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5: Institutions/Histories/Traditions/Disciplinarities:

Re-Inventing (vs. “Inventing”) Language/Modality

Image of a blue wall with a musical score painted on it. The bottom portion of the wall has been torn away, revealing the brick beneath. An asphalt road with parking spaces and melting snow is in the foreground.
the score by Kevin used via CC license.

Not only is there now a substantial (and growing) body of scholarship affiliated with composition studies (and, more broadly, literacy studies) addressing questions of language and modality; there also exist well-established research and teaching traditions, represented most clearly by institutional disciplines (and, often, “departments”) devoted to the study and teaching of language, media, modalities.

Here we have in mind not so much, or just, composition’s recognizable institutional bedfellows (and occasional rivals) in departments of communication, education, journalism, rhetoric, and (sometimes) media studies, but also traditions of research and teaching in linguistics (applied and theoretical), specific languages (modern and not), and specific media (music, dance, theater, film, photography, graphic design, painting, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, etc.).1

In our discussions of these traditions, at least three kinds of interrelated issues surfaced for us: issues of cross-disciplinary learning, issues of disciplinary boundaries and integrity, and issues of material resources.

Photo of Bruce Horner

Institutionally, how do we engage productively with the work of established disciplinary traditions that focus (and claim expertise) on matters of modality, medium, and language (film, music, linguistics, “speech,” visual arts, graphic design, the modern languages), ...Aside from simply acknowledging work in these other disciplines, how might we operate as “sojourners” rather than “tourists” (to invoke Michael Byram’s distinction, made with respect to intercultural competence) (and perhaps invite others to do the same) in the territories of these other disciplines?2

I’m tempted here to talk about my own experience working within and across the disciplinary divides of music, (verbal) composition studies, and literary study (my dissertation had the portentous title “The Rhetorics of Seventeenth-century English Songs”). That experience persuades me there is much to be gained through such cross-disciplinary work, for all the disciplines “crossed.” At the same time, there is a real danger, in attempting or being asked to represent (as proxy and portrait) a discipline, of treating disciplinary practices themselves as internally uniform and stable, which then encourages exactly the touristic stance against which Byram warns—here, perhaps, music (and the examples from music deployed in this piece) as exotic and/or the introduction of examples from music as manifestations of authorial “sophistication” in the most banal sense of that term. How to avoid that? Perhaps by emphasizing and seeking out the mundane in disciplinary work outside composition—following Raymond Williams’ insistence that “culture is ordinary.” So, here, the Beethoven not as the “Beethoven” of legend (irascible but admirable, tragic musical genius whose frowning bust adorns countless pianos) but as fellow composer, who worked with pen and (scored) paper and instruments and countless colleagues to put sounds together. Or the inevitable merging of the tactile, visual, aural (and more) in the experience of playing and witnessing the playing of the Bach invention (and, as well, the Beethoven Hammerklavier sonata), and all other music. To get past the “Grand Canyon” of disciplines to explore their grand canyons (to riff on Walker Percy’s “Loss of the Creature”).

Photo of Cindy Selfe

This is another really great question and one digital media folks in English depts. struggle with all the time—we have to talk to people in film production programs, art programs, journalism programs about what we do with composing mediated texts that is different from/the same as they do in their own programs. And in terms of scholarship, digital media compositionists are always dealing with scholarly work in new media studies, film, audio studies—much of which may have outlier status in various English departments or composition programs.

In the following, we take up each of these issues separately while recognizing their ineluctable interrelations.

Black and white photo of a tree with many different interwining limbs and branches
connections by Grace and heritage used via CC license.

Cross-Disciplinary Learning

Put positively, there is an almost overwhelming body of work in these “fields” that those of us in composition can and should undertake to learn from. 1 In addition to providing insights into areas of communication not commonly recognized by composition scholarship and teaching, these other fields (their assumptions, research, and teaching methodologies) can, at the very least, provide fresh perspectives on our own—what we understand to be (and practice as) simply the “norm.” For example, the challenges of musical notation give a fresh perspective on the notational practices taken as the norm in (verbal) composition, just as the layout of images brings to the fore the visuality, as it were, of texts as images. 4

At the same time, and conversely, insofar as every disciplinary tradition ([verbal] composition included) is shaped as much by exclusions as by inclusions, we would not want to bind ourselves to the (imagined) orthodoxies of these other traditions in re-imagining the work of composing. Thus, while it would be inefficient to “reinvent the wheel” in approaching matters of linguality and modality, given the enormous corpus of scholarship and teaching on such matters in these other fields, there is the possibility of new insights to be gained from reconsidering, from the vantage point of composition’s own disciplinary concerns, the significant findings and practices of these other fields.5

Here, as before, the notion of competence can stand in the way of productive engagement: instead of aiming for (individual) mastery of these disciplines as traditionally conceived, we might instead aim at collaborating with those in these other fields for the benefit of all rather than attempting to either poach from or instruct and correct those in these other fields.

