Critical Reflection

Two major themes that emerged from reflecting on my experience teaching this course have broader relevance for teachers of writing and the field of writing studies: translation and resistance to boundary crossing. Both of these themes reinforce through examples how boundary crossing is an increasingly urgent concern for the field of writing studies and suggest the pedagogical possibilities of attending to boundary crossing in the writing classroom.

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 and transmodal frameworks that influenced this course design to my reflections on it.

Translation

As noted previously, 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.”

Other writing studies scholars have recently addressed this question of relevance. 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).

Reflecting on her translation process led Lian, a student in English 1010, to construct heuristics and examples for understanding how writers act as not only translators but 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 mechanical 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 this 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.

Lian’s reflection also 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 English 1010, which 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.

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, 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 savvy grasp of the concept of translation by acknowledging  This change 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 about the concept of translation. But Lian still brings 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 now thinks about translation as a rhetorical practice rather than a purely technical one. In addition, she superimposes her infographic optically over the original text when users mouse over it on her website in order to reinforce to readers the ways comparisons between translations and source texts highlight 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 than other similar rhetorical practices more mainstream topics in composition pedagogy, such as remediation and paraphrasing.

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)

Although some students were initially suspicious of translation’s centrality to writing, in interviews and course evaluations, most students repeatedly spoke to the value of learning about translation across language and media and writing for international audiences. “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.'” I believe these student reflections and my own observations of their learning in the class support recent calls in the literature for attending to translation in the writing classroom and also invite more empirical research into what students learn and transfer from translation experiences.

Resistance to Boundary Crossing

This course required students to engage in various forms of boundary crossingOakey 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. In the context of English 1010, students crossed boundaries when writing they engaged with was recontextualized (Kell, 2009)—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 created collaborative projects via online platforms after the outbreak of a global pandemic. Such boundary crossing was at times transformative, as in the student testimonials quoted above. At other times, however, it engendered feelings of discomfort and occasionally outright resentment.

Resistance to unfamiliar methods and paradigms for writing—among faculty, administrators, students, and the public—have been documented on numerous occasions by writing scholars. Shipka (2011), for example, recounts the story of a faculty member disparaging a multimodal student essay written on a pair of ballet shoes who was unconvinced that such work could have any place in writing instruction. And Crowley (1998) references the example of a progressive writing course called “Writing About Difference” proposed by a curriculum committee at the University of Texas at Austin, which was swiftly shut down after outcry from both academics and the public who didn’t feel the curriculum reflected what a required English course “ought to be.” Crowley writes that people with “no professional or financial stake in the design of the course, and who had only the faintest academic interest in it, felt entitled to criticize a syllabus developed by the teachers and scholars put in charge of it by the university.” (p. 230). In contrast to consensus beliefs of writing studies experts or what is observable in the real-world practices of actual writers, there is often a (misguided) sense 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 feelings of anxiety, especially among those who have done well in school, especially in English and writing classes that operated under narrower definitions of writing.

Reiff and Bawarshi (2011) theorize 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 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 small number of students 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 as the student was able to reframe the experience or boundaries over extended exposure to boundary crossing practices. This was the case with Colton, a finance major who initially resisted the way the course pushed 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 head that [social justice] 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, his mind changed and, in his words, “the topic definitely grew on” him as he acclimated to the approach the course took to social justice issues. Colton told me his 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 social media rhetoric. He ended up enjoying working collaboratively with others and feeling that his writing was benefiting others, and he was encouraged by the fact that the course kept rhetoric and literacy 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.”

Medina (2019) has recently expanded on Reiff and Bawarshi’s (2011) concept of boundary crossers and guarders by proposing a phenomenon called micro-transfer, or 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 agents 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 caused by epistemological misalignments with how others 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.

Other 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)

Some of the frameworks above help me to explain this student’s response: They see English courses as clearly bounded entities, and they are unwilling to redraw boundaries. The student’s bounded view of writing didn’t match the expansive view of writing I forwarded as an instructor. But it’s a comment that has stuck with me. It provokes a troubling question: What do we do about the boundary guarders?

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 reflecting on this process. And yet, for the student quoted from the questionnaire above, this pedagogy of boundary crossing seemed to be as much a point of conflict 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 answer to these questions. But even as I worry about boundary-guarders, I am also reminded of Natalia, the sole Latina immigrant student in the course who told me she enrolled after she read the course title online, 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.” In a “standard English course,” Natalia likely would have struggled. And yet, in this boundary crossing context, Natalia excelled. Every other student wanted to work with her, as her multilingual fluency became recognized as an incredible asset. Her experiences adapting to a different linguistic and cultural context had prepared her well for the challenging and shifting terrain of working digitally with a community partner during a pandemic.

Every pedagogical approach makes choices in how it draws or disrupts boundaries. Those choices matter, and I think it is our responsibility 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

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