G.19: Uncovering the Hidden: Composition Scholarship as Language Activism

Reviewed by Anjali Pattanayak, University of Wisconsin–Platteville (pattanayaka@uwplatt.edu)

Chair: Asao Inoue, University of Washington, Tacoma
Speakers: Mandy Macklin, University of Washington, “Lost in ‘Uptake’ Translation: Examining Hidden Negotiations in Genre Performance and the Politics of the Researcher"
Alison Cardinal, University of Washington—Tacoma, “Making Visible the Labor of Translation in Reflection”
Holly Gilman, South Seattle Community College, “Hidden Lessons in Placement Policy”

When we talk about multilingualism, we frequently use the language of triage. Students are placed in courses based on the level of emergency that is assigned to their English language skills, and they are treated like they need to be fixed or cured. This was not how Mandy Macklin, Alison Cardinal, and Holly Gilman approached the topic. Rather, they subverted the binary in which native speakers are privileged over nonnative speakers, and then examined the ways in which multilingualism can, and should, be framed as a strength.

Holly Gilman began the conversation by talking about placement testing and her foundational education classes, a term which she notes highlights opportunity rather than focusing on weakness as the term “developmental” education does. She teaches at an open admission, two-year institution where many of the students whom she works with (41%) use a language other than English at home, and the average age of her students is 31.5 years of age. The focus of her work was to examine how the placement test policy of her institution might devalue the skills that nonnative speaking students might bring to the table.

Gilman in particular looked at the ways placement tests follow a linear communications theory model, in which the placement office takes on the role of the speaker who transmits the result of the placement test to the receiver students. This model removes any sense of agency from students, as they are passive recipients of information, treated as objects. She noted that this model runs counter to what is actually happening in the classroom, where students can retake the class, where integrated reading and writing doesn’t lend itself to a multiple choice test, and where “prestige-edited English” (or standardized academic English) is valued above all without question.

For placement tests, students are assigned to a native or nonnative speaker placement test. There is no oversight on who gets assigned which test, and students have little to no feedback or information about which test they are taking. They cannot retake the test for three months. Additionally, students are supposed to be informed that they can write a sample essay if they are unhappy with the results. Of the people that Gilman spoke to, only a fraction were informed of this as an option. The information is also not on the placement office website.

Gilman argued that these problematic practices are built on the mentality that students are tabula rasa on which to be written, or objects that do not participate in decisions. She gave an example of a young student who was overheard speaking Spanish to a family member and who was automatically given the ESL test, despite having lived in the country since she was a child. Gilman used Bruno Latour (2005) to argue that students should be reframed as actants rather than objects. She also noted that the context of the advanced skills questions actually lead to ambiguity. She gave an example of a question which could reasonably be answered with any of the possible choices. The overall result is that students are treated as objects to receive placement tests, and thus they have no agency in a system with little to no oversight.

The placement practices of schools are problematic for all students, but become a particular challenge for multilingual or translingual students who are expected to speak prestige-edited English, with little attention being paid to the cultural and social values that are tied with language. Gilman noted that these placement tests are designed for ease-of-assessment and are based on the sort of linguistic assumptions that Bruce Horner and John Trimbur (2002) have discussed: “assumptions about language that were institutionalized in around the turn of the century, at the high tide of imperialism, colonial adventure, and overseas missionary societies, have become sedimented in the way we think about writing pedagogy and curriculum” (p.608). These postcolonial assumptions hurt all students, but those with multilingual backgrounds are penalized even further with their multilingualism treated as something that is a deficit or flaw, rather than a strength. Gilman argued that the way that placement tests are designed to privilege prestige-edited English is based on a tacit assumption that is ultimately racist in nature.

Macklin continued the conversation through her research designs for examining the hidden negotiation that she sees in multicultural and multimodal writing. The theoretical underpinnings of her research were based in rhetorical genre studies and in particular in Anne Freadman’s research on uptake. Macklin’s work is designed to research the hidden translation that happens for students between process and performance. She is researching a service learning section of freshman composition, in which students will need to translate between genres outside of the classroom. Her goal is to study the messiness so that she can “capture uptake in the moment of actualization.” Right now her work is focused on student reflections and interviews to get a better understanding of perceptions. Part of the difficulty that she is finding is that these hidden negotiations of uptake are, “both internal and external."

What really made Macklin’s presentation stand out was the way that she engaged the audience in discussion about the research questions, methods, and limitations. In presenting the ways that she was thinking about her research, she created a framework from which the audience could also participate in thinking about designing research for uptake. She then engaged the audience in discussing how to look at her own research design and how to think about their own research designs to study uptake.

Cardinal built on the discussion of Macklin’s research by talking about how we as researchers can theorize reflection “so that it takes into account the process students go through to translate their languages, cultures and selves into Standard Written English for the purpose of reflection in the writing classroom.” Cardinal drew heavily on translation studies and upon a post0structuralist understanding of translation as a mediation of cultural difference in order to demonstrate how traditional understanding of reflection privileges the monolingual. She noted that language is not composed of discrete systems but is cultural. She deconstructed some of the structuralist assumptions that can still appear in the writing classroom as distinctly Western and out of a framework of “domestification.” This framework, which is still prevalent assumes “English only” and looks at translation or multilingualism as a weakness to be fixed. She hopes that in reexamining how reflection is used in the writing classroom and writing research, we will get to a point where the work that multicultural and multilingual students complete will not be devalued.

The focus of Cardinal’s presentation was to encourage the audience to question the assumptions they are making when they assign reflection to think about whether we are privileging the monolingual. She argued that teaching for translation highlights linguistic differences and shows translation as something that all students do as they move between cultural contexts, not just multilingual students.

In order to highlight how this way of framing writing and reflection can be beneficial, Cardinal showed us some of the work that her multilingual students submitted. The work demonstrated the labor of translation and highlighted the influences of each of their cultural discourses, rather than trying to erase them under the auspices of middle class whiteness. Through their work, we could see how cultural and linguistic identities influenced them as they created a rich and complex multimodal text.

She included a call to action for the audience to consider how we can make the, “labor of translation not only visible but grow it as a literacy practice.” Like Macklin, she engaged the audience in the ways of thinking that she used as she designed her class and her research design.

All three scholars did an exemplary job of not just giving the structure, content, methods, and theory of their work, but actually inviting the audience into their mindset and the ways of thinking and knowing that they have been immersed in through their research. They created an interactive and collaborative environment which immersed the audience in their research and classrooms in a way that was incredibly powerful. In doing this, they brought the audience in as partners in the work of deconstructing the monolingual assumptions of the writing classroom and subverting the privilege of white middle class discourse in a way that doesn’t devalue the labor, work, and strengths that multilingual and multicultural students bring to the table.

As we see an increasingly diverse student population in our classrooms, the questions that these three scholars are asking are vital. I hope that through this review I can invite readers to consider how assumptions of monolingualism and multilingualism can and should be deconstructed through writing, just as this panel did for the audience.


Freadman, Anne. (1994). Anyone for tennis? In Aviva Freeman & Peter Medway (Eds.), Genre and the new rhetoric (pp.46–66). London, UK: Taylor and Francis.

Horner, Bruce, & Trimbur, John. (2002). English only and U.S. college composition. College Composition and Communication, 53(4), 594–630.

Latour, Bruno. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Created by AbigailH. Last Modification: Tuesday 03 of January, 2017 22:37:08 UTC by ccccreviews.