Materializing Narratives: The Story Behind the Story


Though narrative studies have moved beyond the analysis of narratives as a finished product to their social shaping under the label of narrative analysis, material resources add another level of complexity to the analysis of narratives. The sociomaterial orientation theorizes why we must move beyond treating people as the only agents or protagonists of their narratives, and consider the engagement of diverse spatial and material resources in the shaping of their stories and their identities. In such an analysis, material resources which are traditionally relegated to context and separated from the text must be integrated in textual and narrative analysis. Michael Silverstein’s notions of recontextualization (i.e., “the process of how discourse points to (indexes) the context which seems to frame it”) and entextualization (i.e., “the process of coming to textual formedness” −2019: 56) from sociolinguistics have helped scholars analyze the ongoing interactions between the text and context. The sociolinguistic notion of frames helps to determine which resources are critical for contextualizing the ongoing entextualization of the narrative.


Narrative analysis Sociomaterial orientation Methodology

In this article, I draw from my teacher’s research to demonstrate the development of a literacy autobiography by a Japanese student in an American university. The article will demonstrate how the constructs framing, recontextualization, and entextualization can help researchers analyze the complex emergence of narratives in relation to more expansive and inclusive semiotic resources than traditionally adopted in narrative studies.

Research on narratives has made quick methodological strides in moving beyond the finished product (or textual artefact) to addressing the resources shaping its emergence; beyond the narrators to addressing the conditions shaping their stories. While the social contexts of the narrative have been well studied, emerging theoretical orientations point to the agentive role of material resources in shaping texts and people. The model known as the socio-material orientation facilitates a more expansive and less segregated analysis of the conditions and affordances that go into communication, relative to traditional analytical approaches in literacy and language studies. In this article, I demonstrate how this orientation can contribute to studying narratives through the analysis of a student’s construction of her literacy autobiography in a teacher development course on writing pedagogy. Though my data is life writing, I consider the analytical implications relevant for all narratives. As the focus is on the analytical tools employed to study narratives, I will be brief in introducing the theoretical underpinnings of the socio-material orientation.

Rationale and innovative nature of the socio-material orientation

Gary Barkhuizen’s recent publications outline the advances that have been made by scholars in researching narratives. Under the umbrella term of narrative knowledging, Barkhuizen (2019) has modelled the dynamic negotiations that take place between narrators, researchers, and texts, in both developing the story as well as interpreting it. Researchers may focus on the finished product of the story (i.e., “stories from interaction”) or the conditions generating that story, such as their activities in eliciting them in research (i.e., “stories as interaction”). Pavlenko (2007) has usefully pointed to broader ideological and historical conditions that also go into the rhetorical construction of one’s story. Or researchers may focus on the content of the story (i.e., “analysis of narrative”) such as the life reality, subject reality, and textual reality that Pavlenko (2007) has articulated, or the form or means of the story (i.e., “narrative analysis”)—for which there is a long tradition starting with Labov (1997) to identify the structural moves in a typical story (see also Pavlenko, 2007 for a review of diverse pragmatic features, such as positioning). In other publications, Barkhuizen (2016) has given more historical and geographical depth to such analysis by situating the narrative in broader spatiotemporal contexts. The circles expand from the micro level of the telling of the “story,” to the meso level of the institutional level where the narrated events take place (which he labels “Story”), to the macro level of sociopolitical considerations (“STORY”). Intersecting through these expanding scales are the vectors of who, when, and where, which are relatively more expansive across each circle. Barkhuizen unveils these influencing contexts from a collection of “small stories” of a teacher and demonstrates how they contribute to a meta-story on her development of reflective awareness.

That these diverse considerations are not separate but mediate each other is brought out in an earlier state of the art (Barkhuizen, 2011). In this paper, Barkhuizen provides a model that brings the various considerations together, as “stages and participants in narrative knowledging” (p. 396). In this model, he situates three parallel boxes that influence each other. The first is the telling of the story (with interactions between the narrator and the audience, including the researcher who might elicit it). The second box is the narrative artefact or text. The third one features the researcher interpreting the artefact for a research audience, which itself generates another artefact, such as an article for disseminating that knowledge. Barkhuizen astutely observes that all three boxes influence each other, in addition to the components within each box influencing themselves.

In this evolving dynamic of narrative knowledging, I wish to bring into salience the material context and give more agency to diverse objects and artefacts in shaping the narrative, adopting the socio-material orientation. Note that what has been listed in the models demonstrated in the illustrative articles mentioned above might be broadly termed the social components and resources of the narrative. In addition to the narrators, audiences, and researchers who are prominently listed, Barkhuizen also accommodates institutions, cultures, ideologies, and politics which are often treated by scholars in broadly social terms. What is hidden in these models are material resources such as the following: the tape recorder of the researcher, notes of the researcher and narrator, the dress of all the participants in the event, the physical setting (including seating arrangements, proximity, and physical objects), the body of the participants (including their gestures, posture, and demeanour), and the artifactual status of narratives in published articles, transcripts, videos, or other modalities. In applied linguistics, scholars traditionally collapse all such material resources under “context.” They don’t discuss them unless some of these features are explicitly referenced in the narrative or by the interlocutors. Scholars make a distinction between text and context, treating the text as their unit of analysis. Though Barkhuizen’s models bring the social considerably into prominence and also acknowledge time and space, material resources remain unaddressed. In fact, the socio-material orientation materializes even the social, historical, and geographical influences by acknowledging their non-human agency in shaping the narrators and narratives. Thus addressing the material influences on narratives would qualify the primacy of humans, minds, and languages, and unveil their collaborative and embodied shaping by more diverse semiotic resources and agents.

