Multimodality in the Oral Communication Course

photo credit: laffy4k via photopin cc
photo credit: laffy4k via photopin cc

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading, reflecting on, and considering my own stance on the arguments presented by Jody Shipka in her recent book Toward a Composition Made Whole. Shipka, it seems to me, is making three main arguments:

  • that we should broaden and re-consider what we mean by the term multimodal
  • that multimodal compositions require and engage the same kinds of thinking, reading, and composing skills and habits that more traditionally “academic” compositions do
  • not that we should completely replace traditional academic compositions with multimodal, multi-genre compositions, but that we should view them as additional (and equally viable and valuable) options and methods for engaging in semiotic, sociocultural, and sociorhetorical environments

Shipka is not the first to make these arguments, but she is certainly doing it in a new and thought-provoking way, especially within the context of student autonomy, as her version of the multimodal composition presents an open-ended task to the student, requiring the student to determine how the task will be completed, with what materials, and in which modes/genres/mediums/contexts.

While Shipka’s theories are focused on FYC and other writing-based courses, I would argue that they have equally revolutionary applications for oral communication courses. Too often, teachers of these courses take the course’s title far too literally, dedicating little to no time to discussions of classical rhetorical theories (which were originally developed as oral communication strategies but have since become subsumed within written communication courses, if they are taught at all) or the impact and influence of visual rhetoric or design principles. We might dedicate a class session to covering the do’s and don’ts of PowerPoint and some tips on how to effectively integrate props and other miscellaneous visual aides, but our focus is almost universally on the oral presentation of ideas (with some discussion of gestures, facial expressions, and vocalization thrown in for good measure). Just as composition courses have tended to ignore the various non-textual communicative methods and practices involved in the act of writing, oral communication courses have tended to ignore the various non-oral communicative methods and practices that can be involved in and combined with a verbally-centered interchange.

This, I believe, is a mistake. In isolating verbal communication from all other forms, we are presenting a false dichotomy to our oral communication students: that while an ambitious or creative speaker may include a slideshow or prop, at its most basic the act of communicating verbally is an isolated (and isolating) event, devoid of and separate from other communicative and compositional acts/purposes/modes/genres/mediums/contexts. The image of the lone speaker standing upon a stage, pontificating to a hushed and attentive audience is a myth that no longer serves the oral communication course. Yes, TEDTalks is popular (for good reason) and Steve Jobs could captivate the rapt and breathless masses as they waited to hear the next big idea from Apple (and he’s an excellent model to present to students). But these are unlikely to be the contexts within which our students (will) need to engage in oral performances. Rather, we should focus on helping students integrate verbal communication into other performative environments, many of which are not necessarily orally focused.

For the past few semesters, I have slowly integrated a project into my oral communication class that requires students to do just that. It began as a Public Service Announcement that is the culminating project in the class. Over the past few semesters, the project has become the main focus of the class for various reasons. For one, it is a complex and time-consuming project that I realized could not be effectively completed in one to two weeks, which was the time I had originally allotted for students to complete and present their PSA. Secondly, it immediately became the most popular assignment in the class and students would often ask for more time so that they could do a better job of designing and executing their PSA. And lastly, but certainly not least, I found that the assignment required that students not only apply all of the oral communication skills they had been practicing all term, but that they combine these skills with other communicative skills such as audiovisual composition, writing, and graphic design.

This semester, I expanded the project from simply creating a PSA to developing and performing a public service campaign, which required even more time but was well worth the effort. For their first formal speech, students gave an informative speech on a problem or issue that they felt should be addressed by the university community. While this speech was strictly informative, the purpose of their next speech was a call for action, as students presented a proposed action that the university community could take to address the problem/issue. These two speeches functioned to create a large pool of issues that could be addressed in the public service campaigns and some initial ideas regarding methods for doing so. At this point, I introduced the public service campaign project and informed students that they would be working on teams but that they would be responsible for selecting their team mates. For their next formal performance, students gave a presentation highlighting what skill(s) they had to offer their team in completing the campaign. Students used these presentations to create a shortlist of possible team mates and then created a set of interview questions that they could use to select their final five choices. After interviewing their shortlisted classmates, students gave me a list of their top five picks and I created teams of 3-4 students.

