The Specter of Standardization, Open Mic Night, and Multimodality

A spectre is haunting writing centers – the spectre of standardization. All the powers of instruction have entered into an alliance to exorcise this spectre – directors and coordinators, tutors and consultants, administrators and faculty.
— me, today

While I do not want to dwell on the nuanced (maybe?) reference to The Communist Manifesto above, I do want to examine what I refer to as “the specter of standardization.” As writing center practitioners, we are, in one form or another, constantly navigating standard English, or some variety of standard English(es). When students submit papers in classes and visit writing centers, students may be asked, implicitly at least, to adjust their communication and compositions in order to accommodate the requirements of standard academic English. My use of the term accommodate in the previous sentence is quite deliberate: we must  make students aware that all forms in which they communicate are equally valuable and equally valid. In our center, as in many others, we emphasize the fact that college asks students to write for a particular academic discipline, audience, or community of thinkers.

To show that the writing center can be a space for expressing all of these forms, we have started holding Open Mic Night events. The peer tutors advertise, promote, and host these events in our theater space. Students share short stories, poetry, anecdotes, and even excerpts from essays (yes, that really happens!). I have been consistently impressed by the wonderful work of the peer tutors and the encouraging and empathetic space they are able to create.

I have not, however, reflected upon the multimodal nature of our Open Mic events until quite recently. The SWCA 2017 conference declared, “Welcome to Today’s Multimodal Writing Center.” While I have been thinking about multimodality in my own center, I have not considered the ways in which our events outside of the center are multimodal. The New London Group’s classifications of the different modes of meaning – visualgesturallinguisticspatial, and audio – are all wondrously part of our Open Mic Night event. Texts that have been written down are, to borrow a term from Bolter and Grusin, remediated.  Emphatic hands gestures, dramatic shifts in tone of voice, and the sound of a ukulele are just some of the highlights from our last Open Mic Night. A backdrop for the college’s upcoming theater production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both looms awkwardly in the background and blends in seamlessly.

Open Mic Night, then, emerges as a multimodal experience, one that exists outside of the space of our center and mobilizes all five of the New London Group’s modes of meaning in order to exorcise the specter of standardization.


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