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4: Pedagogy

A painting of scholars meeting at the University of Paris. One scholar sits at the center of the room with a hand on a book. Two others stand in the background. Five scholars sit at a long, ornate desk on the left side, five on the right. Books are in front of them. One more stands in the foreground.
Meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. Public domain.

Our discussion pushes toward four forms of resistance and tactics for making productive use of that resistance in pedagogies addressing translinguality and trans-/multimodality.

The first form of resistance, already touched on, is that prompted by a debilitating, if false, sense that what is being demanded is a new and complete fluency with multiple languages and modalities. The failure to acknowledge the inevitable labor involved in any working with language and modality, and belief in the chimera of “native-like” fluency with these, produces an oppositional resistance to what would otherwise be a productive engagement with differences in modality and language that any work in composition entails.1

We might respond in pedagogically productive ways to the first kind of resistance by demonstrating (through example and making visible our own and others' experiences) the broad range of both linguistic and modal resources ostensibly monolingual/monomodal individuals already use in their ordinary work in and outside academic settings and, conversely, by demonstrating the chimerical character of claims to possessing perfect native fluency in language and modality.2.

The always ongoing work with, on, and across languages and modalities in speech—with the seeming successes and failures encountered daily—can help reveal the myth of perfect fluency, as can the fluctuating degrees of “fluency” in speaking with others over space, time, and social settings. We can also highlight continuities across languages/modalities. In the case of languages, etymology can help us (teachers and students) learn to see the strong interrelations among languages. In the case of media and modalities, there are obvious overlaps both in the design of technologies (e.g, keyboards, the metalanguage for describing digital writing) and useful corollaries for composing in sound, words, and still/moving images (e.g., white space and silence, transitions and cuts, establishing shots and introductions).3

The labor that goes on behind/before/during a text is always fascinating. In the case of this text, Bruce and I acknowledged fairly early on in the project our own incapacity for designing it into being in the way we imagined. We were simply ignorant of the tools, the techniques, the craft that is necessary for the work to speak effectively in multiple tongues, on multiple semiotic channels, in the way that we wanted it to do. We needed a different set of perspectives, a different set of tools, different expertise. And so we turned to Tim Lockridge. The following comment, written by Tim for a presentation at the 2014 Watson conference, illustrates the difference that he made to the project—just as it speaks to the need for valuing different perspective approaches, understandings.

In industry contexts, there are a number of tools (“version control” systems) for collaborating on hypertext production: Git, mercurial, subversion, etc. These tools, however, were designed by developers for developers, and they require many specific literacies. Whereas one might pick up the basics of HTML in an afternoon, acquiring competency with version control systems is a longer process, and one that requires several antecedent literacies. Even if collaborators understood little about HTML, they could still open a file and manipulate the text. The same is not true of committing and syncing to a service like github or bitbucket.

When working with Bruce and Cindy, I would periodically upload in-progress versions of the project to a staging server. They could then read the piece and offer suggestions using the URL of a specific node.

At points where we needed opportunities to offer more thorough feedback, I generated PDF files of the project. We added comments to the PDF files, and I aggregated the remarks and used them as a guide for changes in the HTML files. When we moved to a copyediting and more nuanced stage, we pasted text from the web site into a Microsoft Word file, and I used this as the source text for updating the HTML file. This also presented problems: text formatting, for example, was lost in this pasting process, and many special characters had to be re-coded in HTML.

Although our collaboration workflow ultimately got us to a final piece, I did feel that there were times where I simply disappeared with the files—marking up the text and dealing with some of the technical challenges. And when we compare this with the type of collaboration that occurs in Google document, we see how—despite the broad range of expression that hypertext projects offer—they seem to reveal a weaker sense of collaboration.

As I mentioned earlier, there are tools that facilitate a more rich sense of HTML collaboration. But when they require significant prerequisites and literacies, they aren’t the best fit for academic publishing. And this is why, I would argue, so many multimodal projects (both classroom and scholarly) make use of tools that simplify the digital publishing and collaboration process—platforms like Wix and Wordpress. But these WYSIWYG digital tools come with significant drawbacks: they are harder to preserve, they place a much heavier load on the web server, and they often sacrifice accessibility. An embrace of simple web-based production tools too often pushes aside a larger portion of our audience and creates preservation problems for future scholars and editors.

There is a reason why, nearly twenty years after the arrival of the Web, our field still traffics in print-based artifacts such as the doc file, the pdf file, and the printed page. Although we have venues for multimodal work (Kairos, Harlot, CCDP, Enculturation) and many writing programs embrace multimodal pedagogy and projects, the pdf print article (our most monomodal approach) brings with it a particular simplicity, familiarity, and comfort. We know how to produce and circulate these artifacts.

