Reflections on MODE Multimodality Conference

Reporting back on Multimodality: Methodological Explorations (MODE Conference, IoE, University College London, 15 – 16 January 2015)

by Claire Collins, Research Lead, emCETT PLAR core team, January 2015

Following on from our highly engaging and interesting PLAR webinar 2, entitled ‘What is Multimodality and why does it matter?’, I am blogging about a conference I attended the  following day called Multimodality: Methodological Explorations, at the Institute of Education in London. The conference marked 15 years since the term multimodality became part of our communicative landscape, following on from the work of the New London Group (NLG), which included their key text ‘A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures’ (1996). One of the NLG, Gunther Kress (pictured opposite), alongside other key multimodality researchers such as Theo Van Leeuwen, gave key note speeches to delegates from around the world, including Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK.

It was fascinating to discuss multimodality with scholars from many different fields. As I talked to people and listened to presentations on such diverse subjects as ‘the Roles of Space and Time in Making Meaning’ and ‘Multimodality and green web identity’, I reflected on what ideas/ observations I could share with practitioner researchers working on ‘practitioner-led action research’ (PLAR) projects this year. I thought about a few things including:

  1. Multimodal data you collect, including, for example, sound and visual images.
  2. How you analyse this data, for example focussing on what research participants say in words and also non-verbal modes like gesture, intonation, word stress, etc.
  3. How your present your findings so that they are accessible and communicate your meaning through multiple modes.

In a presentation focussing on the space – time mode, Adam Wood from Manchester Metropolitan University stressed the importance of considering all modes when undertaking research. He talked about 16th Century Venice and how the Jewish population had been forced to move into old foundry areas, called ‘ghettos’ in Italian. These places were bound in space by canals but also by the time between midnight and the sound of the foundry bells in the morning – when the curfews took place. To ignore the mode of time and only show the ghetto on a map would be to miss key information. Adam said that multimodality thereby “insists on being rigorously eclectic”.

I was also reminded of the need to gather multimodal data during a wonderfully-named presentation called ‘Urban Flanerie as Multimodal Autoethnography’ by, Michael Sean Gallagher (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Republic of Korea), Jeremy Knox and James Lamb (University of Edinburgh). They were reporting back on the results of an ‘urban flanerie’ they had carried out in London the night before their presentation, in the area postcode EC1. I had never heard the term ‘flanerie’ before and the researchers explained that it is not exactly translatable into English but roughly means ‘a purposeful stroll’. They recorded their flanerie using audio and still images (video would have taken too long to edit). At one stage, they had walked into one of London’s parks and wanted to capture the sound of the rustling plants and trees they saw there as a contrast to the busy streets they had walked around.  When they played back their recording, they realised that all they could hear was the sound of construction, of ‘a city constantly being rebuilt’. If they had only captured images, they would have missed an essential element of their environment. Similarly, the photos they took of beautiful buildings in EC1, on analysis, all contained CCTV cameras that they had not seen previously (with the naked eye). These observations made me think about research in a classroom. For example, we might be studying with a group of learners and ask them to express their feelings about a certain intensive group task. To add to the learners’ feedback, we might have audio recorded a ‘buzz’ in the room when the activity was taking place which would add to or perhaps even conflict with learners’ self report of their feelings about the task.

If you are one of this year’s practitioner researchers, it is important to think how you might communicate meaning multimodally in your research reports, through the images you show, for example, or the emphasis you place on different key findings by laying them out on a page. In PLAR webinar 2, John Sutter highlighted the many different ways we can communicate meaning in his presentation on multimodality. As John explained, colour, layout and many other factors ’speak’ to readers. As such, it is important to consider all modes when designing your reports using the ‘semiotic resources’ available to you (the ways you make meaning). Jeff Brazier’s research into multimodal communication during surgical operations, shared by Jeff as a key note speech at the conference, showed the importance of using varied ‘semiotic resources’ when sharing research findings. He has analysed communication between consultant surgeons and their trainees during operations. Because his observations were about minute gestures and other subtle communicative acts, he could only share them effectively by reenacting the operations he had studied in front of an audience of fellow surgeons and trainers. Jeff explained that “by communicating findings through multimodal design we see things in new ways”.  I am going to stop there as this sums up very well what we are doing this year and why multimodality does indeed matter.