Critical Reflection

Boundary crossing—the capacity for writing and writers to adjust rhetorically as they move across languages, technologies, contexts, and identities—is an increasingly urgent concern for the field of writing studies. Oakey and Russell (2014) define boundary crossing as “horizontal learning” that occurs as a result of an “unexpected context crossing that we see when people must cross disciplines, switch careers, or deal with completely foreign bureaucracies” (p. 385-86). Oftentimes these boundary crossings are “instances where writers produce texts in a context/genre that they may never—did not plan to—may not wish to—encounter again” (p. 401). Examples they cite include when immigrants must navigate various forms and paperwork in order to enter a country or when two faculty members from different disciplines collaborate on a research paper. These textually mediated “consequential transitions” (Beach, 1999) often generate moments of confusion and struggle but also rich opportunities for transformative learning.

The course design described in this chapter was explicitly organized around the idea of how such attention to boundary crossing might productively manifest in the classroom. Students in English 1010 crossed boundaries when writing they engaged with was recontextualized (Kell, 2009), such as when they translated a text from Spanish into English for an assignment; when they had to emulate the organizational discourses of community partners by stitching together and modifying extant institutional texts; and when they worked on collaborative projects via online platforms after the outbreak of a global pandemic. Such a pedagogy is necessarily disruptive: It requires students to move themselves and their textual practices into new environments, a process that is often messy, unpredictable, and uncomfortable.

Such boundary crossing was at times transformative; at other times, it prompted feelings of discomfort and occasionally outright resentment. In the section that follows, I draw on both my own experience and data collected as part of an IRB-approved study of the course. Students who participated in this study contributed artifacts produced for class assignments; responses to surveys distributed at the beginning, middle, and end of the course; and interviews conducted after the course concluded. I also wrote fieldnotes of my own observations after each class session ended. This critical reflection does not make any claims to systematic or objective analysis of this data; instead, I take on the insider and necessarily subjective perspective of a teacher-researcher (Nickoson, 2012) and draw examples from the data to support what I find compelling about this course design and worth inquiring into further. I bring the translingual, transmodal, and social justice-oriented frameworks that influenced this course design to my reflections on it.

The Possibilities of Translation as Boundary Crossing Practice: An Example

Translation proved a powerful abstraction capable of describing much of the work of this class. But it was also a literal skill students had to employ, most notably in the Translation Project when students translated a text from Spanish into English. As I designed and then assigned this project, I worried that students would be skeptical of the relevance of translation to the work of a writing class. What does translation have to do with English? With rhetoric? And, indeed, some students were skeptical. One student, responding to a survey (see below), expressed frustration that the course was, in their view, “not about writing.” I address this skepticism in more depth in the following section.

Other writing studies scholars have recently addressed the question of translation and its relevance to writing. Gonzales (2017) advocates for translation’s incorporation into technical communication courses to cultivate more nuanced concepts of audience, including especially the accessibility of texts as being a key rhetorical consideration for writers trying to reach their audiences. In addition, translation is “a multimodal practice,” according to Gonzales (2018), “not only because it encompasses the use of various modalities and technologies (e.g., visuals, sounds, and words) but, perhaps more important, because it entails the rhetorical navigation of these communicative tools to make meaning and accomplish action across languages and cultures” (p. 42). Addressing the first-year composition classroom more specifically, Horner and Tetreault (2016) argue that translation can make it easier for students to adopt a translingual disposition to language, which is not only a pragmatic tool in our increasingly globalized world, but also an ethical imperative for those of us who would work against linguistic discrimination. “[B]ecause the negotiation of language difference is more immediately apparent in translation writing, translation provides a useful framework by which to explore such negotiation in all writing” (p. 20), they write. The challenges encountered in accurately preserving meaning when a text is reassembled through translation can help students to see writing as intensely situated, dependent on context, culture, and technology to mean anything, a metacognitive threshold concept that research suggests facilitates future transfer or boundary crossing (Elon Statement, 2015).