These artifacts, however, maintain a status quo—one in which labor is often outsourced and effaced, allowing scholarly work to be sold back to libraries and institutions (facilitating what Dave Parry calls “knowledge cartels”). The process and network of the monomodal artifact is part of a larger labor and economic problem for the field.

This is a position underscored by the thesis of our collaborative work as well as the narrative of our collaborative process. But to frame it only negatively is a mistake: Our project was as much about the opportunities of transmodality and translinguality as much as it was about the problems of monomodality and monolinguality. Following Kress, Selber, and Shipka, I’ve asked my students to work in a range of modalities and to consider how they might challenge an SL/MN ideology. As a field, we need to also take up this call with our scholarship: to consider not just how a range of modalities might extend our work, but also to consider the technologies we need to support that work. Microsoft word—like the typewriter—didn’t have a particular collaborative focus; instead, we found ways (mailing documents, sharing files) to bend the tool to our collaborative needs. Now as we work within a maturing Web, isn’t it time to ask: how best can we bend our digital tools to facilitate and encourage multimodal collaboration?

Second and third forms of resistance emerge as two responses to the fetishizing of translingualism and multimodality as new and yet, oxymoronically, outside history (in the sense of being outside human shaping). One response to these, so fetishized, is to reject them as fads, impractical and irrelevant to the ordinary needs of ordinary students and other writers (of, presumably, alphabetic print texts). Another is to embrace and even celebrate them at the theoretical level while ignoring actual work with them in practice.4

Bruce brings out a concern with this kind of fetishizing in questioning the celebration of recognizable forms of translingual practice—currently identified with “code-meshing”—which threatens to render it a species of exotica to be marveled at rather than a feature of everyday language practice. And, Bruce suggests,

Photo of Bruce Horner

There may be a parallel in discussions of multimodality—a tendency to adopt a celebratory stance toward practices that dominant ideology has trained us to recognize as multimodal and to push to the background or dismiss as unduly restricted those practices that this same ideology has trained us to recognize as, well, monomodal.

Photo of Cindy Selfe

Yes—that’s true and I often find myself doing just that! At the same time, I also see another complicating tension: on one hand, a celebratory recognition of multimodality/transmodality and, on the other hand, a push-to-the-background/resistance to teaching certain forms of/environments for multimodality/transmodality production: like some English teachers' resistance to teaching/recognizing anything but conventional print-based word papers (which, granted, are themselves multimodal, but not in the same ways as texts created in digital environments can be).

In this comment, we see Cindy bringing out the third form of resistance: celebration (here of multimodality/transmodality), fetishized and therefore accompanied all too readily with a rejection of the actual labor of teaching their production. The pedagogical necessity of engaging in production activities engaging with multimodality/transmodality (and, presumably, translinguality) follows from this—what Bruce may be getting at in his response:

Photo of Bruce Horner

I see what you mean: while there are multimodal potentialities, and even submerged features, in any writing of traditional texts, these are overlooked or denied in how they are taught. Your point is well taken: I think we need to work simultaneously on dispositions, language/semiotic practices/modalities, and media while recognizing their ultimate inextricability from one another. If we work on just one of these (say dispositions, my bent) then we ignore the materiality of practices, making our work a mind exercise of limited or no utility; if we work just on practices and media without working on dispositions, we lose the radical transformative possibilities of the former. I tend to err in the first direction, odd for someone self-identified as a cultural materialist.5

A fourth form of resistance is more directly material, in the ordinary sense of that term: the challenge of material resources (hardware, but also time, space, institutional support) for engaging in the experimentations with translingual/modal practices that both Cindy and Bruce agree are a necessary and important part of our work going forward.6 It may be true, as Bruce observes, that:

Photo of Bruce Horner

One can acknowledge the legitimacy of the ‘translingual’ position while engaged in practices that appear monolingual (and vice versa), and one can acknowledge the legitimacy of the transmodal position while likewise being engaged in practices that appear from dominant perspectives to be monomodal (and vice versa).

Nonetheless, it seems crucial to work with our students on developing strategies beyond deploying what SL/MN recognizes as legitimate so that those strategies do not effectually become understood as the only strategies (or possibilities)—especially given the low status accorded anything that doesn’t fit with SL/MN “norms.”7 As Cindy observes,

Photo of Cindy Selfe

I want to work within the profession to encourage more teachers not only to recognize or “acknowledge the legitimacy of the transmodal position,” but also to encourage/experiment with/try more transmodal production, to experiment with different semiotic ways of composing meaning—and to help students do so as well.

