Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > Bedford Bits > Blog > 2017 > March > 09

I’m a bit behind on my journal reading, but I finally got around to the December 2016 issue of CCC. It’s a good issue—with Joyce Carter’s powerful 2016 CCCC Chair’s address on “Making, Disrupting, Innovating”—but one article especially stood out to me: Jerry Won Lee and Christopher Jenks’s “Doing Translingual Dispositions.” This essay builds on Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur’s “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” (College English, 2011, 303-21), which defines translingual disposition as one distinguished by “a general openness toward language and language differences.” Lee and Jenks go on to say

 

This disposition allows individuals to move beyond preconceived, limited notions of standardness and correctness, and it therefore facilitates interactions involving different Englishes. Considering the historical marginalization of ‘nonstandard’ varieties and dialects of English in various social and institutional contexts, translingual dispositions are essential for all users of English in a globalized society, regardless of whether they are ‘native’ or ‘nonnative’ speakers of English. (319)

 

I see the lively conversation around translingualism as one very positive outgrowth of the work done forty-five years ago by the group of scholars working on "Students’ Right to Their Own Language," first as a resolution and later as an NCTE publication, with full documentation. It’s worth remembering this resolution, voted on in 1972:

 

We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language -- the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

 

The last sentence in the resolution touches on what I have always thought of as “attitude,” that is, the attitude of teachers of
English toward varieties of English as well as toward other languages. Often it’s easier to pass a resolution (though this one was vehemently opposed by some members at the time) than it is to change attitudes. And in spite of this resolution and the research and scholarship that supported it, attitudes changed slowly: teachers of writing could and did talk the talk but didn’t yet come close to walking the walk. But we kept working at it: I can remember taking a cold, hard look at my syllabi, at the readings I chose, at my assignments, and noting the many many ways that attitudes regarding “proper” English were there inscribed. So I kept trying to make what I felt were my attitudes toward language variety (all upbeat and favorable) show forth more clearly in my classroom. And roughly twenty years ago, I wrote a new chapter for one of my reference books, on “Varieties of Language,” the first such chapter to appear in a composition handbook and one that argued for the validity of all varieties of English and of all languages.

 

So I’ve been thinking about these issues for most of my professional life, and I am encouraged by recent developments to recognize and nurture “translingual dispositions.” What I especially like about Lee and Jenks’s essay is that they see clearly that our field hasn’t yet worked out a strong pedagogy for teaching translingual dispositions, much less for teaching what Suresh Canagarajah and others call code meshing. But they persist in paving the way for such a pedagogy, showing that “even students who can be considered monolingual in the most traditional sense of the term have the capacities to develop translingual competence and do translingual disposition” by sharing research that demonstrates some students beginning to make the move toward such new dispositions.

 

Lee and Jenks are also clear-sighted about the role that teachers of writing must play in developing such dispositions: it won’t be enough for us to embrace this concept intellectually. Rather, as their title suggests, we have to DO translingual dispositions. I’d say that nearly fifty years on from the Students’ Right resolution, it’s time we take that step. And thanks to Lee and Jenks for moving us in the right direction.

 

Credit: Pixaby Image 705667 by wilhei, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

One common response to the semiotic study of such popular media as film, television, and music is that "it's only entertainment."  If you use popular culture as a thematic topic in your composition classes, then you may have encountered something of the sort, which is why the general introduction to Signs of Life in the USA carefully describes the historical process by which America became an "entertainment culture," and why that means that entertainment in America is always meaningful.

 

And if anyone still wants to object that entertainment is only entertainment, I give you the 2017 Oscar Awards ceremony.

 

No, I'm not referring to the mistaken best-picture-announcement-heard-round- the-world (how could they have just stood around waiting for the poor producers of La La Land to complete their victory speeches before breaking in with the correct envelope?!); I'm referring to the expectation that, like the Golden Globes, the ceremony was going to be another skirmish in the ongoing war between Hollywood and Donald Trump.  And that expectation, largely due to the opening monologue by Jimmy Kimmel, was not disappointed.

 

With Kimmel openly taunting the president (indeed, daring him to live-tweet the event), one doesn't need to go through every joke to get the point.  Which is, that with Saturday Night Live taking the lead with regularly scheduled take-downs (and enjoying a "ratings roll" ever since the election), and major awards ceremonies becoming platforms for presidential critique, the entertainment industry is emerging as the foremost institution of political opposition in the country.  I don't think that I am exaggerating: how often do we hear anything like it from the opposition party in the Senate and the House?

 

But if the entertainment industry has successfully taken up the cudgels against the Trump administration, will that action be successful itself?  Here's where things get tricky.  There is a lyric from a Tom Lehrer tune spoofing the folk-song-led 1960s protest movement called "The Folk Song Army," which goes like this:

 

Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

 

There is no question that the entertainment industry has all of the good jokes (and speeches) when it comes to the anti-Trump resistance, but given that Trump's support comes from people who view Hollywood as a lot of out-of-touch elites, these jokes may only prompt them to dig in their heels (or "double down," as everyone seems to insist on saying these days) when it comes to their support for the president.  Indeed, a Washington Post report suggests that just this is happening, as 53% of those polled in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal national poll believe that "[T]he news media and other elites are exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration."   And "other elites," in American discourse, always include Hollywood.

 

Still, there is also the fact that entertainment is what Americans heed.  Donald Trump himself (as one of the new selections for the upcoming 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA points out) used reality television as a springboard to the White House.  So perhaps the entertainment industry may indeed prove to be the most effective warrior in the anti-Trump opposition. 

 

This takes us back to our original premise: in America, entertainment matters.  A lot.  And that's why we teach popular cultural semiotics.