The Dissertation Guide for the MSc in Digital Education requires that I submit a rationale accounting for the presentation of my work in a non-conventional format. Within this, I am asked to outline my intentions with reference to the literature, alongside professional and practical considerations. The response that follows focuses on the themes and issues that have been most significant in shaping the representational form of my work. On the basis that much of my dissertation reflects on discussion surrounding multimodality, within this rationale I have drawn selectively from the literature, thus providing space to include extracts from my own dissertation blog (italicised within this account). My intention has been to offer additional personal insights into multimodal composition.
As a student on the DE programme I have taken the opportunity, wherever possible and appropriate, to present my ideas in digital form. This has included participating in a digital cave painting competition, curating a gallery of digital artefacts, preparing a video essay on the subject of multimodality, and other approaches that might typically be deemed non-conventional in a scholarly setting. The dissertation offered a final chance to throw paint onto a digital canvas and to stand back and admire/delete the results. Furthermore, aware that tutors had rarely (if ever) taken receipt of a multimodal dissertation, I was attracted to the possibility of exploring new representational ground, at least within the context of the DE programme. On the occasions where I have looked beyond a traditional essayistic approach on the DE programme, I have drawn on Kress’s suggestion that decisions surrounding representational form should be informed by what he describes as ‘aptness of mode’:
By drawing on Kress’s concept, I have attempted to align content with form. Thus the multimodal assemblage of image, word and sound within this dissertation is intended to reflect the subject of my research. I have similarly exploited the metaphor of the multimodal constellation (Carpenter 2009, Flewit et al 2009, Merchant 2007) through the soundtrack, selected imagery and, occasionally, within use of text. Although the task of planning and realising the representational form of this dissertation has not always been straightforward, I have never swayed from the belief that an assignment concerned with multimodal assessment should itself be presented in multimodal form. Having been provided with the opportunity and encouragement to present my ideas in digital form, to follow a conventional essayistic approach that privileged text as the sole representational mode would imply a lack of faith in multimodality. Elsewhere within this dissertation I have discussed how institutional validation encourages an experimental approach within assessment – see for instance Lea and Jones (2011) – and that certainly applied within the context of my own dissertation.
As well as experimenting with the modal configuration that would best represent my ideas, I have also reflected on how I might also meet the expectations of the tutors who would be tasked with marking my work (or what Kress (2005) describes as thinking about the audience’s needs). Over-and-above the natural desire to present an assignment of a good standard, I wanted the presentation of the dissertation to be interesting and entertaining. My intention has thus been to compose the dissertation in a way that is simultaneously scholarly and playful (Land 2011, McKenna and McAvinia 2011). Without wanting to alter this rationale into a form of Director’s commentary, at this point it is worth briefly touching on some of devices I have used in attempting to achieve a measure of scholarly playfulness.
The central image (above) and design of the dissertation depict one of the study spaces where I crafted this dissertation. I have attempted to make a number of rhetorical points through the image. Firstly, the resources laid out across my study space comprise a multimodal assemblage of books, music and pictures, thus reflecting the themes of ‘image, word and sound’ that run through my dissertation. At a deeper level, the image is intended to reflect the argument I make within the dissertation that multimodality is concerned with a combination of traditional and emerging communicational forms (see for instance Bezemer and Kress 2008, Jewitt 2006). Each of the graphics in the central image also acts as a signifier for sections of the dissertation: the interview transcript acts as signpost for my discussion of the data, the stack of books denotes my Literature review, and so on.
Also pictured within the image is a CD and a set of earphones, simultaneously representing the aural element of my dissertation and the music that has soundtracked my work on this dissertation. Again, it is my hope that it should be possible to experience this dissertation without the need to consult liner notes, however I will briefly account for the use of sound within the multimodal ensemble. At various stages of my participation in the DE programme I have tentatively explored how musical and scholarly pursuits can sit in complement. As the dissertation unfolded however I questioned whether I had the skills, or the time, to use sound in a rhetorical way. In due course, I reached the conclusion that the digital space of my dissertation would feel aesthetically incomplete without an aural element. The product of some long nights spent in the studio resulted in a series of discreet aural clips that have significance in relation to the textual and visual material they envelop within the multimodal orchestration of my dissertation. Each of the clips is intended to evoke a space-like ambience to extend the wider metaphor of the constellation. A number of tracks also include fragments of sound that relate to the themes explored through text and image against which the ‘music’ is juxtaposed.
Having acknowledged that a multimodal approach created additional rhetorical and time pressures, the question arises of why I chose to create original material rather than interweaving my own ideas with materials hosted on the web (Fitzpatrick 2011). However, presenting this work as a digital mash up or remix (ibid) would reduce my ability to examine the claim in the literature that students are able to employ a range of communicational instruments in the composition of an assignment (see for instance Carpenter 2009, Land 2011). In the absence of any formal artistic or musical training, it has been an interesting exercise to take responsibility for every graphic, photograph and sound clip seen and heard in this dissertation. The way in which the marker reacts to the representational form of my work will, in a way, shed light on the questions I have posed earlier about the technical and rhetorical communicational skills of students in the digital classroom.
Consistent with one of the key arguments I make elsewhere within this dissertation, the representational form of this artefact will re-cast the tutor as a curator rather a marker. The simultaneous communication of ideas through image, text and sound will challenge the tutor to take on a greater interpretive role than would be the case for a monomodal, text-based artefact. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of semiotic resources might prompt the tutor to pause and reflect on the meaning that is created through the particular modal configuration (Jewitt 2006). For instance, time might be spent considering the rhetorical significance of my positioning of text describing the evolution of print, alongside a photograph that depicts a traditional bound text against the background of an iPad. On a more practical level meanwhile, the tutor might reflect on how the employment of meaning-carry graphics, videos and sound files sits in relation to the word limit advertised in the Dissertation guide. How, after all, does one quantify the size of a music clip or image in terms of a word-based measurement?
In light of observations made within the Literature review, I am inclined to think that the tutor might question whether I could have been more ambitious with the structure of my assignment (which adopts an essentially traditional, linear approach). Also, the prominence given to text within my work might encourage the tutor to invoke McKenna and McAvinia’s criticism of work that imposes traditional writing practices on new sites of production (2011). My use of hyperlinks meanwhile - for the most part I have focused on internal linking, or connecting to web-based materials specific to the DE programme – might also be seen as conservative and failing to exploit the potential of the networked artefact.
Rather than offering a response to these questions I will instead conclude this rationale by making the point that I have crafted this dissertation in a way that I felt would best suit the information to be conveyed, whilst seeking to gain the approval and interest of the marker. The preparation of this multimodal dissertation has been about exploring the most appropriate and effective way of communicating my ideas, not about experimenting with the digital form to its own end.
James Lamb, 6 January 2014