The Multimodal Remix: One Solution to the Double-Audience Dilemma in

Service-Learning Composition

Karen Forgette, Chip Dunkin, and Andrew Davis

Blue Boxes

ABSTRACT: Students writing for an authentic audience in service-learning composition courses often face a double-audience dilemma. The texts they compose must suit the demands of the real-world audience of the service-learning project while also meeting the expectations of the academic audience. This article examines the role multimodal composition may play in helping alleviate the tension of the double audience, particularly for basic writers.

Click the title of each section to read its contents.

Writing assignments in service-learning courses often engage students in the complex task of composing for at least two audiences: a public audience and an academic audience. The public audience may take many forms. Students might create public service announcements to educate the general public, write grant proposals to funding boards, or compose brochures for community partners. The academic audience, for whom they also write, is, most specifically, the teacher and, more broadly, the community of scholars. For this audience, students are demonstrating their learning and their progress in meeting specific course objectives.

As Lisa Ede and Andrea A. Lunsford argue, a writer’s conceptualization of audience involves a “complex series of obligations, resources, needs, and constraints” (17). Writers must be “guided by a sense of purpose and by the particularities of a specific rhetorical situation” in order to establish “the range of potential roles an audience may play” (17). Further complicating students’ work is the power audiences exert on writers as they compose. As Peter Elbow notes, “An audience is a field of force. The closer we come—the more we think about these readers—the stronger the pull they exert on the contents of our minds” (173). Elbow characterizes audiences as “inviting” or “inhibiting” (173). As writers conceptualize “inviting” audiences, they are energized to write more powerfully (173).

In the case of service-learning writing, the public audience often serves as the “inviting” audience. Students’ passion for an issue or the ongoing work of a community partner invigorates their composing efforts, leading to better ideas and more powerful prose. As Catherine Gabor finds in her study of the service-learning project “Writing Partners,” basic writing students writing letters for a public audience of younger students “wrote clear and straight-forward sentences consistently–sentences that were far less scrambled and convoluted than the sentences in the rough drafts of their essays; their approximations of academic discourse” (66).

For basic writing students and emerging scholars, however, the conceptualization of the “inviting” public audience may also interfere with or overshadow their obligations to the academic audience, obligations that are often the primary focus of a basic writing course. As Linda Adler-Kassner has argued, service-learning courses for basic writers provide opportunities for students to engage in communities while still meeting academic expectations (554) or, to borrow Kenneth A. Bruffee’s language, while still bringing students into the “normal discourse” of scholars (642).

In the first year of our study, students in an academic success learning community (including a large percentage of underprepared writers), wrote grant proposals to the student body governance board. They incorporated a broad range of research sources in their writing but failed to include the types of academic sources that will be expected throughout their college careers. In fact, students’ strong desire to see their proposals funded may have actually led them to devalue academic research in their proposals. While students understood and responded to the demands of the “inviting” audience, they did not consider the multiple roles audiences play, especially the academic role.

In the Spring 2012 semester, students composed proposal arguments to convince the Associated Student Body governance board (ASB) to award $100 to a community service organization of each student's choice. Students were asked to combine field research–including participant-observations, personal interviews, and surveys–with academic research in order to document a specific community need, determine how $100 could help their organization address that need, and attempt to persuade the ASB to fund their proposal.

Throughout the composition process, we spent considerable time, both in the classroom and during formative writing conferences, talking with our students about audience. In addition to a general academic audience, these proposals had a finite, discernible, public audience: the ASB president and two other ASB representatives. These three people would make the ultimate decision about which twelve projects (out of over 200) were funded. Since students needed to conceive and use rhetorical strategies to influence these three student officials, we asked them to work collaboratively to think about common beliefs and values that might normally be held by members of a collegiate student government. A list of adjectives emerged to describe student government members: "ambitious," "civic-minded," "politically and academically oriented," "proud" (of their school and of the various communities of which they are a part), "hardworking," "professional," "outgoing," and "engaged." We worked together to determine how our students could use these admittedly general descriptive terms to craft audience-based appeals in order to best accomplish their purpose.

Our students' careful attention to their immediate rhetorical situation–addressing their "inviting" public audience–quickly became evident as we began assessing their projects. The majority of the proposals were successful in their incorporation of values-based appeals. These pathos-fueled essays were thoughtfully composed with one goal in mind: to convince ASB members that helping a particular organization was the right thing to do. Anecdotes about poor conditions in community centers, surveys of students' peers suggesting that college students would like to do more to help less-fortunate citizens in their area, and interviews with local community leaders were used ethically, and often cleverly, to lend power to the students' arguments.

