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Article / Multimodal Communication

The Multimodal College Paper

Roy K. Humble / 24 July 2020

This is Part 3 of a four-part series on multimodal communication that's intended as a supplement to The Humble Argument. Part 1 provides a general introduction to multimodal communication. Part 2 introductions the central concepts and terminology of multimodal communication. This article provides an overview of the general multimodal expectations that college professors have for your college paper. Part 4 wraps things up with more specific guidelines for different academic disciplines and some help with using visual elements within college papers.

There's only so much multimodaling that you are expected to do with your college paper. That's because most or all of your college papers live within a fairly rigid and traditional rhetorical situation:

In this rhetorical situation, you're limited just two modes of communication. The primary mode is linguistic. You translate your ideas into words and group them together in sentences, paragraphs, and sections of your paper. The supporting mode is visual. You illustrate your ideas with images, and you format your paper according to genre conventions so that it looks like you know what you're doing.

Yes, there are some writing professors who will assign you to make films or give oral presentations or pursue other kinds of multimodal projects in your writing class. However, even if these professors represent the future of college writing, they are still the exception in the present. For everyone else — especially those who assign researched writing in other academic disciplines — you are limited primarily to the linguistic mode, with the visual mode as its trusty sidekick.

To help you make the most of the linguistic mode, you have the whole Humble Argument or Humble Essay to guide you, so read them closely. Commit important sections to memory. Share those with your closest friends. If you don't have a copy, go buy a copy for yourself. You won't regret it.

To help you make the most of the visual mode, we'll look at four ways to make your paper make you look like you know what you're doing:

  1. Follow the Assignment Instructions
  2. Follow General Formatting Conventions
  3. Use Appropriate Academic Style Guides
  4. Use Visual Elements within You

We'll cover the first two methods in this article. We'll look at the second two in Part 4 of this series, "Using Academic Styles and Visual Elements."

1. Follow the Assignment Instructions

Most of the time, your professors tell you what they want your paper to look like. They put that in their assignment instructions. Here's an example of an early-in-the-term assignment for a typical writing class:

Introductory Essay

First Impressions of Langston Hughes

Directions:Write a two-page paper explaining your first impressions of "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes and what questions it raises for you and other readers.

Grading and Response:This is ungraded paper. I use it to evaluate the writing skills and needs of the class. I will return yours with a comment about a week after it is turned in. Late papers are not accepted.

Format:This paper should be typed and double-spaced and use a standard font such as Times New Roman (12 point), and include the following information at the top of the first page:

For you to look like you know what you're doing with this assignment, your first task is read the assignment instructions — to actually read them, closely, and not just skim them or put the assignment sheet in your backpack, where it is lost. It saddens me that I have to tell you this, but many student writers skim the instructions or ignore them and then assume they can wing it. Foolish student writers! If you want to be taken seriously, take your readers seriously.

After you have taken your readers seriously and carefully considered the assignment instructions, follow those instructions. Follow them closely. Do the reading, thinking, and writing that's required in the "Directions" section. That's 90% of your work. That process brings you to the thoughtful words you will use to explain your idea — the linguistic mode.

The other 10% of your work is to make the paper look like it's supposed to look, and those visual requirements are mostly outlined here in the "Format" section. If you follow those "Format" instructions closely, your maker will make you will look like you have something to say, which you probably do.

2. Follow General Formatting Conventions

In addition to the formatting required in assignment instructions, however, there are general formatting conventions in college, and these are usually left unstated. The ink color, for example, should be black. The paper size should be 8.5 x 11-inches. It should be white paper. The words should be printed on just one side of the page, too, even though that's unfriendly to trees. These conventions aren't stated in the assignment instructions because your professors assume that you learned these conventions in high school and will do them without being told.

To make your paper look professional, then, you need start with whatever conventions your assignment instructions define, but you can't stop there. You should also make sure your follows a larger set of general conventions for college papers, whether they are stated or not. These are also good to follow when the assignment doesn't tell you anything about what your paper should look like.

