Untangling Studio Pedagogy

a pink rope tied into a knot
Image courtesy of pxhere.com

A number of questions came up regarding multimodal work and studio pedagogy at our Fall Conference, “Teaching for Joy and Justice.” In particular, we’ve discovered that many instructors are struggling to wrap their heads around studio pedagogy. We’ve gathered some of the questions from the surveys here and attempt to address your concerns. You’ll notice that some of the answers we provide are provisional. While ENGL1007 has been implemented at Storrs, the ECE course will look somewhat different; we won’t know exactly how this will translate to a high school classroom until we launch the changeover in Fall 2022 and some of this is sure to evolve. We will tackle some of the more difficult questions of implementation in our Working Groups in the coming months. In the meantime, we hope that these answers will help everyone to begin to get a better handle on the changes.

Q: The technology question: How can we conduct studio when students don’t have equal access to technology and/or we don’t have fancy smart rooms?

A: Of course much of the studio work does require access to technology that we cannot assume all students have. This gap can be mitigated through collaboration on projects, which can pool resources, and through use of computer classrooms, when and if those are available. But studio doesn’t need to be tech-heavy. There are options for students to compose in different modalities without using computer technology:

  • Peer review — Peer review, when practiced as an open conversation designed to address the modification of an existing project (through revision), can function as studio work, as a collaborative technology for getting work done. (circulating)
  • Old-school collages—we’re all familiar with this one. It’s easy, and with a good prompt, can be challenging as well. (collecting and curating)
  • Mindmaps and diagrams (on the board, on butcher paper, on notebook paper)—As part of engaging with and contextualizing a topic, you might ask students to create a diagram of different types of research available, or different perspectives that need to be taken into consideration with a hot-button issue. (engaging, contextualizing, theorizing)
  • Storyboarding/Wireframing—Storyboarding is essential in planning a video or podcast assignment and a step that many students tend to skip in the interest of getting to the technology part quicker. Storyboarding forces them to focus not just on the technological aspects of a project, but the message they’re trying to get across. For a website, you could ask the students to wireframe it first: that is, determine the organizational layout on paper before beginning a design. (engaging, contextualizing, theorizing)

Q: Should we be specific about which medium we want a project to be in, such as everyone does a podcast, or should we provide students a list of possible options and let them choose the medium?

A: It’s usually best to build ECE/FYW courses around course inquiries that yield a specific type of project—the interview, the critical essay, the audio project, etc. And, often, the course inquiry can lead into multiple, sequenced projects (e.g., a critical essay can be developed into an audio project). Connecting the texts and ideas driving the work to a more exact mode or genre fosters awareness of the relatedness of methods and goals. That said, there are times when the discussion about possible modes and outcomes advances awareness about affordances and constraints. It seems useful to have some moments where choice or discovery are foregrounded.

Q: How important is it that we are an expert in these different modalities? How do we learn how to use the technology?

A: This is a great question. Many instructors are nervous that they won’t be able to effectively guide their students in studio sessions if they aren’t experts in using the various pieces of software. But studio pedagogy is designed to dismantle the top-down approach to the learning: you’re not supposed to be an expert. You’re not teaching a studio session as much as offering a structured activity. Your students should be encouraged to tackle any tech problems on their own using tech websites, Google, YouTube, etc. Just as important, they should be encouraged to reach out to each other for help on different topics: one student may know how to use Audacity, while another might be familiar with Lightworks; still another might know of a great website to get fair use sound effects. This fosters problem solving and collaboration. In other words, it’s perfectly fine for you to say, “I don’t know.” You can always help that student research their problem (though be careful that you aren’t doing all of the research for them) or address the class and see if anyone already has a solution.

Q: How do I decide which pieces to let students do a traditional style of essay vs. a multimodal style?

A: First, there should be no “versus.” Even the process of writing a “traditional” essay involves the practice of multiple modes. No text is just a single mode. Second, what “traditional style” are you currently reading? Quite a bit of published academic writing in the 2020s makes use of more than just written texts (diagrams, pull-out quotes, graphics, photos, links, layout variations, color, embedded media, and so on). Almost no one publishes lengthy prose that doesn’t at least make use of headers and other formatting or layout devices. And, yes, attending to document design is a move into multimodal work. So we want to emphasize that there shouldn’t be a dichotomy here between “traditional” and “multimodal” essays, as every text includes elements of multimodal work.

There is a commonality in all of FYW work—its critical inquiry and documentation of encounters with texts, objects, ideas, and the world. It’s true that multimodal composition ushers in some welcome development of the course’s aesthetic dimensions, its attention to more than just logical argument. But, in the main, the move to studio pedagogy supports the “traditional” emphasis on carefully constructing a communicative object (a composition) that can make an impact on readers, auditors, viewers. In this way, it is a buttressing of the rhetorical dimension of writing, which often gets left behind when assignments assume a standard or universal mode of communicating.

Q: With studio work, how important is creating a polished product? What if they’re not done in the allotted studio time?

A: Studio time isn’t about creating a finished product. It’s more often about the process of learning how to compose through different forms. You should allot them enough time to be able to tackle a problem—maybe a particularly challenging video project extends over two sessions—but don’t expect them to complete a polished project. It’s important, too, to set aside time for them to do a “gallery walk,” in which they get to see what other students have accomplished (or not accomplished!) by the end of the session. (circulating!)

Q: Is it necessary to have dedicated studio time, or can we integrate the studio approach and mindset into classes on a daily basis?

A: To an extent, we’ve already been doing studio work in ECE/FYW courses. Whenever we put student work at the center of our class sessions and work collaboratively toward a goal, we are in a sense practicing “studio mode.” But the shift to 1007 means that we are now defining the course as having a studio component. At Storrs, the 1007 seminars are attached to a separate one-credit studio section. Everywhere else (including ECE), we have to clearly demarcate that at least one-credit of the 1007’s four credits is dedicated to studio pedagogy. Currently, then, we are requiring that instructors make this one-credit studio component clear on syllabi and course schedules. In time, we may decide that a more organic and fluid relationship between seminar and studio is more appropriate. For now, however, we ask that you include studio days as specific dedicated sessions. (These dates can be flexible, but be sure to include information about studio days, including how many such dates you will have.)

The English 1007 course can seem like a departure from familiar habits and methods of FYW/ECE English, but it’s more of an evolution or refresh, which we hope will become more clear in the next several months. We’re not giving up essay writing or academic modes in the changeover; we’re merely giving proper weight to the role that multimodal work plays in 21st-century composition.

2 thoughts on “Untangling Studio Pedagogy

  1. Thanks for this post. Removing the emphasis of the final polished product has helped engage students with their learning and growth. We use student reflections to enter into a conversation about meeting the learning targets/objectives and their process.

Comments are closed.