transnational literate lives in digital times: conclusion 3

Gail E. Hawisher, Cynthia L. Selfe, Patrick W. Berry, and Synne Skjulstad

Montage of our coauthors at work.

Click on montage for an audio introduction <transcript>.

CONCLUSION: Observations 1-4

As is in keeping with the notion of a cultural ecology—a set of interrelated historical and contemporary factors that irrevocably shape literacy (Selfe & Hawisher, 2004)—this study attempts to shed additional light on "how and why transnational populations use ICTs, with attention to the ways in which generation, history of settlement and dispersal, cultural values, class, access to technology, as well as homeland and host country politics" influence these practices (Panagakos & Horst, 2006, p. 110). Part of what we have learned is that the identities of these students and their inhabitation of, and association with, transnational contexts, while never wholly formed in digital environments, have nonetheless been integrally shaped and inflected by these digital landscapes. Further, we believe that the landscapes themselves—geographically dispersed and virtually connected—have been shaped and extended, changed and formed, constituted and composed, by the human beings who use them and the human communication exchanged within them. In the sections that follow, we have identified specific observations that are shared, wholly or in part, with others with whom we have talked during the course of our larger study. First introduced in Chapter 1, these observations, we believe, merit further attention in investigations of other populations inhabiting transnational contexts.

Individuals who identify as transnational use digital networks to navigate and communicate across geographically discontinuous communities. With these literate practices, they create digital communicative landscapes, connected spaces of globalized human flows that resist a simple mapping onto conventional, physically contiguous geopolitical spaces.

The research participants featured in this book, like many we encountered in the course of our larger project, tend to possess transnational perspectives and identifications, developed within geographically discontinuous communities.

Although we recognize, with Raelene Wilding (2006), that "ICTs do not create virtual ethnic identities where none existed before" (p. 138), we do believe that the transnational identifications valued by those we met and by the coauthors featured in this book were—to varying degrees and in different ways—forged, developed, shaped, and sustained within digital communication networks that resist conventional geopolitical borders and comprise spaces for meaningful exchange. The majority of the participants with whom we spoke reported or demonstrated through their videos that they use information technologies and other digital media to communicate on a regular basis with relatives and friends across national, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Gorjana communicates regularly with friends and family in Sarajevo, Mirza and Tessa interact with friends and family traveling abroad for their studies, and Kate corresponds with friends in Japan and within the fan community organized around Japanese boy bands. Skype has become the operative transnational software for Vanessa and Ismael, while Hannah uses a variety of digital communication technologies and languages as she writes and talks with friends and family overseas. For almost all the participants, social networking sites like Facebook populate these digital landscapes and provide platforms for keeping in touch with friends and family, whether across the room or across the world.

Such communications across the digital landscape and within the "shared social field" of computer networks allow coauthors to formulate the transnational aspects of their identities in "mixed and mobile ways" (Wilding, 2006, p. 138)—via e-mail messages, cell phone conversations, Facebook representations, texting and chatting, and instant messages, "cultivating their own linguistic and ethnic identities as well as…exploring identifications across national and linguistic boundaries" (Jarratt et al., 2006, p. 40). Their communications and identities move and morph easily across a populated online landscape, which they shape and deploy with ingenuity and a keen rhetorical awareness of their own and others' communicative needs: material, ideological, and personal.

We also found that the participants maintained multiple "frames of reference" (Panagakos & Horst, 2006, p. 117), which serve to keep them connected locally as well as globally. Gorjana and Mirza, for example, not only sustain and shape their contacts with friends and family in Bosnia, communicating in different varieties of Serbo-Croation, but also have forged a rich set of local friends in Sydney through cell phone conversations and text messages or SMS. Similarly, Tessa, Kate, Ismael, Shafinaz, Sophie, Yu-Kyung, and Hannah communicate frequently with friends abroad, but also with a large group of friends—with their own international and non-international connections—in the cities of their adopted homes using e-mail, SMS, cell phone conversations, text messaging, Facebook, blogs, and news delivered to their desktops via electronically updated Internet reports. Hannah also for some years maintained her own blog to report on her teaching in France and to describe her everyday thoughts and activities once she returned to the United States. Although the different communities that these individuals inhabit are often not geographically or physically contiguous, the participants move seamlessly back and forth between local and global perspectives, both within their families and outside of them, relying—at least in part—on digital networks as landscapes within which to facilitate this movement and to keep them informed about the personal and political, global and local, events that affect their lives.

