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“Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and ‘Multimedia’ in the Academic and Public Spheres”

Claire Lauer’s article in the current Computers & Composition — “Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and ‘Multimedia’ in the Academic and Public Spheres” — nicely articulates some of the rhetorical differences and implications of “multimedia” and “multimodal.”

21st century

Abstract: Scholars have begun naming and defining terms that describe the multifaceted kinds of composing practices occurring in their classrooms and scholarship. This paper analyzes the terms “multimedia” and “multimodal,” examining how each term has been defined and presenting examples of documents, surveys, web sites and others to show when and how each term is used in both academic and non-academic/industry contexts. This paper shows that rather than the use of these terms being driven by any difference in their definitions, their use is more contingent upon the context and the audience to whom a particular discussion is being directed. While “multimedia” is used more frequently in public/industry contexts, “multimodal” is preferred in the field of composition and rhetoric. This preference for terms can be best explained by understanding the differences in how texts are valued and evaluated in these contexts. “Multimodal” is a term valued by instructors because of its emphasis on design and process, whereas “multimedia” is valued in the public sphere because of its emphasis on the production of a deliverable text. Ultimately, instructors need to continue using both terms in their teaching and scholarship because although “multimodal” is a term that is more theoretically accurate to describe the cognitive and socially situated choices students are making in their compositions, “multimedia” works as a gateway term for instructors and scholars to interface with those outside of academia in familiar and important ways.