To demonstrate the ways that translation prompted students to practice various forms of “boundary crossing rhetoric,” I share an assignment from Lian, a health science student from a Chinese American family who reflected she had only picked up a handful of words in the Mandarin her parents and grandparents could speak. Lian’s work is selected here not only because her Translation Project was a compelling example of the kind of sophisticated metacognition the assignment provoked for many students who considered themselves to be “monolingual,” but also because she chose to remediate—or re-translate—the assignment into an infographic for the studio portion of the course.

Reflecting on her translation process in the Translation Project led Lian to construct heuristics for understanding how writers act as not only as creators and rhetors but also as multimodal transmuters whose semiotic alchemy is never neutral:

I would define translation as the process of recreating a piece of work—whether that is a written article, a video, a piece of art—such that other people can understand it. Translation doesn’t necessarily have to do simply with languages, and it doesn’t have to be an exact duplicate of the original. Movies are translated in a way for blind people understand the scenes. Colors can be translated into words for colorblind people to view the world. Sounds can be translated into motions for deaf people to see spoken words. In my opinion, translating can be as simple as rephrasing a complicated topic into something easier for a child to understand, or it can be as complex as translating testimonials from one language to another in a court case for a judge to acknowledge a person’s feeling and experiences.... Based on my experience, one of the most important things to consider when writing something that will be translated for another audience to is to know what message you want to convey and what the end goal is. If you know the purpose of your writing, then the written piece of work will be more effectively and clearly. Therefore, even if the translation is not perfectly accurate or changed to a different medium of communication, if the intended message is still understood by the audience, then the translation is successful.

In this excerpt from her Translation Project, Lian demonstrates how she has moved beyond mechanistic and autonomous notions of not only translation but of textmaking in general. Importantly, Lian uses the word “recreating” to describe the action of translation. In this reflection, Lian has come to realize that translation moments (Gonzales, 2018) are moments of uncertainty and flux, creative rather than instrumental moments, moments where the translator must make decisions that ultimately result in a new text rather than a copy of the original text in a new language. Later in the excerpt, Lian also acknowledges that translation is rhetorical—that is the consequential reformulations translators enact are driven by their understandings of purpose and audience rather than merely the supposed “intrinsic” meanings of the words themselves. It is likely the readings and activities in the class—which featured rhetorical issues of audience, purpose, genre, context, etc. central in many writing pedagogies (see syllabus)—contributed to Lian’s formulation of a rhetorical theory of translation. But this excerpt I think also demonstrates the power and flexibility of translation as a model for understanding these key rhetorical issues.

Lian’s reflection points to the ways translation may not be rhetorically distinguishable from another task commonly assigned in writing classes: remediation. I use remediation (or as some scholars have opted to write it, re-media-tion) here to refer to the ways that writing is represented through different modes and media. Remediation activities have become increasingly common in composition classrooms as the profession continues to recognize the importance of multimodal forms of expression as well as metacognition toward revision strategies and writing for different contexts (DePalma, 2015). Lian’s translation theory was no doubt informed by the remediation practices she undertook in the English 1010 digital studio, which for her included recreating her Translation Project as an infographic.

An infographic remediates Lian's Translation Project, breaking a translation process into task-based steps rather than theoretical abstractions.
Lian's infographic
The video above demonstrates how Lian presented the remediation of her Translation Project on her portfolio website. When users mouse over the alphabetic version of the project, it fades, and the infographic version is overlaid in its place. (Video does not include sound.)

