My goal in reviewing this literature was to begin to understand how writing studies collectively thinks about crossing. As this review makes clear, crossing rhetorics and metaphors have been used by the field in a variety of ways—so many ways, in fact, that you may have begun to long for some order to be imposed on the apparent chaos. While I have worked to collect, curate, and condense meaningful clusters of research, my goal has not been to impose order in this section. Instead, I want this review to function paratactically and rhizomatically, emulating the horizontal logics of hyperlinks and crossing points that have become familiar since the rise of the World Wide Web.

This conclusion, then, is not an attempt to say what this review of the literature “means.” Instead, I hope to share observations I gained from reading across this research in response to two key questions:

  • Why crossing? Why does has writing studies so often focused on acrossness? What does an orientation to across offer the field of writing studies?
  • What is composing across? What are some key characteristics that can be abstracted from the ways a multitude of eclectic writing scholars have used crossing metaphors?

Why crossing?

Speaking metaphorically or literally, crossing is spatial. Literacy has often been spatialized by researchers (Keller & Weisser, 2007; Leander & Sheehy, 2004), often for methodological reasons. One of the benefits of spatializing literacy is it allows us to attend to context and power, since literacy is valued differently, is practiced differently, and is understood differently in different spaces. Literacy is also often spatialized as a matter of practicality, since writing “is never not emplaced” (Rule, 2018, p. 4040), and empirical research at some point needs a location or event in which to study literacy. Of course, even though writing must be emplaced, it is not always obviously so, especially as literate activity becomes distributed across networks and interfaces that allow writers to interact with others synchronously or asynchronously across the globe. The simple act of replying to a comment on social media may involve an array of “places,” only some of which are visible, including the poster’s physical location, the virtual “space” of the app’s interface, the wireless networks and interfaces of hundreds of users reading the comment from around the globe, the social media company’s underground servers near the Arctic Circle—all of which says nothing of the many places involved in developing the literacies and technologies that make this moment possible. Kell (2011) refers to this as the problem of boundaries. It is a problem because the boundaries researchers draw are necessarily artificial, since literacy is both emplaced and imbricated with other places and histories that can’t always be seen from an isolated snapshot. An orientation to across offers literacy and writing studies a way around this impasse, a means of studying the situated in multiple contexts, paying attention to what we can learn from their accretion and comparison.

A drawing of a photo of a woman sitting on the curb reading to a girl

Perhaps one more reason writing studies scholars have turned to spatial metaphors like crossing is that we are always trying to locate ourselves, as evidenced by the many attempts to “map” the discipline (Mueller, 2017). Writing studies’ identity as a discipline is still contested, and throughout its history it has sometimes been defined instead as a metadiscpline or interdiscipline. The boundaries of writing studies are not always clear, nor are its subdivisions. In our postmodern, fragmented world, it often seems safest to locate ourselves as somehow spanning these fractures, even if the landscape is constantly shifting, even if the distance and nature of the spaces between is not fully known.

What is composing across?

The literature centering crossing in writing studies and adjacent fields is heterogeneous. Even within the broad categories I have constructed here, there is rarely consensus around how terms that evoke crossing metaphors are used. Still, there are some common themes that show up across the literature that are worth extracting and developing here.

  • Crossing is spatial. We think spatially. Spatial models and metaphors are useful because our primary engagements with the world are spatial. All of our senses (with perhaps the exception of taste) have a spatial dimension. When we use spatial metaphors like the metaphor of crossing, we are attempting to make a highly abstract process or concept concrete and accessible to the embodied and sense-dependent aspects of cognition. Although there are many ways for crossing to occur, as this chapter enumerates, metaphors of crossing are, importantly, “horizontal” metaphors. They work best to describe recontextualization or writing or writers into an “even” (that is, comparable), if not similar, space. “Vertical” metaphors of writing certainly exist, and may in fact be dominant (such as when educators refer to students’ “writing level”), and horizontal metaphors can be useful in disrupting and de-hierarchizing these models.
  • Crossing is relational. Crossing does not allow us to think about entities in isolation. There need to be at least two spaces for crossing to take place—crossing into a place and out of another. The act of crossing always creates something new, whether that is through hybridization (as when one species is crossed with another) or through the acknowledgement that the borderland being crossed is itself a space, too. Orienting to crossing makes us pay attention to not just the connection between two things, but the quality and organizing rules of that connection, the kinds of transformations that connection catalyzes.
  • Crossing is often invisible. Writing doesn’t usually literally cross anything. In writing studies, composing across is a metaphor or a process that isn’t directly perceivable, as when a writer acculturates by transitioning from school to workplace writing or when intercultural communicants negotiate meaning across languages. Writing as a technology does many things, but one of its main purposes is to transmit (send across) meaning. But it is extremely difficult to say with certainty how or even whether writing accomplishes this. Writing studies as a field is at its core dedicated to trying to observe and understand these invisible moments where crossing happens.
  • Crossing is inextricable from boundaries. Even though one of the main appeals of crossing metaphors is their potential to disrupt the stability and boundedness of established categories, crossing is meaningless without boundaries and can thus serve to reify them. Crucially, however, attending to crossing allows us to see boundaries, fractures, and subdivisions that might not otherwise be noticed. Much has been written about boundaries in writing studies and other fields. Crossing differs from research on boundaries in that it foregrounds the action or practice of traversing these boundaries rather than focusing on the boundaries themselves.
  • Crossing is risky. There are always stakes to crossing. Crossing lines one isn’t supposed to will attract others’ attention, and sometimes outright hostility, since some have invested immense energy in creating or maintaining borders. Crossing is therefore powerful, both subversive and creative, but dangerous, too.
  • Crossing is transformative. Moving across boundaries and thresholds is often marked by struggle, conflict, growth, or change. It implies a process—activity rather than text—which makes it useful as a metaphor in writing studies, which has across its history worked against product-centered views of writing. Composing across (e.g., through translation or remediation) changes writing, and it also changes writers, audiences.
A map of a city with two intersecting lines overlaid onto it
An illustration from Guaman Poma's New Chronicle, which Mary Louise Pratt uses as a case study to construct her theory of contact zones.
A dense web of overlapping red threads from an installation by Chiharu Shiota
Social Interaction

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021