And Bruce responds,

Photo of Bruce Horner

I wonder if this encouragement of experimentation is an argument for a pedagogical strategy: using different modalities just to say you’ve used them wouldn’t by itself be an end, but not experimenting with them will preclude broadening what we can attempt and perhaps achieve in our compositions (defined broadly). A possible analogy: students studying “orchestration” learn at least some of the different capabilities of different instruments and try them out so they can then choose from among them (or not) [and mix them] when composing/orchestrating.

Cindy highlights the necessity of working toward such possibilities by treating “competence” as an ongoing and collaborative achievement—what Cindy calls “truly, the hardest work from my perspective”:

Photo of Cindy Selfe

Getting people to try on the multi/trans perspectives—not only in thinking about making meaning and the various forms it takes, but also in producing meaning. I guess the way I generally approach such situations is to offer teachers some texts to think about from a multi/trans perspective (trying to work inductively toward a multi/trans understanding), and then to involve them in exploring such texts from a multi/trans perspective (practicing with them), and then involve them in brainstorming ways in which to practice creating/making such texts (and/or involving students in doing so).

  1. Cindy notes that language learners who are shaped by the goal of “complete fluency” can find themselves paralyzed with the demands of language acquisition. Kristine Oliveira, for instance, in a literacy narrative she contributed to the DALN, for instance, tells the story of her Spanish studies in Mexico. In Kristine’s case, the pressures she put on herself as a language learner, and the ways in which her struggles became embodied in a very physical sense affords a glimpse of the debilitating understandings of “fluency” when we talk about language learning.

  2. One way of demonstrating the fiction of monolingualism, for example, is to examine all the loaner words that are used by speakers of English on a daily basis. This YouTube video points to just a few such words:

    Poster image for the homographs youtube video

    (Video opens in new window.)

    Or we can think about Spanglish or other code switching phenomena as featured in this North Carolina Language and Life (NCLLP) trailer:

    Poster image for the spanglish youtube video.

    (Video opens in new window.)

    Other resources for this kind of work include the following works:

    • Blanchard, Francoise, Leven, Jeremy (2007). Say chic: A collection of French words we can't live without. New York: Simon and Schuster.
    • Stevens, Ilan (2004). Spanglish: The making of a new American language. New York: Harper Perennial.
    • Winokur, J. (1996). Je Ne Sais What?: A guide to de rigueur Frenglish for readers, writers, and speakers. New York: Plume.

    Similarly, we can demonstrate monomodal texts (and the fiction of the claim that multimodality is a recent or strictly digital phenomenon) by looking at phenomena like medieval illustrated manuscripts.

    Or these illustrated letters from the “More Than Words” exhibit in Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art.

    screenshot of the Smithsonian Archive website.

    Or these children’s books (Feathery Bugs, Scratch and Sniff Shopping, and Earthsearch) that incorporate the expressive modalities of words, images, and interactive elements.

    cover of the Feathery Birds book. The cover has fabric extending from the bird to represent feathers. Photo of the scratch and sniff shopping book. open pages of the Earthsearch book. A tradition page is seen on the left of the book, but the right page is a ziplock bag of grain.

    Or the Golden Record now flying through interstellar space on board the Voyager, a “12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.”

    image of the NASA golden record
  3. Here, for example, might be a good place for presenting the same text in video, audio, and text transcript. Here is MLK's “I Have a Dream” speech in three different forms: print, video, and audio.

    I was thinking more of showing strong etymological crossover among languages: An excerpt from the OED would do that. Like the following entry for “education”:

    Oxford English dictionary entry for the word 'education.' The etymology entry reads: 'Middle French education action of bringing up a child with respect to physical, mental, and spiritual development (a1380; rare before 1527; French éducation) and its etymon classical Latin ēducātiōn-, ēducātiō rearing (of young), upbringing, nurture, (of animals) breeding,  ēducāt-, past participial stem of ēducāre educate v. + -iō -ion suffix. Compare Spanish educación (1499), Portuguese educação (17th cent.), Italian educazione (a1498). Compare earlier educate v.'

    "education, n." OED Online. (2014, Jun) Oxford University Press. Retrieved 26 July 2014.

    And both a typewriter and computer keyboard would be good illustrations, like those that follow. The comparison might help overcome fears.

    Image of an old casio handheld organizer.

    byronv2. (23 March 2014). Once I was the latest thing 02. Retrieved 26 July 2014 from

    Image of an Underwood typewriter.

    feric80537. (23 March 2012). Underwood keys. Retrieved 26 July 2014 from

    Or, we could show: the QWERTY keyboard of an early typewriter, and the keyboard of an early computer, and a keyboard projected on skin.