Participants share a complex, nuanced, and culturally situated understanding of technology's affordances and limitations, which they employ to make decisions about the rhetorical and material appropriateness of various technologies within the digital landscape and outside of it, as well.

Panagakos and Horst (2006) in their introduction to a collection of studies about ICTs deployed by transnational migrants, note that researchers should avoid underestimating

"…how the particular qualities of technologies play a distinctive role in the choice and use of these media. Certain technologies are perceived to be private, more accessible and easier to use. Some transnational migrants value the ability to hear information quickly whereas others prefer to respond patiently to crafted messages, particularly when issues of literacy or language arise. Others desire a media that is more 'emotional' or expressive, possessing the capacity for visual, oral, aural and other sensory experiences that more effectively enable co-presence" (p. 114).

In our own study, these factors were evident in the literacy narratives the participants relayed, in terms of their decisions to deploy specific communication technologies in particular situations. Indeed, these stories revealed a layered and nuanced appreciation of the social and cultural ecologies within which digital devices were used: contexts were shaped not only by the material qualities of specific technologies, as Panagakos and Horst (2006) point out, but also by economic factors such as cost and variability of access; sociocultural factors such as the mobility or immobility of the people whom participants wanted to contact; issues associated with generation and age, class, and cultural values; personal and pragmatic needs; material conditions; and local living conditions.
 Several examples of the students' and their families' and friends' understanding of such issues emerged in the narratives the students shared with us. A number of these stories focused on how issues of access and convenience played out locally at the receiving end of a communication.

Kate, for example, contacted friends in Malaysia via text messaging (SMS) when they had no access to the Internet and she wanted to communicate with them. Her choice in this matter was astute, pragmatic, and informed by material conditions given the number of people globally who are cell phone users, but she also understood the decision to be less than ideal because SMS limited the length and extent of their conversations. Ismael, like Vanessa, uses Skype to keep in touch with his family and speaks Spanish in these interchanges; recently, however, he has turned to Facebook, often making use of the Spanish version. He explains that the social networking site is great for keeping in touch with relatives and friends, as well as for communicating with the New York Spanish-speaking communities in which he participates. He also notes that he has turned to Spanglish rather than Spanish for many conversations, although he was initially a bit hesitant to use this not-always-prized variation of Spanish. He finally decided, though, that Spanglish functioned much better for his efforts at communicating with the Spanish population in New York City on Facebook, since Spanglish was so often used in that environment. Thus, Ismael's attentiveness to the appropriateness of the technology also carried over to his choice of a particular language variation for communication goals—both considerations of rhetorical import.

Mirza's mother communicated with her own elderly mother primarily through mobile phone conversations in a very different Serbo-Croatian dialect than the one Mirza readily understood, but the one that was most appropriate for communicating with Mirza's grandmother. This decision was shaped by the fact that Mirza's mother understood the generational experiences and communicative needs of her mother, enjoyed hearing the sound of her parent's voice, appreciated the immediacy of the contact and the conversation, knew her mother could use a cell phone, and also by the convenience of mobile phone access at a time when mobile phones have become ubiquitous around the world. Mirza communicated occasionally via Skype with his cousin attending school in Austria, not simply because he enjoyed the naturalness of an oral conversation but because Skype conversations are free and thus attractive to college students without the financial means to pay long-distance telephone charges. He also sometimes spoke to his cousin in German, a language he studied in school in Australia; it was more common, however, for the two of them to use English, a language with which they both shared facility. Tessa and Hannah communicated with friends who were studying and living abroad using some combination of Facebook, e-mail, chat applications, MSN Messenger, mobile phone calls, and text messaging, depending on the access their contacts have to specific digital communication technologies. This use of different technologies makes sense in a global context where, "in 2008, over 3.3 million tertiary students were enrolled outside their country of citizenship, representing an increase of nearly 11% on the previous year" (OECD, 2010).

