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Composition Forum 44, Summer 2020

Working Toward Social Justice through Multilingualism, Multimodality, and Accessibility in Writing Classrooms

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Laura Gonzales and Janine Butler

Abstract: This article threads together multilingualism and disability studies research in writing studies, and introduces composition pedagogies that embrace multilingualism, multimodality, and accessibility simultaneously. We argue that writing teachers can work toward social justice in writing courses by considering accessibility through intersectional (Crenshaw; Martinez) and interdependent (Jung; Wheeler) approaches that put language diversity and disability in conversation (Cioè-Peña). Each of us shares two pedagogical examples that consider language diversity/difference and embodied diversity/difference as unified concepts. Our pedagogical examples include projects related to multimodal and digital rhetoric, multilingual/multimodal community engagement, reflecting on communication differences, and analyzing multimodal/multilingual communication in practice. Through what we call intersectional, interdependent approaches to accessibility in writing classrooms, students and teachers can honor the multitude of valuable communication practices that students engage in within and beyond the English writing classroom.

1. Introduction: Putting Language Diversity and Disability in Conversation

Writing studies researchers and instructors have been working to establish accessible writing pedagogies that acknowledge, support, and sustain students’ diverse communicative practices, abilities, and languages. Access and accessibility have been used in reference to writing pedagogy in various ways, with scholars discussing how teachers can and should develop inclusive teaching practices that centralize and sustain students with various dis/abilities (Cedillo; Yergeau et al.; Swanwick), as well as diverse students from various racial, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds (Cioè-Peña; Martinez; Paris and Alim). In rhetoric and composition, multimodality has been identified as one potential avenue for working toward accessible pedagogies, specifically by recognizing that communicative practices are fluid, emergent, always in flux, and that, therefore, students should be encouraged to write through various modalities that reflect the flexibility of contemporary communicative practices (Banks, Digital; Fraiberg, “Composition 2.0”; Horner, Selfe, and Lockridge; Sánchez-Martín et al.).

Multilingual and multimodal writing pedagogies “involve dynamic and fluid movement between linguistic knowledge, alphabetic writing, and virtual-material modalities” (Horner, Selfe, and Lockridge qtd. in Sánchez-Martín et al. 144). These pedagogies expand the possibilities for communication in writing classrooms, encouraging students to leverage their linguistic practices alongside and through multiple forms and genres of composing. By emphasizing linguistic and cultural diversity within multimodal communication, writing teachers can, as Adam Banks argues, “build theories, pedagogies, and practices of multimedia writing that honor the traditions and thus the people who are too often not present in our classrooms, on our faculties, [and] in our scholarship” (p. 14).

From a disability studies perspective, scholars also acknowledge the value of multimodality while simultaneously highlighting how multimodal writing should be accessible and inclusive. Melanie Yergeau et al. argue for accessible multimodal practices that are designed with disabled audiences in mind, and Stephanie Kerschbaum posits a “new rhetoric of difference” that unifies “broader identification processes” and “the lived experiences that bring differences alive in the classroom” (15). By connecting multimodality and disability studies, Yergeau et al., Kerschbaum, and other scholars move writing pedagogies away from ableist assumptions about “default” students and “standardized” communicative practices and push those in our field to recognize the multiple abilities and communicative practices present in contemporary writing courses.

While language diversity scholars and disability studies scholars in rhetoric and composition reference the importance of developing accessible pedagogies, and while many point to the value of multimodality and multilingualism in promoting access, the two subfields of language diversity and disability studies have remained largely separate within writing scholarship. However, the two subfields can inform each other. As Anastasia Liasidou explains, “Disablism forms part of an intricate web of social conditions that subjugate certain forms of ‘student-subjects' and create compounding forms of oppression and exclusion that need to be addressed through relevant education policy and practice” (299). When considering issues of access and inclusion, particularly in regard to writing pedagogies that incorporate social justice, it is important to recognize compounding forms of oppression across race, class, ability, language, and their intersections (Cioè-Peña). As Christina V. Cedillo affirms, to work toward social justice in writing pedagogies, writing teachers and researchers “must strive for critical embodiment pedagogies, or approaches that recognize and foreground bodily diversity so that students learn to compose for accessibility and inclusivity” (n. pag.). Working toward accessible writing pedagogies requires a pedagogical shift to intentionally connect, rather than separate, students’ histories, languages, abilities, and composing practices. As María Cioè-Peña further notes, “although recent educational and scientific research indicates that being bilingual is beneficial in all aspects of life,” opportunities for bilingual education are often limited for bilingual students with disabilities who identify as “English language learners,” specifically because “educational policies that address dis/ability and linguistic variance do not converge” (n. pag.).

