I want to start with pandemics, something that isn’t front-and-center in the text of my dissertation but has everything to do with how the project came together and came through implicitly, I think, in what I wrote about. Most of this dissertation was written during a pandemic that upended how we live, think, work, and do research.
The COVID-19 pandemic drew the world’s collective attention to the significance of crossing, as a virus transformed by jumping from one biological species to another, spread across bodies through particles in space, then quickly expanded across international borders to infect populations across the globe. Since then, communication has become a logistical puzzle of crossing mechanics, as we attempt to transmit messages but not the virus between persons, across the barriers of cloth masks and plexiglass, computer screens and wireless networks. As our human routines and interactions—university courses, doctor’s visits, holiday gatherings—shifted to digital environments, it became more and more apparent that we must learn to live in a “convergence culture” (Jenkins, 2006) of crisscrossing and interweaving media, where we converse and collaborate and create across various platforms simultaneously. Whatever the aftermath of the pandemic may be, this multiply mediated existence is likely here to stay, and it will have changed the way we communicate forever.
Below are some images many of us became very familiar with during 2020-2021, including remarkable photographs from Thomas Dworzak published in the Atlantic, which document the pandemic through Zoom. Zoom has in some ways “flattened” our existence, in literal and figurative senses. But at the same time, it has “unflattened” (Sousanis, 2015) and expanded our lives, too, creating windows that let us observe the interweaving or what writing scholars Prior and Shipka (2003) would call “lamination,” of work and home, places and times, the virtual and the real. These Zoom screens, I think, highlight in a visual way how lives became fragmented, and how we learned to transfer and transform our practices for different media environments.
The pandemic highlighted what was already becoming apparent: Increasingly, writing involves crossing. The pandemic’s fragmented social worlds, visualized in the thumbnail images of Zoom video feeds, recall’s Guerra’s notion of the Neither/Nor. Guerra (2016) argues that contemporary literacy environments are a Deleuzean rhizomatic landscape he terms “the Neither/Nor,” which “resembles a fragmented, discontinuous, and disorienting social space that the disenfranchised-post-colonial subjects… must learn to navigate and negotiate.” The Neither/Nor “is measured by its neverending fluidity, instability, and unpredictability” (p. 54). Today’s writers, he contends, must “learn to use cultural modalities of memory to highlight the rhizomatic nature of their lived experience, to wrestle with the multiple contradictions that Life in the Neither/Nor in particular brings to light. When we constitute or reconstitute ourselves, we purposefully disrupt the need that we feel to make sense of the world in coherent and highly prescribed terms” (p. 65).
The pandemic highlighted what was already becoming apparent:
An orientation to composing across helps us see how all the fragments are connected. In writing studies, this attention to crossing has been framed in various ways, labeled by some as a “trans” turn, which has sparked inquiry into, for example, transfer (how writers carry rhetorical knowledge across contexts), translingualism (how writers make meaning across languages), and, most recently, transliteracies. A transliteracies framework (Stornaiuolo et al., 2017) aims to dissolve boundaries and emphasize:
My dissertation research adopts these frameworks and also explores them methodologically, asking what “acrossness” has to offer writing studies. It also enacts “acrossness” in writing in the way it is structured and the way it was composed.
To illustrate how transliteracy matters in action, I briefly want to share the textual trajectory of my own writing process for the text you are reading now. Maybin (2017) defines a textual trajectory as an orientation to the dynamic nature of texts, which seeks to “capture the changes, movements and directionalities of spoken, written and multimodal texts—and relationships between these—across social space and time” (p. 416). Such an orientation views textual artifacts as “historically constituted traces of particular moments in trajectories which can be tracked backwards and forwards across social practice” (p. 419). I want to credit Brenda Brueggemann with alerting me to the ways my text’s trajectory is a story of crossing boundaries. Brenda asked me the question: How do you access writing?
In the case of this dissertation text, I accessed texts from the library, which were digitized from print, which were created using word processors, which trail off into textual trajectories I can’t know. I store these texts in the cloud, which is to say simultaneously on dozens of servers in Google’s underground data centers across the planet. I download the articles to my phone, which I then remediate again by listening to them with a text-to-speech program—this is how I do almost all of my academic “reading” these days. Now, I listen while I walk around my neighborhood, and I notice I attach memories of passages I’ve heard to specific locations on my walking route, so my physical world becomes a part of the text. As I listen, I take notes by speaking them into my phone, which voice-to-text software converts back to text, and Evernote transmits these text notes to my computer. When I get home, I usually grab the nearest notebook and scribble down some more notes, and often a drawing, which gets pinned to my corkboard. This might turn into writing, which becomes reformatted in HTML on my website. But it might also turn into a drawing, which I scan into my computer, download to my tablet to digitally paint, send back to my computer for editing, upload to my website, and then turn back into text for alt text captions. And then, I might read this text out loud as speech, like I am in the presentation you’re hearing now. It’s a dizzying universe of crossing points.
