Translingual Approaches to Writing in Research and Teaching

Modern Language Association 2013 Conference Panel Session 288:

Friday, 04 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Beacon A, Sheraton

This panel takes up movements and calls from within MLA, CCCC, and NCTE more

generally to pursue alternatives to approaches to the teaching and study of writing

dominated by monolingualist concepts of language and language relations.

Program arranged by the National Council of Teachers of English

Presiding: Bruce Horner, University of Louisville


Redefining Form in Translingual Writing

A. Suresh Canagarajah

The Pennsylvania State University

In the context of theoretical advances on writing as translingual practice, teachers of

composition have started asking difficult questions about notions of error and coherence

in classroom writing. When influences of the first language on English are perceived

as voice rather than interference in translingual writing, this realization raises questions

about acceptable grammar in writing. Similarly, when writing is performative, there

are questions on how to distinguish enthymematic responses which give coherence to

writing. Based on a classroom ethnography, I will discuss how a multilingual student

accounted for perceived errors and incoherence in her text. While understanding the

intentions of authors is important, I will argue for a negotiated understanding of error and

coherence. This approach emphasizes the role of both authors and readers in meaning

construction and uptake of performative acts that would redefine form in writing.

“Global Citizens” and First-year College Writing:

Moving Beyond English

Christiane Donahue

Dartmouth College

The first-year writing course in some variant is ubiquitous at United States colleges

and universities. While it can include, or can parallel, courses that attend to the specific

needs of students who did not grow up speaking or writing in English, who have long

been multilingual, or who are unfamiliar with U.S. conventions for college prose, until

recently, it has not included a focus on writing as itself as multi-rhetorical or multilingual,

and not tied to English alone even in an apparently English-speaking-dominated country.

I argue that in addition to any traditional arguments about the inherent value of bi- or

multi-linguality, we must also consider the value of learning to write and being supported

in writing in languages other than English 1) as a way to resist the still-entrenched

notions that language is the transparent medium of thought and that the language in

which we write doesn’t matter to the material communicated; 2) to decenter U.S.

students’ (and faculty’s) sense that “writing” is an “English” subject rather than a way of

constructing and negotiating meaning in every discipline and field, and 3) the underlying

need for translingual ability—the deep, negotiating, humble, ambiguity-embracing,

always-in-translation mindset first identified by scholars including Canagarajah, Horner,

Pennycook, Lu, and others. This ability, crucial to all “good writing,” develops as we

work in, through, and across languages. It is not a luxury or an exotic plus but a key

feature of strong writing today. Developing translingual ability links directly to the

sweeping discussions today about post-secondary education as responsible for preparing

global citizens for the 21st century, and pervasive call for language skills as part of

the “communication skills” as part of the 21st century toolkit.

I will describe four initiatives that suggest how we might begin working in earnest with

students on writing beyond English: Dartmouth’s multilingual writing support initiative;

Dickinson College’s multilingual writing center, Emerson’s trilingual first-year writing

pilot; and DePaul’s Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research. I will end

with the benefits to faculty who work and share with modern language colleagues in

these initiatives while broadening language faculty knowledge of writing instruction and

process. This seconds my own experience with the challenges and benefits of working

across languages in my research.

Voices from the Front Lines:

Student Reflections on Language, Culture and Identity

Juan Guerra, University of Washington

Our conversation about pedagogical and policy approaches to language difference in

the writing classroom has been dominated by scholars and educators who support code

meshing over code-segregation and code-switching. In my presentation, I will bring

into the conversation the voices of 19 undergraduate and 16 graduate students in a

class on language variation and language policy who read the literature; composed two

narratives that examined their language, dialect and vernacular repertoires; and produced

an academic essay that critiqued the three approaches. My goal is to complicate the

conversation by considering the logic that informs a broad range of student responses.