Lian’s remediation plays with the concept of translation in sophisticated ways. The content of Lian’s infographic takes into account the fact that a change in genre radically changes reader expectations. Not only does Lian shrewdly choose to dramatically reduce the amount of text in the infographic relative to the original project, she also revises the purpose of the assignment: It now reads as a set of step-by-step instructions to fit with the affordances and conventions of the infographic genre. Essays are good for methodically developing complex ideas; infographics, not so much. Lian shows off her rhetorical savvy and grasp of the concept of translation by acknowledging  that the genre change implicitly assumes a different audience as well—one that wants to be quickly guided through the translation process rather than an audience that wants to think contemplatively and abstractly about translation as a concept. But Lian still manages to bring the theoretical knowledge about translation she built during the original Translation Project into the remediated infographic. For example, her first directive about identifying elements of the rhetorical situation alludes to the way Lian defines translation rhetorically rather than a purely technically. In addition, she superimposes her infographic optically over the original text when users mouse over it on her website in order to highlight for readers the “gains and losses” (Kress, 2005) inherent in translation.

This brief example illustrates how translation is a boundary-crossing practice that strengthens students’ understanding of rhetorical concepts the field’s professional organizations have considered important for college writers: audience, genre, linguistic diversity, writing technologies, access, multimodality, and the context-dependent nature of interpretation. This example also shows how it may not be important to understand translation as meaningfully different from other mainstream topics in composition pedagogy, such as remediation and paraphrasing.

Student Responses to Boundary Crossing

Although some students were initially suspicious of the boundary crossing work of the class, in interviews and course evaluations, most students repeatedly spoke to the value of learning about writing across languages, media, and borders. “I am more accepting and able to understand different types of English (and other languages) in more settings than I did before,” wrote one student on an anonymous survey. “You really can’t learn a lot about other culture unless you try to listen… or observe their lifestyle,” wrote another. “[I learned] to write an effective document for a different culture effectively. I think it allowed me to step out of my ‘bubble.'” For another student, the course changed how they defined writing:

I am able to recognize more types of writing and that they are all important. Before this class, emphasis and importance was mostly put on educational and formal thesis writing styles. Now, I know that that there are many different types of writing and they all play an important role in the world and that you can't use the same method to complete all of them.

(anonymous student survey response)

Notably, all but two students reported on the final survey that the course not only helped them to improve their writing but changed how they “think about or approach” writing. As the field increasingly faces calls from multiple directions to expand or transcend the boundaries of what writing means, I believe these student reflections and my own observations of their learning reflect important ways such expansion can be achieved by students through a curriculum designed to engender boundary crossing.

But there was also resistance to such boundary crossing. Resistance to unfamiliar methods and paradigms for writing—among faculty, administrators, students, and the public—have been documented on numerous occasions by writing scholars. These accounts often highlight how prior experience with seemingly ubiquitous assumptions about language shapes individuals’ perceptions of what writing and English classes “should be.” Shipka (2007), for example, describes students reacting with suspicion, resentment, and even panic when presented with open-ended task-based assignments that ask them to choose the genre, materials, and audiences for their compositions. Amanda, one of the student’s in Shipka’s class, explains that even though Shipka “kept assuring me that it would be okay… I don’t know if it’s just because I don’t trust English teachers, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that before, and I failed.'” Amanda’s prior experiences with English classes had led her to assume that even when teachers claim to be open to diverse approaches to an assignment, such claims usually belie tacit conventional expectations that students are penalized for deviating from. Similarly, Bastian’s (2017) study of student’s affective responses to “bringing the funk”—or disrupting habitual pedagogical practices—in composition classes reveals that students prefer adherence to the comfortable and known, despite claims pervasive in the literature that students are likely to find digital or public writing inherently more relevant or that they perceive academic conventions as alienating. Bastian reflects on her surprise that students initially experienced distrust when given an assignment to produce a creative, multimodal project: “This distrust seemed to stem more from the power of academic convention rather than from the assignment itself. In other words, students did not necessarily distrust the assignment; instead, they distrusted the idea that both textual innovation and academic convention is valid and viable in the classroom” (p. 20). Such reactions also bear resemblance to the ways scholars have documented resistance to other pedagogical innovations, such as critical pedagogy. Durst (1999), for example, notes that such pedagogies often illuminate how a student’s  “understanding of what they need to learn about writing” is often “dramatically at odds with the views and approaches of the teacher” (p. 2).