The purpose of this article is to thread together the strengths of multilingualism and of disability studies in writing studies, and to share composition pedagogies that embrace multilingualism, multimodality, and accessibility simultaneously. We argue that writing teachers can work toward social justice in our writing courses by considering accessibility through intersectional (Crenshaw; Martinez) and interdependent (Jung; Wheeler) approaches that put language diversity and disability in conversation (Cioè-Peña). We agree with Sushil Oswal’s definition of accessibility as “the ability to use, enjoy, perform, work on, avail of, and participate in a resource, technology, activity, opportunity, or product at an equal or comparable level with others” (in Yergeau et al. n. pag.). As we demonstrate, accessible classroom principles and practices support equitable communication among students, teachers, and multiple audiences with interlocking differences.

2. Context and Methods

Building on our individual experiences teaching writing to students with embodied and language differences, the two of us collaborated on this article in order to share pedagogical strategies that incorporate multimodal composition as an approach that can work to honor the multitude of valuable communication practices that students engage in within and beyond the English writing classroom.

Laura, a Latina digital writing professor who communicates through Spanish and English, teaches a variety of courses focused on designing accessible technologies in multiple languages. Through her work across various institutions, Laura teaches multimodality and digital composing through an emphasis on the intersections between language, race, power, and accessibility. She draws on social-justice frameworks in technical communication that advocate for a recognizing of humanity in technology design. While Laura currently teaches in Florida, her multilingual, multimodal pedagogies have evolved throughout her career working with multilingual students and communities of color across contexts.

Janine, a Deaf writing professor who communicates through American Sign Language and English, currently teaches sections of undergraduate writing courses to D/deaf and hard-of-hearing students at her institution. In these courses, communication occurs through multiple modes and languages since each individual in their shared learning space possesses different levels of fluency in American Sign Language, written English, and spoken English. Each individual coordinates with each other and with the interpreters in the classroom to ensure that they all have access to each other’s signed and spoken messages. Correspondingly, Janine designs assignments that accentuate students’ multimodal and multilingual skills by encouraging them to utilize their diverse knowledge and communication practices when expressing themselves through written English.

The two of us began collaborating after having several conversations regarding the need to expand multimodal composition pedagogies beyond static definitions of language and accessibility. We both agree with composition scholars who advocate for multimodal pedagogies as an approach to diversifying notions of access in composition, and we want to continue developing intersectional models for teaching writing through an emphasis on difference and justice. In this article, each one of us shares two pedagogical examples that intentionally consider language diversity/difference and embodied diversity/difference as unified concepts. The distinct development of our individual approaches is informed by our experiences as instructors who purposely thread multilingualism, multimodality, and disability in our writing pedagogies at different institutions, as well as by our ongoing conversations about how we can develop an approach to social justice pedagogies for multilingual students who also identify with various disabilities. Our pedagogical examples include projects related to multimodal and digital rhetoric, multilingual/multimodal community engagement, reflecting on communication differences, and analyzing multimodal/multilingual communication in practice. Through what we call intersectional, interdependent approaches to accessibility in writing classrooms, students and teachers can interrogate monolingual standards that limit the possibilities of communication.

3. Defining Intersectional, Interdependent Accessibility

Natasha Jones defines social justice as “critical reflection and action that promotes agency for the marginalized and disempowered” (2), and Jones, Kristen Moore, and Rebecca Walton clarify that social justice efforts focus on tangible action that leads toward the redistribution of power in favor of multiply marginalized communities. Within these conversations and definitions of social justice, several scholars observe that social justice practices and pedagogies are intentionally interdisciplinary, bringing together the resources and frameworks from various fields and disciplines to lead toward actionable change (Haas and Eble; Jones, Moore, and Walton). As we demonstrate, writing teachers can incorporate social justice accessibility in their classrooms through an intersectional, interdependent framework that factors language, race, sexuality, class, gender, and ability and their interlocking impacts on learning experiences.

3.1 Intersectionality

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a critical race theorist and Professor of Law, uses the term “intersectionality” to “contrast the multidimensionality of Black women’s experience with the single-axis analysis that distorts these experiences” (Race 139). Because “dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis,” the experiences of multiply-marginalized communities, such as Black women, queer and non-gender conforming women, and disabled Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) (among others), are frequently erased and unaccounted for (Race 140). Thus, by pushing researchers to consider marginalization through intersectional frameworks, Crenshaw continues to explain how “intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects” (Kimberlé Crenshaw n. pag.). Intersectionality is critical to developing and practicing social justice pedagogies, specifically so that teachers can account for multiple levels of marginalization both when developing their own classroom practices and when working with students to move “from critique to action” (Jones, Moore, and Walton 14) in justice-driven projects. As Aja Martinez explains, critical race scholars have long advocated for pedagogies and methodologies that “center experiential knowledge so as to better elucidate lived reality from (intersectional) rather than about (essentialist) people of color” (37).

