When Academic Writing Became a Team Sport

by Karen Kirsch Page

MASClab_pic at AERA
from L to R, Libby Herbert-Wasson, Karen Kirsch Page, & Sam Thanapornsangsuth at AERA 2017

At the heart of the most successful teams in higher education is collaborative exploration, investigation, and an internal shared belief by members that discovery through hard work can lead to positive change. At MASCLab, we are a research lab committed to change, as our name indicates. As students and faculty working together, we are motivated by civic engagement and we come together to both create and investigate multimodal and digital scholarship that informs our understanding of the connections between media-based expression, voice, and social change.

One of the creative exercises members of MASCLab participate in on a regular basis is the investigation of multimodal scholarship. We look at the many creative forms knowledge can take, and explore ways in which we can gather and share diverse insights. In addition to text-based knowledge such as the kind found in academic journals, we review films, listen to podcasts, and explore multimedia exhibits, to name a few.

But we do not only view and review the scholarship of others — we are also committed to creating and contributing knowledge in multiple forms. In late 2015, out of discussions in MASCLab meetings about how new forms of expression have the potential to lead to a more equitable production and dissemination of scholarship, an idea was born: to collectively write about the changes we see and the increasing significance of multimodal scholarship in modern times. Our process evolved organically, with eight MASCLab members – six students together with the two MASCLab faculty members, Ioana Literat and Lalitha Vaudevan – identifying their areas of interest and then discussing how these might fit together in a collaborative piece. Our schedules were divergent, but we managed to collaborate smoothly, through a combination of in-person discussions and lab meetings focused on mapping out the ideas for an article using graphic organizers, sketch notes, whiteboard visuals and shared documents that we could all contribute to. An outline emerged, was iterated multiple times, and then we each signed up to further expand the sections that were closest to our individual interests. In this way, we brought both a shared vision and differing contexts and backgrounds to the table.

It was a refreshing and invigorating process to write with others, outside of one’s own head and continually revising based on the commenting and input of others, and to read the work of peers and faculty members alike, which was growing and evolving in our shared document. For some, to write in a public space such as a shared document was uncomfortable at first, but pushing ourselves outside of the comfort zone was something we knew would grow out of a collective networked group experience.

In the spring of 2017, three co-authors (myself, Libby Herbert-Wasson and Sam Thanapornsangsuth) presented this work at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual conference in San Antonio, TX. In planning our presentation, we discussed, as a group, how to convey the spirit of multimodal inquiry within the presentation itself, and we ended up designing a “multimodal poster presentation” that involved emojis, video, audio, and collage.

Then, after multiple rounds of submission and revision, which meant a lot of work but also a very valuable window into the process of peer review and academic publishing, we were notified last month that our article, Toward multimodal inquiry: Opportunities, challenges and implications of multimodality for research and scholarship was accepted at Higher Education Research & Development.

The published article (abstract included below), captures the work we are very proud of. We encourage you to share the article widely in your own networks, both within and beyond academia, and to contact us (masclabtc@gmail.com) if you cannot access the full copy – we would be glad to send it to you. Unfortunately, the exclusivity of peer-reviewed journals is at odds with the very argument we are trying to make, and this is something we grappled with significantly within our process. As we write in the article,

“In writing this article collaboratively as a research group, we reflected on the tension inherent in reconciling our theoretical ambitions of open, multimodal, collaborative scholarship with the practical realities of making our work visible in academic contexts that traditionally value print-based forms of scholarship, often authored by individual scholars. While our process involved an engagement with multiple modes of inquiry and analysis (i.e. analyzing examples of multimodal scholarship, collaborating on media-making projects, conveying arguments in visual form), the specific questions we focus on here would be best conveyed in text form. In fact, this is a significant part of our argument, so it is worth emphasizing here: rather than advocating for an imperative and categorical shift from text-based scholarship to multimodal-scholarship (where “multimodal” excludes or precludes text), we are advocating for the flexibility to embrace whatever mode of inquiry, analysis, or representation is most helpful for the specific project or argument at hand.”

Reflecting on both the process and the final product of this collaboration, I look forward to further work with my MASCLab colleagues in building community and in analyzing and creating artifacts of multimodal scholarship that push forward the boundaries of what is possible as active citizens committed to facilitating social change.

Literat, I., Conover, A., Herbert-Wasson, E., Page, K.K., Riina-Ferrie, J., Stephens, R., Thanapornsangsuth S., & Vasudevan, L. (2017). Toward multimodal inquiry: Opportunities, challenges and implications of multimodality for research and scholarship. Higher Education Research & Development. First published online: Oct. 16.

Abstract: In this article, we suggest that we are witnessing a challenge to the hegemony of text-based knowledge in academic scholarship, brought about by newly available modes of expression, and a cultural shift in our notions of reading and writing, authorship, and networked knowledge production. The central question we address here concerns the implications of widening our ideas of acceptable forms of inquiry, analysis and representation in academic scholarship. As a collective of scholar-practitioners exploring new modes of expression and working both within and outside the formal structures of academia, we argue for the increasing significance of multimodal research in the contemporary context of academic inquiry. By more equitably valuing different ways of thinking, knowing and communicating, multimodal research can facilitate wider and more diverse participation in the production of knowledge, offer a more nuanced and ethical mode of inquiry, emphasize different ways of knowing and connecting, and make scholarship more broadly accessible beyond academic contexts. Here, we analyze the key opportunities facilitated by multimodal inquiry, as well as the obstacles that stand in the way of a wider adoption of this type of research in higher education.

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