Those individuals with transnational identities, however, also have nuanced understandings of the rhetorical appropriateness or inappropriateness, desirability or undesirability—the fitness—of specific technologies within specific sociocultural contexts. Mirza, for example, discussed the inappropriateness of breaking off a relationship in an e-mail message, suggesting that a cell phone call or a personal conversation would be better suited for such a delicate task. Tessa explained that she used text messaging for very short inquiries to maximize the efficiency of information exchange, because the expectations for—and the material conditions of—text messages privileged brevity and focus. She also used text messaging both because the physical size of mobile phones made these devices easy to use during classes without being seen and because calling plans generally made such exchanges inexpensive. Tessa recognized that cell phone conversations, an integral part of her generation's social experience, had different politeness conventions and generally involved more small talk and relationship tending. She noted, further, that longer e-mail messages could substitute for direct confrontations with employers because they often avoided the demands of synchronous conversations. Hannah also chose her digital communication technology carefully, but found that she turned more and more frequently to social networking sites like blogs and the increasingly popular Facebook. Using Facebook, she and her multilingual friends arranged for a 2010 reunion in Istanbul, Turkey, that would bring together those whom she had met in France during her teaching there. Only the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, prevented the reunion from becoming a well-attended reality, and mobile phones ruled as the technology of choice—and expediency—when she and her friends negotiated their whereabouts. Unfortunately, only Hannah made it to Istanbul, but through their judicious choice of digital communication devices, she and her friends were able to track each person's change in travel plans at a moment's notice. When we last checked in, she was planning through Facebook an upcoming reunion that they hope will be unaffected by Eyjafjallajökull.

In a similar way, informed by sociocultural awareness and a keen sense of rhetorical fitness, Gorjana also sometimes chose a combination of video and chat for keeping in touch with friends. She explained that chat applications, especially when combined with video, allowed for longer, more extensive conversations, but that the cost of the cameras required for such exchanges in 2007 was prohibitive for some of her friends. She also remarked that considerations of individuals' comfort levels with various ICTs, as well as the rhetorical purpose and occasion motivating her communicative attempt, helped her determine whether she would rely on a "proper" conversation by cell phone, a longer e-mail message, or a short text message. Similarly, Kate told us of preferring the almost-instantaneous nature of MSN Messenger for short exchanges and chat applications for longer conversations because these gave her the most immediate sense of connection with her friends who lived at a distance. She avoided chat rooms, however, mistrusting the motivations of people who frequented them.
 As Wilding (2006) notes, such considerations of sociocultural appropriateness or inappropriateness, desirability or undesirability—what we refer to here as rhetorical fitness—are often of key importance in the "decisions people make about using particular communication technologies" (p. 125) and in determining the factors that "render some ICTs more desirable than others at specific points in time" (p. 125). Acknowledging this fact, Wilding continues, "provides an important corrective to economic analyses of transnationalism, and contributes to theorizing and documenting the role of ICTs in the maintenance of transnational social networks" (p. 125). As far as this study is concerned, coauthors tended to make use of a wide variety of ICTs, social networking sites, and mobile devices for keeping in touch with a complex network of family, friends, and acquaintances, and rhetorical fitness—including all the sociocultural, economic, technological, and material considerations it involves—shaped their deployment of these technologies.