Some language diversity researchers, particularly in the field of raciolinguistics (see, for example, Alim, Rickford, and Ball) push for intersectionality specifically by arguing that conversations about language diversity should not be separated and abstracted from race, class, and culture. In his recent discussion of language diversity issues in composition studies specifically, Keith Gilyard reminds rhetoric and composition scholars and teachers that conversations about language diversity and writing should not ignore race to focus on language difference alone, because language is an embodied practice always connected to race. While all language speakers deviate from a “perceived norm” in their communication, as Gilyard (and many other African American language scholars) advise, not everyone deviates from the norm in the same way, and different bodies (particularly BIPOC with disabilities) face different consequences and forms of oppression based on how their race and language practices intersect.

Rachel Bloom-Pojar also pushes for an intersectional approach to considering language diversity in and beyond composition, arguing for a rhetorical approach to language diversity research and practice—one that “accounts for stigma, race, and institutional constraints” (1). As April Baker-Bell, Tamara Butler, and Lamar Johnson further clarify in their call for “Critical Race English Education,” before teachers can “discuss emancipatory theories” and develop pedagogies that center students’ “multiple language and literacies,” educators “have to come to grips with [and address] state-sanctioned racial violence” in their teaching (126). Accounting for markers of marginalization in isolation (i.e., by considering language without accounting for race or disability) not only prevents teachers from recognizing the multiple intersecting identities present in and beyond their classrooms, but also makes teachers complicit in oppression by failing to recognize the interconnected nature of students’ histories, experiences, communication practices, and abilities.

3.2 Interdependency

In Interdependency as an Ethic for Accessible Intellectual Publics, Julie Jung embraces a disability studies perspective to develop accessible pedagogies, explaining that the term “pedagogy” in itself needs to be redefined “beyond the boundaries of the classroom such that learning emerges as a dynamic process of recognition and interrelation” (101). Interdependency, according to Jung, allows teachers to interrogate ableist classroom practices that privilege independence and individual success. In contrast to independence, interdependency is a product of the human condition in which we all rely on other human beings in various ways through different relationalities. From a pedagogical perspective, interdependency enables teachers to recognize how privilege functions across multiple axes in and beyond the classroom, drawing attention to the fact that our classrooms are interdependent learning spaces reliant on the interrelation between students, teachers, and their various relations and connections.

An intersectional and interdependent approach to social justice promotes the benefits of accessing and communicating through multiple differences in our classrooms and in society. Composition studies scholars have demonstrated how composition pedagogies can be inclusive for individuals with disabilities or different abilities (Snyder, Brueggemann, and Garland-Thomson; Lewiecki-Wilson and Brueggemann). An inclusive approach to disabilities and differences among individuals is enriched by Kerschbaum’s view of difference “as a rhetorical performance” (57) and her call “for individuals to acknowledge their responsibilities to others in communication” (118). Working with communities of Latinx organizers, Stephanie K. Wheeler also highlights the value of intersectionality and interdependency in working with multilingual communities of color, arguing that interdependency encourages collaboration and shared values (91). We believe that by attending to the different races, dis/abilities, and language backgrounds of those in our classroom communities, we work toward social justice through an interdependent process that connects multiple identities and their intersections. As Cedillo further clarifies, traditional “notions about what it means to be fully human merge race and disability as categories of deficiency” (n. pag.). By highlighting interdependency and intersectionality in pedagogical practices, teachers and students can recognize that all human interactions are grounded in collective actions that are mitigated through various experiences of privilege and marginalization. As the field of rhetoric and composition continues moving toward social justice and inclusion, intersectional, interdependent approaches are needed to conceptualize justice and inclusion based on multiple layers of difference and the interconnections of these differences in the lives of contemporary students.

4. Multimodality as an Intersectional, Interdependent Approach to Social Justice in Writing Classrooms

Several researchers in rhetoric and composition argue that writing teachers should blend (rather than separate) multilingual and digital writing in ways that are already being enacted in bilingual and multilingual communities around the world (Alvarez; Canagarajah; Kynard; Pennycook). As this research demonstrates, in many multilingual communities, individuals use different modalities, such as gestures, visuals, and/or digital technologies to communicate when common words are unavailable or even unnecessary in multilingual interactions (Gonzales).

