Faculty Spotlight: Chris Thaiss

When Dr. Chris Thaiss, Clark Kerr Presidential Chair and professor in the University Writing Program, teaches Writing in the Professions-Science, he assigns a group research project that inevitably leads to creative, multimodal undertakings.

Thaiss divides the class into three-student teams, who identify an area of scientific inquiry on which the members agree to collaborate. After studying the history of research, key studies, and current thinking on that issue, the students write and submit a formal research review. At the end of the quarter, each team makes a formal oral/visual presentation to the class.

Thaiss adds an interesting twist: “I have each member of the team identify one element of the research to adapt for a different audience. For example, last time I taught the course, teams chose such topics as the contamination of the environment by lead bullets, which damages animal populations like condors; one of my students designed signage for parks to raise hunters’ and other visitors’ consciousness of the issue. Another team of students worked on treatment of animals in zoos; one member created a brochure for zoo visitors to explain the reasons for new designs of enclosures; another wrote a photo essay suitable for a magazine like National Geographic.”

To accomplish such tasks, the students have to understand what their intended audiences do and do not know, and then make decisions on how to introduce the information. More often than not, this results in multimedia modes of presenting and designing. “Most students use photographs,” Thaiss explains, “and some people design blogs or videos. They use the available technology in a lot of different ways.”

Importantly, Thaiss does not require the students to create multimodal projects – “I don’t say, ‘you have to use something other than words,’ but once I say, ‘you can use visuals, sound, movement,’ the students let their imaginations go. I have only a few students who, given those options, want to create something with only verbal text.”

Thaiss says the success of this project is due to the students’ enthusiasm for the creativity involved in translating an idea to multiple audiences: “One of the reasons they like it so much is because they are passionate about the issues they choose. They want to get the information out, and they completely understand that most people aren’t going to read highly technical reports. So I ask them, ‘how will you make this accessible to the audience that you are trying to reach?’ Most of them design pieces for the Web, or write photojournalism for Scientific American or a popular news magazine.”

Through this project, Thaiss not only teaches important rhetorical skills, but also promotes student research on issues about which they are passionate and encourages them to share their research with the community. The technology use that happens only further promotes creativity and learning.

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