Mind Expanders and Multimodal Students

Despite recurring concerns that smart phones and internet search engines like Google are limiting our capacity to think, Ray Kurzweil, author of How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, argues that such technologies allow us to “outsource” some of the brain’s work to machines. Just as humans once discovered that a stick could be used to reach something beyond the grasp of the hand, Kurzweil claims that computers function as “mind expanders,” increasing our capacity to think. Similarly, I have come to view social media not simply as a shiny new toy I can dangle in front of my media studies students, but as mind expanders — the “stick” that enables them to reach connections and conclusions that were previously unavailable. 

I require my students to respond to one discussion prompt on their class blog each week, addressing some aspect of the films we are watching. Though my students fret over the prospect of writing even very short papers, they rarely complain about blogging. Their posts are highly focused, detail-oriented, and, very often, almost as long as (and more eloquent than) the short papers I assign. My guess is that the expansion of blog culture and social media has altered the way people, particularly Millennials, view the labor of writing. If you want your point to be understood online, you must be able to write clearly, and with a specific argument in mind, or else your ideas will be lost (or misrepresented). Writing a blog post is not tedious — it’s the primary method of communication on the internet. The class blogs have also had a noticeable impact on the quality and thoughtfulness of our film discussions. Even my quietest students will speak when I ask them a direct question about ideas they have already presented publicly on the blog. Students also frequently reference what they wrote as they talk in class, which serves as a critical baseline from which they can move forward on to more complex ideas.

This semester I also experimented with Twitter in the classroom. Using a course hashtag, students were required to compose 3 tweets per week based on their assigned readings. My goal was to encourage students to read (and read on time) by making them publicly accountable for course labor that usually remains undocumented. Overall, I noticed an increased engagement in class conversations about reading assignments this semester and, when I surveyed them anonymously, all 30 students said that composing tweets about what they read made them read more carefully and with greater understanding at least some of the time. Their anonymous reflections on the class blogs yielded a similar result — on the whole, blogging facilitated a better understanding of the week’s film and made them more likely to participate in class discussions. Thus, what I like about these digital tools is that they don’t replace our face-to-face meetings, they enhance and invigorate them.

Tara McPherson argues that the digital humanities is producing a new breed of humanist: the multimodal scholar. Multimodal scholars believe that “hands-on engagement with digital forms reorients the scholarly imagination” and “understand their arguments and their objects of study differently, even better, when they approach them through multiple modalities and emergent and interconnected forms of literacy” (120). Thus for me the intersection of digital humanities and media studies lies in the creation of, to borrow McPherson’s term, “multimodal students,” who use digital learning tools like class blogs and Twitter feeds to better study the media that surrounds them.

Works Cited

McPherson, Tara. "Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities." Cinema Journal 48.2 (2009): 119-123.


Thanks Amanda, this is a great post, and a really important contribution to this larger conversation.  I've been in a postdoc for the last two years in which one of my primary jobs is to encourage and support faculty who are looking to develop technology-enhanced pedagogies and assignments.  Often, I've found that getting faculty to see their students as "multimodal scholars" is a much easier sell than getting them to think of themselves in these terms (Millennials, "digital natives" and all).  But it's an important step, and often one that opens their eyes to how technology might enhance their own research and scholarly communication. 

I think it's also important for us to share these assignments (both how we've designed and refined them) and openly discuss what works and what doesn't.  Even in this brief post, I love that you gave a sense of the guidelines for the class' twitter requirement and some of the results.  This will help both those of us who are already trying to develop "multimodal students," and serve as incentive and support for those faculty who are reluctant to jump into the social media fray.

Amanda, I appreciate your thoughtful use of new media in your film classes, and I agree with Suzanne regarding the importance of sharing how we are successfully (or not) incorporating social media in our classrooms in ways that facilitate course learning objectives. Blogs are, indeed, an interesting medium and quite useful, as you indicate, in encouraging students to think about the “labor of writing” because rhetorically speaking, when students compose in the public space of the blog, they no longer write solely for the instructor or a contrived audience. Although writing cogently when communicating a message is necessary regardless of medium, requiring students to maintain an academic blog for the purposes of a particular course(s) creates new opportunities for them to develop a rhetorical awareness of composing in a public context and for a public audience. For this reason, I really like the idea of requiring students to use WordPress or Tumblr or whatever as opposed to Blackboard, which students recognize as the closed LMS that it is.

I have one last comment I would like to make concerning the use of the term “multimodal” when referring to blogs and Twitter, a comment that may highlight my own pedantry when it comes to terminology, but also reflects a sincere curiosity regarding how my colleagues define and use this term. Earlier I refer to different mediums for composing; for example, I would consider blogs and Twitter to be digital mediums just as the printed page is another medium. However, when I think of multimodality, I think of meaning making through multiple modes of communication, for example, the visual, linguistic, and aural, and I think of the blog as a medium with affordances that allow for multimodal composing (however, as I write this, I am also reminded of arguments that assert that even the printed page is multimodal when one considers, for example, the visual design/layout of what is otherwise a linguistic-based text...). I guess I’m wondering if within the broader scope of digital humanities whether or not the term “multimodal” is shifting to encompass both the mode and the medium depending on the context of the discussion in which it is being used. 

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.