transnational literate lives in digital times: chapter 2.1

digital media & transnational connections: from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Sydney, Australia
Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher, Patrick W. Berry, Gorjana Kisa, Mirza Nurkic, Tessa Kennedy, and Kate Polglaze

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Narrative mappings across time and space. Click on image for brief video introductions <transcript>.

CHAPTER 2: Narrative as a Way of Knowing

"Like other forms of narrative representation, literacy narratives are rarely isolated, uncomplicated, unaffected by other modes or logics. To read for literacy narratives thus entails studying the ways they interact and compete with other generic forms."

—Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen, 1992, p. 530

Regardless of the media through which they were collected or produced, personal narratives of students who inhabit transnational contexts figure centrally in this project and provide a focus for our attention to literacy. The stories that these individuals tell, we believe, reveal details not only about their particular pasts (about the worlds in which their parents lived, about the literacy practices and values established within their families and the cultures they inhabited), but also about their present (the globalized world in which they now live) and future (the world in which they want to live). Like the stories of the Laotian Hmong on which John Duffy (2007) has focused, the stories told by these students are "situated in the welter of political, economic, religious, military, and migratory upheavals" that is generally referred to as globalization (p. 4). These stories provide rich glimpses into individuals' localized literacy practices within particular cultures and their circulation within global contexts, as well as into their uses of digital communication technologies for both local and global exchanges.

In focusing on these stories, we hope to accomplish work that connects the "local, historical, and global relationships that govern literacy development" (Duffy, 2007, pp. 4-5). The value of using literacy narratives as a method of inquiry has been well documented by scholars from cognitive theory, social theory, narrative theory, and our own field of rhetoric and composition, particularly in terms of understanding identity formation. As Jerome Bruner (2001) has maintained, in autobiographical narratives we "set forth a view of what we call our Self and its doings" (p. 26), and, in telling stories, we create the "texts" of our lives (p. 27). In 2003, Bruner noted,

"I doubt such collective life would be possible were it not for our human capacity to organize and communicate experience in a narrative form. For it is the conventionalization of narrative that converts individual experience into collective coin which can be circulated, as it were, on a base wider than a merely interpersonal one" (p. 16).

In this study, against the background of students' narratives about parents and friends, their writing processes, school, and home, we understand these individuals to be engaging in a kind of "self fashioning" (Brockmeier and Carbaugh, 2001, Introduction, p. 10) that both connects them to and distinguishes them from their parents' generation at a crucial turning point of their lives: attending college (Bruner, 2001, p. 33).

Mirza Nurkic

Mirza Nurkic

Gorjana Kisa

Gorjana Kisa

Students like Mirza and Gorjana (pictured above) told us (and sometimes showed us through their writing process videos) how they were involved in sustaining family values and literacy practices (by attending school, by enjoying a close relationship with other family members) and also how they were departing from what they understood to be the traditional values of their parents (by socializing in digital environments and across borders).

In our project, however, we have also identified an additional reason for focusing on the narratives of students with transnational connections, regardless of whether the narratives are presented through video or via the participants' own spoken or written words. Because we are convinced that narratives are a form of "social action" available to all humans (Brockmeier and Carbaugh, 2001, p. 12), we understand the stories told to us in words and videos not only as vehicles for formulating identities—people's ways of telling themselves into being—but also as personal efforts to tell about and bring into being a new kind of globalized world. In this important sense, we consider these stories to be rhetorical devices meant to persuade others (Brockmeier and Harre, 2001) and, at the same time, a "mode of constructing and constituting reality" (p. 51).

Revealed in these stories—these tacit and often unconscious acts of world-making, of discursive and rhetorical coding—students reveal the cultural conventions of the world in which they want to live. As Bruner (2001) notes, this cultural work of narratives might well be why these students told the stories they did and what made "the telling justified" for these young people. In this sense, the narratives told to us by those with transnational connections have an ethical dimension. Autobiographical narratives—whether represented through videos, audio, or alphabetic text—are laden with the teller's "ideas of what a life is, or is supposed to be, if it is lived well" (Freeman and Brockmeier, 2001, p. 75), and thus they also reveal the "ethical fabric" of the social worlds from which they emerge—as well as the "specific historical and cultural realities in which the ideas originate" (p. 77).

By reflecting on these stories, we believe that educators raised in an earlier time and immersed in a different domestic lifeworld can glimpse the identities and futures these students want for themselves. The narratives of these transnationally connected individuals, we believe, also provide insights into the cultures they inhabit. Bruner (2001) suggests that autobiographical narratives are particularly rich with such cultural content. Amia Lieblich and her colleagues (1998) concur, pointing out that "people create stories out of the building blocks of their life histories and culture, and at the same time, these stories construct their lives, provide them with meanings and goals, and tie them to their culture" (p. 168).

We find the literacy narratives of these students fascinating, in other words, because these stories—whether told or enacted—"give 'voice' to social relations and locally embedded cultural meanings" (Brockmeier and Carbaugh, 2001, p. 7) and help us put these meanings into conversation with globalized patterns, contexts, and processes. In the end, we have found it valuable to focus on the life history interviews and writing process videos because they say something to us about the possible future of the world. The stories we have heard and viewed provide what we consider to be an important alternative to the national triumphalist narratives that have historically captured the U.S. imagination (Englehardt, 1957), variations of cultural stories in which "challenges are posed, met, and conquered, always with moral credit to the victor…" (Feldman, 2001, p. 133). Such historically informed narratives, Carol Feldman continues, "write their story on all of us who constitute a nation" (p. 141), whether we subscribe to them or react against them.

It is too often a triumphalist narrative, we contend, that feeds into contemporary U.S. foreign policy and discourses, inflecting the treatment of globally connected students within our country by inscribing a dialectic in which English-speaking U.S. citizens are constructed in opposition to foreign others (Hesford, 2006). The narratives we have seen and heard from this study's participants, in contrast, feature a different emphasis, one focused on relational positioning. In these narratives, the students continually named and referred to family members, friends, and peers who spoke a range of different languages and were from various world locations. The students discussed their own ideas and opinions in relation to these people. Although the young people didn't always agree with the opinions of the individuals they discussed, the narratives revealed a shared emphasis on tolerance, negotiation, and the acceptance of different practices, outlooks, and perspectives, a rhetorical approach that we perceived as both persuasive and resistant to the narratives of aggression that too often characterize national discourses.

We found these relational narratives to be a hallmark of the globally connected students with whom we talked, and we understand them as characteristic, as well, of many among the current generation of students who live in an increasingly globalized world. We believe these narratives—which, in Feldman's words, "go unarmed" in that they do not carry the "police power," the "coercive power," attached to most national narratives (2001, p. 141)—offer a valuable counterbalance to national triumphalist stories, showing us the way toward a globalized world that does not conquer or subsume difference, but that instead values different positions as additional perspectives on shared issues and problems.

"A multisited ethnography for composition studies might delve into locations such as cyberenvironments and explore the ways that student identities are always in a state of constant flux because of their 'travels' and 'movements' through these cyberplaces where they are always interpreting and producing various forms of discourse from a variety of social, cultural, and political positions." —Christopher Keller, 2004, p. 214

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