Mary Elizabeth Luka, Annette Markham, Laine Rettmer, Andrea Merkx

Image 1 (clockwise), above: Mary Elizabeth Luka, Laine Rettmer, Andrea Merkx, Annette Markham, at work online (presenters). Image courtesy of Andrea Merkx.

“On Method”: building a community of practice for multimodal scholarly performance

How can we shift mindsets about what counts as research method and research outcome to encourage and model more multimodal processes and products? What’s required to produce multimodal scholarship when this is not the primary skillset of an academic researcher? What happens when we perform our scholarship through creative non-fiction mini-documentaries, or through TikTok? In what ways could we develop communication studies pedagogy in the style of MasterClass? What else must shift when we embrace multimodality as the core form of teaching? These are some of the questions that undergirded the project we present at this preconference.

Please watch the following sample episode prior to our presentation on May 26. *Please do not share the episode, as it has not yet been released.

Video 1 above: On Method: Sherlock (penultimate version)

Images 2 & 3 above: Presenters scouting locations in Iceland; presenters working on video fine cuts in person in Iceland. Images courtesy of M.E. Luka (3) and Annette Markham (3)

Our contribution to this preconference is a backstage showcase of a pilot project we conducted in 2021 where we designed, scripted, produced, and animated “On Method,” a multimodal version of a methods “textbook” featuring Annette Markham, one of the presenters, who is a well-known communication research methods expert

Images 4-7 above (left to right, top to bottom), above: DoP/Assistant Editor during Australia shoot; Director Rettmer online from USA; DoP checking the shot; DoP setting up. Images courtesy of Annette Markham

This project demonstrates the power of multimodality to foreground different sensibilities around research methods, through script-writing, animation, television pacing, and professional production and direction. It also highlights the value and strength–as well as complications and challenges –of using a collaborative, co-creation model for this work, rather than relying on a single authorly voice or sole expert.

Images 8-9 above (left to right), above: Excerpt from script development session (100 pages) compared to final teleprompter excerpt (12 or so lines of script)

Images 10-11 (left to right), above: Screen grab of how we used an animated cat in a boat with a telescope rather than a more typical depiction of an “anthropologist in the field.” Image (left) courtesy of Annette Markham. Image (right) of Malinowski. Source: public domain.

Through this showcase, we contribute to two key points for this preconference discussion:

1) If we would like aspiring communication researchers to learn how to incorporate multimodal sensemaking more fully into their research practice and outcomes, our own pedagogical models need to reflect this multimodality, in form and presentation. There is a strong rationale for shifting to multi modalities. This has been laid out for the ICA preconference and also discussed by various practitioners, as well as editors of journals that seek to further these forms (e.g., Kairos). Yet, even as much as multi-modality is acknowledged, actualizing this shift– by developing multimodal content that actually works–remains a difficult task. There are many reasons for this, including the tasks of building layers that focus on meaning rather than the layers themselves.

Image 12, above: Screenshot from Zoom meeting. A playful illustration of the authors meeting to assemble a multi-modal piece for the ICA preconference. The process can be playful and energizing, but is never as simple as drawing on a screen. It takes careful development of concepts in each mode, as well as weaving or connecting these modes together in some way, a matter of time, multiple iterative cycles of draft development, and then producing these into a piece that can be legible for the intended audience. Image courtesy of Andrea Merkx

Images 13-14, above, illustrate the difference between an older stop motion video (on Youtube) using jellybeans to illustrate constant comparison and Annette Markham using rock collecting as a model for constant comparison in episode 9. Images courtesy of Andrea Merkx. 

It’s no surprise to us that the development of alternatives to traditional teaching models is a slow, decades long process even in the age of easy access to multi-modal tools. Frankly, it’s just easier to use written materials and lecture/listen as the core of knowledge transmission.

Image 15 above, an excerpt from script development session (June 2021), showcases the length of time it can take to develop an idea.

Images 16-17 (left to right, top), above: Collecting b-roll footage in Iceland (two locations). Images 18-19 (left to right, bottom), above: Working on fine cuts, and re-scripting/re-recording voiceover in Iceland. Images courtesy of M.E. Luka

Our second key point is:

2) Since multimodality is a challenging and time-consuming form of scholarship for many, it is well suited to collaborative versus individual effort.

As a form of meaning making that combines modes, such as linguistic, visual, aural, gestural, and spatial, its enactment is well suited to collaboration versus individual effort.

Figure 1 (above), summarizes a set of principles that can guide multi-modal development as a collaborative process.

Images 20-23 (left to right, top to bottom), above: Progression of visual presentation in Framing episode, from original image used in powerpoint; location shoot in Iceland; test of animated frame; screenshot from penultimate version of episode. Images courtesy of Markham (20); Luka (21); Merkx (22); Rettmer & Merkx (23)

We found in our own project that content –not just form– of the multimodal production morphed productively though the participation of collaborators from disparate fields of experience, including directing opera, conducting digital ethnography, designing websites, leading arts activism, producing TV segments, and building animations, among other skill sets.

Image 24, above: Annette Markham sitting in the middle of an image intended to show the way the method of situational mapping can generate a lot of data. This became a promotional image for the mapping episode. Image courtesy of David Yin.

Our presentation for ICA includes discussion of how voices, contributions, and knowledge itself gets remixed in the process of developing multimodal scholarship, which carries significant boundary-transgressing potential for communication studies and the teaching thereof. Note: this project is in progress and not all visual materials are final yet.

On Method Episode titles, lengths and descriptions

Episode (length)TitleFocus
01 (5 mins)Introduction: On MethodHow the host became involved in researching online/digital life; methods used to study this field
02 (8:44)Framing MethodThe host uses the metaphor of framing to demonstrate how the researcher’s values, approach and findings are shaped by their worldview, and therefore how understanding that worldview can help challenge assumptions and biases
03 (9:38)Citizen Science (digital ethnog)The episode reveals how individuals can undertake various easy-to-do ethnographic approaches to research in their own lives, to understand their own consumption habits, lifestyle, and values
04 (10:37)Sherlock Holmes: Thick descriptionBy using a well-known literary, stage and TV character and approach, the host demonstrates how ideas about forensic investigation can lead to both deductive and inductive research results
05 (11:49)Ethics as MethodResearcher responsibilities and the power dynamics of choices made during data definition, collection, analysis, and dissemination
06 (5:49)SerendipityVisually compelling, this episode breaks with the “talking head” format to use cooking skills as a metaphor for becoming an accomplished researcher
07 (12:33)Situational MappingVisually oriented methods to break open meaning, challenge assumptions, and document relationships in data management and analysis
08 (12:21)Notes (reflexivity in field notes)The host shows and modifies classical field note processes to demonstrate how to break down social interactions, in-person and online, in familiar and unfamiliar situations
09 (9:04)Making Data [constant comparison]Using constant comparison as a qualitative method to document and recognize patterns in data analysis and management
(Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2022 | Mary Elizabeth Luka, Annette Markham, Laine Rettmer, Andrea Merkx