For example, one student, whose proposal was funded, painted this pleasant picture of a local feeding ministry:

The atmosphere that engulfs Manna is one matched by few other organizations. Each student participating is a great asset to the fight against hunger in Oxford. Since people working in the kitchen are from the university, there is a connection between each of them that allows for commodore [sic] and growth. With music playing in the background, these students work to create a meal that the hungry people of Oxford would enjoy, laughing and joking with each other while doing so. With the positive attitude flowing through the kitchen, around one hundred boxes of food can be made each Thursday. These meals are then served to the hungry in the Oxford area. [Morgan C.]

In this passage, we see a writer who is not only clearly interested in engaging in the rhetoric of community service but also mindful of her real-life audience of fellow students. Her emphasis on the "connection," camaraderie, and "growth" that volunteers experience and her use of common advocacy terminology ("the fight against hunger") show that she is fairly well-versed in the language of service-learning. At the same time, her attempt to portray her participant-observation experience as "positive" and undeniably social (the music, the laughing and joking) indicates that she is concerned with appealing to an audience of civic-minded young people.

The problem for us as teachers, however, lay in the proposals' overall lack of academic depth. During our summer assessment of the projects, we noted that the field research in these proposals was generally sound; the rhetorical techniques were even more impressive, but the use of academically appropriate sources (e.g., professional reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, books published by university presses, etc.) and a formal, academic tone was negligible across the board. Meanwhile, the ASB also tended to choose less-scholarly proposals for funding, exposing the complexities of these service-learning assignments and further illustrating that this audience gap that lies between the public and the academic may be more of a canyon than a ravine. We came to the conclusion that the competing expectations and interests of these two separate audiences make service-learning academic essays more difficult to write, to teach, and to assess.

In response to the challenges our students faced in 2012, we modified the curriculum for the following year by separating the research project into shorter assignments, incorporating a research paper focused on reputable sources and directed solely to an academic audience, and reimagining the proposal for support as a video “remix” of the research paper specifically composed for a public audience.

The term “remix” is used in quite a few different, intriguing, and potentially confusing ways with regard to multimodal composition projects. To be clear, our students were not asked to compose mash-ups, cut or edit versions of their own previously recorded audio or video projects, create digital stories, or reconceive texts composed by others–all increasingly common and fruitful practices in basic writing courses. Our students’ charge was simply to transform their alphabetic causal arguments into persuasive videos designed to inform the general public about a specific community problem and convince their real-world audience to contribute to an agency or organization working to address the problem. In other words, the argument stayed fundamentally the same; the only changes were the mode of delivery (alphabetic to digital), the audience (general academic audience to specific public audience), and the addition of a call to action: a direct plea to a funding agent for support. We once again discussed with our students the implications of audience for each of these projects, characterizing the academic audience as scholars, professors, and experts and the public audience as civic-minded, politically-engaged peers.

Our summer assessment of these two projects revealed two notable changes from the previous year. First, perhaps not surprisingly, the research paper met the expectations of the academic audience well. Second, and this was a bit surprising, the video proposals also met the expectations of an academic audience more fully than the previous year’s alphabetic proposals.

Kara Poe Alexander, Beth Powell, and Sonya C. Green surveyed basic writing students regarding their perceptions of multimodal composition. Their findings indicate that students see potential for a “clearer understanding of the audience” through multimodal text but are also inclined to “privilege appearance and surface messages rather than critical inquiry into the complexities of the profile subject” (6). Before our assessment, we had assumed that our students' research papers would incorporate the academic sources and depth that the previous year’s projects had lacked but that their videos would mirror the shallowness of the previous year’s projects–privileging appearance and surface messages as Alexander et al. note. What we found, though, was that students demonstrated a more sophisticated approach to academic research in the video proposals than they had in the previous year’s research papers. Why did the multimodal proposals in the second year incorporate the depth that was lacking in the previous year’s alphabetic proposals?

Certainly resequencing the assignments, moving from the academic research paper into the video, had an effect, but switching the medium may have played a role too in helping students envision and address a more complex audience. Marisa A. Klages and J. Elizabeth Clark find that incorporating ePortfolios, blogs, and other Web 2.0 tools into basic writing classes helps students build skills in “code switching between the virtual world and the world of academia” (36). Furthermore, they argue that while paper portfolios reinforce for students the idea of the instructor as the sole audience, ePortfolios and blogs, because of their public nature, broaden students’ concept of audience and help them develop an “emerging academic voice” (44). Similarly, Cheryl C. Smith, building on John Trimbur’s work on the circulation of writing, argues that “blogs lend power to the author and may especially empower inexperienced writers who often feel uncomfortable with academic discourse but more at home with internet writing” (40). For our students, videos were a familiar discourse–one whose conventions and audience they recognized from living in a video-soaked culture–to which they brought a recently practiced academic skill. In doing so, they addressed an audience larger than solely the ASB or solely the instructor, but a rich blend of both. Their end-of-semester reflections echo that dynamic.