Introducing the socio-material orientation

The socio-material orientation (hereafter SMO) explores how the social and material “interanimate each other” (Vieira, 2016, p. 423). SMO has enjoyed currency in literacy studies and has been employed by scholars like Candace Kuby (see Kuby & Rucker, 2016), Kate Pahl and Jennifer Rowsell (2010), Paul Prior (1998), Jody Shipka (2011), and Kate Vieira (2016). In applied linguistics, scholars adopt similar approaches under alternative labels such as New Materialism (Toohey, 2019; Canagarajah, 2018) or Posthumanism (Pennycook, 2018). SMO in education has been influenced by diverse models, including activity theory, complexity theory, and actor-network theory (as reviewed by Fenwick, Edwards, & Sawchuck, 2011). I adopt an orientation influenced by New Materialism, which is appreciative of the vitality of material life and the agency of objects (see Barad, 2007). Traditional scholarly approaches lumped objects into a largely static and secondary “context” because they treated social agents as using objects for their communicative activity as they desired. Material resources were treated as lacking agency because they were non-human. This assumption derives from traditional understandings of ontology (i.e., what is real). In European Enlightenment thinking, especially in the philosophy popularized by Descartes, matter was conceived as an undifferentiated and static mass that depended on human shaping. Newtonian physics gave more importance to matter, conceiving nature as a machine or a clock that can run with predictability once it was programmed. However, contemporary physics treats physical nature as agentive, with its own complexity and self-regulating mechanisms. It goes further to treat nature as not inert but animated. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2010) summarize the shifts as follows: “Theoretical physics’ understanding of matter is now a long way from the material world we inhabit in our everyday lives and it is no longer tenable to rely on the obsolete certainties of classical physics. It suggests an ontology that is very different from the substantialist Cartesian or mechanistic Newtonian accounts of matter. Forces, energies, and intensities (rather than substances) and complex, even random, processes (rather than predictable states) have become the new currency. Particle physics has radically changed our sense of the composition of matter” (p. 12–13).

All this doesn’t mean that SMO demotes human agency or downgrades the significance of mind and language. It treats all these constructs as working together in thinking and communication, motivating the following approaches: i.e., going beyond binaries and hierarchies, such as human/thing, mind/body, cognition/matter, language/objects; treating all resources as mediating each other; and considering how everything is connected to everything else, as ecosystems. From this perspective, we have to reconsider the logocentricism in linguistics that treats language (or verbal resources) as a superior medium for meaning making. We have to be open to diverse resources as capable of communicating meaning, with bodies and objects having different semiotic capacities paralleling language. For this reason, sociolinguists adopt a broader term for representational resources—i.e., semiotic repertoires rather than language. While language refers to verbal resources, SMO holds that any object can become a sign for meaning making. Furthermore, SMO would also question the separation of text and context, with the latter treated as passive or secondary. It would treat representational resources as mediated and shaped by social networks and material ecologies. Texts and semiotic repertoires can also recontextualize interactions for new meanings. Furthermore, we cannot treat human agents as standing unaffected by the semiotic resources or texts. Narrators are not merely using semiotic resources to tell their stories; their very telling and the evolving texts would also change their perspectives and dispositions. Thus, there could be dynamic and multidirectional relationships between constructs (human agents, languages, contexts) that were earlier treated as separated and hierarchical. SMO would analyze narrators, narratives, and narrating as mutually influencing each other.

Though SMO has featured theoretically in applied linguistics (as in the works cited above), its application for empirical analysis raises many thorny challenges. If all objects in the material ecology are potentially semiotic, and become representational resources, this raises difficulties for how researchers might choose what to study in a specific communicative activity. Furthermore, if the distinction between context and text is dropped, and everything is connected to everything else, where do analysts begin or end their textual analyses? A construct used by sociolinguists becomes useful here: frame. This is similar to the term “cuts” as used by scholars in New Materialism (Barad, 2007). Bauman and Sherzer (1975) define frame as “a metacommunicative device which signals the interpretive context within which a message is to be understood, a set of interpretive guidelines for discriminating between orders of message” (p. 106). Frame draws into focus aspects such as the following: What are the objectives of this interaction? What is the genre of communication being practiced? What semiotic resources are framed as important for this activity? What kind of footing, values, and status relationships are assumed in this interaction? Thus frames help researchers decide what to focus on in this expansive consideration of semiotic repertoires.

Note that the researcher’s analytical activity also comes with a framing. That is, researchers are bringing to the narrative or the communicative activity specific questions that they like to see answered. That frame will narrow down their focus in suitable ways. In SMO studies then, there is a triangulation between the researcher’s frames and the participants’ frames—i.e., what researchers are orientating to and what participants are orientating to in a given interaction. Though researchers may start looking at particular texts or semiotic resources as significant, there might be some trouble sources or critical moments in the interaction that will point them to other aspects of participants’ framing that force them to expand the focus or address other semiotic resources that are important. This triangulation is important because the participants might themselves be negotiating the framing of that communication for a suitable footing or for achieving their objectives when genre conventions are changing and diverse (see Bawarshi, 2000). Frames have to be negotiated in each interaction even if participants might start with a vague or intuitive understanding of them. Therefore, “frame” might be a better alternative to “context” as it suggests how the relevant contexts for the understanding of texts and interactions are constructed and negotiated in an ongoing manner by participants in narrative knowledging.

