, how much they look forward to coming to PWR 2, and the challenges and excitement of their research.

It is this reception of learning that guides my multimodality. In considering how I might motivate students to invest in and further develop their argumentative writing and oral delivery, I choose, e.g., to begin classes with music. The idea of soundtracking presentations is fairly uncommon in public speaking instruction, but when it is time to push their creativity later in the quarter, students are experientially aware of the extent to which different music impacts mood, how melody can be used – even in spoken voice – to shape audience reception. The various musical artists and genres further support students’ self-confidence as well as appreciation of difference. Spanning multiple languages – Arabic, Spanish, Urdu, Xhosa, Diné Bizaad, and English – and including rock ‘n’ roll, opera, jazz, hip hop, folk, and more, the musical selections suggest students who identify with the represented cultures and even simply the notion of diversity itself are welcome and celebrated in this space. While all videos highlighted are in English, not every spokesperson showcased is a native English speaker. They are also diverse in age, gender, race, ethnicity, physical ability, and sexual orientation and identity. The speakers students experience in the course are not only skilled at oral delivery; like the music, they also reinforce self-worth. The goal is not for me to come across as unbiased; the goal is to help all students feel well received and valuable in the world.

My efforts in multimodality also simply consider how the brain receives and assimilates information, relying on research but in large part knowing that I myself cross-file information by various senses. As such, I incorporate still, moving, and student authored images as well as multiple colors to distinguish types of activities, due dates, and ideas, a habit a former student with synesthesia once remarked was incredibly helpful for her as she sees letters and words in colors. The practice also once alerted a student in his sophomore year to the fact that he was colorblind.

My methods may not line the best path toward students articulating exactly what they have learned in my courses, but these techniques seem to be the best way I am able to embed the intended skills in order that they are called back during the many years students have in front of them, not forgotten once the final assignment is complete.

Ah OO!