Disciplinary Boundaries and Integrity

We include both “boundaries” and “integrity” in this section to signal our recognition of the problematics of disciplinary restrictions, the inevitability and necessity of specific disciplinary commitments and paths, and the challenge and possibility of engaging this dialectical tension within cross-disciplinary teaching and study.

In parallel with our comments in the section above, we recognize that some orthodoxies may well reign within specific disciplines to which it would be counterproductive to wholly subscribe ourselves in the interest of “interdisciplinary” collegiality, but also that there is a need for respect (recall the warning issued in Royster, 1996) and attention to the histories underlying such orthodoxies.

At the same time, we also recognize that disciplines, especially at first pass, can seem more monumental and intransigent—more internally uniform, stable, and homogeneous—than in practice they are. 6 So, for example, a radical debate exists (in the sense of challenges to root assumptions) in the field of applied linguistics on which Bruce has drawn (see Firth & Wagner, 1997; Lillis, 2013). It seems paramount, in drawing on such scholarship and working with those in these fields, to learn and learn to recognize the dynamics of such debates. One consequence of this work can be a productive re-cognition, in the sense of re-acquaintance, with the governing assumptions and commitments of the discipline to which one feels most aligned (i.e., for us, composition studies), despite the ongoing radical challenges to some of its key concepts (as in, what constitutes a “composition”—see Yancey, 2004—or “writing”—see George, 2002; Hesse & Selfe, 2010).7

For example, Bruce notes that, in contrast to composition, scholars in other disciplines often not only don’t ask but also see no need to ask what the pedagogical implications of their language practices might be, nor what the pedagogical scene might contribute to their own understanding of their discipline. Teaching is simply not a defining disciplinary concern of many disciplines—members may be dedicated teachers, but teaching is for many not seen as part of their discipline’s purview. Such moments of critical re-cognition can support the integrity of both one’s “own” discipline and those of others without merely submitting to the restrictions such disciplinary commitments and practices might impose.

Institutional/Material Working Conditions

It’s easy enough to imagine working cross-disciplinarily in one’s research. Indeed, most institutions regularly circulate admonitions encouraging faculty to engage in just such projects. Designing courses and curricula that actually engage in cross-disciplinary work is quite another matter. Given institutional budgeting practices (e.g., departments claiming and counting FTEs generated) and the conflation of disciplinarity with departments, work that crosses disciplinary divides can quickly run aground.8

We can imagine two tactics by which to navigate these challenges—tactics we identify with the two competing prefixes for the work we explore here. On the one hand, by announcing one’s work as “multi” and by bringing in colleagues from other (related) disciplines, as in team-taught courses, the perceived threat of poaching (students or their FTEs, courses, funding) may be dissipated. So, just as one might tactically aim at trans-languaging by first encouraging multilinguality, teachers might aim at transmodal (as well as translingual) courses by first encouraging coursework in a variety of media as conventionally understood.

The danger here is of achieving at best a veneer: like shallow versions of multiculturalism in which culture (in the singular) is replaced by a set of cultures treated as internally uniform, stable, and discrete from others.

Likewise, work across language departments—French, Chinese, Spanish, etc., and English (in this context, understood as another “modern” language, rather than something else)—might first develop through programs requiring multilinguality, an updating of, say, work in comparative literatures and languages and/or translation studies. And again, as the updating reference suggests, the danger is that such a strategy would reinforce monolingualist ideologies teaching languages as (again) internally uniform, stable, and discrete from others.