SMO would demonstrate how semiotic repertoires work together in narrative knowledging. Together with framing, two other sociolinguistic constructs are useful for such analysis. They are the notions of recontextualization (i.e., “the process of how discourse points to (indexes) the context which seems to frame it”) and entextualization (i.e., “the process of coming to textual formedness”— Silverstein, 2019: 56). Recontextualization and entextualization are not completely in the hands of interlocutors. They are also an impersonal “process” (to use Silverstein’s phrasing above). There is a materiality to these processes. Changing configurations of participants, settings, and semiotic resources might reframe the narrative regardless of the interlocutor’s intentions. The process can be cyclical: i.e., available semiotic resources frame the evolving narrative; the changing text reframes the context and indexes relevant resources through contexualization cues; and such recontextualization might make space for new semiotic resources to re-entexualize the narrative.

Research Context

The data is from a course titled “Teaching of Second Language Writing” for advanced undergraduate and master’s level students, where I adopt narrative writing as a medium for teacher development. I have obtained approval from IRB to undertake teacher research and use the artifacts from this course for analysis (see Canagarajah, 2020 for background). I describe below the key features of the course to introduce my pedagogical framing and research context.

An important course activity is the writing of a semester-long literacy autobiography (LA). The activity is designed to help students critically reflect on their writing experiences, attitudes, and development. I treat the classroom as an ecologically rich environment, with cultural and semiotic resources that students can turn into “affordances” for learning. The mix of students and materials from diverse cultures and languages adds to the classroom ecology. The learning ecology was further enriched by the web system I use to supplement teaching (i.e., Angel). To emphasize the reflective objectives behind the course, the LA was deeply integrated into the classroom and learning ecology. I provided ample opportunities for students to reflect on their evolving narratives and identities. In their weekly journals, I asked students to write about their composing challenges and literacy trajectories. I turned the essays into an exercise on narrative analysis, asking students to compare and contrast everyone’s narratives for thematic and/or stylistic differences. I gave appropriate exercises on the readings for the course to be interpreted in light of their narratives. Students posted at least six drafts of their LAs at various stages of development in their online folder on the course website. The peers and the instructor were expected to read the drafts and post their feedback in the author’s folder. The authors had an opportunity to respond to the feedback, reflect on their writing challenges, and pose further questions in their weekly journal entries as they revised the draft for another review. At the end of the semester, I asked them to write a reflective essay for their portfolios, tracing their language awareness, composing practices, and rhetorical strategies during the course.

In this article, I analyze the narrative development of a single student. Kyoko was a Master’s degree student in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language), during her fourth semester in the United States. She had completed a bachelor’s degree with a major in linguistics in Japan. She had studied English as a foreign language in high school under Japanese teachers, and done a college level course on English composition under an instructor from the United States. Kyoko was interested in returning to Japan to pursue a teaching career, and departed soon after graduating.

Steps and Procedures of Data Analysis

Sociolinguistic and SMO studies adopting the analytical constructs introduced above are typically interpretive (see Prior, 1998; Silverstein, 2019). They also focus on longitudinal data, as the processes of recontextualization and entextualization are unveiled best in the trajectory of textual development. Since SMO values embodiment, it is important to demonstrate how semiotic resources shape the contextualization and entextualization of narratives in their temporal and spatial evolution. For this report, I first coded the course artifacts for the following features: the trajectory of thematic motifs in Kyoko’s drafts; the semiotic resources that entextualized Kyoko’s drafts; the influences on these drafts from the texts of peers, teacher, reference readings, and other course artifacts; and changing frames adopted by all participants. Having done that, I now narrate the trajectory of Kyoko’s narrative development, with the relevant semiotic resources and framing/contexualization/entextualization processes embedded in my report, for purposes of an embodied presentation.

I limit my analysis to the trajectories relating to three tropes in Kyoko’s text. They are a pair of dispositions which Kyoko negotiates throughout her development of her narrative: namely, diffident/critical; confused/directed; and expressive/reflective. This report adopts my point of view, as there is no neutral perspective available for any research. I am sensitive to variable interpretations, and represent my own dilemmas in framing Kyoko’s narrative development. I will indicate how my own framing of Kyoko’s narrative changed throughout the teaching process, when additional ecological resources recontextualized and re-entextualized her text.

Trajectory 1: Diffident/Critical

While Kyoko’s first draft was an outline with disconnected paragraphs on her writing in diverse literate genres, her second draft was framed as a linear trajectory in personal voice. This is how Kyoko started her second draft:

#1: I have never kept a journal. Of course, I have tried several times, but the every attempt ended up with failure. Once in a few years, especially on the New Year’s Day, I make up my mind to keep a journal. I keep writing once in a few nights for a couple of month. Then, in a few months, reading over what I wrote, I cannot resist an impulse to throw the journal away. You would say that journal is a powerful resource for self-reflection. I definitely agree with it, but I can’t keep a journal. For me, wiring [writing] always associates with pain and embarrassment. When I imagine my journal to be accidentally or intentionally read by someone, I cannot stop worrying. I would prefer reading others’ voice to writing my voice. After all, I’m too self-conscious to keep on journaling. So, have I had excessive self-consciousness since I was born? [D2]1

Kyoko’s stance struck me as self-deprecating and diffident. These impressions were strengthened by other writing with similar sentiments. In an online posting, assigned to introduce everyone in the course, Kyoko mentioned her name, degree program, and country, and then added:

#2: I’m in the middle of taking in North American academic discourse, and I have been struggling with how I express myself in L2 writing. I feel like being in the middle of nowhere when I write in English. [CA]

I was intrigued by this presentation of struggle and confusion, considering the fact that other students, especially Americans, prefer to put their best foot forward and present themselves as able and confident. I encountered these sentiments often in drafts of her writing. In a journal on 10/21, she wrote: “In my second draft, I just described my memories of writing like talking to my friend. Then, I got stuck what to write my current situation; in other words, I was in the middle of nowhere not knowing how to connect the past and the present in a meaningful way.” In fact, “middle of nowhere” seemed to become her theme in the subsequent drafts of LA and it began to frame my reading of her narrative.

