By Ed Campbell
We engage in multimodal meaning-making constantly during our daily lives. Yet we still understand relatively little about how we make meaning of the various ‘modes’ we encounter and the multiplicity of potential meanings generated through the social placement of different types of media, within close proximity to one another. That might be because we take many of the meaning-making practices we engage in for granted.
It also means that we often struggle to articulate how and why we make certain kinds of meaning from the legion of people, things and communicational sources we encounter. Let’s look at a rationale for teaching multimodal awareness at Higher Education and briefly look at how this could be done through film, using Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film Roma as an example.
But why cultivate the ability to explain how we make meaning – the fostering of ‘multimodal awareness’ so to speak? The terms ‘meta-awareness’ and ‘meta-language’ have recently been problematized, with critics questioning whether their importance in learning has not been overstated in recent years. So, let’s bank those two theoretical constructs for now and speak in more practical terms. Multimodal awareness could:
- Teach us to understand ourselves better through learning how (and why) we see things in a specific way;
- Enable us to critically challenge our own belief systems, because the ways in which we make meaning through multimodality often reflect nuanced and sometimes hidden cultural perspectives and ideologies. Articulating how we make meaning might expose these;
- Help us understand how others are making meaning and why people sometimes choose to communicate in a certain way;
- Guide us towards understanding the choices others did not make;
- In terms of media, obtain a feel for the types of messages, technical constraints, positions, production limitations, cultural ‘shapings’ and shifts within a medium and/or a genre. In a society often described as ‘media-saturated’, this is becoming increasingly important.
Although the above reasons for teaching multimodal awareness might fit the learning outcomes of humanities classrooms like a glove, it should not be limited to these classes: multimodal awareness gets us to critically engage with texts, objects and artefacts. This critical ability is as important in the science classroom as in any environment associated with the arts.
As a matter of fact, it could be argued that a multimodal perspective could reveal the connections between supposedly distinct disciplines, in the way communication is viewed as a mesh of technical, social, cultural, political, historic and/or economic factors, all bundled together and inseparable.
So, without overthinking it, if we accept that multimodal awareness is the bee’s knees, how do we teach it at Higher Education? Let’s look at a short scene from Roma.
Roma is a recent critically acclaimed film by director Alfonso Cuarón about a Mexican housekeeper’s experience with abandonment, unwanted pregnancy, class difference, gender discrimination and loneliness. The film is based on the life of the director’s mother in the early 1970s, who is portrayed through the soft-spoken character Cleodegaria (Cleo) Gutierrez.
Idea for a lesson plan:
A 2- to 3-minute scene from the film can be screened in class. An apt one would be the climactic scene soon after Cleo gives birth to a still-born child (a powerful scene worthy of exploration in its own right):
Sofia, Cleo’s employer, leaves a quiet and distant Cleo on the beach to look after 3 of her (Sofia’s) children. The 2 elder siblings insist on swimming and are instructed to swim in the shallow waters, since Cleo cannot swim and thus would not be able to aid them, should the ocean currents pull them into deeper waters.
In a medium shot (with the camera focus not far, nor close to the characters – a shot often indicating social distance, where the audience become observers), Cleo is shown tending to the younger sibling, who is on dry land. She is standing with her back to the ocean.
Cleo constantly yells to the other children to stay in the shallow waters over her shoulder. The camera stays on Cleo throughout this portion of the scene, as she turns around and scans the ocean, which is out of the shot at this time.
Like the rest of the film, there is no music playing – the only sounds are the pulsating sound of the waves and Cleo’s calling of the children’s names as she walks towards the ocean. She stops calling and walks faster towards the water. The camera is still focusing only on her with no cut away shots. The children in the ocean are never heard.
Cleo enters the ocean, battling against the tide. The camera follows her until she arrives at one of the children, whom is struggling to keep afloat in the deeper water. The other child is not visible. Cleo submerges herself in the water and surfaces with the other child in her arms. She helps both children to the safety of the beach.
On the shore, Sofia returns in haste. The 2 adults and the 3 children embrace, sobbing. Through the crying we hear Cleo murmuring something. Sofia asks her to repeat what she said. Cleo, struggling to speak through her tears, says assertively and loudly: “I did not want the baby.”
In an open-ended classroom discussion, provide the students with the prompts below, or adapt them to suit your students better. There are no right or wrong answers: you want the students to critically engage with the scene at the level of the semiotic choices that were made and to allow them to interrogate their own interpretations of the scene, while reflecting on the interpretations of others. This should not be a critique and I’d suggest informing the students explicitly that whether they think the scene is good or bad (“…that’s just my opinion…”) is not of interest during this discussion:
- How is tension established in the scene? Comment on camera distance/focus, editing, movement/gesture, sound and language. What else would you like to comment on?
- How is this different and/or similar to the way tension is established in other (more mainstream) films?
- Did you notice the absence of music? Debate whether this scene needs music. If yes, what kind of music would have been apt?
Please note: before playing the scene in class, think carefully about whether the scene is appropriate for your students. If not, find another scene where certain ideas (like tension) are communicated in novel ways, different from the norm.
A final comment: you can decide on whether you want to ‘prime’ students about why you are doing this exercise by telling them what your envisioned learning outcomes are. In certain classes, like in the sciences, students might need a proper rationale. Discuss the rationale, inviting questions, until you are sure they understand it. Add tailored prompts that might engage your specific students by foregrounding technical, political, social, historic, or economic aspects of the scene, depending on the students. If you really want to mix things up, why not allow the students to analyse my description of the scene above, which obviously subtly reflects my interpretation and foregrounds what I saw as important? Have fun, but do encourage analytical rigour!
‘Roma’ is currently available on Netflix, depending on the country you are in.