“I don’t know, let’s play”: Multimodal design support in the writing centre

the word "Play" in green against a brown backdrop

Vol. 3 No. 2 (Winter 2022)

Editor’s note: This is a Session Reflection. If you have a unique tutoring experience to share, submit your Session Reflection to Brian Hotson cwcr.rccr@gmail.com

Stevie Bell is an associate professor in the Writing Department at York University and CWCR/RCCR co-founder

A sticker with the word "essay" that looks like its meltingWriting centre tutors may be seeing an increase in multimodal writing projects (DWPs) now that students are primarily producing and submitting their work online―at least this is the case for me. Today’s students have the opportunity to use colour, sound, gifs, and video elements to enhance even traditional essays, and these elements are becoming not just common, but often expected. Students are also being assigned creative projects that require them to focus on becoming design-savvy producers of multimodal texts, using design elements and theory that isn’t always in their writing toolbox

Where on campus can students seek help with multimodal projects? In my opinion, writing centres are well positioned to extend the work they do supporting students as they use writing as a tool of thinking and communicating to include multimodal processes that do not prioritize alphabetic/linguistic modes. Writing centre tutors already know the structure of argumentation, the rhetoric of academic writing, and styles and formats required for writing at university or college levels. They also know how to think along with students, as well as to think in and through the tasks, challenges, and blocks that students come to the centre to work through.

A pedagogy of writing tutoring DWPs has not been fully formulated in light of the fact that students don’t have an established habit of support seeking for DWPs (see Grutsch McKinney, 2009 and Bell & Hotson, 2021). This includes design theory or design tool use, like Illustrator or Canva. We simply don’t see very many students working on DWPs in the writing centre. So when we do, it’s important to share and take time to reflect in an effort to work towards a pedagogy of tutoring multimodal projects. That’s what I’m up to here.

Nothing seems to be working, and she doesn’t know how to move forward. Like Ellsworth (1997), she’s stuck.

The Session 

This week, I worked with a student on a DWP. The student is using Canva to produce an Instagram Reel to recommend a favourite course she’s taken to students looking for an interesting elective. She’s excited about the project, but she is also anxious: she’s not tech savvy, and she doesn’t know how to make decisions about what constitutes good design. The project is a culminating assignment for a unit on multimodal rhetoric within a digital writing course, and her approach thus far has consisted of making a checklist of components based on the assignment rubric and course readings—a list of what makes for rhetorically compelling multimodal texts. She explains this very clearly: they create an instant impression and tone using images, colours, and fonts; they engage viewers through aspects like direct address, rhetorical questions, intertextual references, and humour; they convey a coherent narrative or message through careful arrangement and pacing; and they construct the author’s ethos through clarity and professionalism conveyed by good design.

While she understands all of this in theory, the student has been struggling to implement this understanding in practice. She has integrated images and colours that complement the content; she has a few moving elements, but they seem out of place with the tone of the colour scheme. Nothing seems to be working, and she doesn’t know how to move forward. Like Ellsworth (1997), she’s stuck.

At this point in the session, I understood that my goal was to get the student unstuck, to help her find strategies of putting her course design theory into practice and work through this place of stuckness. I asked her to share her Zoom screen and show me her project on Canva. I asked her to duplicate some of the pages in her design so we would have more freedom to play. We chatted about the role of play in creative thinking and how productive it can be to make literal space for trial and error (See Davies, 2009; Opel & Rhodes, 2018; Sheridan, 2016, for example). She was slightly resistant to adding new pages to the design because the instructor asked for a maximum of 4 slides for an Instagram reel that could be shared as a 15-second Instagram story. Sometimes, timing lengths/slide lengths (word lengths) need to be put aside during the creative content brainstorming process, and the tutor can make the digital space open and safe for this to happen for the student.

My role gradually transitioned from director of the session into a sounding board for the student’s creative options. She was now mostly unstuck.

Creating Space to Play

With space to play, I asked the student to consider the colour of the font, which was red over an image of fire. It was too hard to see, especially for a slide that would move by fast. What colour would work better? I didn’t know, and encouraged the student to play with a few until she found one that seemed to just work. We also explored text effects where shadows and other effects would separate the words from the background image. A black drop shadow gave the words more prominence, which the student appreciated, and she was fine with playing around more with colour. We then started discussing fonts. Arial? There’s just no personality there. But which font would work better? I didn’t know this either, and encouraged the student to play with a few until she found one that seemed to jive with the tone and content of the piece. At this point, the practice of playing with different options was energizing our session, and the student began being more forward with what she seemed to like (and not like) and why. My role gradually transitioned from director of the session into a sounding board for the student’s creative options. She was now mostly unstuck.