My framing was also contextualized by scholarship on contrastive rhetoric that was introduced to the class by the course textbooks and readings. East Asian students were characterized as uncomfortable with adopting individualistic and critical stances (Atkinson, 1997; Fox, 1994). Their rhetorical preferences were treated as differing from the self-assertion of AngloAmerican L1 students. Influenced by my critical pedagogical background, I preferred to nudge students towards more agentive, agonistic, and reflective writing. This was an important focus of this course, reflected also by the title of another textbook (my own Critical Academic Writing and Multilingual StudentsCanagarajah, 2002).

An opportunity presented itself for my intervention during a whole class discussion of students’ drafts for collaborative feedback. I wrote the following questions to guide the peer feedback on Kyoko’s draft in online discussion:

#3: How is Kyoko presenting herself through these statements? Would you consider this passive and deferential? Does this attitude characterize her whole essay?…

Is there indirect criticism here [of school writing that failed to engage her]? Can she develop this further? Would a more critical attitude make this essay better? [TF]

I was surprised, however, when the comments of some students revealed that they read Kyoko’s narrative and dispositions differently from me. While I was focused on Kyoko’s authorial identity (i.e., narrating self), they focused on the identities Kyoko represented in her text (i.e., narrated self). In the latter identities, Kyoko had demonstrated criticality in questioning her unfair treatment in her family, as she was a middle child and the only girl. She narrated how the eldest and youngest sons were always given preferential treatment, presumably according to Japanese tradition. Her peers felt that she was indeed critical in narrating these relationships. Students probably had other extra-textual frames for such entextualization from their out of class interactions with Kyoko, which I lacked.

As for Kyoko’s subdued stance, her peers had a different explanation. Unlike her family relationships, her narrating self engaged different identities—i.e., institutional roles, such as teacher/student relationships. Tim responded: ‘There is the issue of desirability (what does the teacher [want] and what can I do to get a positive response) bound up in the identities we take on in these situations (student v teacher, employee v employer). . . . I feel that these exist (for myself and perhaps Kyoko) no matter how “cool” or “open” a teacher/boss is.’ He wondered to what extent anyone (in East or West) can be critical or resistant of people in authority. Since dissent has to be tactful and perhaps subdued in these relationships, he interpreted Kyoko’s criticality as taking less agonistic or expressive representations.

Such diverse interpretations were not lost on Kyoko herself. Peers provided a counter-point to my own framing that she was not critical or assertive. Triangulating these perspectives, in a subsequent journal entry, Kyoko reflected:

#4: In my opinion, the notion of critical itself is very western culture originated. Japanese doesn’t have the exact counterpart word of English “critical.” Of course we approach to one thing from diverse perspective in our own way, but, I don’t know why and how, there must be something different between two language cultures. As western democracy does not fit all the country, the concepts of intelligence, critical, negotiation, rights, and education might be slightly different in each culture. [J]

Kyoko is mulling over the possibility that critical thinking would be expressed differently in different communities. In order to characterize the Japanese orientation to criticality, she defines it more broadly as “approach to one thing from diverse perspective.” In other words, she represents it as a negotiated position or triangulated thinking. Though not presented as a direct answer to my questions and feedback, her reflection can be taken as a mild criticism of my treatment of critical thinking as universal for all students. Note also her use of “we” to position herself explicitly as an insider in her country’s discoursal preferences.

Kyoko was thus triangulating the diverse perspectives she was receiving from her peers and instructor to formulate her own positions. In the layout on Angel, peer commentary received the same importance as the teacher’s, thus constituting a more egalitarian learning space compared to face to face classroom interactions. Perhaps, the material structuring of the electronic forum and course design contributed to a selective uptake of peer and teacher feedback. I will demonstrate later how these resources entextualized her change of framing and dispositions in the final draft.

Trajectory 2: confused/directed

In presenting her progression between Japanese and English as “in the middle of nowhere,” Kyoko’s early drafts didn’t demonstrate a clear narrative trajectory. As her engagement with other students and texts continued, her revisions demonstrated more focus. Her fourth draft had a title and was pruned to focus on academic literacy development, omitting references to other genres, such as journal writing:

L1 and L2 Literacy for Academic Purposes

My early literacy education had a huge effect both on my personality and intelligence. However, L2 literacy is more restricted within the frame of schooling because I have acquired L2 literacy only for academic purposes. In the end, on contrary to reading, writing is not ingrained into a part of my life. As I am struggling with getting used to American academic social norms, I am also confused by ESL writing conventions. [D4]

Though the narrative is more focused, I was still concerned about her mention of struggle and confusion in relation to American academic discourses and English writing conventions. In her body paragraphs, she narrated how her Japanese holistic learning conflicted with English product-oriented teaching. Since the readings had introduced the class to the notion of “subtractive bilingualism,” I nudged Kyoko towards more positive engagement with both languages. In my feedback, I wrote:

#6: It appears then that your trajectory of development is “subtractive”-i.e., losing a form of literacy in order to acquire another. Do you see your development this way–or are you planning to narrate a different trajectory of development in this narrative? (There are ways of reconciling both traditions.) [TF]

My rhetorical question above suggests that I preferred a hybrid option of appropriating both literacy traditions, as I had articulated in my textbook (Canagarajah, 2002, p. 172).