In contrast to consensus beliefs of writing studies experts or what is observable in the real-world practices of actual writers, students often possess a (misguided) sense—acquired from years of English classes with current-traditional or belletristic paradigms—that everyone has a shared, neatly bounded, understanding of what writing “is”: transcription of thought in the form of text on pages (paper or digital), usually produced for educational or literary purposes. Pushing against these boundaries can provoke resistance and feelings of anxiety, especially among those who have done well in school and in English classes that operated under narrower definitions of writing.

Reiff and Bawarshi (2011) have studied how this phenomenon impacts writers’ capacities to adapt to new rhetorical situations. They taxonomize writers into two categories. The first of these, boundary crossers, make use of “high road” metacognitive strategies to repurpose prior knowledge and are open to revising their approaches to account for the demands of new contexts. The other category of writers, boundary guarders are more confident in their abilities than boundary crossers but also less reflective and more likely to rely on entrenched strategies and static genre definitions regardless of their applicability to the current context. In my classroom, a modest number of students—3 or 4 out of sixteen—exhibited boundary guarding tendencies that came into conflict with the boundary-crossing pedagogy of the course and resulted in mostly covert resistance that was revealed in surveys and interviews.

In some cases, an initial bristling and attempt to retreat within established boundaries eventually gave way to acceptance/comfort as the student was able to reframe the experience or boundaries over extended exposure to boundary crossing practices. Bastian (2017) suggests that this could be a fairly typical trajectory for student writers exposed to “funky” (disruptive) pedagogies. This appeared to be the case with Colton, a finance major who initially resisted the way the course expected students to engage social issues outside of the classroom:

Personally, I'm not big on politics. It's not really something I care to talk about with people just because it's such an arguable matter. I try to stay away from that stuff. So day one, when I heard that [social justice for immigrants] was the course subject, I was like, "Oh my God. I might drop this class."

(Colton, student interview)

Although Colton initially considered leaving the course, he eventually changed his mind and, in his words, “the topic definitely grew on” him as he acclimated to the course and realized it didn’t require him to completely change his political positions. Colton told me prior experiences had caused him to think engaging with social justice usually meant becoming embroiled with interpersonal conflicts, perhaps a perception influenced by the politically charged and conflict-saturated nature of much contemporary social media rhetoric. He ended up enjoying the process of working collaboratively with others and feeling that his writing was benefiting others, and he was encouraged by the fact that the course kept practical applications of rhetoric and writing in the foreground alongside social justice work. His appreciation for the course also grew in retrospect, after he took a job at a deli over the summer and found himself in an environment where few of his coworkers spoke much English. “I was actually able to apply some of the skills I learned about breaking language barriers down from English 1010 to the point where I was able to communicate some things,” Colton reflected. “We were able to get the job done efficiently…. It’s something I think about all the time.”

But in some cases, students seemed to have been unable to adjust to the boundary confusion. While my status as a teacher likely made it impossible for me to gain access to most of these conflicts, I caught glimpses through an anonymous survey response collected at the end of the course:

This course was not about writing, like a standard English course I have taken at previous institutions. I think a writing course should involve essays and learning how to better your writing strength, not what we did in this course... This class just seems like it is not a standard English class... I feel like I am paying money for a course that has been nothing but doing assignments that don't even transform into skills I need or want.

(anonymous student survey response)

Medina (2019) has recently expanded on Reiff and Bawarshi’s (2011) concept of boundary crossers and guarders that helps shed light on why these conceptual “blocks” might occur. Medina proposes the term micro-transfer to account for the “situated moments when dispositions form” (emphasis in original) that result in the marking and re-marking of boundaries. In contrast to more conventional views of transfer, which tends to view contexts as static and writers as mobile subjects who need to remake themselves and their knowledge to adapt to different bounded contexts, Medina’s (2019) concept of micro-transfer positions writers as agents who have a role in remaking boundaries by reframing how they understand them. This dispositional model is strongly influenced by socio-emotional factors, including anxiety or distrust caused by epistemological misalignments with how others in an activity system seem to be framing boundaries. Such a framework helps us understand Colton’s changing dispositions: He was able to redraw where he originally thought boundaries in a writing class could be in a way that were consonant with his goals and tolerance for unfamiliarity. A socio-emotional orientation to micro-transfer also may help us understand why the anonymous boundary guarder quoted above still felt resentful and unable to desirably repurpose the learning achieved. Ultimately, I suspect the student experienced such an intense personal/emotional conflict with how language issues were presented in the course that they couldn’t find a way, or else outright resisted, redrawing the boundaries of writing.