As Ofelia García and Camila Leiva argue, communicating through multiple languages creates a space for bilingual and multilingual students to build on all of their language resources and work towards social justice that “decolonize[s] the dominant intellectual knowledge” (211). Such actions could make space for multiple conceptions of writing that expand beyond what Horner, Selfe, and Lockridge refer to as the single language/single modality approach to writing and writing instruction. Similarly, Yergeau et al. explain that while multimodality can help writing teachers to create more accessible classroom practices, many multimodal texts ignore non-normative bodies and abilities and therefore limit accessibility for disabled students. As we discuss in this article, multimodal pedagogies can be incorporated into writing courses through intersectional, interdependent frameworks that help students work toward social justice by recognizing their overlapping and interlocking experiences of privilege, oppression, and in/ability to access communication in relation to their peers, instructors, families, and communities.

Intersectional approaches to language and embodied differences become apparent when considering the variety of ways in which d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals identify themselves and communicate. As an example, capital-D Deaf individuals who use American Sign Language and identify as members of Deaf culture—a cultural and linguistic minority—might not consider Deafness to be a disability. As Susan Burch and Alison Kafer explain, identity encompasses more than hearing or physical status because “deaf and disability travel along multiple axes—such as race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, class, and age” (xxi-xxii). The intersectional nature of Deafness as a cultural identity is foregrounded in Janine’s pedagogical examples later in this article and reflects the intersectionality and interdependency of many writers and their communities, as evidenced in the pedagogical examples Laura introduces to tie together multimodality and community engagement.

In our own experiences as writing teachers, we have found that interdependent and intersectional approaches to multimodal activities and assignments can create productive composition spaces for students who communicate through Spanish, American Sign Language, and/or other modes. We draw on and agree with research that treats language as “co-constitutive” and explores how individuals mediate meanings through various modes of communication, including languages, in the same space (Fraiberg, Reassembling 24). We also recognize that while multilingual and multimodal pedagogies have been connected in some lines of scholarship, multilingual students are not always given the opportunity to engage in multimodal composing in their writing classrooms because “pedagogical decisions are situated (and sometimes constrained) by a wide range of institutional ideologies and practices that influence writing programs and pedagogies, which may be at odds with translingual orientations to writing pedagogies” (Horner and Tetreault, qtd. in Sánchez-Martín et al. 143). Similarly, in her discussion of Black online writers, Carmen Kynard highlights how online learning spaces might increase access to learning for some students but also perpetuate oppression by positioning standardized written English as the only (and therefore the “correct”) form of communication.

While there are emerging connections between multilingualism and multimodality in reference to writing pedagogy, more intersectional, interdependent perspectives are also needed in order to help reposition difference as an asset rather than a deficit in composition courses. In the following sections, we share four pedagogical examples that are built on the principle that connecting with others across embodied and language differences is essential to multimodal composition. Laura reflects on two assignments that ask students to design technologies for various audiences with social-justice agendas, while Janine articulates her pedagogical values through detailing two new multimodal/multilingual assignments for composition instructors.

5. Laura’s Pedagogical Examples

Research shows that linguistically and ethnically diverse students (Herrera, 2015) and communities in the U.S. and across the world have extensive skills, practice, and interest in digital composing (Banks; Canagarajah; Fraiberg, Composition 2.0; Kynard; Ríos; Sánchez-Martín et al.). However, as Sánchez-Martín et al. explain, “college writing classes designed for linguistically and ethnically diverse students do not always fully engage the language, writing, and digital composing practices and lived experiences of our students,” specifically because institutional ideologies and practices sometimes label linguistically and ethnically diverse students as remedial and/or as incapable of engaging in effective writing while also navigating complex digital technologies (143). Bilingual and multilingual students, and in particular, linguistically diverse students in U.S. writing classrooms are often positioned as needing “remedial” help in writing and as “unprepared” to engage in the complexities of digital composition without having full confidence and acknowledged expertise in standardized written English. The bifurcation of language and (dis)ability in educational spaces further limits opportunities for linguistically and ethnically diverse students with disabilities to leverage the possibilities of multilingual composing (Cioè-Peña). To counter these negative assumptions, social-justice minded teachers should leverage the creativity and rhetorical potential that multilingual students already practice in their linguistic transitions, specifically as they communicate with people from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds in non-standardized, yet rhetorically effective ways.