Finally, Panagakos and Horst (2006) note in their discussion of diasporic media that those who claim transnational identities and reside in industrialized nations "may benefit from their location in societies often obsessed with the newest electronic gadgets," while the situation is not always the same "for their compatriots back home or in other countries of settlement" (p. 111). During the time of our study, many of the coauthors gravitated to various social networking sites, especially Facebook, which was initially launched only in 2004 but by 2011 boasted approximately 800 million users (Protalinksi, 2011).

The narratives of the study's participants, and those of many of the other people with whom we talked during the course of our larger project, revealed a clear sense of the privileged position the participants inhabited because they had come of age during a time of explosive growth in digital communication technologies and because they enjoyed a high degree of access to these advanced technologies, the Internet, and broadband connections at home, at school, at the university where they studied, or in some combination of these locations. Mirza, for example, along with Pengfei, noted the outdated computers, dial-up connections, and Internet cafes on which many Bosnian and Chinese families and friends needed to rely. In this sense, at least, the material conditions that characterized the various uses of technology around the world were evident to these students and figured in the decisions they made about deploying specific digital technologies in various rhetorical and communicative contexts.

Participants tended to possess a rich set of linguistic resources, including varieties of language that helped define and situate their multiple identifications both locally and globally. They deployed these linguistic resources within digital communicative landscapes that both supported and were shaped by their practices.

Multiple identifications among transnationally connected individuals are often extended and sustained, at least in part, within online contexts and often relate directly to a mix of language competencies.
 Almost all the participants spoke and wrote in more than one language. Actively using bits and pieces of multiple languages, including a variety of Englishes, they constructed meaning and communicated effectively in mobile phone conversations, e-mail exchanges, video productions, and sometimes fan fiction forums, negotiating their linguistic interactions with others to "produce meaning and accomplish their communicative objectives in relation to their purposes and interests" (Canagarajah, 2007, p. 95). Their families, too, engaged in similar negotiations that reflected the ongoing nature of change in their language and literacy contexts (Wilding, 2006). Mirza's mother and father, for example, incorporated English words into their Serbo-Croatian conversations, and Gorjana's father and mother learned to speak and write in English to communicate at their places of business while continuing to read Serbo-Croatian newspapers at home. Hannah's parents also learned English, with her mother's teaching Hannah as a child how to read storybooks like Goldilocks and the Three Bears in English. But as Hannah became fluent in Korean, English, and eventually French, she went on to serve as an important resource for her mother and helped her cope with situations that demanded a great deal of expertise in English. Gorjana and Shafinaz similarly talked about their mothers' difficulties with a new language, and it is likely that they, like Hannah, helped their parents interpret the language of their new surroundings.

Regardless of whether parents hail from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bangladesh, or Korea, and regardless of the languages they bring with them, it is their children upon whom they frequently depend to mediate the English language of their new homeland, whether it is Australia, the United Kingdom, or the United States (Louie, 2009). The participants' literacy narratives also support Canagarajah's (2007) argument that individuals who speak multiple languages are often able to use different varieties of English for shared purposes while avoiding the loss of their cultural values and identities. As Canagarajah (2007) explains, this "creative negotiation of codes and values" (p. 90) allows people to "use English in a socially situated and contextually informed manner, sensitive to the ecological resources of language" (p. 90).

The coauthors often acknowledged the importance of the English language in their lives from quite an early age. Pengfei, for example, met with his classmates in China to practice oral English on what he termed the campus's "English bridge," Ismael became taken with English while attending an American international school in Mexico, and Synne, as a child in Norway, sang along with the Beatles in a kind of English rendering of "Yellow Submarine," having little knowledge of what the sounds actually meant. Sometimes those of us whose native language is English tend to neglect the English language's tremendous challenge for and influence among those who hail from non-English-speaking countries, who often have a great desire—even a passion—to learn the English language to achieve life goals (Cooper, 2011, October 17). Pengfei's literacy narrative is especially poignant in this regard. As noted, too, the learning of English and the learning of computer use often go hand in hand: English enables individuals to work initially with the intricacies of computers and their interfaces, while growing digital proficiency provides individuals with more opportunities for learning English.