Here are some the general conventions that give any college paper a good, professional look:

Typed

By "typed," I don't mean with a typewriter anymore, not for anyone under sixty. I mean written on a computer and printed on a laser or inkjet printer so that all the letters are smooth and pretty, like in books. But if you're still rocking the typewriter, good for you, old-timer. Enjoy your golden years however you like.

Double-spaced

This means that you tell your computer to automatically put a line of white space between every other line. Students who grew up using typewriters used to try to create double-spacing on computers like they did on typewriters — pressing RETURN twice at the end of each line. If you're tempted to do that, don't. It makes editing impossible. But probably you're too young to make that mistake.

Standard Font

A professional font is one that does not draw any attention to itself with any kind of fanciness. This probably means something like "Times New Roman" or "Cambria," which are basic fonts that come with most computers. You have to make sure that the italic style in your chosen font is visually distinct from the regular one, but otherwise, there's no single font that you have to use. Times New Roman is on its way to becoming the single font that you have to use, however, so you might as well use it.

A standard font also means that you use a standard size — 12 points. With some fonts, the 10-point size is more readable, and the 12-point size looks enormous. If you run into that, it usually means you're using a nonstandard font and should change to something that looks good in its 12-point size.

Some people like to use the "Courier" font because it imitates typewriters by using monospaced (all letters are the same width) letters that look like old-fashioned typewriter letters. This is fun for people who are nostalgic for typewriters, but with typewriter-nostalgic people dying off left and right, it's quickly becoming a font that draws attention to itself by being so old-fashioned. Therefore, don't.

Paper

If you are turning in a physical copy of paper, use standard white paper for it. Don't use fancy resume paper. Don't use the opposite of fancy resume paper — notebook paper or the backs of recycled handouts. Just use the basic white paper that you find — for free — in the copier machine at the library. Only print on one side of the page, too, unless your professor is earth-minded and asks you to save paper by using both sides or unless you get permission to do so in advance.

Black Ink

I mention this for those of you using inkjet printers. If that's you, then you know that the black ink runs out way before the colored ink, and with some inkjet printers, the ink comes in a single, four-color cartridge. When the black ink runs out on one of those printers, you have to throw out all the unused colored ink just to replace the black ink. Wouldn't it make more sense, you say, to print a paper with remaining colored ink? Something very blue, for example? Wouldn't your professor respect that attempt to maximize your ink investment, save the environment?

The short answer is "no." Any ink not called black draws attention to itself. The longer answer is"probably not." You are welcome to ask your professor up front if this would be acceptable. If your professor agrees, then go for it. Your paper will still look a little less professional, but at least you will have balanced that loss of visual credibility but earning some ethical credibility for your frugal sensibility and environmental concern.

Page Layout

The format of the page as a whole is made up of a few important ingredients that work together to create a general look for each page:

If you're thinking that all this fussiness about formatting seems ridiculous, let me assure you that "ridiculous" is a reasonable response — but only outside of a professional environment like college or the legal system or work. When you're writing a letter to Grandma Helen, you don't need page numbers or Times New Roman. Go ahead and throw in some emojis. She prefers the bright pink ink, too, because she loves any evidence that backs up her theory that you are a special person.

a grandmother adores a photograph of a grandchild.
Grandma Helen adoring the five-year-old photo of you. Would it kill you to send her an update?

Whatever, Grandma Helen.

Within a professional environment, however, this kind of fussiness is an essential part of how people communicate with each other. By following these general conventions, all the documents look more or less the same, and that makes them easier to read and evaluate. By following these general conventions, nobody's distracted by nonstandard fonts or purple ink or your terrible handwriting. Your ability to master those professional conventions also tells your readers that this is not your first academic rodeo. It give you a little more professional credibility.

This discussion continues in Part 4 of this series, "Using Academic Styles and Visual Elements."