In my own writing courses, which include students who identify as multilingual as well as monolingual and students with various dis/abilities I seek to embrace an intersectional, interdependent approach to teaching digital writing, specifically by asking students to examine their own positionalities while also engaging in digital writing intended for audiences outside of our individual classroom. Extending Alastair Pennycook’s idea that all language is constantly in translation, I use translation frameworks (e.g., practicing translation from English to Spanish with students to demonstrate writing for difference audiences) to have students design, create, and remix ideas and concepts across platforms while also thinking about how various languages and modalities impact accessibility and privilege some forms of communication over others. Concepts and practices of translation, I have found, can be used to establish opportunities for discussing the importance of accessibility across languages, platforms, and communities.

5.1 Laura’s First Example: Designing for Intersectional Accessibility

First, drawing on Price and Kerschbaum’s discussion of accessibility as always in flux and imperfect, I introduce students to intersectionality and interdependency through discussions of various digital technologies and their role in facilitating human activity. Through conversations ranging from voting technologies used for voter suppression (Dorpenyo and Agboka) to social media platforms that facilitate multilingual communication, students first work to understand how technologies and accessibility frequently go hand in hand, and how technologies are inherently imbued with cultural ideologies (Haas, Race, Rhetoric,; Selfe and Selfe). Students then create multimodal projects where they practice highlighting the ideological and cultural values embedded in particular interfaces as technology designers themselves.

For their Designing for Intersectional Accessibility multimodal project, students in my previous classes reviewed K-12 school websites to see how information is presented for parents in languages other than English, and to see how accessible these websites are for parents and students with disabilities. In these instances, students noted that although school websites might offer a “translate” option, if parents click on this option, they are sometimes routed to Google translate. Translations of the site’s content, then, are not effective and localized for the specific school’s community. At the same time, students also note that school websites often include images without alt-text and other features that make the sites compatible with screen-readers, a critical technology for users accessing the websites in aural modalities. In other instances, students analyzed how government websites where users enroll in social services frequently depict Black and Brown communities in deficit positions, while also having limited accessibility for multilingual users who may also be Deaf or Blind.

Rather than focusing solely on retrofitting accessibility onto existing designs, this assignment then asks students to create their own digital project through their own understanding and values of intersectional accessibility. Analyzing existing platforms, then, becomes an exercise in learning how to design through intersectional, interdependent orientations. For this assignment, students often create videos, websites, infographics, and other genres that are accessible on multiple levels. For example, students have created infographics and websites for organizations interested in reaching specific communities, where students explain and illustrate the importance of acknowledging language diversity, race and power, and disability as factors that guide design decisions. Students have to interrogate their own racial, linguistic, and cultural positionalities in relation to their intended audiences, recognizing their affordances and limitations as designers and making a plan for how to seek appropriate user feedback for their designs. Framing this project through intersectional and interdependent approaches requires a foundational understanding of the ideological assumptions embedded in existing technologies in addition to the assurance that students can work toward social justice not only by critiquing existing designs, but by also designing alternatives that consider intersectional accessibility.

5.2 Laura’s Second Example: Social Justice and Community Engagement

In my writing courses, I find it useful to practice community engagement as a way to help students learn about both intersectionality and interdependency, using this orientation to write and design tools and technologies that are accessible to a wide range of audiences. While the scope of these projects looks different in each class across the various places where I’ve had the privilege to teach, this assignment is always foregrounded on Latinx and Chicanx epistemologies that do not separate school and home communities. As Dolores Delgdo-Bernal explains, through community engagement, “Chicanas become agents of knowledge who participate in intellectual discourse that links experience, research, community, and social change” (560). Although, as J. Estrella Torrez argues, “oftentimes, University ethos encourages the bifurcation of life into neat categories—scholar, Chicana, mother, or activist,” in the lived experiences of Chicana scholars, “these aspects commonly overlap, inform, and guide one another” (121). These types of intertwined connections and relations to local communities also help me work toward justice-oriented pedagogies.

For example, in a recent general writing course that served as an introduction to writing studies for English majors, students had the opportunity to collaborate on a digital book making project with an Indigenous rights advocacy organization. In this project, students worked with this organization to edit and publish short video interviews conducted with Indigenous language interpreters during a conference. The purpose of this project, for the organization, was to increase awareness about the value of Indigenous languages and Indigenous communities, and to also illustrate how racism influences perceivably “neutral” processes like court hearings and medical consultations, where interpreters are not always provided for Indigenous language speakers. Students video consulted with the partnering organization to learn about the history of Indigenous language translation and interpretation, thus engaging with their community partners while also preparing to help distribute these video interviews with the broader public.