The students’ end-of-semester reflections helped answer the question of why the multimodal proposals in the second year incorporated the depth that was lacking in the previous year's alphabetic proposals. Notice the differences in these students’ discussion of research sources. In a reflection on the 2012 project, one student described her sources in this way:

I used the University of Mississippi newspaper and the community newspaper, The Oxford Eagle, as sources of information about Habitat for Humanity’s Restoration projects and fundraising... and for information about homelessness in the Oxford community. Other sources were the pricing from Wal-Mart on two items Habitat for Humanity needs, a survey of Ole Miss Students about the visibility of the organization, a personal interview with the president of Habitat for Humanity discussing the organization’s needs, and the Habitat for Humanity Mission Statement from the organization’s campus webpage. [Kaylee C.]

Another 2012 student discussed using sources to engage the audience’s emotions:

This kind of research and evidence was something I would not be able to have gotten from an internet source, journal, or from a book. It was a personal experience and this type of research in my papers made the topic come alive and pulled in the reader with a lot more emotion as opposed to other research methods. [Natalie K.]

Both of these passages speak to the service-learning double-audience dilemma. Kaylee's summary of her research methods encapsulates the overall lack of academic depth in the 2012 alphabetic proposals. Her reflection showcases a heavy reliance on popular sources and primary research, and her elision of any academic secondary sources, which was evident in her project as well, is indicative of the lack of balance we saw in the majority of these projects.

Natalie shows promise in her understanding of the link between human experience and pathos in effective argumentation. However, she not only omits any discussion of academic research, she also seems to privilege evidence gained through personal experience over factual information and expert opinions culled from the work of professionals. She fails to see primary and secondary research as essential complementary components.

The 2013 students’ reflections had a decidedly different take on research. Notice this student’s academic perspective on a source:

Another way my research skills have improved this semester was I learned how to analyze a single text and apply it to my writing or research. I learned how to pick apart a single text and determine what the author was really trying to say . . . I talked about the Internet as being one of the main reasons for hate groups being on the rise. A source I used in order to support this claim was a KKK website, The Knights Party. I went into further explanation of how this particular website was propaganda, and how it tricked people into believing the KKK was actually an organization of peace and not hate. [Brendan R.]

Brendan demonstrates critical thinking and a heightened awareness of credibility by analyzing the source and discerning the authors’ manipulative techniques, thereby showcasing an appropriately sophisticated understanding of research. Not only does he acknowledge that the KKK website is not a reliable source, he seems eager to reveal its unreliability to his audience. His reflection demonstrates his ability to read actively and dig deeply into the rhetorical choices made by creators of texts.

Another 2013 student described his research process for both projects this way:

Starting out slowly but progressing rapidly, I came across sources here and there that were loaded with just the information that I was looking for. I took advantage of the J.D. Williams Library CQ Researcher and found five articles about threats to the Gulf and Gulf restoration. The biggest asset to me was the library resources such as CQ and other search engines. These tools allowed me to find credible information with hard facts on my topic. Some of the sources even had their sources cited so I could see where CQ was getting their information from and go checkout [sic] those pages. After I completed my research paper, my class was assigned to put together a multimodal presentation on our topic. . . I applied the same process that I used to do well on my paper to my multimodal. [Vincent L.]

The final sentence of Vincent’s reflection is revealing. Because students had established a method for finding more academically appropriate sources in the research paper assignment, they were able to apply that process to the remix assignment as well. Additionally, to use Alexander et al’s language, their “clearer understanding of the audience” (6) for a multimodal text allowed them to blend their secondary and primary sources in ways that suited both the non-academic audience and the academic audience.

The videos themselves illustrate students’ abilities to meet the demands of both the academic and public audience. The excerpts below come from sections of the remixes in which students were attempting to use information from their academic research to convince their public audience that a specific community need exists, while also acquainting their audience with the work of credible researchers who have shed light on the urgency of the issue. The idea was that in order for students to convince their audience of a causal relationship and eventually compel funding agents to make monetary contributions to their chosen organization, the students must first provide a contextual foundation for their causal claims by incorporating sound (and hopefully powerful) factual information.

Notice how Kendall balances interviews she conducted with her sorority sisters with secondary sources featuring expert opinion and research studies in her public service video advocating more exercise and better nutrition for first-year college students.

Kendall T., "Fifteen Pounds Later"

Given the nature of the subject matter, Kendall could have easily relied solely on primary research–discussing her own personal experiences as a health-conscious college student, interviewing classmates and thus committing the same error in understanding audience(s) that was so prevalent in our students' 2012 alphabetic proposals. Instead, she complements her field research with factual data and expert opinions (which she is careful to attribute), satisfying the demands and meeting the expectations of her dual audiences. As our study suggests, this balance seems to have been made possible by asking our students to write academic essays before shifting modes and composing for a public audience.