The “trans” strategy would directly confront the ideologies responsible for the dispersal of work in language and medium into separate “departments” by insisting on the necessity of challenging the assumptions of those ideologies from the start. Here one might contest these from the “inside,” drawing on a range of work from different language and medium/arts disciplines to challenge the assumption that these are not “proper”—i.e., do not belong—to one’s own discipline. This would seem to be the strategy taken by compositionists like ourselves in pursuing our work.9

At the same time, one might well find and align oneself with “fellow travelers” in other disciplines pursuing analogous tactics from within their own departments. 10 The danger here is a reinforcement, through maintenance, of existing disciplinary divides and, ironically, the parochialization of one’s thought through cutting off the benefits of working across languages/modalities/disciplines. After all, one still would be working “within” the strictures of one’s own department, and academic institutions are notoriously adept at accommodating and defanging such ventures through “horizontal” structuring: a myriad of diverse and discrete courses, programs, and departments never engaging the work of one another.

In this sense, emerging subspecialties of composition “in” digital media studies, multimodality, translinguality, or multilingual composition, which are described in job advertisements and that call for candidates with specializations in these areas, might be understood as a “broadening” by the addition of new, discrete segments that do not challenge dominant teaching and research practices.11

  1. Indeed it has become impossible, I think, to be a digital compositionist and focus narrowly on the fields of rhetoric and composition. One of the most recognizable scholars influencing digital media scholars, for example, is Gunther Kress. A member of the New London Group, Kress has been a Professor of English, but he notes that his experiences with different languages and cultures (and his awareness that language and culture were inextricable) led him from the study of literature, to explorations of linguistics, cultural studies, visual studies, and semiotics. Kress' work on multiliteracy explores the many different ways in which and systems through which humans make meaning.

  2. Understanding Bruce's point here, I believe, involves understanding something about the work of Michael Byram, whose work has influenced contemporary language-education policies in the European Union. Byram reminds us that languages are important keys to knowing other people and their cultures, and to being citizens who are critically aware (able to see ourselves as others see us). He focuses, in particular, on the goal of “plurilingualism” (being able to use “several languages in different degrees”) rather than “bilingualism” or “multilingualism,” which suggests the mastery of two or several languages to an equal degree.

    To Byram, productive citizens in multicultural/multilingual contexts should have proficiency in several languages and lived experiences with other cultures. These skills are part of “intercultural competence,” which consists, among other traits, of an open attitude toward other cultures, curiosity about other peoples, and a critical awareness of one's own culture.

    Within this intellectual context, I think, it's easier to comprehend what Bruce means when he talks about engaging “productively” with other disciplines (or languages or modalities), not as tourists, but as sojourners. We might never entirely master other disciplines (or languages or modalities), with their own rich histories and competencies, but we can seek out experiences with these arenas, encourage our own curiosity about them, and learn something of their intellectual approaches. And these experiences may well help us become more critically aware of our own disciplinary perspectives. We can become pluridisciplinary, in short.

    For more about Michael Byram’s thinking, readers may want to listen to the following lecture that he gave at the University of Durham in London:

  3. Some examples of composition scholarship that attempts to bring together perspectives on translingualism and trans/multimodality include Cope and Kalantzis, Hawisher and Selfe, Lam, Wang, and the recent work of Suresh Canagarajah. For recent parallel efforts at rapprochement between work in New Literacy Studies and work on (especially) visual modalities, see Baynham and Prinsloo.

  4. For additional insight on the ways that matters of visual semiotics figure into the teaching of composition, readers may want to refer to Stephen Bernhardt’s early and germinal article “Seeing the Text” and Diana George’s important addition to the professional conversation “From Analysis to Design.”

  5. Bruce—somewhere here in this section, I think we might want to talk about the danger of taking ourselves and our competencies so seriously that we eliminate the space (intellectual, physical, emotional) for experimentation, trying new things out, play. At the intersections of these different disciplinary traditions we might be able to find room for experimentation and learning from one another in playful (as well as serious) ways. Such play may well require, however, overcoming dominant cultural predispositions that privilege some languages and modalities (and genres) as more legitimately intellectual and/or academic, than others. For instance, in the academy, mathematics may be the only symbolic mode that carries as great (greater?) intellectual prestige than English alphabetic writing.

    Also, there are problems that I think are related to dispositions when they continue unexamined. For example, when people become habituated to print environments and subscribe to the primacy of alphabetic print as the very best/highest/most effective way of communicating, they also may begin to equate alphabetic print literacy (the ability to use alphabetic print) as a sign of intelligence itself. And in this way, they may also lose sight of the fact that other very intelligent people communicate perfectly effectively using different modalities of communication (musicians, mathematicians, visual artists).