However, with the help of other textual resources, Kyoko negotiated the languages differently. Finding a reference to an LA by Connor (1999), a Finnish professional, Kyoko obtained the publication to answer her quest. Connor narrates how her discoursal acculturation to American norms was so complete that she went on to become an American citizen and raise a family in the US. Kyoko expresses her discomfort with such an approach in her journal:

#7: She [Connor] rejected her L1 background and has acquired a new identity as an American through her life in the US. However, I am not her, obviously. Neither do I want to deny my history nor become a mini American. I cannot smoothly sift [shift] my L1 to L2 as Connor does. Am I wrong? [J]

Questioning Connor’s trajectory, Kyoko leans toward acquiring English without abandoning her own heritage. Her irony about turning into a “mini American” is telling. Though she is still wondering how to incorporate her Japanese background into her writing in English, she is clear about what she doesn’t want to become. Note also the entextualization process here. She adopts Connor’s text as a foil to chart her own identity and narrative development.

Kyoko finds a clue to reframe her trajectory when she reads a chapter from my textbook (which she abbreviates as CAW below). She is relieved to learn that Connor’s trajectory of assimilation is only one of many ways writers resolve their identity conflicts. Two days later, she articulates in her journal how appropriating English from her heritage positioning might satisfy her search for voice:

#8: As long as I can refer to CAW chap 4, the concept of “third position” by Kramsch & Lam (1999) and the responses from ESOL students by Canagarajah (2002) exactly represents my current situation. Therefore, I’m planning to take the transposition approach at this stage. It’s difficult to be critical to analyze my own writing. [J]

The textbook defines “transposition” as an appropriation of competing discourses in the writer’s own terms to develop a hybrid voice (Canagarajah, 2002, p. 116). Kyoko is opting for a voice that merges resources from her heritage (Japanese) literacy with the dominant conventions of the American academic context. Her reference reading and journaling serve to construct a textual chain that mediates and scaffolds her reframing. These publications (i.e., Connor, Kramsch and Lam, the textbook) serve to entextualize Kyoko’s LA in her revisions. We must also appreciate Kyoko’s own invested negotiations with these readings to facilitate her writing development without being pressured by any single text to dominate her.

It gradually became apparent that the writing activity itself helped her in recontextualizing her narrative and identity. In addition to helping her reflect on her trajectory, the somewhat personal genre of LA acquainted her with the trajectories and experiences of peers from different backgrounds. The collaborative writing process also helped her develop a critical reflection and awareness that could explain the shape of the more complex later drafts. The LAs written by her peers are part of Kyoko’s ecological affordances and textual chains that entextualize her revisions. In the course review, Kyoko wrote:

#9: By reading other students’ experiences, I realized that wiring [writing] development is interconnected to the development of their personality. […] We have many things to write about personal experience and opinions. However, the difficulty in teaching academic writing is to transit from personal to critical. I think literacy autobiography is an effective tool to shift from personal writing to critical writing. The writer can start from telling her own personal story, and then she can narrow down to specific and objective perspective through revision process. [CA]

The identities and experiences of other multilingual students in the classroom encouraged Kyoko to reposition her own identity in her writing. It is possible that the narrative tropes of others in the class had given Kyoko the confidence to develop her own themes and trajectories. Furthermore, Kyoko mentions LA as a congenial genre to gradually transition to critical writing, as it allows for a range of representations. Kyoko also benefits from the protracted composing process, a mediating factor we need to take into account in the reframing of her narrative.

I will demonstrate how her final draft is recontextualized to accommodate a more directive stance, anticipated by what she refers to above as “shift” and “transit.” There are signs now that she is not in the “middle of nowhere” and “struggling” (see #2).

Trajectory 3: expressive/reflective

As Kyoko continues revising, her successive drafts show her seeking an appropriate way to merge her expressive and affective discourse into a more objective writing. One of the vignettes which went through changes and shows the entextualization of these competing discourses is the following paragraph on a writing assignment in her high school:

#10: I knew I had no creativity in writing, and I was not brave to venture to disclose my shame. Besides, I was not interested in a book report either because all the assigned books by teachers never inspired my interest …. On the final day of the summer break, the day before the submission deadline, I finally settled down to work on writing. Facing blank writing paper, I had been bewildered for a long hours by fingering with a pencil. Then, suddenly, one unforgettable moment of the summer crossed my mind …. I decided to write about my bitter-sweet feeling of saying good-bye to the old car and welcoming a new one. Once I got started to write, my deep and longer attention span assisted me to drive a pencil. Noise around me got mused, light around me got dark, and time flow stopped. I wrote, wrote and wrote as my heart tells. When I finished writing the last sentence, it was already at the break of dawn. While writing, my eyes were full of tears. It may be because I was so touched by recalling our dear old car, because I couldn’t see the goal of the writing, or because I was too exhausted by long hour writing [D3].

There is almost a mystical quality in the writing Kyoko did at night time. The romantic discourse of inspired lone writer gushing with feelings resembles similar writing in other places in her LA. Consider also the parallelism and rhythm in Noise around me got mused [muted], light around me got dark, and time flow stopped. I wrote, wrote and wrote as my heart tells. Notable also is the personification of the heart. Kyoko mentioned elsewhere how her expressive writing was rewarded in school essay competitions in Japan, with her Japanese instructors exulting over her effectiveness.

