Author: Kari Daly

Untangling Studio Pedagogy

a pink rope tied into a knot
Image courtesy of

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 specific 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.

Choosing Readings, Part One

Getting at the Heart of Antiracist Work in Chavez’s The Antiracist Writing Workshop

Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Antiracist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Haymarket Books, 2021.

Book cover of The Antiracist Writing WorkshopThere are a lot of texts out there about antiracist pedagogies and not a lot of time for the average instructor to read them and distill their contents. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, but luckily we’re here to help! In this post, we spotlight a new publication which focuses on implementing antiracist strategies in the classroom, Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Antiracist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom.

Don’t let the title fool you — even if you don’t teach creative writing workshops, many of her suggestions can be tailored for first-year writing and literature courses. Part memoir, part rebellion against the white supremacist model of the creative writing workshop, Chavez’s slim volume offers suggestions for restructuring our teaching that dive deeply into not just how we respond to student work, but how we respond to students as people.

We’re particularly interested in how The Antiracist Writing Workshop can help guide us in choosing texts for our courses. A large part of Chavez’s book focuses on what she refers to as “Completing the Canon.” Though Chavez is specifically speaking to creative writing workshops here — pushing back on the imperative that students “read the masters” — many of her insights are applicable to the first-year writing classroom as well. Chavez encourages instructors to make choices that “promote justice, dignity, and self-love” when designing their reading lists. She suggests that:

Workshop leaders supplement participants’ own writing with a living archive of scanned print material, sourced pdfs, and multimedia art by young people, people of color, women, queer, differently abled, and gender-nonconforming artists. Accessible online, this living archive exposes participants to POC-friendly publishing platforms, multimedia art, and experimental genres. Most crucially, it allows for conversations with the authors themselves, contextualizing the texts within specific lived experiences. The ultimate goal is to invest in our collective integrity by renouncing white universality. Together, we can complete the canon and create a new normal (97).

Chavez offers an extensive (and growing) list of works to help enrich ECE course materials in this Google doc from her website, The Antiracist Writing Workshop.

Additionally, Chavez provides the following questions for instructors who are assessing their courses (45-46):

  • For whom do you design your curriculum? In other words, who is your ideal, imagined student? What assumptions do you make about their background?
  • What norms and values inform your curriculum choices?
  • Do you articulate your own positionality when lecturing? Why or why not?
  • Does your curriculum reflect its geographic location, including the subjugated histories, cultures, and languages?
  • How does your teaching legitimate the experiences and cultures of students of color?
  • How does your teaching affirm the agency of students of color?
  • How does your curriculum require white students to acquire the intellectual and cultural resources to function effectively in a plural society?
  • How do you build a community in your classroom where students learn actively from each other and draw on their own knowledge sources?
  • What can you do to make your assessment criteria show what all students are capable of, drawing on their strengths and promoting their agency and creativity?
  • Now ask yourself, am I read to prepare my headspace for change?

Answering these questions can feel humbling, but in a healthy way. They force us to reckon with the conscious and unconscious choices we make when we construct our syllabi and run our classroom, asking us who we are unintentionally excluding through our practice. Chavez’s work is illuminating, inspiring, and concise. At 180 pages (minus the appendices and notes), it’s something that instructors can read relatively quickly, dog-ear, and return to again. We suggest you take a look!

See Scott Campbell’s Part Two of this conversation here.