How to … Teach Composition with Digital Tools

Katie Trostel's picture

How to … Teach Composition with Digital Tools

by Kara Hisatake and Katie Trostel

Pedagogy is one skill that graduate students are supposed to acquire over the course of their graduate career. One aspect of pedagogy that many of us deal with is teaching writing - in one way or another - from lab reports to thesis papers.

In this blog post, we’d like to think about how to teach composition using digital tools, or what some rhetoric and composition scholars might call “multimodal” projects.

Multimodal means that students use multiple modes of rhetoric beyond the “words-on-a-page” approach typical of the traditional essay format. Multimodal often means engaging in more “creative” types of projects such as the creation of podcasts and posters, or films and videos.

Check out some of the links below to learn more about multimodal composition in general:

You might use these techniques in teaching writing or composition. But you might also easily adapt them to teach your own courses, from “History of the Qing Dynasty” to “International Law” to “African Art.”

Many people teach using multimodal projects because it is thought to be closer to the kinds of tasks jobs now require, especially as more things move to digitalization. Students of the 21st century must be able to convey a message effectively, and to reach an audience in different formats.

Even when we spoke to a Bay Area teacher at the high school level, we found that in English classrooms, students are no longer writing the 5-pagagraph essay. Instead, this class was conducting community interviews and reflections – a project representative of the kinds of skill-sets expected of students today.

Here are some suggestions we’ve been thinking through; we’ve crafted some sample lesson plans below.

Do you have other suggestions? Links to creative examples? Feel free to contribute your own! We’d love to crowdsource a great resource for all graduate students to use in their day-to-day teaching.

Digital Mapping - Katie’s lesson idea:

One of my areas of interest in graduate school has been considering the relationship between city spaces and their literary representations. And, recently, I’ve been thinking about how I could incorporate mapping technologies - even those as simple as Google Earth - as a platform for teaching. Using Google Earth or Google Maps, you could actually ask students to annotate geographical points as a way of visualizing data spatially, and could post these maps to course websites.

The practice of answering questions about place could get students to start thinking about the various ways people think about a single site - serving as a springboard from which to compose argumentative papers that talk about space and change over time. This might mean writing creative essays about place, mapping the geographical trajectory of a character in a novel, or doing historical research and presenting that information as annotated map points (as an interactive exhibition). These exercises could serve as alternatives or supplements to the traditional essay.

Here are some examples of real projects that instructors have tested in their classrooms:

Advertising - Kara’s lesson idea:

I’ve been interested in the messages advertising conveys, and the power of advertisements to convey visual and rhetorical messages was cemented for me in my own writing classes as an undergraduate. Advertising and the way it operates are rich places for thinking about audience/message/writer. Recently, I’ve been able to teach a composition class on advertising.

Now, teaching a class on advertising is not a new idea. But how would digital tools work in teaching audience/message/writer? First, you would have to go through the different aspects of rhetoric and ask students to break down what’s happening in advertisements. There are lots of ways to practice, and lots of great digital databases to choose from. A fun one is Duke’s Ad Access and this particular 1920s ad for women’s Palmolive soap:

A good writing exercise asks students to choose their own ads from these databases and analyze them.

The next step in using digital tools would ask students to then create their own advertisement (and I suggest having this be a big final project as it takes a lot of preparation). What is their message? How would they convey that message? And how would they rhetorically make that message compelling, appealing, and convincing? These are all exercises that are different ways of approaching the traditional essay, and utilize digital tools to the benefit of the classroom. The pedagogy is the goal here, and the digital tools merely help us streamline the pedagogy.

One last note here is that if students are able to use these digital tools to make an advertisement, and they are able to make it look professional, it is an empowering tool we’re teaching.

Here are some sources to consult when thinking about composition and advertising:

Additional resources:

For more information and ideas, here are some links to other blogs and sites that deal with digital pedagogies in the writing classroom:

Do you have any favorite resources to contribute?

Email us, ( or join in the conversation on Twitter (hgradlist). 

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