Boundary Crossing as Demarginalizing Practice

This course design suggests how promoting, rather than guarding or restricting, movement across borders opens pathways toward greater equity. We know that rigidly enforced impermeable boundaries—whether they be the standard “rules” of academic discourse, the borders between nations, or the ways users are allowed to interact with computer interfaces—are “constructed along ideological axes that represent dominant tendencies in our culture” (Selfe & Selfe, 1994, p. 481). Borders always create margins and thus may easily serve to marginalize. The activities and assignments included in this course design (such as translation, described above) sought to—if not dissolve boundaries—at least facilitate movement across boundaries.

One of the students in the class, Natalia, exemplifies how boundary crossing can serve as a demarginalizing practice. Natalia was the sole Latina immigrant student enrolled in the course. She told me she enrolled after she read in the online course description that the class would deal with immigration issues, even though she knew she would struggle to attend an 8:00 a.m. class.

In her first writing assignment for the course, Natalia wrote, “When I first came to this country 5 years ago, learning the language was really challenging and let alone learning to write it correctively…. [B]ack then to me it seemed like I needed it to survive in school and the world around me.” Natalia positioned English literacy as a survival tool but also as a barrier. She went on to describe the costs of that struggle: not being able to defend herself from students who pushed her around at school, not being able to excel in school like she wanted to. English classes were primarily a site of conflict and struggle. But in later assignments, such as the Translation Project, Natalia was able to leverage her experiences with struggle and negotiating multiple languages to her advantage.

When I write I... have to translate myself into my own writing.... There have been several times that I could not think of some words or sentences in English or sometimes the expression that I was looking for will only make sense to me in Spanish but for people to understand me I will have to look for ways to translate those words or expressions to English. Based on this experience, this makes me more aware of my writing. I use most of the time vocabulary and sentences that I know if it had to be translated to another language, it will not be hard or tricky when doing the translation.


In other English classes she had taken, Natalia had struggled. And yet, in this boundary crossing context, Natalia excelled. When it came time to work on the Translation Project and again when students formed groups for the Community Partner Project, many other students in the class wanted to work with her, as her multilingual fluency became recognized as an incredible asset. In virtual meetings with the Neighbor Fund, the nonprofit her group was partnered with, Natalia took the lead in conversations, asking questions and setting the parameters for the work her group would do. When the Neighbor Fund representative mentioned that they really needed Spanish and English versions of the materials they would post to their social media accounts, Natalia created translations for all of her group’s work, a process that required sophisticated versioning, file management, and revision tactics to coordinate asynchronously with her largely monolingual team. Natalia’s experiences adapting to a different linguistic and cultural context had prepared her well for the rhetorically demanding and shifting terrain of working with a community partner during a pandemic—but these skills would have been largely overlooked in a course organized around conventionally bounded genres and uses of language.

Rhetorically Positioning Boundary Crossing Pedagogies

If the above sections describe some of the possibilities and drawbacks of boundary-crossing pedagogies, they don’t resolve the rhetorical problems of how best to frame and rationalize such pedagogies to students and other stakeholders (predisposed to boundary guarding as they often are by pervasive and often unquestioned practices of disciplinary gatekeeping). The anonymous student comment above has stayed with me as I reflect on this course design and has prompted me to ask myself: As teachers, what should we do about boundary guarders?

