Taking Risks in Cross-Border Scholarship

by Xiaoye You, Penn State University

In her book, Imagining the Cosmopolitan in Public and Professional Writing, Anne Surma has identified a series of challenges in transnational writing. In the age of globalization, writing should not be viewed solely as either a local practice or a product for a local audience. Instead, it has potential to reach a distant audience or has ramification for the other who we don’t know or have never imagined. This potential creates challenges for transnational writing. We don’t know who may read our writing, how they will respond to it, and in what ways our writing will affect those whom we never imagined, particularly whether our writing will alienate or harm them. With these uncertainties, we need to be responsible for and careful with our writing. With the rise of global networks and advanced communication technologies, these challenges and uncertainties are more real than they were before.


In transnational writing scholarship, it is not only important to recognize the connections between the local and the global, but also to cross the real and artificial boundaries between nations, cultures, and ethnicities. To cross boundaries in our scholarship, there are practical challenges and risks even with a relatively well-defined scholarly audience. A few years ago, Steve Fraiberg and I put together a panel for the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Under the panel title “From ‘Black English’ to World English: Multilingualism and Multimodality in and across Local and Global Contexts,” the panelists presented studies on  literacy practices in three national contexts. In our panel proposal, we stated that

These studies are intended to promote a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural perspective that forges connections and “gateways” linking World Englishes and African-American Vernacular Englishes. In making this move, this panel argues for attention to all the semiotic modes with writing conceptualized as one resource within a wider rhetorical repertoire. Key to this less bounded approach is an understanding of language (broadly conceived) as dialogic, hybrid, mediated, dynamic, and co-constitutive.

The panelists included me presenting a study on Chinese students composing in a first-year writing course, Steve presenting an Israeli student’s multilingual and multimodal literacy practices, and David Green proposing the African American metaphor of “putting in work” for framing revision in formal writing instruction. My dear colleague and friend Keith Gilyard served as the respondent. In the end, I wasn’t able to attend the conference due to my daughter’s birth. So I asked a colleague of mine to present my paper. After the conference, Steve, David, and one of my students described how the audience responded to the panel. In the Q & A period, an audience asked the panelists about the title of the panel and the relationship of the presentations: “Why are you on a panel together?” As David recalls, the central concern seemed to be about the phrase World Englishes as signifier for global imperialism, and whether we all saw our projects as ways of resisting English language imperialism or easing its adoption, and for whom. Many in the audience seemed to view World Englishes as embracing colonial erasure as ok, whereas Black English was a resistance to that erasure. Steve responded by saying something like “We have the same goals. We’re all supporting students’ rights to their own languages.” He then referenced W. E. B. DuBois and his notion of double consciousness. He suggested that this concept was not only relevant to speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but also those of World Englishes. His point was that when people live across borders and live in between worlds, they learn to cultivate a bifocal perspective. He framed this point in terms of moving from double consciousness to double voicing (Bakhtin). Keith somewhat disagreed with Steve, saying something like “Black students’ own languages, like the students themselves, have been oppressed in ways that are completely different from international students – that there’s a history of oppression that has to be considered.  AAVE and World Englishes are not the same.” This is a position that Keith has long taken in his writings (“Cross-Talk,” “Rhetoric”). There was a brief moment of silence, but then the audience sort of murmured angrily and supported Keith. Looking back, I think the audience asked a valid and valuable question. Unfortunately it was the last question and there was no time for further discussion. The audience’s question and Keith’s disagreement with Steve’s answer called my attention to the risks in crossing borders, including national, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, and class, in scholarship. Because of the fear of historical erasure, we may not feel comfortable to step outside our identities and communities.


In my forthcoming book, Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, I argue that much of the scholarly discussion in composition studies dealing with difference has been centered on the nation-state framework, including the most prominent multiculturalist discourse. As we recognize the local-global connections with any writing practice and the increasing flows of people and cultural products across national and geographic borders, we need to re-envision our moral responsibilities in literacy education. We should not only focus on cultivating national citizens but also global citizens. A cosmopolitan orientation to literacy education means that our students will interact with diverse dialects and languages in addition to Standard English. Furthermore, they will encounter diverse cultural discourses and, through deep engagement with them, potentially form affinities with, or at least learn to deal with, the communities and groups behind these discourses. The cosmopolitan orientation demands that we seek to cultivate in students the ability to engage these cultural discourses through reading and writing using Standard English, other styles, other languages, and other semiotic resources. This ability necessarily requires that they negotiate across language differences and “consciously and effectively move back and forth between as well as in and out of … communities they belong to or will belong to” (Guerra 258). I call this ability and its enactment transliteracy. Ultimately, they should foster “a cultural disposition involving an intellectual and aesthetic stance of ‘openness’ towards peoples, places, and experiences from different cultures, especially those from different nations” (Szerszynski & Urry 469). While institutionally they remain citizens of a certain nation, morally and culturally they become citizens of the world. In other words, transliteracy is translingual and transcultural practice with a cosmopolitan imperative.