I find the concept of textual trajectories useful because of the way it invites us to track texts “backwards and forwards.” Once a text comes into being, we don’t always get to determine how it will be accessed or used. In my dissertation research, I happened across some odd moments of writing crossing modalities—or what literacy researchers call “recontextualization,” when a text crosses into a context it wasn’t intended for. For example, I listened to Elbow’s (1985) reflections on the unique affordances of literacy (text) vs. orality (speech) and was struck by his assertion that writing is fundamentally spatial while speech is fundamentally temporal. It’s not that he is wrong, per se, but Elbow couldn’t have anticipated the ways that his text, printed physically, spatially on paper, would be accessed by me 35 years later, temporally, through a tiny bluetooth speaker in my ear.
My dissertation plays with this idea, the transformations that occur as texts cross into new settings and modalities and as readers bridge textual gaps. It deliberately creates gaps and crossing points by disrupting the linear flow of text with drawings, hyperlinks, and multimedia, creating disjunctions and juxtapositions that readers must pause to connect.
Dissertation drawings, first sketched on paper. photographed, then painted on a tablet with Adobe Sketch, then edited and finished on a computer with Adobe Photoshop.
This project does not build sequentially toward a conclusion. Each “chapter” or “site” is independent, orbiting around a common theme, but exploring distinct research questions. Readers are directed to explore the text rhizomatically, choosing a way forward through rhizomatic and non-hierarchical menus.
There is a kind of telescoping structure, even if it ultimately doesn’t matter where you start. My dissertation is broken down into five different “sites” of inquiry: “Chiasmus,” “On Crossing,” “Across Modes, Across Disciplines,” “Writing Across Technology,” and “Boundary Crossing in Composition.” “Chiasmus” considers composing across as a rhetorical strategy; “On Crossing” explores composing across as a metaphor in the field of writing studies; “Across Modes, Across Disciplines” tries to create a picture of what composing across looks like at a university; “Writing Across Technology” investigates composing across in a professional development program; and “Boundary Crossing in Composition” reflects on composing across within a course as a pedagogical approach.
Plateaus, islands, and neurons were all conceptual metaphors, common in theories of networked technologies, that influenced the structure of this project.
Research question: How can attributes of the ancient rhetorical figure of chiasmus construct principles for a crossing rhetoric that maps key strategies for writing across modes, languages, technologies, and communities?
Key finding: Chiasmus is inherently visual/spatial; a bridge and mirror; a recycling; a form of play; nonbinary.
Research question: How does the field of writing studies use crossing metaphors to describe writing and writers? What are the possibilities and limitations of these metaphors?
Key finding: Crossing metaphors of writing are spatial, relational, often invisible, risky, transformative, and inextricable from boundaries.
Research question: How common is multimodal composition across the university, what kinds of multimodal compositions are being produced, and for what purposes?
Key finding: Multimodal composition is common among academics across the university and used for diverse purposes, but less frequently assigned to undergraduate students.
Research question: How do participants and coordinators represent their experiences of a professional development institute for multimodal composition?
Key finding: Multimodal composition expertise is multifaceted; professional development programs face challenges in prioritizing certain kinds of expertise over others.
Research question: What effect does a writing course that emphasizes digital writing and cross-cultural communication have on students’ approaches to writing?
Key finding: Translation is a powerful method for approaching teaching and writing but raises important questions about “what counts” as writing.
“Boundary Crossing in Composition” is a pedagogical project, what some would call teacher research, framed as a course design. I describe a writing course built around digital community partnerships, where students produced materials for nonprofits dedicated to immigrant rights. Drawing on student work and responses to interviews and questionnaires, I reflect on the ways translation and boundary crossing served as important pedagogical frameworks that both expanded students’ definitions of writing, while occasionally creating conflicts.
Digital projects are exciting but also frustrating: They never feel as though they are “finished,” and this dissertation is no exception. This project was particularly ambitious due to its multi-site nature and the combination of methodologies it incorporated, which included empirical human subjects research, arts-based and digital methods. There are several areas that I plan to expand and revise:
Continue to improve site architecture and interactivity.
© Gabriel Morrison, 2021