by April Conway

WRT 160: Multimodal Composing was developed with a few key goals in mind: 1.) To highlight the multimodal teaching strengths of Sweetland faculty and the multimodal knowledge of students; 2.) To offer a course with a 12 student cap and multiple teacher-student conferences to create an intimately collaborative learning environment; and 3.) To attempt to bridge inequity gaps by offering a Sweetland course that satisfies the first-year writing requirement (FYWR), one that forwards anti-racist pedagogies and inclusive assessment practices.

For the 2022-2023 academic calendar year, section topics include:

  • Deconstructing Travel
  • Artful Politics
  • Little Big World of Zines
  • Adaptations and Transformations
  • Small Wonders
  • Translation and Adapting
  • DIY Writing and Making

What follows is a look at three course sections and how students and instructors engaged with LSA’s FYWR learning goals, the specific goals of the Writing 160 course design, and personal learning and teaching goals within a context of collaboration and discovery.

Little Big World of Zines

In T Hetzel’s syllabus for Little Big World of Zines she writes: “Our making-centered course will include a brief overview into the history of zines and why they matter. We will explore zines from DIY culture, science fiction and punk, and for movements like Riot Grrrl and Black Lives Matter. Then we will build our own zines in a series of experiments, using images, sound, interviewing, drawing (stick figures too!), text, collage and design. Our class will focus on process and reflection, with lots of feedback and revision, as we work toward self-publishing our own class’s zines.”

The creative, intentional, and experimental impact of this course was fully realized. Justin, a business major, said: “To sum up Writing 160, it takes somebody who is willing to be creative and willing to venture out of their safe space. Especially as a Ross student myself, coming from a mathematical and statistical orientation, I would say creativity was hard for me to incorporate, but Writing 160 brought it out of me, which I truly appreciate, and I definitely think I’ll be using it in many other classes I wouldn’t originally correlate to Writing 160. I do appreciate this course and I hope to see more freshmen doing this course.”

WRT 160 Little Big World of Zine student Carolina Janicke’s zine How Did I Get Here, about her photography

Students in T’s course published and shared their zines at their mini zine-con at the end of the semester (pictured above). At the convention, students displayed their zines on tables, one student spun vinyl on her portable player, and attendees were invited to make their own zines with supplied materials. At her table, I asked student Carolina her thoughts on the course, to which she replied: “I think Writing 160 is a really fun and interesting class. You learn a lot about yourself and it’s pretty open to doing whatever that you want creatively. And you can put anything that you want out on the table and you learn more about yourself and your classmates.”

Small Wonders

Investigations of the self and peers, and of new skills (like creativity), big questions, and topics (e.g., zines and, wait for it, entomology) are fundamental features of Writing 160. In Small Wonders, instructor Cat Cassel led her students into the world of bugs by “investigating these small wonders as both embodied material beings and as rich symbolic figures, in an abundance of different mediums and modes, like zines, podcasts, memes, analytical writing, infographics, and more!” The unique subject of Cat’s class, plus the opportunities to explore and express ideas through multiple means of communication, allowed students to tackle subjects that were previously unknown or uncomfortable to engage with.

For instance, in her end-of term reflection, Small Wonders student Callie wrote: "At the beginning of the semester, I was quite anxious to write about taboo topics such as sex or murder. Now, my last few projects have been about both, displaying my growth as both a person and a writer." FYWR courses are important initial contact points for freshmen or transfer students as they begin their college careers at the University of Michigan. Exploring the literary, scientific, and otherwise evocative nature and possibilities of bugs within the context of Writing 160 offered students like Callie a supportive learning environment in which to investigate topics (e.g., “sex and murder”) they will encounter throughout their lives.

Writing 160 courses engage with the FYWR Learning Goals in numerous ways. For example, the goal that states a student should “Improve your ability to analyze critically a wide range of texts in more than one genre and medium, such as traditional print essays, images, videos, and performances, paying close attention to the complex features of various genres and media'' emerged in the Small Wonders end-of-term reflections. Student Ally wrote: “The podcast (she created) was inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s The Snail Watcher. Interested in dissecting Mr. Knoppert’s obsession with his snails, I tried to exhibit his personality through a conversation with another person that could be reflective of you or me. The zine, on the other hand, blossomed from the multitude of information we can learn from ants. I wanted to synthesize bugs with my interest in technology, and found ant colony optimization a fascinating subject. With a zine, I was able to visually and simply explain a topic that could be complex. From feedback, I learned a lot about incorporating visuals and making the zine easier to read.” This snapshot of a student’s self-assessment shows she was able “to analyze critically a wide range of texts” both as a consumer and maker of such texts across genres and mediums.

To culminate the Small Wonders course, Cat designed “Bug Jeopardy” by using a digital platform that mimics the gameshow and that gave students the opportunity to have fun while critically engaging in the topic of bugs for–what may be for some students–a final time. Furthermore, a low-stakes assessment such as Jeopardy is not only engaging, it demonstrates how Writing 160 instructors are just as deft with multimodal composing as their students.

Bug Jeopardy. One student claimed a 80% successful sweep across categories.
Bug Jeopardy category “In the News.” In case you don’t know the answer, it is “What is the murder hornet?”

Deconstructing Travel

In Deconstructing Travel, instructor Allie Piippo posed the following questions to her students: “What does it mean to travel? Is a traveler the same as a tourist? Is a migrant, immigrant, or refugee a ‘traveler’? Is study abroad ‘travel’? Is it responsible to travel in the face of a global pandemic, climate change, and increasing economic inequity? Do the benefits of travel outweigh its negative impacts?” Questions like these suggest not only the need for critical thinking, but also the need for a classroom community where students are open to each other, to ideas, and to the pedagogy the instructor designs for and along with them.

Such indicators of a classroom community are apparent in the informal, anonymous mid-term check-in poll Allie sent to her students, including the select few quotes below in response to the prompt “My favorite part about the class (so far) is”:

"Our ability to have open conversations and have great chats with each other."
"Having engaging class discussions, the teacher, peer reviews."
"The environment. We have a really good class so I feel comfortable sharing my opinions, questions, responses, etc."
"The interactive aspect of having a small class."

Deconstructing Travel students (L to R): Riley Huhta, Gabby Avitia, and Lucy Gold working on their final group project.
Deconstructing Travel student Lucy Gold’s elevator selfie with her WRT 160 classmates.

To conclude 
In Writing 160, multimodality ranges in practice as students read and analyze multimodal mentor texts in conjunction with producing their own texts across different media, modes, and means of composing. Faculty use their experiences with anti-racist teaching to inform their pedagogies while continuing to raise anti-racist questions and discuss anti-racist praxes as and after we teach our sections. Each faculty member engages with their own alternative assessment approach, from engagement syllabi to a hybrid version of contract grading, from Bug Jeopardy to a zine-con, all in the effort to support our students.

Artful Politics Class Selfie