Leaving Text Density Behind!

With the student feeling more confident about how to explore options for typography, we moved on to the matter of content on each page. The student admitted that she had no idea really what to highlight in a 15-second 4-slide video. Her approach drew on conventions she learned from class presentations and the result was too much information in a list of bulleted points. So we talked about the rhetorical context: Ultimately, what does she want this little PR campaign to achieve? She wants students to see this potential elective as intriguing and worth enrolling in. I encouraged her to create a new page with space to play and to think about a one-sentence question or action that encapsulates the course. We brainstormed a few, and came up with intriguing and funny options for her to continue workshopping―lots of creative options to build on.

We played with adding moving smelly lines to the word “worst” to draw attention to it and to indicate in what manner we meant “worst” – toxic green stench is what we were after.

Blending Modes

The word "worst" in green lettering with a smoke effect coming off of it.
Created by CWCR/RCCR

The student’s final concern had to do with the choice of image, a moving Canva “sticker” that she’d selected just didn’t seem to fit the tone or add much to the piece. Why isn’t it working? I briefly explained the fact that the cartoonish sticker differed too much from the realistic fire that she used on the first slide. The inconsistency of these modalities is jarring. Also, what is the sticker really adding? Does it communicate anything that the text doesn’t already say? The student decided that it felt like a stock image and lacked personality. So, how to add an image into her design and tick that box on her rubric? I asked the student how an image might interact with the text, helping to bring it to life, providing emphasis if not additional meaning. The student chose one of the draft phrases she’d cooked up earlier in our session, and we identified the most important word and how to add a flourish using a Canva sticker. We played with adding moving smelly lines to the word “worst” to draw attention to it and to indicate in what manner we meant “worst” – toxic green stench is what we were after. We didn’t finalize anything, but the student’s understanding of how to use images not just alongside but with text were broadened. Again, lots of creative options to play with.

Overcoming the Wall

A green cartoon monster burping out the word "worst" with squiggly effect indicating smell
Created by CWCR/RCCR

At the end of the session, the student had renewed energy and enthusiasm for the project. She felt as though she’d moved past whatever wall she’d hit against and now had a lot more creative freedom and strategies for playing with and working through them. The rhetorical context serving as her guide for making decisions. I felt as though the session was as successful as any session focused on writing could be. The student came in with preconceptions and limited understanding of how to think with the meaning-making tools at her disposal, and left the session with a much larger toolbox and an empowered sense of how to make use of them.

This felt like a tutoring session to me. I did need to draw on my own facility with design and familiarity with the tool with which the student was working. However, I still felt as though everything was grounded in key communication questions about what the student was trying to say, why, and to whom. The how of it all was definitely different, and my ability to be comfortable saying “I don’t know, let’s play” was valuable…

For more resources on digital writing, check out Hotson & Bell’s bibliography: https://hbstudio.squarespace.com/researchers

as well as

Sabatino, L., & Fallon, B. (2019). Multimodal Composing. Chicago: Utah State University Press.


Bell, S., & Hotson, B. (2021). Where is the support? Learning support for multimodal digital writing assignments by writing centres in Canadian higher education. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(1), 1-20. Retrieved from https://ojs.lib.uwo.ca/index.php/cjsotl_rcacea/

Davies, J. (2009). A space for play: Crossing boundaries and learning online. In V. Carrington & M. Robinson (Eds.), Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices (pp. 27–42). https://doi.org/0.4135/9781446288238

Ellsworth, E. A. (1997). Teaching positions: Difference, pedagogy, and the power of address. New York: Teachers College.

Grutsch McKinney, J. (2009). New Media Matters: Tutoring in the Late Age of Print. Writing Center Journal, 29(2), 28–51.

Opel, D. S., & Rhodes, J. (2018). Beyond Student as User: Rhetoric, Multimodality, and User-Centered Design. Computers and Composition, 49, 71–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2018.05.008

Sheridan, D. M. (2016). Sparty and Selfi: Distributed Intelligence in the Multiliteracy Center. Computers and Composition, 41, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2016.04.006