Vincent L., "Saving our Gulf"

A marked improvement from his previous projects, Vincent's video remix of his essay on the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone" incorporates scientific data from the Union of Concerned Scientists while utilizing the digital affordances of the new mode. Much like Kendall's, Vincent's voice-over narration seems to replicate the serious, scholarly tone of his sources. His use of appropriate images of researchers, workers, and everyday gulf-coasters demonstrates his understanding of his wide-ranging viewership. Finally, Vincent blends his findings about coastal hypoxia with appeals to the values of his public audience by using the common language of service-learning discourse ("the public...need to be informed...," "the road to recovery," "If we start to come together as a community...," etc.).

For composition instructors interested in the complexities of remixes such as these, it must be noted that neither of these videos was free of technical and rhetorical flaws. Kendall’s video contained several abrupt, confusing stops and starts that disrupted the continuity of her digital argument. Vincent infelicitously chose to close his project by incorporating Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”–a poor decision that we felt co-opted his message (“Don’t worry about a thing / Cause every little thing gonna be alright,” while catchy, seems to indicate that concern, action, and advocacy are unnecessary). Editing flaws and youthful stylistic indiscretions aside, these projects exemplify the consistent improvement that we saw in our students’ ability to compose for multiple audiences.

(All student samples are used with permission.)

The real-world audience of service-learning projects is a powerful force that has many benefits for basic writers, but it can also impose additional complications as students concomitantly try to meet the demands of an academic audience. Multimodal remix may help students understand and address this complexity. As Kathleen Blake Yancey, building on the work of Jay Bolter, Richard Grusin, and Marshall McLuhan, has argued, “nearly every medium is re/mediated on another medium. In other words, consciously or otherwise, we create the new in the context of the old and based on the model of the old” (313). Yancey extends that argument to classroom practices, using the example of a student who defines a term on a handout, listens to classroom response, incorporates that term into presentations, and then uses the term in conventional written texts and blogs. She notes that as students move through these tasks, “they consider what they move forward, what they leave out, what they add” (314). Similarly, basic writing students, writing first for a narrowly defined academic audience in a structured genre, like the research paper, gain an understanding of that audience and that genre. As they remix their projects for a broader audience in a new medium, they consider what is valuable enough to bring forward from the original project, in our students’ case academic research, while enhancing that work with appeals to a more complicated, broader audience.

Noting conceptual and theoretical connections between the craft of remix and literacy practices, Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear argue that both remix and literacy include discourse and evaluative dimensions. They describe the discourse dimension as an understanding of the “rules, norms, and criteria” of a situated practice as well as how the practice’s “signs, symbols, [and] sounds” can be structured to convey meaning (29). They characterize the evaluative dimension as the ability to improve the practice to better meet the demands of the audience and fellow practitioners (29). The remixed videos composed by the students in our study demonstrate work within both the discourse and the evaluative dimensions that Knobel and Lankshear describe. Students brought their prior understanding of the role of academic sources to their remix projects and used that knowledge to enhance their videos to better fulfill the interests of both the public audience and the academic audience.

More broadly, scholars have noted multimodal composition’s benefits for basic writers. In their examination of vlogging, Lillian Spina-Caza and Paul Booth contend that “through careful consideration of video as a composition tool, important concepts in composition–like critical thinking, point of view articulation, and research skills–can be highlighted in different media” (18). Certainly for our students, the videos served as an arena to highlight a recently acquired or practiced tool of college research, the inclusion of academic sources. Cheryl C. Smith argues for increased inclusion of new media practices in basic writing classrooms in order to give students opportunities to make “thoughtful connections between internet and academic writing” (46), the type of connection our students were making when they incorporated more scholarly sources into their advocacy videos. Hannah Ashley, responding to Matthew Heard’s question of how to teach students to operate successfully within the “moment-by-moment exchange of discourses in the world around them” (frame 25), makes a case for community-engaged, multimodal composition as a tool for helping basic writers consider “specific and authentic audiences outside of the classroom” (frames 69-74). We found that students not only addressed an authentic, public audience through community-engaged, multimodal composition but also showcased their ability to use the tools of academic writing.

Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia L. Selfe note that “the new composing processes, and problem-solving approaches that students learn when composing with modalities other than words can later serve to illuminate the more familiar composing processes associated with words and vice versa” (4). Similarly, multimodal remix can illuminate for basic writers the nuances of audience-based appeals and help them bridge the gap between the public and academic audiences of service-learning writing.

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Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words, Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication 56.2 (2004): 297-328. Web. 12 Nov 2013.

Karen Forgette

Karen is a core instructor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. She has been teaching in the UM first-year writing program since 2005.

Chip Dunkin

Chip has been a writing instructor at the University of Mississippi since 2006. He teaches in the FASTrack program.

Andrew Davis

Andrew is an instructional designer for the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at UM. He also teaches advanced composition. He designed the webtext for this article.