Media Scholarship in the Liberal Arts: Framework

When we began this project, Henry Jenkins1, Larry Johnson2, John Weber3 and a host of others who study media and technology in academia were pointing out the need to think carefully about how our curricula need to respond to changing communication patterns among our students4. The Net Generation have grown up not only with media rich environments but also with media environments that are interactive. In many cases becoming media authors themselves has changed how students think and engage the world around them.5 One need only look at the popularity of YouTube to know that these students expect access to information in multimodal forms through wireless networks and they expect to be able to contribute their own ideas to that information. The advent of user friendly and economical digital technologies has made multimodal authorship, including text, images, video, and sound, increasingly accessible. An Internet connection, computer (or cellphone), and entry level software make broad publication and dissemination of information that was once the realm of broadcast journalism possible by the average person.

All of these changes raise exciting and challenging questions for higher education. Chief among them, the understanding that the common vernacular and standards for communication in Facebook or YouTube are not the same as those for communication of knowledge gained in courses or for scholarly publications. As Cathy Davidson has noted, academics are still "Futzing around the edges"6 in our attempts to come to terms with the effects of new media on our teaching, learning and scholarship. We have not yet generally adopted a set of standards for multimodal communication or even developed a common language across disciplines to discuss teaching and learning that "...includes creative fluency as well as interpretive facility."7 In addition to the abilities to write, read, and speak, we have to describe and agree upon the abilities students need to analyze, interpret, evaluate, and create in multimodal forms. We can learn from the discussions of visual literacy, new media literacy, digital literacy, and information literacy that have produced guidelines and identified necessary suites of skills.8 We still need to consider how to integrate these literacies into our curricula. Considerations of how to do so need to address the dynamic character of combined text, image, sound, color, structure, and duration in the creation and analysis of meaning.9

In the liberal arts in particular, our emphasis on interdisciplinary connections while also creating strong disciplinary practices, affords us great opportunity to bridge the gap between skill development and conceptually sophisticated and multimodally-nuanced communication. We are at the point where we can consider and compare how we are teaching students to analyze the multimodal work of others and also choose the most appropriate modes for communicating their own ideas.

In the past five years, liberal arts campuses have increasingly explored assignments in which students create new assemblages of existing work or original multimedia projects to support research and creative expression. Our goals in this two year project on Media Scholarship in the Liberal Arts were to

  1. Explore methods connecting disciplines through pedagogical approaches that enhance or sustain instruction and assignments integrating moving images and multimodal projects.10
  2. Research and share current expertise in teaching and learning with multimodal forms.
  3. Develop models that connect critical and creative learning through interdisciplinary multimodal assignments.
  4. Develop methods to evaluate a variety of multimodal assignments with standards similar to those for written and oral communication.
  5. Identify resources to sustain diversity of multimodal assignment models on liberal arts campuses.

Our goals included the development of assignment and evaluation models that reduce ambiguity within both the structure of multimodal assignments and the evaluation of student projects. We addressed these goals by holding multiple discussions among faculty, staff and administrators from various campuses. We shared our individual expertise to explore instructional approaches that connect critical and creative learning across disciplines. A complete listing of the activities we engaged in during the course of this collaboration is in the "Activities" sections of this report.

In our monthly discussions, Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences faculty collaborated with academic support to propose methods for integrating multimodal skills in assignments. We repeatedly found ourselves asking these questions: How do we structure learning to achieve specific results in this course or assignment? How will the learning be evaluated? What are the time and resource implications for faculty, students, and academic support staff? What campus programs or immersive experiences will sustain learning in and out of the classroom? Where are we in terms of media scholarship?

Our early discussions exploring approaches for multimodal projects spent significant time reviewing existing definitions of media literacy, visual literacy, and what is meant by "scholarship". We ultimately settled on a working definition of media literacy "as the ability to analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms". Faculty in the arts offered examples of skill sets and lists of criteria for teaching and evaluating student media projects. Our discussions broadened to include questions of how we might target cross discipline criteria for media skills and projects. Given that students need basic literacies with multimodal forms but that all students and projects could not be expected to include the craft of Fine Arts, where and how would we target cross discipline learning goals? As discussions of assignments and learning goals continued and rubrics were developed by participants in this project11 and by other liberal arts schools12 we realized that there were distinct similarities in how we defined skills and evaluated learning. Examples include:

Obviously, the learning goals go beyond technical proficiency and basic media analysis to include substantive concept development and evidence of understanding how meaning can be conveyed through deliberate structuring of relationships between text, image, duration, and sound.

We then looked to individual courses at our institutions to understand approaches to connecting critical and creative learning through multimodal assignments. We developed a standard list of questions that were answered by professors of these courses and we have included their answers as individual case studies in the following section of this report. Very generally, the results are that these assignments cover a range of aptitudes, require considerable design effort to integrate a critical understanding of visual/aural representation within existing course content, and need specialized resources and services.

1. Henry Jenkins, (2006a). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.^
2. Larry Johnson, 2006. "The Sea Change Before Us." EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 72-73.^
3. John Weber, 2007. "Thinking Spatially: New Literacy, Museums, and the Academy." EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 1 (January/February 2007): 68-69.^
4. Henry Jenkins, (2006b) "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century." MacArthur Foundation White Paper retrieved from{CD911571-0240-4714- A93B-1D0C07C7B6C1}¬oc=1 ^
5. Diana G. Oblinger and James L. Oblinger, 2005. Educating the Net Generation. Educause. E-book at <> ^
6. Randy Bass interview with Cathy Davidson, 2009, in "New Media Technologies and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Brief Introduction to this Issue of Academic Commons." Academic Commons January 2009. ^
7. Larry Johnson, 2006. "The Sea Change Before Us." EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 72-73. ^
8. Ron Bleed, 2005. "Visual Literacy in Higher Education." ELI White Papers. August 2005. New Media Consortium 2005. A Global Imperative: The Report of the 21st Century Literacy Summit.
Andrea Nixon, Heather Tompkins, and Paula Lackie. 2008. Curricular Uses of Visual Materials: A Mixed-Method Institutional Study. Northfield, MN: Carleton College, Dean of the College Office. <>. See also see "Resources" in this report ^
9. Elizabeth Daley, 2003. "Expanding the Concept of Literacy." EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 38, no. 2 (March/April 2003): 32-40.^
10. Our grant proposal stated the goal of exploring "moving images" assignments but in our first meeting, the collaboration decided that our goals and interests needed to be broadened to multimodal projects. Including multimodal assignments such as podcasts or research papers with annotated multimedia bibliographies. ^
11. Link to Schwarzer and Rivera rubrics in this report. ^
12. Link to Dartmouth in "Resources" of this report. ^