Globally Distributed Knotworks: Towards a Multilingual and Multimodal Framework


Within composition there have been calls to locate the teaching of writing in relation to other languages and the context of globalization (Horner & Trimbur, 2002). In conjunction with these calls have been turns towards code switching, mixing, and code meshing (Canagarajah, 2006; Young & Martinez, 2011). In my own work, I have argued for a multilingual and multimodal framework that attends to “code mashing” (Fraiberg, 2010a). This concept offers attention to the ways that actors work in and across a range of signs and symbols, including writing, talk, image, and gesture. In this manner, my scholarship gestures towards a holistic framework that understands writing as one resource within a wider semiotic repertoire. Outlining a theoretical and methodological approach for studying these issues, I have drawn on and extended Paul Prior and Jody Shipka’s (2003) conception of writers as “knotworkers” or the complex tying and untying and a complex array of signs, symbols, actors, and objects distributed across near and distant spaces. It is this process that forms the fluid and complex ecologies shaping and shaped in the context of everyday literacy practices.

To articulate this framework, I offer methodological attention to several key sub-processes.

Entextualization. In order to understand the ways that wider flows or scapes (Appadurai, 1996) are being taken up, resisted, and transformed across contexts―i.e., entextualized (Bauman & Briggs, 1990; Canagarajah, 2013; Fraiberg, 2013) ―there is a need for methodologically tracing activities across space and time. This move is part of a less bounded approach that understands signs and symbols as dynamic, contested, and deeply distributed. In making these moves, for instance, in the study of Chinese international students (as I am currently doing at Michigan State University), we might pose questions such as, when is Chinese used? When is English used? How and why do the languages mix? How are these processes bound up with and coordinated by an array of other semiotic practices? In the classroom, for instance, one might trace the ways that a teacher’s lecture and jottings on the blackboard in English are remixed into a student’s notes (in English with Chinese jottings), how these notes are then used in a text message (in Chinese) on WeChat (a popular text messaging application) to pose questions about an assignment (in Chinese), and then how the response is used―in coordination with online Chinese-English dictionaries, the consultation of Chinese articles, English You-Tube videos, and array of other resources―in writing a paper. In this manner, we might understand the ways that an array of signs and symbols are being remixed into students’ writing and learning.

Coordination. In making these moves, I further argue for attention to the complex coordination of activity characterized in concepts such as compound mediation (Spinuzzi, 2003), environmental selection and structuring practices (Prior & Shipka, 2003), textual coordination (Slattery, 2005), and mediated discourse analysis (Jones & Norris, 2005).  In this manner, we might understand multilingual actors as wider marshalling an array of resources (material and symbolic) that are jointly coordinated distributed over near and distant spaces. Inextricably linked to the discussion above, it is this process that forms the fluid and fuzzy pathways through which signs-symbols circulate and the positioning of the participants as “texts” are taken up, resisted, and transformed. In the aforementioned example (as noted) one might attend to the ways that the student’s processes are jointly mediated by multilingual videos, conversations, text messages, textbooks, and array of other material and symbolic objects. This is a process involving friction, struggle, and contest, as further articulated below.

Regimes.  In making such moves, we might understand all texts, tools, objects, and actors as deeply sedimented with ideologies and layers of meaning that serve to orient, align, and position actors. This move—which focuses on the affordances and constraints of various signs, symbols, objects— is important as a shift from neutral understanding of context (or space) as a background or stage against which activity takes place, to one in which it is understood as dynamic, contested, ideological and co-constituted by the participants. To emphasize the ideological nature of everyday material and social structures—with a particular focus on literate activity—we might more specifically turn to the notion “literacy regimes”  (Blommaert, 2008).  The term itself is intended to foreground the mechanisms through which texts recruit actors into subject positions and practices. In this manner, we might conceptualize multilingual actors and students as engaged in a complex struggle as they continually shape and are shaped by a complex array of languages, curriculum, social media, desks, blackboards, whiteboards, social roles, tropes, and other objects.

Indexicality. Through attention to the ways that all signs, symbols, objects, and actors are socially and historically sedimented with intentions and meanings, we are able to connect local literacy practices to wider social “identity types.” These are stabilized-for-now and typified roles, norms, and resources that are (re)produced in the context of everyday practices, with the here-and-now (the point in time-space where participants are situated) linked to the there-and-then (wider social roles and meanings). In this manner, we might attend to the ways that the social order is bound up in a wider indexical order (Sliverstein, 2003; Blommaert, 2005): e.g., the ways that classroom practices such as teacher-talk are mediated by set of institutional and cultural norms. By way of a (broader) example, one powerful trope or key term (Williams, 1976) within Israeli society is the concept of gibush. The term itself refers specifically to group bonding or a closely knit network and is tied into the socialist and collective ideals on which the state was founded. In the classroom, for instance, it is common to hear the ideal of a “kita megubeshet” or a closely knit classroom. This was manifested in one writing classroom that I studied in Tel Aviv (Fraiberg, 2010b) through the continual exchange of resources in online and offline contexts as the students traded notes, ideas, and an array of other materials (durable and symbolic) on a writing assignment. Critically, cultural tropes are not imagined as reified or static, but instead as stabilized-for-now as they are continually reproduced in everyday practices. In this manner, the students’ local classroom identities were deeply “knotted” into wider national ones (part of an ongoing process of identification). These wider cultural tropes consequently served to mediate their literate acts.

In sum, through close attention to such activity we might understand writers as “knotworkers” tying and untying an array of signs, symbols, and actors distributed across near and distant spaces. The following sub-processes serve to provide an analytic framework for mapping out this activity. Such attention is critical teachers, researchers, and administrators as composition moves towards a multilingual and multimodal framework that locates multilingual-multimodal practices in wider global contexts.


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Jones, R.H., & Norris, S. (2005). Discourse in action. London: Routledge.

Prior, P., & Shipka, J. (2003). Chronotopic lamination: Tracing the contours of literate activity. In C. Bazerman & D. R. Russell (Eds.), Writing selves writing society: Research from activity perspectives. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse.

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Slattery, S. (2005). Technical writing as textual coordination: An argument for the value of writers’ skill with information technology. Technical Communication Quarterly, 52(3), 353-360.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Compound mediation in software development: Using genre ecologies to study textual artifacts. In C. Bazerman & D. R. Russell (Eds.), Writing selves writing societies: Research from activity perspectives. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse.

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, V.A., & Martinez, A.Y. (Eds.). (2011). Code meshing as world English. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

About Author(s)

Steven Fraiberg is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University.

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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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