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6: Mapping Directions For Translingual/-modal Work

Topographical map of the Schiehallion mountain.
Schiehallion by stuart anthony used via CC license.

The contours represented by the two tactics described in the previous section for undertaking translingual/-modal work correlate with two tendencies we note in our own thinking and the conditions in which we work.

For example, Bruce looks to work in both translinguality and transmodality to contest SL/MN from within: to learn to recognize the degree to which existing (and past) practices are at odds with the ideology of SL/MN (e.g., the mythic English monolingual character of the U.S.) and to recuperate the full array of practices occluded by dispositions advanced by that ideology. He wants the profession to understand English, for example, as a language “always in translation” (Pennycook, 2008), and to see the monomodality of traditional alphabetic print writing as an effect of SL/MN. Bruce sees this work as aligned with Brian Street’s (2010) recent caution that “those working with different modes [in studies of multimodality] may need . . . to develop an ideological model of multimodality” (p. 32; see also p. 33).

By contrast, Cindy works outside the established boundaries of SL/MN, collaborating on composing texts in digital composing environments (web texts, video essays), exploring genres (digital archives, long-form digital projects), and creating spaces for digital publications (Computers and Composition Digital Press) that call attention to the limiting (historical/cultural/ideological) effects of SL/MN and help expand possibilities for expression.

And Tim works—through mentoring, collaboration, and workshops—to bring more authors and readers to multimodal texts and publishing venues, focusing on access and collaboration as a means of challenging SL/MN.

Waveform image of an audio file
Earworm by Cynthia Selfe.

Finally, there is a danger that our own discussion, and its very framework as “dialogue,” does not wholly escape: namely, that the work at which we and many others are aiming has become bifurcated: there is work on translinguality and work on transmodality, both seen as discrete areas of concern. Street (2010) refers to this danger more broadly in his recent essay on “The Future of Literacy Studies” when he observes that

there are challenging developments as those working in the frame of multimodality question the traditional dominance of language-based approaches to communication and lay out other communicative practices that need to be taken into account—visual, kinaesthetic, and so on. The implications of this will be profound and those in the field are currently struggling to come to terms with both the theoretical shift and the issue of how we label the various modes (p. 32).

Street’s caution, ultimately, is directed at the likely tendency of dispersal: namely, that “such a shift may take us back to earlier autonomous approaches, both with respect to the view of literacy as skill and to the notion that each communicative practice has its own ‘affordances’ or determinations” (p. 32). What is needed, then, are ways by which to keep the categories of analysis—including those operating in our discussion here—available for critique and revision. Our own difficulty naming our focus here—in a way that recognizes the distinct character of the lines of research and teaching, on the one hand, and simultaneously the many and strong points of intersection/overlap, on the other hand—points to the need for (and difficulty of) doing both translingual and trans-/multimodal work.1

One clear direction going forward might then be for forums that directly address such points of intersection. These might take form in conference workshops addressing such points of intersection and ways of addressing them in our teaching and scholarship, but also in conferences and special journal issues and collections. We recognize that the prevailing tendency is to choose from one or the other of these—the Computers and Writing Conference vs. the International Symposium on Second Language Writing, say, or Kairos vs. the International Multilingual Research Journal.2

A note regarding Cindy's question (in the previous footnote) about how to reach multiple audiences: A highly educated professional in another field who has fluency in at least three languages and two scripts, having heard about this “text”/piece, tried to read a recent version of it but reported being unable to make any sense of it.

There are valid reasons and respect-worthy disciplinary histories and research traditions that justify the selectivity underlying the design of such forums and venues. At the same time, like our categories, the institutions and institutional practices in which these inhere can be usefully problematized and contested in the ways our dialogue here, limited as it is, has attempted. We look forward, and ask our readers to move forward, to reaching beyond the boundaries set by this dialogue to question and help provide more and better answers to the questions of language and modality we have posed here.

And in reaching beyond these boundaries, we encourage all of us to think not in terms of achieving a chimerical mastery of language and modality, nor even of ending all misunderstanding and confusion (recall Bernabé et al.’s caution about the need to recognize l’opacité/opacity as an inevitable and important element of all communication [52/113) but in terms of growing used to learning as a constant, not a temporary stage on the road to expertise—a constant we ourselves feel quite deeply in working on this project.

  1. Gunther Kress, another member of the New London Group along with Street, is one of the scholars we can look to when we undertake such work. In this video, “What is a Mode?” Kress examines an example of a multimodal text (a web site) and the semiotic/cultural resources which go into its constitution. In this video, Kress offers observations on some of the vocabulary commonly associated with the discussion of modes: semiotic resources, cultural resources, affordances, sign, units of language, form, meaning, etc.

  2. Signs of the difficulties attendant to the exploratory task we advocate can be perceived in this communicative text. And, as authors, we definitely encountered such challenges in creating the text:

    • How does such a collaboration begin among colleagues in very different areas of language/composition studies? How do we talk to scholars whose field of expertise we don’t fully understand? How do we discover the right questions to ask and explore?
    • What does Bruce or Tim mean when they talk about “text,” or “analysis,” or “composition”? How do we identify a shared vocabulary, a shared constellation of concepts, that lets us explore ideas we want to explore?
    • Who/what are Bruce and Tim reading that Cindy hasn’t read? What/who is Cindy watching/listening to that Tim and Bruce are not? Why?
    • How do we make this text comprehensible to multiple audiences with multiple specialties, but some common interests in languages, texts, multimodality?
    • Where do we turn for language/images/audio that allow us to describe, explore, analyze intersections in the semiotic arenas we are trying to explore?
    • How do we represent our thinking in a manner that tries to reflect the multiple semiotic arenas we are attempting to explore? How do we make our text reflect our thinking?
    • How do we acknowledge the gaps and limitations of our thinking, our explorations, what we have been unable to render in this text?
    • How do we decide on a genre, a form for a text that departs from those we have created in the past? That departs from those we know how to create?
    • How do we circulate the text we create? Where? What arenas/venues are appropriate/available for such work that crosses traditional spaces/locations in our larger profession?