    I love this YouTube video by Leo Fuchigami about how the fear of error in speaking other languages can paralyze us and prevent us from learning opportunities. Here's a young person who recognizes the risky side of multilingualism and the power, as well.

    See also Raphaël Confiant’s remarks on this, in "Créolité et francophonie: Un éloge de la diversalité."

    Confiant, Raphael (n.d.). Créolité et francophonie: Un éloge de la diversalité. Retrieved from

    For me, young people identify some of the best ways to accomplish difficult tasks, and I think we can all pay attention to our benefit—especially in a context of globalized language learning.

    The video below, for example, by Jimmy Naraine provides some common sense tips about language learning. My suspicion is that many young people like Jimmy, increasingly confronted by a world of shifting economic, linguistic, educational scapes (Appadurai, 1996), understand the task of learning multiple languages to be a regular and expected part of their lives. This situation is not always the case in the U.S. where the common understanding of English as the national language has exerted considerable force in the direction of monolingualism (Horner and Trimbur, 2002).

    Similarly, I think, many young people, especially those who inhabit transnational contexts and find their homes in more than one country, have grown up in rapidly changing electronic communication environments and have learned to understand changing technologies as part and parcel of a shifting global technoscape. As Berry, Haiwsher, and Selfe (2012) note, many of these young people are infinitely resourceful and rhetorical in adapting to these new technologies and understand them as a regular and expected part of their lives.

    Cover image of the Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times Book
  4. A couple of historical examples should help here to describe secondary and tertiary forms of resistance.

    The first of these examples focuses on digital technologies as “oxomoronically outside history (in the sense of being outside human shaping.” In 2006, for instance, Sven Birkerts, in the Gutenberg Elegies, argued that the digital/virtual revolution that gathered steam in the last decades of the 20th century represented a crisis that was having a deleterious effect on his own and others’ habits of reading. In this volume, Birkets asked if hypertext, for example, was a “Hula-Hoop fad or the first surging of a wave that will swell until it sweeps away everything in its path” (p. 154), using a metaphor that suggested an ultimate lack of human control.

    Similarly, in 2008, Nicholas Carr—in the spirit of re-occuring “literacy crisis” manifestos that have so regularly punctuated U.S. history (Varnum, 1986)—asked in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and lamented that “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”

    And by 2009, Mark Bauerlein described contemporary digital generations in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future. As he writes:

    The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth…Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.” (p. vi-vii)

    The authors of these comments focus on the growth of digital communication environments, often specifically mentioning young people as the group most adversely effected by an increased level of exposure to such tools. These authors ignore, however, the fact that educational institutions are often encouraging such activities, recognizing that young people must gain expertise in digital environments so they can succeed in increasingly digital and global communication workplaces.

    The next example, this of a tertiary form of resistance, has to do with multilinguality. The modern “English Only” movement in the U.S., which emerged in the early 1980s after voters in states such as Florida and California approved antibilingual measures generally aimed at eliminating the use of low-prestige languages (often, but not exclusively Spanish) spoken by students in school settings (Crawford, 2000). Such efforts persist and continue albeit in more fragmented forms as described by Ted Greenberg in this 2009 NBC10 article about an English Only policy enacted by a substitute teacher in Philadelphia’s Vineyard Public schools. .

    image of highlighted text. The text reads 'This is an English speaking school and classroom--any other language other than English will not be tolerated.

    Similarly, consider this 2010 political advertisement by Tim James, then a candidate for Governor of Alabama, voicing his opposition to offering drivers’ license exams in multiple languages. As James, who lost the election, notes, “This is Alabama; we speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”

    Proponents of educational measures to limit instruction to English ignore the fact that U.S. schools have continued to offer instruction in prestige languages like French and German as well as Spanish, among other languages, recognizing such classes as desirable components of curricular instruction. Proponents of English-only drivers’ license exams ignore the fact that such licenses are often necessary accommodations for international business personnel, recent immigrants, and tourists.

  5. And I tend to err in the second direction (with a focus on material practices), an odd habit for someone who self identifies with radically transforming our theoretical understanding of what it means to compose.

  6. I agree—teaching multimodal composition, especially when it takes place in digital environments, can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, even though new digital tools are coming down in price. Teachers of English, composition, further, are not always intellectually or materially prepared by their graduate studies to take on this work. Finally, composition programs that want to teach multimodal composing in digital environments are constrained by a variety of factors: among them, hiring priorities, access to computer labs and digital recording equipment, competition with other programs, expectations of administrators, state standards, and shrinking budgets.

  7. Yes, to this end, teachers of composition need to remind themselves that not all multimodal composing *needs* to be digital. Students can work with multiple expressive modalities in any number of media contexts and with a variety of material resources.