However, I didn’t interpret her writing the same way as her Japanese instructors, given my own dispositions and framing. In my teacher feedback, I cautioned Kyoko on emotions in academic writing. Perhaps I was also influenced by the scholarship on contrastive rhetoric that presented certain Asian cultures as more personal relative to the objectivity of the West:

#11. What is striking about your literacy is the high place you have given to feelings. Not only was your Japanese early writing emotional, this very narrative is emotional at places. You must theorize the high place you give for emotions in writing. Is this from your culture or is this your personal preference? …. And I cried a lot when I read some sections of your narrative. (No, I am kidding. I am trying to respond like a Japanese writing teacher!) [TF]

The parenthetical comment was an allusion to her Japanese instructors, whom Kyoko mentioned in her LA as responding to her writing with tears. It is clear that I am entextualizing her semiotic resources in a different way from her Japanese instructors and Kyoko herself. Though I am not directly criticizing her, I am trying to make her reflect on and theorize the place of emotions in her preferred discourse so that she develops a critical awareness of her writing strategies and dispositions.

In response, Kyoko was more detached in her revision process. My comments, together with her journaling that provided a means of reflection, influenced her to develop a reflexive disposition towards her own rhetorical challenges. Consider the way she critiques the previous draft and explains the changes she plans to make in the next, in a journal entry:

#12: The comments from the class gave me a clue to explore the direction of my essay. I should be more objective by referencing articles or by approaching to an event from other perspectives. Until this time, I have never written autobiography in L1 as well as in L2. Once I started to write my literacy autobiography, it made me realize that literacy and my identity cannot be apart. [N]evertheless I don’t have a writing habit. This writing experience gave me an opportunity to reflect my own history, too. I mentioned my appreciation in the class already, but let me say that again. Thanks for all for your powerful comments! [J]

Kyoko now proposes to adopt a more detached and academic tone, as befitting an academic context. She also gains more insight into her own writing dispositions and trajectories. In addition to her reflections on her “own history” of writing, she also achieves an insight into how literacy and identity are interconnected. Note that in earlier journals she mentioned the difficulty of detaching herself sufficiently from her writing –i.e., “difficult to be critical to analyze my own writing” (#8). These are signs of greater reflexivity in her positioning now.

Other ecological resources help in the development of this critical reflexivity. The facility for embedded comments in the word processing software perhaps helped her to have a conversation with herself and with her readers as she revises her LA. In her subsequent drafts we see that she includes marginal comments, with questions about possible trajectories and rhetorical choices. She is apologetic at times and clarifies the purpose of her questions in a note to her third draft: “To those who read this draft, please ignore comments I inserted. I’m questioning myself by these comments.” Kyoko adopts an internal dialogue to develop her writing. We see the development of a reflexive stance, different from the expressive, spontaneous, and subjective discourse earlier.

In later drafts in the course, Kyoko modified the discourse in her own terms, in deference to the “transposition” approach she had identified for herself. For example, she completely omitted the following sentences from the paragraph excepted above (#10): “When I finished writing the last sentence, it was already at the break of dawn. While writing, my eyes were full of tears. It may be because I was so touched by recalling our dear old car, because I couldn’t see the goal of the writing, or because I was too exhausted by long hour writing.” She lessened or adjusted the degree of her emotionality in her writing, though she didn’t omit the parallelism, personification, and rhythm of her prose. There is also evidence in her fourth draft of greater control over the language and text. In the body, she reduces or omits many parts with personal and emotional reflections and merges them with scholarly texts to build a more qualified hybridity. Consider the way she introduces some citations to back up her claim that Japanese literacy and education focus more on the “whole personality,” unlike her experience with English literacy, which happened to be form-focused:

#13: Since an elementary school classroom teacher addresses students’ whole personality, it builds an intimate teacher-student relationship. Several researches (Lewis, 1988; Easley & Easley, 1981; Lee et al., 1996; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992) state that Japanese elementary school teachers apply various approaches to encourage students cognitive and literacy skills in various subject areas [D4].

The citations show a new set of textual resources getting entextualized into Kyoko’s narrative. They are academic publications from library research. They suggest Kyoko’s recognition of the importance of using academic citations and merging them with her personal experiences in order to be more relevant and effective. The terminology relating to pedagogical processes also suggests the influence of these textual resources on her evolving corpus of verbal resources. We thus see how her research readings entextualize her transposition discourse. Kyoko journaled her negotiation strategy adopted here, thus: “In revision process of 4th draft, I tried to connect my story to researches …. This time, I decided to cut intro and other tiny stories for coherence. Academic resources might have helped me to narrow down what I am going to say” [J].

In keeping with the hybridization of transposition approach, however, Kyoko did not avoid expressive writing altogether. In the vignette cited in #10, she still preserved the poetic flow of her writing. Furthermore, her citations in #13 paradoxically refer to developing a “whole personality” and appreciating “an intimate teacher-student relationship.” Is she citing these sources to prove the importance of expressivity? It is not surprising, then, that she preserved some of her poetic and affective passages from her previous drafts in her subsequent versions. From valuing expressive prose, based on her primary socialization in Japan, her drafts evolve to merge discourses and languages in a more layered discourse. There is a resistant potential behind this hybridization, as she is positioned in her Japanese culture’s values and discourses while accommodating the preferences of her current writing context in the US.

