Genres of Multimedia Scholarship: Look to the Discipline

Multimedia Writing in a College Playwriting Course

We often talk about multimedia literacy in higher education. But the devil is in the details.

To be more specific, the “devil” is the discipline–which in higher ed is also the deity, to keep the metaphor going.

By this I mean two things.

  1. The discipline is the deity in higher ed, because the discipline is the reference point for everything inside the discipline.
    • A sentence spoke in a chemistry classroom has an entirely different meaning when spoken in a literature classroom–and vice-versa.
  2. What “writing” means varies by discipline.
    • And so “multimedia writing” will also vary by discipline.

Another way of pointing to the importance of the discipline is to use the word “genre.” We all know about movie genres and literary genres: westerns vs. musicals, gothic novels vs. adventure novels, etc. It may sounds like a trivial thing, but disciplines contain, produce and work upon different genres.

  • A literary analysis is not a lab report.
  • Nor is a literary analysis (usually) a poem.*
  • An accounting statement is not an executive summary.
  • And a scientific article is not a business case is not a poem.

This is obvious. And we take account of it when we have courses and programs like “writing in the major”: that is, opportunities to practice writing in discipline-specific ways, not just argumentation, evidence, introductions, transitions, etc.

But there are further implications. One implication is: when we support many disciplines with the same tools, we run into the problem of genres.

  • If a literary analysis is not a poem, and a poem is not a lab report,
  • then a student blog for an English class is quite different than a blog for a chemistry class.
  • And a student video for a geography class is not the same thing as a student video for a history or kinesiology class.
  • The different ‘statements’ make sense differently depending on the disciplinary context.

We are only beginning to learn what scholarly multimedia writing will look and sound and feel like.

Happily, those on the cutting edge are exploring exaclty the question of scholarly multimedia genres.

Steve Anderson of USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML) has written up a few of the genres the IML has observed blossoming in their native soil. Alongside documentaries and argumentative genres, Anderson also observes others. These include:

  • comparative studies which juxtapose one or more quite different media artifacts in a space;
  • works that are structured like a network–web sites or interactive media pieces, for instance;
  • information visualization–now a popular way of presenting data on the web;
  • annotation.

But this list is specific to its context, to its community of multimedia scholar-practitioners, to its micro-discipline, you could say. (Likewise, no two chemistry departments are just alike.)

Moving across disciplines may discover further inflections–as I’ll discuss in future posts.

–Edward R. O’Neill

*One literary critic wrote a book about poetic forms, and in this book, he writes an example of each form which describes the form. So in that case, the literary analysis of, say, a sonnet is itself a sonnet. But as they say: the exception proves the rule.


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