A few weeks ago Leah Rang blogged here about the latest group of Bedford New Scholars (BNS) and promised (or perhaps warned?) that the BNS “notable newcomers” would soon be writing for this space. As one of the BNS cohort, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to ask a few questions and learn from you all.
I first started reading the Bits blog in May of 2018, the week Andrea A. Lunsford wrote about “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and the ongoing efforts for more generous attitudes towards our students’ home languages (see her post African American Rhetoric and Other Englishes). Lunsford recommended Jerry Won Lee’s book titled The Politics of Translingualism: After Englishes (Routledge, 2017), which I had just finished reading, and she concluded her post with an invitation to continue the conversation about translingualism, an orientation where the theory and pedagogy sometimes miss one another. As we head into a new semester, it seems like a good time to revisit this conversation.
Lee’s book helpfully clarified some of my confusion over the need for a distinction between multilingualism and translingualism, and why this matters in a writing classroom. Lee argues that “by focusing on and drawing attention to the simultaneous presence of multiple language resources in a particular utterance, moment, or space, we risk simultaneously gesturing to and reaffirming the disciplinarian linguistic ideologies that have aspired and perhaps conspired to keep such language resources in isolation from one another” (p. 9). My conception of the translingual orientation had been too narrow: code-switching vs. code-meshing or multilingual (parallel monolingualism) vs. translingual (through and beyond linguistic borders). Such stunted views of the translingual turn belied my own stunted imagination about what “counts” in academic writing and what rhetorical magic our students can muster if we convince them that we genuinely want to see what they can do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how translingual theory and anti-racist pedagogy can come together in meaningful and rigorous classroom practice. During my first semester of graduate school, I enrolled in a seminar taught by Anne Gere called “What Makes Writing Good,” which focused on justice-oriented pedagogy and anti-racist writing assessment practices. At the same time, I was working with linguist Anne Curzan on challenging deficit language ideologies in writing classrooms. These courses greatly shaped my approach to translingualism by bringing linguists and compositionists into conversation about the teaching of languaging.
I do worry about how my students will fare when they leave the safety of my classroom. As Deborah Cameron and Rosina Lippi-Green and others have demonstrated, there are many who insist on standard varieties of English as a litmus test for intelligence. If people in their lives will require conventions of a so-called “standard” variety of English, what does that mean for a composition teacher with a translingual orientation? How do I reconcile a conviction that I ought to teach beyond linguistic and other borders when I also believe that borders will hem my students in?
It seems very practical to ask students to answer these kinds of questions for themselves, to have students write about their own linguistic ideologies and to practice having conversations with people who use standards as a basis of judgement. It seems like part of my job, as a teacher of languaging, to help students find the language they want to use to correct the misinformation they will encounter about language. So that’s where my semester is moving: towards challenging students to think about how cultural language preferences are developed, how they are reinforced (and by whom!), and how they as informed students want to respond when they witness the perpetuation of hegemony.
One of my favorite writing assignments to teach is the Literacy Narrative. We read a few example texts in class, like Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me,” and then I ask my students to think about the literacy experiences that have shaped their own linguistic ideologies. Often they discover that reading and writing have played a more critical role in the development of their identities than they realized, and they appreciate the challenge of writing an argument about literacy and identity in a university writing course. As students peer review and share these essays they also expand their understandings of how language and identity are intertwined, and hopefully we all become more compassionate and courageous individuals.
If you have insights into how we can guide our students’ thinking about linguistic ideologies or how they can practice standing up for their developing beliefs, I certainly welcome the discussion.