In preparation for this project, in addition to reading and learning about Indigenous language translation and interpretation, the class also read scholarship in disability studies, rhetoric and composition, as well as technical communication. Readings included Janine Butler’s Embodied Captions in Multimodal Pedagogies, Margaret Price and Stephanie Kerschbaum’s Stories of Methodology, Angela Haas’ Race, Rhetoric, and Technology and Wampum as Hypertext as well as Natasha Jones’ The Technical Communicator as Advocate. In class, we discussed the connections between race, culture, disability, and access using this orientation to analyze many existing video editing platforms and published video essays. Students continued meeting with their community partners, and they ended up editing several hours of multilingual video footage (in Spanish and multiple Indigenous languages) to create short 4-5-minute clips that will be published as part of an open-access digital book project with this organization. The decision to turn the videos into a digital book emerged in dialogue between various stakeholders involved in this project, including the partnering organization, students, researchers on this project, as well as representative users who provided feedback on prototypes for this project.

While this is just one example of a community engagement project in a single class, it was valuable to note how class readings and conversations inspired students to create digital materials (i.e., videos) that were multilingual and accessible, and that also represented the values and relationships that students learned from their community partners. In the case of this project, intersectionality and interdependency were not only elements discussed through readings, but were also something that students practiced as they relied on each other, on their instructor, as well as on their community partners when translating and captioning data to make accessible videos and when making decisions about other design elements that needed to be localized to this particular community, including music, color scheme, typefaces, and other factors. Serving as an extension of the Designing for Intersectional Accessibility project described in the previous section, this community engagement project allowed students to practice accessible design while also supporting the important work of a social-justice driven organization. In turn, social justice was centralized in this course through the course readings, through student projects, and through the overall impact that students’ assignments were positioned to have outside of our classroom.

6. Janine’s Pedagogical Examples

To strengthen students’ written English and communication skills in my undergraduate writing courses, I design assignments that encourage them to draw from and explore their multimodal and multilingual knowledge. Informed by my past pedagogical experiences teaching students who communicate through multiple languages, I share variations of assignments that work towards social justice through interdependency that bridges multiple languages and abilities. In the following subsections, I describe the proposed assignments and goals so that composition instructors who teach students with any hearing level and communication preferences can foreground social justice in undergraduate composition courses across different institutions.

6.1 Janine’s First Example: Video Reflection

For this assignment, Video Reflection on Multiple Differences in Communication Practices, each student reflects on how they communicate, interviews another individual about their communication practices, and then composes a video in which they reflect on the significance of multiple and different ways of communication.

Prior to scheduling their interviews for this project, students first consider how they interact with different people in their own lives in person, online, and in other spaces. After reflecting on the similarities and differences between their own and others’ communication practices, students could decide to interview an individual who shares their own communication practices (in order to learn more about the value of their own practices) or someone who communicates differently than them (in order to learn more about the value of different practices they do not know as much about). They develop a set of questions to ask their interviewee in order to produce a thorough discussion on the topic in their interview. After completing the interview, students then reflect on their discussion with their interviewee, including on how the interviewee’s communication practices connect with the students’ communication practices and on what they learned through the interview. Subsequently, students compose a video in which they directly address their chosen target audience and persuade them to recognize the significance of multiple and different communication practices.

Instructors may model the multimodal composition process for this assignment by centering their own experiences. As a hypothetical example, I might choose to interview a Deaf person who comes from a Spanish-speaking family and communicates through American Sign Language, español, and English. After reflecting on my discussion with my interviewee and the commonalities and differences between our experiences, I could decide to compose a video in which I sign directly to the camera with English captions. At specific points, I could incorporate palabras en español in my captions to persuade my target audience of predominant English speakers about the benefits of learning through multiple languages and modes.

This assignment intentionally enacts intersectional, interdependent accessibility through several measures. First, asking students to compose a video-based reflection about communication embodies the value of their own languages while necessitating that they practice their own multimodal communication skills. When completing video-based projects in my class, students have learned that creating a signed video in their first language is not automatically easier than composing a written essay in English. They have realized that they needed to take more time than initially anticipated to practice and thoroughly prepare in advance for signing clearly and at an appropriate pace. I have in turn learned that I need to provide examples that model best practices for creating signed videos. Instructors in other institutions can likewise support students in intersecting multiple spoken languages such as Spanish, English, and other languages in their video reflection projects.