I am less willing to assume than some others who have researched conflict-laden pedagogies, such as Durst (1999), that “perhaps understanding is the first step toward larger changes” (p. 158) and that students likely benefit from challenges to deeply held beliefs regardless of how much resistance they exhibit. Although some research, such as Deslauriers et al. (2019), supports the idea that students benefit from evidence-based but unfamiliar activities even when such activities make them feel uncomfortable, studies like Medina’s (2019) suggest that may not be true for all students or that there are limits to how much discomfort may be tolerable.

My course design was in many ways premised on making the “possibilities and processes of domain crossing explicit and clear” (Reiff & Bawarshi, 2011, p. 331) and providing opportunities for reflection on boundary crossings. And yet, for the student quoted from the questionnaire above, this pedagogy of boundary crossing seemed to be as much a point of frustration as a point of access. I wonder whether it may have only intensified a boundary-guarding disposition. Was there a better way to get buy-in from this student, to support their ability to redraw boundaries? Was there a way to expand the class’s options for engagement? Would a “standard English class” have benefited this student more or less?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and all of them present promising avenues for future research. But I want to follow another line of thinking these questions expose: The point of boundary-crossing pedagogies is to facilitate further boundary crossing. But can we force students to cross boundaries? Can we force students to take risks?

I don’t think we can. Intellectual risk-taking necessitates intellectual investment, after all. Halfheartedly appearing to “go along” with a teacher’s curricular plan in order to make the grade is perhaps the opposite of authentic risk-taking. I’m certainly not saying that means we avoid boundary crossing pedagogies; quite the opposite. I hope, even as it raises some caveats, that this critical reflection points to some of the promising potential of boundary crossing practices in the composition classroom. But I think composition instructors would do well to anticipate resistance more than I did, to acknowledge the fact that such pedagogies necessitate transgressing boundaries reinforced by years of schooling, and also to transparently articulate the risks we expect students to take on when they follow us across these boundaries. My approach in this course was to project confidence and casualness about the ways the course departed from more conventional English classes under the assumption that focusing too much on its “differentness” might provoke greater feelings of anxiety. However, I now think there would have been much to gain by foregrounding and facilitating discussion on students’ anxieties and challenges with the shifting boundaries of the course.

It’s also possible that students who resisted boundary crossing in the course reacted more strongly because of the cumulative effect of being asked to cross boundaries on multiple fronts. Students were not presented with one disruption to expected practices but many: This course integrated translation, multimodal composition, community engaged partnerships, collaborative writing assignments, active learning, and contract grading—and, on top of this, students had to suddenly adjust to an unplanned transition to distance learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There may not have been a way to adequately “prepare” all students for the ways these factors would require the negotiation of boundaries, but opening up spaces early in the course or even before it began for students to reflect on their comfort with boundary crossing—and perhaps inviting students to define boundaries for themselves—may have helped students experiencing confusion and struggle during the course to convert those experiences to growth rather than covert resistance.

Even if there are ways to help reluctant students embrace boundary crossing in the composition classroom, there are likely to be students who can’t be persuaded. Given this, educators are faced with an ethical and pragmatic decision: Which students, whose dispositions, should the course cater to?

I think our responsibility is to the boundary crossers. Our education system, on the whole, tends to reward boundary guarders and punish risk-taking. Boundary crossing pedagogies hold the potential to place students like Natalia who are traditionally on the margins, who are used to negotiating boundaries by necessity, at an advantage. And at the same time, as Reiff and Bawarshi (2011) have suggested, such a pedagogy has the potential to also help those boundary guarders, like Colton, who are willing to revise their dispositions and extend beyond their comfort zones.

Every pedagogical approach makes choices in how it draws or disrupts boundaries. Those choices matter, and I think it is our responsibility to work to redraw the boundaries so that those traditionally on the margins are positioned closer to the center. What surprised me and challenged me are the ways such choices may still exclude others. But my reflection on this course tells me that having conversations with students of how educational boundaries are constructed and crossed offers the best way forward for doing the messy work of building consensus and redrawing boundaries as a community.

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021