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Source: Phillip Marzluf, 785-532-2156,
Pronouncer: Marzluf is marz-luff
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415,

Monday, Nov. 23, 2009

Reaching millennial students:

MANHATTAN -- If colonial patriot Thomas Paine were making an argument for revolution today, "Common Sense" would more likely be a bumper sticker slogan or a YouTube video than a pamphlet.

That's why an English professor at Kansas State University thinks that teaching millennial students about rhetoric shouldn't be limited to the page. Instead, it should be a multimodal experience.

"People get really nostalgic for the old, traditional essay," said Phillip Marzluf, associate professor of English. "I wonder when these are being read. Are they still a focus of the public? Do they move the public in certain ways? I would argue that they probably don't."

Marzluf integrates images and visual communications into the curriculum for K-State's Expository Writing II classes. He plans to continue this trend in the classes he teaches, and is sharing ideas to help other teachers adopt the same approach. He presented "Meeting the Multimodal Millennial" in October at the Kansas Association of Teachers of English conference in Wichita.

"A lot of the traditional assignments are still with us," Marzluf said. "My concern is that if we're still doing a lot of the print-based, monomodal, traditional essays, are we really reaching out to the ways that arguments are being made in students' public lives and professional lives as citizens and consumers? Literacy is changing, and so as teachers and professors we're going to have to change with it."

In spring 2010, Marzluf will teach a course on public writing. To see what the public sector looks like for millennial students, he said to think about the 2008 presidential campaign. Then-candidate Barack Obama's discussion on race, "A More Perfect Union," was a multimodal discourse.

"It was all over YouTube, and it was very easy to get to," he said. "It was something you could access over and over again. If this were just done in a traditional essay format -- like Martin Luther King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' -- it probably would not have been consumed as much and probably would not have made much of an impact at all."

That's why K-State students in Expository Writing II blend traditional reading and writing assignments with ones
that use a variety of media and writing styles. For instance, students are asked to make an argument by writing an editorial response to a news item, and they also write in a memo format to help them identify their audience.

To incorporate visual forms of persuasion, Marzluf has students in his own sections of the class use a proposal paper they've written to create advertisements and bumper stickers for a cause they choose, from autism advocacy to raising awareness about drug abuse. Marzluf then has the students reflect on the benefits and constraints of these media, as well as how it makes them think differently and how audiences respond to it.

Marzluf said he'd like to incorporate the sound medium into a future class by producing audio profiles reminiscent of the public radio program "This American Life."

He said millennial students seem to enjoy the multimodal approach, although the age group's digital literacy sometimes is overstated.

"We have these assumptions about teenagers and their lives," Marzluf said. "Because they're at school for so many hours a day, they're not as dominated by digital media as much as we might think they are."