27 February 2012

Teaching Multi-Modal Rhetoric in the 21st Century

If you’re a teacher, you might find this interesting. If you’re not, you probably want to skip this one. Below is a (condensed) grant-proposal memo I sent to the composition office in an attempt to get some monies (yes, a variety of them).

I’m afraid I’m not very academic in my writing (which I like to think is a strength, but it may not help me get grant monies). Yes, I was a little playful—do you recognize those headings?

When I finished this, I ran downstairs from the 3rd floor of the JFSB, printed it, and then ran up to the 4th floor, panting, and turned it in to Jennifer with about a minute to spare. Whew.

To: The Selection Committee of the University Writing Office
From: J Washburn
Date: 23 February 2012
Subject: Grant Proposal for Thayer Research Award in Composition

The Pledge

I am pursuing a research project related to the teaching of first-year writing that will culminate in a publishable article (which I’ll explain below). The central purpose of this project is to improve the curricular design of Writing 150. It will also directly benefit the students in my Writing 150 class as well as give me meaningful experience as an instructor. The opportunity to publish the results is valuable as well, both personally and to all the readers it may reach.

The Turn

Ed Catmull, the president of both Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, recently said this of BYU’s animation program: “It’s amazing to suddenly see that BYU is producing the best in the industry. . . . It’s the perception not just at Pixar but also at the other studios that something pretty remarkable is happening here” (Smart). With praise like that, it’s no surprise that in just seven years BYU Animation has earned ten Student Emmy Awards, four of which were for their recent works Pajama Gladiators and Kites. The natural thought then, for an educator, is to wonder what makes the program such a success.

In 2011, my colleague Janeel Juncker, a graduate student in the Instructional Psychology and Technology (IP&T) Department, conducted a study with this very question in mind. She completed a case-study in which she analyzed BYU’s award-winning animation program, and, based on the data obtained in her study, she created an instructional design model that outlines the crucial elements that have made BYU Animation such an astounding success.

The design model centers around two main elements that have added to the program’s success: (1) the team structure and (2) the focus on leadership-building within the curriculum. That is, the animation teams are self governing, with students filling both the management and instructional roles. The teams are also primarily self driven, intrinsically motivated rather than being extrinsically incentivized by the instructor or a specific rubric.

The design model, if effective, will help our class reach these goals while still meeting the department’s requirements for the multi-modal unit. It will also help the students develop leadership skills for the 21st century—which is one of the specific aims of this design model, in addition to helping the students meet their own goals in participating in the project. The results will also help future teachers of Writing 150, and could potentially influence future changes made in the department’s standard curriculum.

The Prestige

While I feel confident in my skills in English, writing, rhetoric, etc., I have definitely felt inadequate in my abilities as an instructor. Knowing the best way to teach any particular unit or assignment has always been a challenge, largely due to my own lack of training and experience as an instructor, and despite my efforts to always  improve. So I was understandably excited when this co-op project came up—eager to get involved and discover, through practice, the benefits of a proven (yet uncommon) method of teaching. It is a golden opportunity for me, and the articles that will come of the research stand to benefit my peers and colleagues in the field.

The project will apply what has been gleaned from BYU Animation in a completely different setting—specifically in BYU’s freshman composition classroom during the multi-modal unit. It will take the virtues learned in the previous study and put them in the grasp of my own students.

There are two important ideals that are used in the BYU Animation model and which I hope to achieve in Writing 150: (1) It will put decisions into the hands of the students, and (2) it will shift the project, to the maximum degree possible, from the “pretend” side of the spectrum to the “practical” side.

I have scheduled a solid four weeks for the multi-modal unit this semester. In following the instructional design model created by Janeel Juncker, the unit will be modified in the following ways:

  • The class will work on a single project as one whole team, rather than as smaller groups of four to five students. In my current class, this means all 18 students will be working on a persuasive multi-modal project together. This offers several advantages. One is that the scale of the project can be bigger, which, again, moves it closer to real-world experience. Another advantage is that it allows students to go deeper into their area of expertise (or an area of expertise they want to cultivate). For example, if a student is interested in learning page layout, she might spend the majority of her time as the design lead and so will be able to invest more completely in that skill, leaving others to work on other areas of the project, like copy editing and proofing. So she will have more work (and gain more experience) in her area of expertise and less in other areas. However, she would still give at least cursory feedback for her peers in other areas.
  • The specific project will be student driven—generated and chosen by the students rather than the professor (including additional leniencies on topic, purpose, audience, etc.). Each student will write a multi-modal proposal that explains the topic, content, medium, necessary parts, and required roles. This creates a real rhetorical situation, where a student is actually trying to convince his or her peers that the project is both viable and interesting. This reality is invaluable. After the instructor verifies that each proposal could become a successful multi-modal project, the proposals will be put before the students for a vote, and the students will actualize the most popular proposal into a real, final product.
  • The project leadership will be filled by students, elected by their peers. First, this means that the instructor will step from the role as lead and shift into a more peripheral facilitative role. Students will be invited to use the instructor as a resource, but they won’t be standing at attention waiting for instructions. This gives them the opportunity to be more proactive. Second, this means that students will elect their own leadership. They will start by voting on a project lead. Third, the project lead will then make assignments (consulting with his or her peers) for other students to shoulder second-tier leadership roles as team leads (which teams may include “writing,” “editing,” “design,” “web,” “advertising,” “financial,” or “publishing”).
  • Students will participate in collaborative “dailies.” These dailies will be held at the beginning of each class period during the multi-modal unit. Students will report to their team leads and then the team leads will report to the project lead. But the discussion won’t be strictly hierarchical. The setting will be a round-table discussion in which students can raise concerns and ask questions of each other. This will increase the sense of empowerment that this model strives to give to students. 
As of today, the students have already submitted a pre-proposal paper, and their ideas are both interesting and exciting. One student suggested (without any coercion from her instructor) that we make a video that teaches rhetoric. If, for example, the students were to vote on that project, they would need teams to write the script, to rehearse the performances, to setup lighting, to film, to edit, and then to upload and make it available on the web (perhaps with an accompanying website to make the material available for reading as well). But this is just one example of the many directions this project might take.

There are a variety of ways in which this project will benefit Writing 150. The model empowers students and allows them to create something on a larger scale. It also lets them personally invest in the project to create something of lasting value to them.

The Budget

The following is a breakdown of how the funds will be spent: [elipses].

Work Cited

Smart, Michael. BYU Center for Animation. Pixar President Praises BYU Animation Program. BYU News. Brigham Young University, 27 Mar 2008. Web. <http://news.byu.edu/archive08-Mar-animationevent.aspx>.


  1. That looks like an excellent proposal. I'm interested to know what you hear back from them!

  2. If you can get freshmen to write like this and actually work with enthusiasm and effort in this model, I want to hear all about it. Or about all the parts that work.

  3. This idea is revolutionary. It will help students to excel and reach greater heights. It cultivates creativity and free enterprise within the academic realm. This type of study and learning will end up producing a superior class of achievement.


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— J