Branching out and Staying in: Inviting a Transmedia Approach


In 2011, I was very excited to read Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur’s article on translingualism. A translingual approach recognizes that all language users can achieve their goals through a variety of linguistic means. This framework undermines monolingualist expectations and it values all potential discursive resources (305). Our students can build on their knowledge and language practices. They can mix, play with, and create powerful forms of connecting with others in local and global contexts.

While the article emphasizes the role of linguistic resources, a translingual approach should not isolate language from all other forms of expression and composition. In fact, Bruce Horner, Timothy Lockridge, and Cynthia Selfe remind us in their blog entry that splitting language (i.e., linguistic means) from modality (image, sound, video, etc.) is a problematic move. This separation is only a function of our scholarship where “discussions of modality have remained largely separate from discussions of translinguality, to the impoverishment of both.” If we understand language as a mode of engaging with the world, then language is one modality among many others available to our students. The language-modality distinction is artificial and tends to misrepresent what users actually do with “language,” broadly conceived. I fully agree. How could we separate language from modality when our students’ lives are so entangled in all kinds of multimodal artifacts, as the ones presented by Natalia Andrievskikh in her study abroad class?

How can we not consider the powerful intersections of language and modality in an artifact that brings to life Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Borderlands/LaFrontera”?

An approach sensitive to language and modality can help us understand the complexity of this artifact and its rhetorical layers. This type of work continues to be very important because multilingual and monolingual composers navigate complex contexts in face-to-face and online encounters. We constantly live at the confluence of words, imagewords, images, sounds, etc.

However, I am concerned that multi/trans-modality keeps us camped in a vision of artifacts that does not represent all the possible ways of reaching out to the world. Multimodality is about layers of meaning, fluid transitions from one mode to another, dynamic relations among systems of signs, and integrative practices that convey rich experiences. At the same time, we need to open up and acknowledge other ways of making meaning in the world at the intersection of (and, most importantly, beyond) language and modalities. A transmedia approach, for instance, offers a different set of relationships. Henry Jenkins defines transmedia narratives as a form of storytelling across different platforms and delivery channels. Meaning-making from a transmedia approach involves the process of creating a “unified and coordinated” narrative that puts an emphasis on action, creation, dynamism, and ecological practices. It takes away the emphasis from language or modality, and it redirects the composer’s attention to media interaction, message continuity, and world-making. Transmedia projects build on the assumption that meaning emerges through artifacts that speak to one another. This is not a question of what modes are being used to create meaning. Instead, composers think about how the platforms they use are being linked, how they can move their readers from one site to another. A sound file can be an aural artifact but it can also be an integrated component in a video; it is code and auditory notes at the same time; it can tell a story that started with an image on a different site. These composition elements carry with them cultural baggage that we are yet to discover.

Now, let’s imagine a transmedia literacy narrative assignment. While it is not my goal to fully explain the implications of such an assignment in this post, I do want to point out a few key features. A transmedia project definitely encourages students to draw from rich resources, linguistic or otherwise. To tell their stories, composers can bring together texts they have written in different spaces, images they have posted, liked, and edited, or videos they created to depict their literate lives.  The true potential of this assignment, however, is in the narrative. The transmedia story is not just a collection of artifacts created in multiple languages or modes. A transmedia narrative conveys the literacy experience by linking up different (plat)forms of rhetorical activity, by tracing the movements and actions of the user, and by giving coherence and unity to this narrative. The literacy narrative doesn’t emerge in multiple sites, but continues to grow from one site to another, from one rhetorical activity to another.

Why do I bring up a transmedia approach in our conversations about transligualism and multimodality? I want us to rethink the relationships between languages, modes, media, and digital platforms. Digital scholarship has already addressed some of these connections, proposing instead new ways of dealing with composition and rhetorical being (e.g., Collin Gifford Brooke, Byron Hawk, and Gregory Ulmer). Digital scholarship has made the transition from multimodality to trans-modality and post-medium approaches. How can we contribute to these conversations if we take into consideration cultural experiences and practices? How can we bridge the gap between rhetorics of code and the rhetoric of multilingual writing? A transmedia approach may be a possible entry point.

When I suggest that we look at the potential of a transmedia approach, I do not want to simply add more to what we are already doing. I am not asking that we branch out too far from our main goals. This is not a call for the integration of new fancy terms to serve the pedagogical imperative of inclusivity, to accommodate as many forms of expression as possible. As Jay Jordan comments, “we also need to slow down a bit and account for discrete histories and literatures” that inform our terms and theoretical lenses. For this reason, I am less interested in “transmedia narratives” as a new form of composing that we should add to our toolkit. Instead, a “transmedia” approach becomes interesting to me when I think about the possible discussions that we may have around language(s), modes, and digital technologies. It is valuable only insofar as it can help us understand emerging practices and new ways of being digitally or face-to-face. These are conversations that I hope we will continue to build in how we study, theorize, and practice cultural and language diversity.


  • Lavinia Hirsu

    Lavinia Hirsu is Assistant Professor in Rhetoric and Composition at the University North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research agenda brings together digital and cultural/global rhetorics, with a special emphasis on visual rhetoric.

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  1. Pingback: Checking in with Blog Carnival #5: Beyond a “Single Language/Single Modality” Approach to Writing — Digital Rhetoric Collaborative

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