A multimodal composition, by any other name…

Lauer, Claire. “What’s in a Name?” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 17.1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 10 November 2013. http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/17.1/inventio/lauer/index.html

Claire Lauer is an assistant professor of technical communication at Arizona State University’s School of Letters and Sciences. Most of her research concentrates on multimodal composition and studies of how the digital landscape has changed the act of communication. More information on Lauer and her research can be found at https://webapp4.asu.edu/directory/person/964446.

In a webtext that incorporates dozens of audio files from interviews with other scholars alongside transcripts of the clips and contextual explanations, Lauer examines the varying terminology we use when talking about compositions like hers. Focusing on the terms multimodal, multimedia, new media, and digital media, Lauer digs into what each term means, whether — and when — we can use them interchangeably, and why we have such variation when discussing communication that incorporate multiple modes, or media, or whatever. Through her interviews, Lauer argues that the uses and definitions of each term are audience-oriented; contextual; historically situated; limited “in scope and what they can represent”; defined differently by each discourse community that uses them; defined with precision; and explained in relation to one another.

While Lauer’s discussion of the terminology of multimodal composition is fascinating and useful, her accompanying breakdown of how the webtext came into being, from conception to final execution through several years of work, is arguably even more valuable. She explains how she derived her definition categories from patterns she observed in her interviews, and recounts the ups and downs she experienced in executing the delivery of her webtext. The artifact was originally designed in Prezi, and then in Flash, and ultimately in HTML5.

I think that the content of the webtext provides a very interesting look at what we’re thinking about when we name and label anything. As Lauer’s use of the Romeo and Juliet quote — which also drives the rose-themed visual presentation of the webtext — implies, the aspects she unpacks of the definitions of terms apply much more broadly than simply in the discussion of multimodal vs. multimedia composition. Indeed, whether you call a soft drink a soda, a pop, or a Coke (even when it’s actually a Dr Pepper) may depend on consideration of audience, context, and other factors.

The explanation of how Lauer built the webtext, however, is the part I enjoyed the most, and that I think is the most useful. Her tale, which she likens to Homer’s Odyssey, informs readers about considering the limitations of medium and those of the rhetor. It also points out some strengths and weaknesses of a few potential delivery vehicles, and discusses how the authoring of this artifact differed from the act of writing a purely text-based composition.

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