Kress, Gunther R., and Leeuwen Theo Van. Multimodal Discourse: the Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold, 2001. Print.
In Multimodal Discourse, Kress and Van Leeuwen focus on four main concepts: discourse, design, production, and distribution. In doing so, they make the case that a multiomodal discourse is a reality, whether society recognizes it or not. As they explain in the preface “People make use of semiotic resources to make signs in concrete social contexts” and communicate through nearly everything we do, all of which can be considered a composition of some sort, all of which carries the ability to make meaning, whether it is purposeful or not. The dominance of monomodal communication is shifting, and most likely, ten years after the publication of this text, the shift must be even more significant. Because of technological advancements, a single person can do what used to take multiple experts to accomplish, in the development of a multimodal text. So a single person is most likely making decisions about discourse (socially situated knowledge) (20), design (means to realize discourse within a specific rhetorical situation) (5), production (the actual material articulation of the semiotic event) (6), and distribution (facilitating the preservation and distribution of the artifact) (7). Because multimodality is all around us, the awareness of this form of discourse is necessary for society to recognize the impact of everything they develop (or even consume) — everything is communicating a message to a known, or unknown, audience. Multimodal Discourse offers an avenue to better understanding the shift from monomodality to multimodality in the both the commonplace and in discourse-community-specific communications.
A significant concern that I have about the way writing is taught by many at my current institution is that the teaching methods make writing, or composition, seem irrelevant to college students’ lives. There is a massive separation between the kinds of writing that students compose for their FYC courses (often unimaginative, formulaic, and disconnected from what students are interested in) and the writing that they do outside of their school lives (and yes, students write a lot — and they compose even more). The relevance of the writing they do, and how students are taught to think about writing (as template – one size fits all) makes the disconnect between school-writing, or more specifically FYC writing, and their outside-world writing even starker. But that’s where Kress and Van Leeuwen come to the rescue. The ideas of rhetoric, rhetorical situation and even communication, more broadly, have never been more intwined with students’ “real-world” lives. Students are exposed to multimodal compositions EVERYWHERE.
So there is no sort of composition that is more relevant than multimodal composition, which carries the same concepts as ‘writing,’ within a FYC course, but connects even more directly with students’ lives. These sorts of projects can be the link between what students view as ‘artificial’ writing done for FYC, as opposed to the communicating they do outside of class, that they don’t even recognize as actual writing.
Kress and Van Leeuwen stress four concepts throughout Multimodal Composition: discourse, design, production and distribution. Most interesting to me, regarding these four concepts, is how these terms are not really key considerations in a FYC course. These concepts do show up in these classes, but these concepts are not core components, directly identified in the outcomes of such courses. Again, the monomodal focus of FYC pops up here, with design not really being a component of a ‘writing’ class – for really, what is there to design? A writer develops paragraphs, and MLA style dictates the ‘look’ of the essay. The idea of ‘production’ has certainly changed over the years, but mainly just by technology — pencil gave way to pen which gave way to typewriter which gave way to word processor which gave way to computer (which is giving way to smaller computer-like devices). These technologies allow a writer to produce writing, which is then distributed to a teacher — or maybe some sort of outside audience, but rarely is writing that is developed within a classroom distributed to outside readers. But even though ‘production’ technology has changed, what instructors are asking students to produce hasn’t changed much at all, in nearly 100 years. How can this be?
Kress and Van Leeuwen allow the reader to make a significant leap in understanding what ‘composition’ can be, how it can look, and exactly how intwined it is in our everyday lives. Whether it be the discussion of furniture catalogs, and how those catalogs impact the actions that people take in designing their own homes to the development of video, and how the act of producing video once involved many experts, but can now be accomplished by just one person — the fact is that composing has changed, a lot. And our view of what we see as composition has to change as well. Van Leeuwen and Kress explain that “Multimodal composition is moving to the centre of practical communicative action” (45). For educators, this is great. We can look everywhere and see composition — no longer can students think that the composing they do in school has no relation to what they do/will do in the outside world. In fact, the composing they will do in school will directly impact the work they will create and the work(s) they will consume. If we are able to help students to understand the concepts they are exposed to in a FYC course and the principles of composition, students will leave the university as wiser, more critical consumers of the various “texts” they will be exposed to in all that they do. The importance of this is HUGE – for if monomodality was once dominant, its dominance is waning. Multimodality will be something that our students need to understand how to create and how to evaluate.
This shift can be witnessed, easily, in something that all students and teachers are familiar with. Kress and Van Leeuwen point out the changes in textbooks that has occurred over the past 30-50 years. Whereas in the 1960s, all textbooks would have been primarily text-based, with few, if any visual aids, almost all textbooks today are full of graphics, images, maps, etc, allowing the image to do the work that text once tried to do. Including a few images can allow an author to make a specific point more directly, and easily, for text is limited to the reader’s ability to see what the author explains. However, with an image, the reader is visualizing exactly what the author is — the image will have far greater impact than the paragraph or two that the author would have developed to try to get the same point across. Composition is routinely blending modes, allowing composers more leeway in terms of what modalities they choose to utilize, which truly reflects a solid understanding of the rhetorical situation. These textbooks that we use in our classes reflect the shift that should be happening within composition classrooms themselves. Not only are these textbooks including more visual within their covers, but they are also moving beyond their covers to creating online, multimedia components that allow their texts to exist beyond words and pictures alone. These components involve multimedia, audio, video, text and image, too. Textbook publishers are adapting to a changing world, where consumers expect a variety of ways into the message of the text. If FYC instruction truly functioned to inform students of the complexity of writing and the methods that compositionists meet the needs of their rhetorical situations, Kress and Van Leeuwen, through Multimodal Discourse, just strengthened my belief in the importance of multimodal projects within the first-year composition curriculum.