Kyoko might have been helped in this merging of the poetic and scholarly by the supportive comments she received from her peers. Though my teacher feedback cautioned expressivity, her peers appreciated it. Cissy observed in her peer review: “In your literacy autobiography I see a very poetic writing, especially when there is an emotional memory, and that is something I wish my writing could be more like.” Such diversity of responses—i.e., that of the peers conflicting with the instructor’s—gave Kyoko more resources for entextualization. She triangulates these responses to formulate her own footing in the competing languages and literacies. The expanding ecological resources, including her own journal reflections, her self-chosen reading materials, teacher feedback, and peer review entextualize her narrative to shape a more hybridized prose that differs from the previous drafts.

The finished Product

Her final draft for submission demonstrates how the three trajectories come together in an evolved narrative and identity that are markedly different from the beginning of the course. It shows a more focused theme and a clearer trajectory, in addition to a reflexive stance and layered prose. These changes suggest a more complex discoursal awareness and rhetorical sensibility. Such writing also illustrates a different form of criticality that Kyoko was striving towards, i.e., transposition approach—one that is suitable for her socialization in Japan and modulates the American sense of individuality or directness. In the light of her learning trajectory and expansive ecological resources, I provide an interpretation reframed along the lens of transposition.

Close Encounter of the Alien

Japanese is a part of my self. Japanese (L1) literacy development has addressed to my emotional, mental, cognitive, social, and intellectual growth as a whole person. On the other hand, my second language, English, especially academic writing is detached from my self. Possibly the current ESL discourse is limited in academic discourse which mainly address to intellectual competence. [D6]

She concludes her final paragraph thus:

#15: My literacy development process started from a personal level, expression of my feelings, and then extended to more complex and intellectual language production process. Through the socializing process via language, I have acquired various registers in Japanese. Although these development processes mainly occurred within schooling systems, the L1 literacy education addressed my whole personality development so that I was able to internalize Japanese as my language. Entrance to English as a foreign language introduced me the forms of a new language, but its learning process failed to offer me contexts to internalize its language production and processing processes. Current ESL academic context has been limited to classroom and academic texts, and I have never had a feeling provoking occasion yet. That is, English was more detached and still alien to me. In the end, as a graduate student, academic writing is the final goal to master English. Perhaps, I am in the middle of the shifting process of thinking in English from personal to objective, or from emotional to logical. And I don’t know how long it will take for me to master it [D6].

Note that Kyoko has considerably sharpened her thesis with a succinct statement on her trajectory. Though she mentioned diverse other trajectories and genres in her previous drafts (see #1 and #5), such as reading preferences, journal writing, and family life, she is focusing clearly on academic writing development in this version. She also offers a clear analysis for the reasons behind her literacy conflicts. As English literacy was taught to her for academic purposes alone, unlike Japanese which was all-purpose, she argues that she doesn’t have an affective resonance with English. She highlights this in her introduction and returns to reaffirm it in the conclusion.

Despite concluding that her English proficiency needs development, Kyoko demonstrates optimism. She has come a long way from her theme in her earlier drafts and journals that she was “in the middle of nowhere” in her learning trajectory. She is more optimistic in presenting her status now as “in the middle of the shifting process.” With her growing reflexivity, her writing through the semester has considerably moved “from personal to objective” and “emotional to logical.” As we discussed in the previous sections, the drafts have increasingly become more focused, objective, and analytical. In saying that she’s “in the middle of a shifting process,” Kyoko is not referring to a unilateral trajectory from one pole to the other. What she achieves and probably intends to achieve (in the context of her positions expressed in her journals) is a creative realization that merges conflicting discourses in relation to her heritage—as in the model of transposition. We must also appreciate the metaphors that convey her desired trajectory. The romantic metaphor of organic growth (“growth as a whole person”) suggests that she has such organic connection with Japanese but not with English. It is clear, however, that she is seeking this harmony with English also. It is because of this desire that Kyoko comments on her current alienation from English. In other words, Kyoko is not affirming stereotypical dichotomies (i.e., Japanese as personal, English as formal; or L1 as self, L2 as alien). She is seeking to transcend them through further investment, helped by relevant pedagogies and meaningful writing in English. The romantic metaphors are reiterated in the concluding paragraph (note “whole personality development… internalize … feeling provoking occasion”) to index her desired relationship with English.

The title adds another layer of complexity to her stance—i.e., “Close Encounter of an Alien.” Kyoko might be borrowing this metaphor from popular culture, such as manga and horror movies. However, in this case, we don’t know who is referred to as “alien:” Is English or Kyoko referred to as “alien?” Both referents are possible in the context of her narrative. In either case, it is a frank but sarcastic acknowledgement of this uneasy linguistic encounter. In her conclusion, she demonstrates a bold humility and confident honesty in not knowing “how long it will take to master” English and academic literacy. Attaining an awareness of her desired trajectory (i.e., transposition) is different from actually achieving it. Achievement depends on various other factors, including grammatical and textual control. And yet, Kyoko also displays a capacity to laugh at herself in the title.