Ultimately, each student is asked to build on their interview and reflection in order to directly address a chosen target audience about the significance of multiple differences in communication practices. As an example, a student might decide to persuade those who do not support Spanish-English bilingualism in the U.S to endorse equal access to the Spanish language. By drawing from the lessons learned from their own experiences and their interview, this student could then advocate for increased access to the Spanish language. In such ways, instructors can use this project as a springboard for advocating for interdependency and the value of multiple and communication practices in digital and social spaces beyond the classroom.

Connecting with and building on an interviewee’s communication practices, creating a multimodal and multilingual text, and persuading a target audience is a process that works towards social justice for language diversity and embodied differences.

6.2 Janine’s Second Example: Analysis of Digital Spaces

Just as the previous assignment creates an opportunity for students to work towards social justice through reflection, the next assignment connects students’ analytical skills with advocacy. For the next proposed assignment, Analysis of Multimodal/Multilingual Communication and Access in a Digital Space, each student analyzes how an organization’s or a publication’s digital space may or may not communicate to its target audience across multiple modes or languages and then builds on their analysis in order to persuade their online audience to recognize the significance of how this digital space reaches its own audience.

Prior to completing their analysis, each student identifies an organization or publication that has been created by and for members from different cultures, abilities, or languages. After they choose their organization or publication, each student can then focus on its homepage, blog posts, social media platforms, videos, or other digital spaces. They analyze how this organization or publication communicates information online to its target audiences through different languages or modes—or how it does not communicate its message well through different languages or modes—in its digital space(s). After they analyze the digital space(s), each student can then compose a post in which they demonstrate their analysis of how the organization’s or publication’s strategies for communicating in its digital space(s) might make the information more (or less) accessible for the target audience. Each student can build on their analysis and attempt to persuade their Medium readers to recognize the significance of how this digital space shares information with its target audience.

This assignment variation is informed by my experiences asking students to write a Medium post. Independent writers can publish their essays on this platform and directly reach readers who are interested in reading about different topics, including culture, technology, and other contemporary topics. I believe that showing students Medium posts makes the concept of “an online audience” more tangible because the public, or readers, are more present in this online space. In particular, pieces in which writers clearly delineate their purpose and explicitly argue their points with multimodal elements such as visuals become models for showing students how to attempt to persuade readers online. When writing for this platform, student writers can incorporate hyperlinks, quotes, visuals, video clips, and other modes to support their analysis, argument, and advocacy.

To describe how this assignment could be completed, I could model how the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) communicates its message and content to its target audience—D/deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and other members of the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing community—through written English and ASL videos on its website. To provide my project with a specific focus, I could analyze the NAD’s “How to File a Complaint” page. On this page, the NAD provides legal information and guidelines in written English and American Sign Language videos so that D/deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals know what actions they can take to advocate for accessibility when facing a lack of accommodations in different contexts. As part of my Medium post, I could analyze how an American Sign Language video appears right above the “Television and Closed Captioning Complaints” subsection’s written text explaining how to file a complaint regarding problems with captions. By providing the same information in American Sign Language and written English, the NAD enables its members to access important legal information via multiple languages and modes. This organization, which advocates for the needs of its community and social justice, thus embodies the value of access to communication. I could build on my analysis to persuade online readers to advocate for making multilingual communication accessible.

By addressing public audiences in variations of this project, students can promote social justice for individuals with embodied and language differences through critiquing digital spaces that communicate effectively or ineffectively to target audiences. For instance, students might critique the inaccessibility of an organization’s uncaptioned videos on Instagram and Twitter or criticize the limitations of using YouTube to reach certain audiences; these students could then compose an online essay in which they actively advocate for improvements to how information is presented to those from diverse backgrounds online.

Through video reflection and analysis of digital spaces, composition students could sense the value of their linguistic and cultural resources, reach audiences across differences through multimodal and multilingual communication, and advocate for improved access and social justice. These assignments enact intersectional, interdependent accessibility for language diversity and embodied differences.

7. Implications and Takeaways

Our four pedagogical examples show some ways to encourage social justice work in writing classrooms, specifically by approaching writing through intersectional, interdependent frameworks that consider connections between language diversity and embodied difference through multiple modalities. While we are by no means implying that our examples are the only models for enacting social justice in writing courses, these assignments encourage social justice specifically by: 1) moving from critique to (re)building and action toward justice; 2) working outside and through linguistic and cultural boundaries for the purposes of understanding and intervening in established power structures; and 3) leveraging multiple modalities to consider accessibility through intersectional lenses.

