How do we engage with difference in productive ways?
This is a question that I continue to ask myself in my teaching and research project related to women’s health and human rights. Thinking in terms of diversity foregrounds subjectivity and issues of classifications that are often unhelpful, at times, even humiliating. The concept of multimodality as a field of inquiry and an under-utilized tool for working with differences seems to offer much potential. It can be used both in the classroom and in research.
Recently a group of students mimed the life history of a woman who was trapped in an oppressive relationship showing the detrimental impact this had on her health. The students chose to create and improvise different scenarios on a linear time scale through this woman’s short life to illustrate how disempowerment contributed to the progression of her cervical cancer, a preventable disease. She was denied access to health care in the early stages of the disease, later faced judgemental health professionals and could not take up their recommendations — a not uncommon narrative for many women living in South Africa. The gestures and movements performed by the medical students made a major contribution to the impact of the collective students’ learning in our 3 hour workshop. This event was a critical moment in which I was struck by the value gained in using a different mode of communication, and by removing language from the action. It felt like an “absent presence”, a notion drawn from Derrida, that Kuby (2017) refers to and describes as beings and doings that appear to be absent yet are present. Such ontological insights are different to the usual that focus on knowledge production through information and facts (an epistemological perspective).
Unlike the traditional teaching methods generally used in medical education, miming has the capacity to engage with our emotions by eliciting the affective domain. This affordance was noted in a research study in anatomy where miming the function of the different cranial nerves proved to be a valuable mode for learning. From this study, Dickson and Stephens (2015) suggested that miming “epitomizes multimodal active learning” as students need to visualize, anticipate and perform their gestures in meaningful ways.
The field of multimodality is not new. The value and meaning-making drawn from and through signs and symbols has been used since the earliest days of humankind as in hieroglyphics and rock art. In education, Michael Halliday (1978) appears to have introduced the associated field of social semiotics. Semiosis is about making meaning. Social semiosis refers to the meaning making in social processes which relates to the actors, the environments and the resources such as modes (Kress 2010). Modes are numerous and can include text, image, gestures, posture, speech, music, gaze and variations of these components acting as forms of representation and communication.
Modes are also fluid and dynamic. They differ through time and in different contexts. Drawing on her chemistry background, Norris (2004:92) identifies the value of discerning modal densities that refer to the modal intensity and complexity that influences processes. Karen Wohlwend (2011:144) takes this further noting that the level of density of a mode shows “which actions and practices are most socially relevant within an event”. In other words, the relationships of the modes indicates the density intensity. In our classroom scenario, the students’ gestures and their gazing were foregrounded in contrast to the textual and aural modes that usually dominate communications in learning spaces.
What has been striking for me has been the value of creating and opening up spaces for a multimodal pedagogy to emerge. By moving away from a structured and prescriptive classroom I have noticed how the creativity of learners unleashed has the potential for promoting deeper learning and engagement. A shift beyond traditional written and representational texts through roleplays, drama shows, video recordings, poems, music and other modes enables the co-construction of the experimental encounters to emerge in the classroom. These material-discursive practices create movements that elicit an affective intensity (Massumi 2015) into the teaching space. It feels as if the multiple modes actually facilitate engagement with controversial and difficult issues such as termination of pregnancy.
As difference emerges through multiple mediums and resources, new potentials are created for engagement. It is the relationships in the event that are important as they can determine new ways of doing and being for both students and myself as we navigate some of the challenges of obstetrics learning. There is much more exploring to be done in this field as Jewitt (2008:9) points out
To realize the full potential of multimodality research also needs to make links between what is happening in the classroom and why it is happening – to ask how the micro social interactions of the classroom inflect, reflect and connect with the concerns of macro educational and broader social policies.
The image above is a photograph taken of an artefact I created at a recent workshop on multimodality then transformed on my iPad using Photolab and Adobe Photoshop Mix.
Dickson, K. A. and B. W. Stephens 2015. It’s all in the mime: Actions speak louder than words when teaching the cranial nerves. Anatomical sciences education. 8(6): 584–592.
Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Arnold.
Jewitt, C 2008. Multimodal discourses across the curriculum. In: Encyclopedia Of Language And Education. 2nd Edition. Springer US, New York, pp. 357-367. ISBN 978-0-387-32875-1 (Print) 978-0-387-30424-3 (Online)
Kress, G. 2010. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. Routledge, London, New York.
Kuby, C. R. 2017. Why a paradigm shift of ‘more than human ontologies’ is needed: putting to work poststructural and posthuman theories in writers’ studio, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09518398.2017.1336803
Massumi, B. (2015). Politics of affect. Cambridge: Polity.
Norris, S. 2004. Analyzing Multimodal Interaction: A Methodological Framework. London: Routledge.
Wohlwend, K. E. 2011. Multimodal discourse analysis and the playing/design nexus. In Playing their way into literacies. Reading, writing and belonging in the early childhood classroom. Teachers College Press. New York and London.