    I'm not sure this happens in precisely the same way, for instance, in musical or artistic fields. Specialists in those fields don't seem to be quite so modal-centric—at least in my experience.

    Yes on your first point, though I think the collaborations encourage such play.

    Can’t say about visual art, but in music there are some conflicts between the theorists, performers, composers, and scholars (e.g., historians), but also the case that everyone’s expected to be a performer—first question asked is always “what’s your instrument?” If you don’t have one (including voice) you’re not considered qualified for anything music related. So at least that kind of production is valued. Composition itself is seen as more specialized, and a lot of cross-over also between theory and composition (as there used to be in literature). Personal disclosure: my instrument is piano, but I’m at best a (theoretical [surprise!]) music scholar.

  6. On this point, see Bazerman’s “From Cultural Criticism to Disciplinary Participation: Living with Powerful Words,” in A. Herrington and C. Moran (eds), Writing, Teaching, and Learning in the Disciplines (pp. 61-68). New York: Modern Language Association of America.

  7. Doug Hesse and Cynthia L. Selfe sketch out two competing visions of what “composition” means in their 2009-2010 exchange in the pages of College Composition and Communication.

    The conversation began with Selfe’s “Movement of Air, Breath of Meaning” (2009), in which she makes the argument that the “relationship between aurality (and visual modalities) and writing has limited our understanding of composing as a multimodal rhetorical activity and has, thus, deprived students of valuable semiotic resources for making meaning” (p. 616).

    Responding to this article, in 2010, Doug Hesse asked two key questions:

    • “[What is] the curricular space that our field inhabits “rhetoric/composing” or is it “writing/composing?” (p. 603)
    • “Whose interests should the composition class serve?” (p. 603)

    In his response, Hesse argues that Selfe’s article raises “large prior issues that we need to sort” (p. 603) about the curricular approaches of composition programs and notes “that there are ethical as well as rhetorical dimensions to the affordances and constraints of modes and media, and that education has long tempered “what works” or “what’s interesting” with “what should be” (p. 605). Hesse also maintains, “If we’re going to use it [the term composition] as the umbrella for a wider host of textual practices than academic writing or public argument, then we ought to be clear in our catalogs and to our colleagues that we’re shifting the definition” (p. 603).

    Responding to Hesse’s caution, Selfe (2010) argues for “written words, photographs, video and audio clips, drawings, and animations as valuable cultural resources that can be combined to compose texts that communicate meaning in a variety of rhetorically effective ways for a variety of audiences” (p. 608). Selfe also claims that composition studies’ “single-minded focus on the alphabetic…sometimes blind[s] us to other ways of knowing and making meaning” (p. 609). At the end of her response, Selfe wonders if the “overly narrow focus on the printed word isn’t an artifact of our own education, our own historical worldview, our own personal investment in print and its products” (p. 609).

  8. Readers who want a reminder about the complexity and the challenges of cross-disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity might refer to Professsor Robert Pippen’s (Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Professor, University of Chicago) Keynote talk at the Interdisciplinary Futures Symposium. In this talk, Pippen traces the emergence of disciplines in the modern university and the social forces (economic, cultural, historical, administrative, professional, institutional) that encouraged (and continue to sustain) these formations in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

  9. See also Min-Zhan Lu’s inclusion of “chinglish” as a legitimate area of concern for composition, breakdowns of distinctions betweeen L2 and “normal” composition classrooms (see Harklau et al.), Diana George's work, and the broadening of the term “literacy” in New Literacy Studies to incorporate a diverse array of practices.

    • Lu, Min-Zhan. (2004). An Essay on the Work of Composition: Composing English against the Order of Fast Capitalism. College Composition and Communication 56(1), 16–50.
    • George, Diana. (2002). From analysis to design: Visual communication in the teaching of writing. College Composition and Communication 54(1), 11–39.
  10. Here we are thinking not only of work in New Literacy Studies but also work of folks like Canagarajah, whose work defies traditional distinctions between applied linguistics and composition—as in his recent book on translingual practice (2013).

    Canagarajah, Suresh. (2013). Translingual practice: Englishes and cosmopolitan relations. New York, NY: Routledge.

  11. Screenshot of an MLA job listing for a Rhetoric and Composition job at Michigan Tech