All four assignments that we discuss orient to intersectional, interdependent accessibility. In Laura’s first project and Janine’s first proposed assignment, students are both analyzing and critiquing existing infrastructures while also building new platforms with justice and access in mind. Throughout this process, students understand communication practices rhetorically, blending multiple modalities as they compose rhetorical arguments. As students work across languages and platforms in the assignments we outline, they are also being encouraged to compose and design for audiences outside of a single classroom in Laura’s second project and Janine’s second proposed assignment.

While these assignments are shaped by intersectional, interdependent accessibility, the very nature of these assignments creates certain limitations and challenges. For instance, Janine’s two proposed assignments allow students to analyze accessibility through intersectional lenses and to communicate the importance of this accessibility to public audiences that can then collectively take up a responsibility toward access through interdependent orientations. At the same time, these assignments intentionally foreground the value of multimodal and multilingual communication—a value that might inadvertently limit specific individuals’ abilities to be sincere when completing these assignments. As an example, students who are most confident expressing themselves through one language or mode might not feel comfortable being impelled to interview another person about their communication practices or to create a video in which they reflect on multimodal communication. A particular student might feel forced to suppress their own value for communicating through spoken English in order to accomplish the goals of this assignment. In addition, students who are aware of how their instructor values diversity may attempt to respond to the instructors’ values in lieu of demonstrating a genuine appreciation for multimodal and multilingual communication. In these circumstances, certain individuals might not receive the full benefit of the assignments.

In the case of projects that engage public and community audiences, such as Laura’s second assignment, there is also a risk in providing students access to communities that are already marginalized in many ways. For this reason, it’s important to establish a community of trust with students in the classroom, where students who do not feel comfortable working with a particular community partner can engage with alternative assignment that does not include a community engagement component. This has happened in several of Laura’s previous courses, where students are always given the option to not participate in the community engagement project if there is a risk that this engagement might put undue labor or even inflict violence on a community partner. In addition, when considering issues of accessibility through intersectional and interdependent approaches, students often recognize that working toward shared accessibility is difficult, and that technology designers always have to make design decisions that privilege some users while (even unintentionally) ignoring the needs of others. Thus, one of the challenges with Laura’s assignments as they are presented in this article is to negotiate with students as they learn that universal access is never a given and is often impossible. This is where theories of interdependency can help students and teachers engage in productive discussions about who is being privileged in a design decision and why. Despite these limitations and challenges, we intend for our assignments to create a dialogue in which students and instructors bridge differences in the drive towards social justice, despite all the imperfections and mistakes that will undoubtedly happen along the way.

Guided by the strengths and limitations of our pedagogical approach and examples, we now share pedagogical recommendations for instructors to incorporate multimodality as an intersectional and interdependent approach to social justice in the composition classroom.

Recommendation 1: Enrich students’ possibilities for strengthening their communication skills through multiple languages and modes, such as through video assignments. Multimodal assignments could encourage students to recognize the communication skills that they already possess and correspondingly to develop confidence expressing themselves through written English and other languages and modes.

Recommendation 2: Support students’ access to intersectional understandings of accessibility and multimodality in collaboration with academic and community audiences. Asking students to engage with public audiences in their composition classrooms puts multimodality and multilingualism in action, in the spaces where these practices are already connected. In addition, incorporating opportunities for public and community engagement encourages students from historically marginalized communities to stay connected to their communities and to incorporate community knowledge into their work as writers and designers.

Recommendation 3: Position students as social justice designers who not only witness technological oppression, but who also intervene in oppression through their own compositions. Students can influence design decisions and be innovators of more accessible futures, specifically by leveraging their own linguistic, racial, and cultural backgrounds as well as their positionalities and dis/abilities to envision and design new tools and technologies that work toward social justice.

Recommendation 4: Promote intersectional accessibility as a social justice issue relevant to writers and designers. Separating language from race, class, and disability does not provide a clear picture of how real individuals engage with writing or with technologies. In working toward social justice, intersectional approaches to writing, access, and technology are critically important.

8. Conclusion

Our recommendations and assignments are only some examples of how writing teachers can work toward social justice for multilingual writers, specifically by acknowledging and honoring the multiple, intersecting identities of multilingual writers. Making multimodal writing accessible and justice-driven requires an attunement to difference as an embodied reality for all communicators, as well as a critical understanding of how difference and access should be further incorporated into writing courses. As writing teachers and researchers continue advocating for social justice in our classrooms, it is important to continue interrogating what justice entails in different contexts for different bodies. By positioning access and difference as central, we can continue advocating for social justice pedagogies that consider the plurality of experiences and perspectives present in contemporary classrooms and in communicative contexts more broadly.

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