Once the teams were created, the students were in complete charge of the project. There were three open-ended steps to the campaign:

  1. Raise awareness (create a PSA to raise awareness of the problem/issue)
  2. Get the word out (publish and publicize the PSA)
  3. Make it happen (organize an opportunity for the community to act on the problem/issue)

How each group chose to accomplish these three tasks was completely up to them and, while I gave students a list of creative tools and softwares that they could use, I insisted that the entire campaign be developed, designed, and delivered by the students and that any problems that arose during the process were to be solved by the team.

As Shipka points out, “Students who are called upon to choose between, and later to order, align, and transform the various resources they chose to employ tend to work in ways that more closely resemble how choreographers or engineers work” (102). In the final oral performance in the class, each team of students had to present a process analysis of their campaign, explaining how they decided on the issue they would address, how and why they chose the complete each step of the campaign as they did, and what the final result was. What emerged as this particular class of students performed their final presentations were the intricate orchestrations that went into completing the campaigns and the intense engagement that the students felt with the tasks involved in the campaigns (and, often, with one another). Some teams organized actions that require continuous involvement on their part beyond the current term (such as those groups who chose to create a student organization and a support group) or dedicated themselves to participating in events that will happen after the class has ended (such as the group that will help out at a scheduled texting and driving simulation). More practically, each team synthesized various communicative practices, genres, mediums, and contexts in order to realize their purpose in highly effective ways.

Fiction and Facebook

One group decided to address the high levels of stress that a large majority of college students experience. They chose to write two intertwined fictional stories (each written by two different members of the team), depicting the impact of stress on the lives of two college students and the results of the choices they make regarding how they deal with this stress. To publicize and create a forum for publishing their stories, the team created a Facebook page dedicated to informing college students about stress and offering various resources for coping with stress and getting help with doing so. They plan to publish excerpts of each story, allowing the stories of the two students to unfold through successive posts to the wall of the Facebook page. The team plans to maintain the page and offer help and feedback to those students who post about their experiences.

Taking a JAB at bullying

Another group chose to focus on bullying, creating a new student organization called JAB (JSU Against Bullying). Creating the organization required talking with university staff members in Student Affairs, persuading a certain number of students to demonstrate interest in the organization, and completing appropriate paperwork to get the club recognized by the university. In the future, the team plans to hold interest meetings and promote the new organization via various media outlets, such as the university website, newspaper, and radio station. The team also created a website for JAB, that includes a resources page, a FAQ page, and a vlog that the team plans to maintain, responding to bullying-related media items and reporting the results of polls and interviews that they conduct on campus.

Putting the audience in the driver’s seat

One team focused on a fairly common topic: texting and driving. But, wanting to do something different with their topic, the team decided to contact an organization that visits college campuses and sets up simulations in which students are videotaped texting and driving on a closed course so that they get a first-hand experience with the impact of texting on their driving ability. Setting up the event required gaining a certain number of student signatures on a petition stating the need for the simulation. To help promote the event, the team created a PSA on texting and driving and the event and plans to create more promotions closer to the event date, as well as help out with the set-up and execution of the event.

Ethos and pathos

One group decided, for personal reasons, to focus their campaign on the effects of alcohol abuse. Recognizing that the only action(s) they could encourage their fellow students to take was the personal choice not to abuse alcohol, they strategically used both ethos and pathos in a PSA that they published to YouTube.


While not all of the finished products for these campaigns foreground oral communication, oral communication was an essential element to students realizing their vision for their PSA and their goals for their campaign. From speaking with administrators, fellow students, and organizations to effectively orchestrating and engineering each component of their project with one another, the students were able to strategically identify, select, and enact various other communicative tools at their disposal. Rather than participating in an isolated (and isolating) oral performance, students used verbal performances to choreograph an intricate dance of text, image, music, and spoken word.





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