“Boundary Work”: Building Bridges, Not Trapdoors

This week’s readings forced us to confront this question from Doreen Starke-Meyerring (2005):  What does it mean to be literate in a globalizing world?  Surely, this is a significant question, and one that requires our attention.  Starke-Meyerring (2005, p.493-494) proposes the following three strategies to engage with the literacy demands of global communication:

  • investing in curricula rooted in a global worldview
  • engaging in “boundary work” that encourages inquiry, reflection, analysis, and negotiation
  • developing more diverse and open learning environments

These present huge, complicated expectations for us in our work as teachers of writing.  For some, the response to these demands is clear.  For others, the answer continues to be shaped gradually.

Boundary Work

For this final blog, I’d like to begin from the place I started out seven weeks ago—the Writing Center—and how “boundary work” takes place here.  It is the work that happens between student and coach.  “Boundary work” is fueled by “interactivity and integration” as its participants  “reflect on, articulate, share, and negotiate their own literacy practices as well as collaborate with others…to build jointly negotiated transcontextual work spaces and literacy practices” (Starke-Meyerring, 2005, p.493).   Student and coach engage in the effort of thinking through, discussing, negotiating, and ultimately, closes with the student making choices, deciding how to proceed with the piece.

Writing Center Sessions:  At the boundary of instructor and coach

As I collaborate with writers, I sense that the quality of my interaction depends on how I manage the space between my being instructor versus coach.  As a coach, I am expected to be less directive, more open-ended in approach than I would be in class.  Stepping into a session urges me to reflect:  Are my responses appropriately less directive?  Do I invite the student to reflect on why choices were made in the piece?  How can I encourage the writer to consider ways to clarify still murky ideas within the piece?

At the same time, as I sit at the Writing Center, I carry with me instances and memories of classroom interaction.  I see similar patterns of inquiry between the writers in my class and the writers I meet with at the session table.  I glean gaps of understanding and can be tempted to anticipate patterns of errors in mechanics, sequence, or elaboration.  Yet, I know that if I do act from this capacity—at least knowingly—I am not coaching.  I am directing, and that is not what a writing coach does, at least in most cases.

Collaborating on the idea-level means to engage in more exploratory, dialogic thinking.  Sitting at the session table means to be a reader to a writer and for a writer’s work.  In most cases, it reminds me that the writer I meet with, while negotiating between stylistic choices and assignment expectations, still owns the work.  And as such, I need to remind myself of the boundaries between coach and instructor as I begin my sessions.

Writing Center Sessions:  At a writer’s in-between place

The Writing Center is a place where differences are acknowledged and honored and where conversations explore, not judge.  This creates space to ask questions, dissect ideas, and consider meanings.  Students come here between classes, between papers, between drafts, and they write and engage on the edges of understanding, identities, and language.

Students might come at a point between an early draft and a working draft, ready to discuss whether ideas from one draft translated clearly to the next—whether thesis is clear and supported adequately.  Or they might come in wanting to clarify expectations as they tell about their understanding of an assignment versus what is found on the printed copy.  Non-native English speaking writers come in with drafts written on their own—products of exploration into written English—wanting to find out whether their sentences make sense to someone else.  These concerns lie on one space, and with collaboration and conversation, might transition to another, acquiring new meaning in the process.

And sometimes, writers come in having to reconcile who they are and what they stand for versus what their writing demands from them.  I tell again of a student I see weekly who struggled with providing refutation in his argumentative writing.  I assumed that his lack of familiarity with argumentative writing was causing the difficulty, so we set out to clarify the concept of refutation and generate examples of such in relation to his claim.  Further into the conversation, however, he assured me that while he now better understood what refutation stood for, he will continue to struggle with it because it just was not “him”.  Pointing to the list of objections and questions we listed, he admitted that he would never think of those objections—those were not his thoughts.  He would never think that, so it didn’t seem “right” that they should appear in his work.

I thanked this student for his insight, and most importantly, for his trust.  We proceeded to discuss refutation and its role in argumentative writing—ideas we had already gone over several times before—but at this point, because of what had been said, we proceeded with some clarity.  This student’s reluctance to engage in idea generation was not because of ignorance or a lack of comprehension.  He understood what it meant to refute but was not sure he wanted to or perhaps, needed to. The demands of this argument piece was wrenching him from familiar ways of understanding himself—as one who did not oppose so openly and directly—to be someone who must oppose an idea held dear.  Writing this paper for Comp 1 (Eng 121) brought him to this in-between-ness:  how he knew himself versus that which he was forced to be, boundaries clashing.

Now what?

Where does all this talk leave me?  The reality of global communication challenges me in many ways, most of which I probably have not even considered well enough.  But this is a start.  It will help me grow as a writing coach to figure out ways I can move towards literacy in a globalized environment, and to work with the writers who come in to do the same.  How do I, as coach, invite myself and others to “take pride in our human identity above all other identities…not by offending others, not by claiming supremacy” as written by Muhammad Yunus (1999) but by engaging in that valuable “boundary work”—the reflection and analysis of one’s literacy practices? (Starke-Meyerring, 2005, p.493).

My work at the writing center constantly informs and challenges my work as instructor, so the question echoes in my classroom as well.  I am urged to find ways to proceed with this “boundary work” in order to prepare student writers to respond effectively to the demands of this globalized world they live in.  How do I enable the same reflection, analysis, and negotiation in my instruction?  What language boundaries must be blurred or maintained in order to develop students’ communication practices effectively?  What “standard” of English enables students to participate in a globalized world?