Despite the continuing importance of English in the academic and everyday lives of the coauthors, multilingualism has increasingly become the rule in the global academic landscape. As Jarratt and her colleagues (2006) report in their study of first-year humanities students in a California university in the United States, languages such as Tamil, Assyrian, Burmese, Coptic, and Vietnamese, among others, informed the linguistic identities of students in their research, as the many languages and language varieties documented by the coauthors in this transnational study informed ours. It is likely that these languages, too, make themselves known across digital landscapes. As of 2010, however, according to Internet World Stats (2011b), some variation of English is used on the Internet by over 536.6 million people. That Chinese is used by 444.9 million, followed in succession by eight other languages, enables Internet users to reach 82.6% of other online users with a repertoire of only 10 languages (Internet World Stats, 2011b).

(See Internet World Stats, 2011b, and Internet World Stats, 2011c, for a fascinating statistical overview of the languages of the Internet and the world.)

As we write here in 2011, we note that while the languages of the Internet continue to increase as large numbers of speakers communicate in different languages online, some variety of English remains the most frequently used on the Internet, at least for now.

Individuals' attitudes toward digital technologies and their use are highly dependent on the cultural ecologies that the participants inhabit, whose variations include generational, geographic, and gender differences, as well as on the individuals' particular experiences.

Differences in languages as they circulate in cultural ecologies tended to shape participants' attitudes toward digital media, as did generational, geographic, and gender differences. Participants' experiences in life also influenced how they valued and used digital technologies. In other words, while the participants shared a reliance on digital communication technologies, they differed markedly in their deployment of these technologies. When we first interviewed Gorjana, for example, she was adamant in her avoidance of social networking sites like Facebook, although today she does maintain a presence on such a site. Like many people, she also avoided activities such as computer gaming which, she felt, distracted people's attention from developing meaningful relationships with others. She did, however, engage in cell phone conversations, chats, and text messaging on a regular basis. Mirza, Tessa, Hannah, and Dipo, in contrast, enjoyed gaming when they were young, while Kate preferred using online forums and chat applications to communicate with friends. The majority of participants today identify Facebook as one of their primary means of staying in touch with others.

In part, these participants' decisions about which technologies to use depended on the forms of technology that resonated with their personal interests and communicative needs, but generational, geographical, and gender differences were also at play. Mirza, for example, one of the youngest coauthors and one of four who were male, was very much at the forefront in the use of technology and was extensively involved in sharing music across the world. His geographical location in Sydney, Australia, a leader in terms of the availability of ICTs, also contributed to his use of computers for a wide variety of activities. Generational issues also seemed to play a role for those born in the 1970s, the early 1980s, or even earlier, for they were less likely to engage in extensive use of digital media—but there are interesting exceptions. For instance, Ismael, born in 1979, used a wide variety of digital media for his teaching of Spanish and for developing personal social networks in New York City; and, in Oslo, Synne, born in 1973, engaged in multimodal composing from the time she entered junior high school, but only developed a passion for digital media when she was introduced to Photoshop in college. In Norway, unlike in Dipo's home of Nigeria or Sophie's Indonesia, these sorts of digital experiences tended to be more readily available across the board at the time when the participants were growing up. Synne's ongoing research in website design, along with her genuine interest in multimodal performances and productions, continues to pull her toward all things digital. Hannah's work in library and information design has had a similar influence. The fact that she created a promotional video for a library where she held an internship serves as an example of her gravitation toward digital projects. Regardless of age, gender, geographical location or interests, however, the coauthors' decisions were richly informed by material conditions within their cultural ecology such as cost, rhetorical requirements of audience and context, and the convenience and availability of access to digital technologies. Despite the differences among them and among the cultural ecologies in which they were immersed, all the coauthors reveal that in today's world, they would be totally lost without ready access to computers and other digital media for their studies, writing, work, recreation, family contacts, and more.

previous < > CONCLUSION: Observations 5-8