The discourse is also more layered in the final draft. There is a stronger affirmation of her heritage in this version: “Japanese is part of my self.” That is, she displays greater investment in Japanese and appropriates other semiotic resources from this perspective. Though Kyoko has a strong preference for personal and expressive writing from her heritage, she is able to layer it within the academic genre with appropriate objectivity and scholarly citations. The academic moves qualify the discoursal subjectivity in her essay, reducing the inappropriateness that an overly emotional investment might convey. Note the technical terms for pedagogical and acquisition processes in the quoted paragraphs. Though her final draft doesn’t refer to or discuss critical thinking, her text in fact enacts a subtle and restrained form of criticality in appropriating competing discourses in her own way. Her own course-end reflections demonstrate a self-awareness about her planned trajectory and negotiation strategies. She mentioned:

#16: I realized that knowing the rule is the first level of the game. If you want to win the game, you have to take an ownership of it. I think I was more submissive about learning (and teaching) academic writing. From this course, I learned the possibility of teaching writing to make learners be aware of negotiation. [CA]

Kyoko is charting a course for negotiating dominant language and rhetorical norms so that she can take ownership of English language and literacy for her purposes. This is a two-stage strategy—i.e., getting to know the rules of the game; then demonstrating ownership over the game through appropriating the rules. Perhaps the course—with its diverse ecological resources and activities—had served to introduce her to the rules of the game. She has progressed considerably in the second strategy of appropriation, though mastery or endpoint has not been reached, by her own admission. She was still learning how to reconfigure the rules to suit her transposition approach.

Concerns on future use of the method

In order to appreciate the usefulness of SMO, we have to ask the following questions: What would we miss if we treated the final draft as the author’s narrative, and left out its spatiotemporal construction? And what would we miss if we focused only on the social influences on the construction of the narrative and left out the material influences? These questions will help researchers appreciate the outcomes from this kind of narrative analysis.

To address the first question, we must understand the value of nonrepresentational theory (Thrift, 2007). Scholars in this orientation argue against the traditional bias of treating only representational facts, knowledge, and information as worthy of analysis, leaving out affect, processes, and sensory experiences. That is, we typically focus on the what and leave out the how. The what of the final draft is that Kyoko adopts a transposition approach to frame her narrative of appropriating English literacy according to her Japanese heritage. However the protracted activity of composing in relation to the diverse social and material influences enriches our understanding of her identity development and entextualization. We learn that Kyoko has progressed to this position from her earlier feelings of being lost and confused between conflicting literacy traditions. She developed a quiet criticality and agency in resisting the pressures from her instructor to develop her own path forward. Though all narrators negotiate diverse sociomaterial influences in constructing their stories, they do it differently. In this very course, some students were more expressive and agentive than Kyoko in drawing from their languages and cultures for more dramatic essays; while others clung closer to academic norms and genre conventions in submitting a well edited linear narrative about their mastery of English (as I report elsewhere: Canagarajah, 2020). Kyoko negotiated these influences in her own way towards a hybridity that is rooted in her heritage. Her confusion, struggles, search, and eventual resolution are also the nonrepresentational outcomes of her story. One might argue that the what of her final resolution may not be meaningful without the how that accompanied it.

As for the second question, we have to remember the critical role played by the following material resources:

  • The learning space facilitated by the course web system provided a contact zone for diverse texts, languages, and cultures to collide; and featured influences from the teacher, peers, and other sources in a somewhat non-hierarchical representation for Kyoko to choose from.
  • The temporal and physical activity of composing the narrative over multiple drafts; negotiating revisions in relation to multi-party feedback and reference readings; and providing time to think through one’s positions for revisions.
  • The chain of texts formed by the LAs of peers and other authors, reference readings, journals, and prior drafts of the author herself that go into the entextualization of Kyoko’s narrative. These texts shouldn’t be treated as disembodied words, but as embodied artifacts. For example, consider how the notion of “critical thinking” (which I introduced in my teacher commentary) migrates into multiple other texts, including peer commentary and Kyoko’s own journals and drafts. My institutional authority gives it some embodied weight unlike the other texts on the web platform.
  • The word processing program that allows Kyoko to embed comments as she redrafts, and helps develop reflexive awareness on her trajectory.

Note that these material resources don’t work in isolation but influence everything else, including the social. As I mentioned above, the web program that gives equal importance to the peer commentary as the teacher feedback perhaps influences Kyoko’s more qualified uptake of my suggestions as she crafts her own position.

Scholars who are mindful of issues such as reliability and validity in findings will ask from this analysis: Which is the true story? That is: Would Kyoko narrate a different story under different social and material influences (reliability)? And would readers/researchers interpret her narrative differently under different social and material influences (validity)? From the point of view of the narrator, we have to acknowledge that there is no storying of one’s life outside situated semiotic resources. Even to conceptualize for ourselves our own identities, we employ semiotic resources. It is possible then that we construct different stories of ourselves in different contexts, in relation to the available social and material resources. Similarly, the analysis of a narrative is shaped by the sociomaterial conditions of our situated reading. With a slight detachment and shift to a higher scale of generalization, readers could discern certain shared themes, life trajectories, and discoursal styles in the diverse renditions of the same narrator. More important is the ability of narrators and analysts to dynamically negotiate the story with the cycles of framing, recontextualization, and entextualization that each act of narrating entails. As I have suggested above, I changed my own framing from treating Kyoko’s text as that of a diffident narrator with poor language competence to that of a critical thinker striving for a transposition approach rooted in her heritage. Similarly, Kyoko is reframing her narrative in relation to the affordances of her peers, instructor, and other scholars to develop a bolder identity and trajectory for herself.

The different renditions and readings of narratives are not false. They are just that—different. Our focus in the narrative, as well as life, should be less on truth value in absolute terms; it should rather be on openness to representing and interpreting narratives in light of the different socio-material conditions that impinge on our lives. Though the analytical approach of SMO might appear too broad, fluid, and open-ended to some readers, it at least has the advantage of countering “the danger of the single story” (Adichie & Ngozi, 2009). And, as this analysis demonstrates, there are many stories behind a story!