To practice transliteracy myself, one of the attempts I made in the book is to show the connections and commonalities between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and China English as social practice. Doing so, I ran the risks of receiving questions and doubts from some scholars, questions similar to the one raised at the Cs. Scholars will probably feel uneasy about such comparisons due to the difference in the historical experiences and social positions of their speakers, their unique socio-political meanings, and their formal linguistic features. Despite these recognized differences, however, I want to highlight their commonalities, to which we have not paid as much attention. For example, we can ask a series of questions for AAVE: How does one define the categorization “African American”? Do all African Americans speak the variety in their home communities? Do only African Americans speak AAVE? Is AAVE defined by a relatively stable set of linguistic features? These are not new questions for scholars of AAVE and African American Studies (Rickford & Rickford; Wolfram; Kendall & Wolfram). These questions can be similarly raised for China English. Both varieties have in common these fuzzy/fluid boundaries, that they are similarly hard to categorize.


To make the conversations productive, I have adopted a few strategies to show due respect to AAVE and its speakers. First, I foregrounded AAVE in its sociopolitical histories and emphasized that its studies have strategically provided a basis for political power, identity formation, conversation, and negotiation. Second, I reviewed studies on AAVE and reiterated that it possesses distinct pronunciations, lexicon, sentence structures, and language practices that mark African American history, identities, voices, and alliances. For furthering the intellectual conversation and effecting positive political action, this body of research deserves to be applauded. In the context of education, these efforts helped move forward discussions and enact policies concerning literacy education for minority students, such as the publication of “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” by the Cs in 1974. Third, I drew on scholars such as Jacqueline Jones Royster, who lamented that in composition studies, we lack the notion of hybrid people, or “people who either have the capacity by right of history and development, or people who might have created the capacity by right of history and development, to move with dexterity across cultural boundaries, to make themselves comfortable, and to make sense amid the chaos of difference” (37). We sometimes assume teleologically that people of a cultural category will use language in predictable ways.


In the end, through comparing the two English varieties as social practice, I suggested that they are each invariably connected to the historical struggles and diasporic experiences of their speakers. AAVE originated with Africans being forced to leave their homelands and then being dispersed across the Atlantic and North America, and they continue to move within and across national, ethnic, and class boundaries. Removed from their traditional cultural designations, speakers of China English live in an in-between space. As illustrated by the cases that I examined in the book as well as my historical study of English writing in China (Writing in the Devil’s Tongue), when using English, the Chinese speakers of English have to negotiate with personal and collective histories connected with the language in the local context. They use English for expressing their feelings amidst drastic social change and for critiquing neocolonial and imperialist forces operating inside and outside their nation, in the process making English their own. They appropriate historical elements to construct meanings for an indeterminate future, or in the words of Bhabha, their art of English use “renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present” (7). English used by these diasporas is a way of being and a practice in the making.


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Gilyard, Keith “Cross-Talk: Toward Transcultural Writing Classrooms.” Writing in Multicultural Settings. Ed. Carol Severino, Juan. C. Guerra and Johnnella  E. Butler. New York: MLA, 1997. 325-331. Print.

—–. “The Rhetoric of Translingualism. College English 78.3 (2016): 284-89. Print.

Guerra, Juan C. “The Place of Intercultural Literacy in the Writing Classroom.” Writing in Multicultural Settings. Ed. Carol Severino, Juan. C. Guerra and Johnnella  E. Butler. New York: MLA, 1997. 248-60. Print.

Kendall, Tyler, and Walt Wolfram. “Local and External Language Standards in African American English.” Journal of English Linguistics 37.4 (2009): 305-30. Print.

Rickford, John R., and Russell J Rickford. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000. Print.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication 47.1(1996): 29-40. Print.

Surma, Anne. Imagining the Cosmopolitan in Public and Professional Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw, and John Urry. (2002). Cultures of cosmopolitanism. Sociological Review 50.4 (2002): 461-81. Print.

Wolfram, Walt. “Reexamining the Development of African American English: Evidence from Isolated Communities.” Language 79.2 (2003): 282-316. Print.

You, Xiaoye. Writing in the Devil’s Tongue: A History of English Composition in China. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2010. Print.

—–. Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2016. Print.


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