Catherine Wallace, in “Local Literacies and Global Literacy” poses a significant insight,

“…our best response to the global future of English is not a resistance to the language that provides us with a living, nor even an apologetic defence, but a rethinking of what kind of English best serves the needs of its users for the twenty-first century” (2002, p. 101 ). 

 She exhorts us as teachers of English to examine ways we frame our instruction, ways we engage with our learners and writers.  As she offers that valuable insight at the opening of her chapter, she closes with an even clearer challenge,

 “…our resistance as language teachers need not be to the teaching of the language itself so much as to the grosser kind of cultural and linguistic imperialism which continues to characterize some…practices.  The reductive thrust of this…fails to make available to learners an English which can serve the…function of critique” (2002, p.108-109).

Standing at the edge of some understanding for now

Working at the boundaries of literacy and communication necessitates critical thought.  As an instructor of writing, especially in a community college tasked to ensure learning opportunities for its students, this is of profound importance.  What we discuss in class should not be merely a preparation for a job to be complied with, or a role to be filled.  Literacy’s goal is not only to provide one with a means to earn, but alongside that, its greater goal lies in empowering learners to reflect, analyze, and critique situations they find themselves in so as to make better choices for themselves.  Because, ultimately, it is in making these more informed choices that better, healthier, more meaningful lives are possible.  And that, indeed, is a worthy goal.


Starke-Meyerring, D. (2005). “Meeting the challenges of globalization:  A framework for global literacies in professional communication programs”.  Journal of Business and Technical Communication 19: 468-499.

Wallace, C. (2002).  Local literacies and global literacy. In D. Block & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and language teaching (pp. 101-114).  New York,  NY:  Routledge.

Yunus, M. (1999). Banker to the Poor:  Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty.

7 thoughts on ““Boundary Work”: Building Bridges, Not Trapdoors”

  1. Tessa,
    As a teacher I deal with the same issue that you did who claimed that was just not “him”. That’s an issue I feel with education. While I feel that we it’s important for them to learn certain writing techniques, I think we sometimes try to fit square pegs into round holes.
    Great job!



  2. Hi Tessa,

    Your description of the teacher/coach dichotomy is very intriguing, especially for English teachers. Writing is beautiful in the fact that it can be formulaic and stylish and it is difficult to both teach and mentor style. I think it would be difficult to separate the teacher from the coach, especially for the students that are experiencing a great deal of difficulty. Students become agitated when they can finish a product as simple as an algebra equation, and when teachers are guiding, many students feel even more frustrated. At least, that is what my students feel towards me at times. They are constantly looking for the “right answer”.

    My favorite part of your writing is your reflective statements. In your last paragraph, “Literacy’s goal is not only to provide one with a means to earn, but along side that, its greater goal lies in empowering learners to reflect, analyze, and critique situations they find themselves in so as to make better choices for themselves.” That is a beautifully worded truth about education, and one that perfectly aligns with literacy, but also with many of education’s hidden curriculum. Thank you for your thoughts, they are very thought provoking!


  3. Hi Tessa,

    Your writing was a very thorough and lengthy explanation of boundary work, yet I still haven’t found a concise definition. The boundaries are the challenges or difficulties preventing communication? How could we definite it in a few lines, curious.

    At first I thought it might mean setting boundaries. One aspect that is a challenge for teaching media literacy that I have noticed come up in research, is the factor that the student is likely to be distracted by other media, so I thought a boundary could be like a temporary blinder that allows the student to focus on their intention.

    Or, as an EFL instructor, I can relate well to what you mentioned regarding checking papers for students who speak English as a second language. I can imagine the boundary they face, when they can’t measure the impact of their message directly, and thus face a boundary, so need an expert pair of eyes to provide insight.

    I found your piece very stimulating and I wish to explore more as a result of your explanation. Thanks for sharing.



  4. hi there–

    The whole post was compelling and written in such a clear way. However, I have a few questions/comments:

    1. I think that I know where you stand on what it means to be literate in a globalized world. Yet, the bit about the writing student and boundary work confused me. How does this individual example fit in or diverge from the notion of literacy in a globalized world? It seems to me that this student was at odds with himself,which proves that most of still think in terms of local and/or national terms. Maybe that was your point?

    2. How can we communicate in a globalized world if there is not a global culture? There is def. a global marketplace….Does this mean that all students like the one you mentioned will be constantly at odds in various hegemonic discourse practices? Or perhaps all students, native speakers and non-native speakers of English will be at odds?

    Thanks for the well-thought out post. Raised many questions for me, which is always good!



  5. Tessa, your post ends on such an awesome note: “Literacy’s goal is not only to provide one with a means to earn, but alongside that, its greater goal lies in empowering learners to reflect, analyze, and critique situations they find themselves in so as to make better choices for themselves.” I think you probably meant learn instead of earn, but I really like earn. It reminds me of Paterson’s article on the New Capitalism…literacy will help students earn money, but it will also help them find jobs in which they reflect, analyze and critique situations to make the world (or their communities) a better place!


  6. Tessa,
    Lovely style to your writing. I found your earlier blog posts related to the rhetorical situation of the writing center particularly interesting, since it is an idea I also find helpful as a framework to think about teaching. In your final paragraph of this post you state that “Working at the boundaries of literacy and communication necessitates critical thought” which evokes an awareness of the need to negotiate and navigate the boundaries between coach and instructor. I too have been in that position, being a classroom instructor and having been a tutor in the writing center at the college where I teach. There is indeed a boundary between the function of a writing coach and a writing teacher, and it is challenging to move back and forth in the space between them. However, your writing gives a sense of rooted-ness in the knowledge that you have about being in this space between boundaries. I like the intertextuality of the blog, the attributions to other authors, and the bold lettering between the section headings, which visually communicates the idea of boundaries. Very subtle.



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