Wednesday, December 07, 2005

quotes I like

This post is late because I spent the better part of the day trapped in a coffee shop (ride-share hostage) with no computer, listening to some terrible drum and base crap, and then trapped on an icy bridge on south mopac. So, I am home safe, but utterly bereft of analytical or creative energy at the moment. and my toes are cold. So, I thought I would just share some of my favorite quotes:

About distributed cognition and composition studies:
What questions does Hutchins' framework of distributed cognition suggest for those of us interested in composition research? For example, "which individual on the team is really doing the 'writing?' Which individual 'knows' the ship's position best? Whose knowledge is being represented in the writing?" (8) These questions are especially pertinent for collaborative writing that happens in industrial settings, especially when the main "writer" is responsible for bringing together technical content from different subject matter experts. How are the compentencies shared? Who has more "expertise" in how technical or specialized content should be relayed?

About motivation in collaborative authorship:
"...writers who collaborate (such as scholars, researchers, professionals, or irate citizens) usually have a shared purpose and a strong motivation to work together to accomplish the composition of a well-defined text for a clearly understood audience" (122). What's really interesting about this, is even though the students in her case study seem to lack these things, they invent their "cause" and it becomes equally important, for example, elsewhere she describes the students' resistance to challenges to their group project (see 115). What a great microcosm (as she notes) of a thought collective defining itself! Rick was just not going to let that noisy dorm topic go. I am wondering if writers would cling to their projects if they were not part of a group. Also, I am picturing this phenomenon translated into an workplace setting, but changing the players from a sympathetic teacher and independently-minded student, to a busy engineer and a novice technical writer. Which leads me to the next point.

About case studies:
Peg concludes on page 187: "I believe that case studies present our most promising avenue for ecological research on composing." She further asserts that "case studies do not typify larger populations but contribute to the development of a theory." I love this idea of composition studies rebuilding its theory from the ground up. Where do I sign up.

okay, heater on. sweatpants. thinking about a hot brandy. things are looking up.

Still reading...

Well, I wish I were prepared to write as eloquently as the rest of you this week, but I'm not finished with the text yet. Overall, I appreciate the inclusion of case studies and the way Syverson weaves together the variety of topics we've covered and texts we've read. It's a nice way to wrap up the semester and will serve as a resource for me if I use some of the texts in my own literature review.

On another note, they just closed the university due to inclement's -5 F in my home town and kids are about to go home for the day...I like Texas' policies on school closures better!!

Annie, Don't Get Your Gun

Sorry about the title. I really couldn't help myself, really. I want to respond to Annie's post this week because I think it directly relates to the reading, and I'm afraid the post might get overlooked in the comments section. I think Annie's discomfort with the drive in our class for "rights" and "wrongs" is similar to the tension felt by participants in the XCHL(?) (the online forum) in Syverson's book. In any complex system, there seems to be that existing pull between chaos and order. Annie's comments about the validity of multiple views in the reading of a text pushed towards chaos, possibility, openness. The counter comments sought for clarity, order, and structure. It seems that our class is a perfect example of a complex system.

That said, a level of tension was still created and needs to be reviewed. How does a complex system deal with the tension between chaos and order? Syverson's example of the student work group is helpful in this discussion. In a cognitivist perspective, one could blame the students for a lack a ability, effort, or any other individual characteristic. Likewise, we could blame the class for being closed-minded and inflexible in thought and say that most of the students are just naturally pulled towards self-ordering and not openness. However, our class is just as much distributed, embodied, emerging, and enacted as the student group. I agree with Annie that there has been an emphasis most of the semester on order over chaos. What factors contributed to that?

Let's look at the structure of the course. First, Dr. Syverson purposely left classtime fairly unstructured and sincerely hoped we students would help self-order our interactions. Since this is less structure than we usually get in other classes, it seems likely we'd feel higher levels of ambiguity and want to nail stuff down instead of creating more ambiguity. The class was also structured in a survey format, with new ideas and concepts each week, which also lends to, as Jim would say, "CHAY-os." With lots of ideas in a little amount of time, synthesis becomes an important cognitive task, and synthesis is a form of ordering. If we'd spent more time on each concept, it's possible that a threshhold of tolerance for ambiguity would have been reached and the class would have had more exploratory discussions. Since Annie has a strong exposure to complexity theory, her level of tolerance would be high, especially when compared to other students like me who were still trying to figure out what Arthur's wife was doing, much less how chaos organized itself into patterns. Also, the very nature of the concepts presented in the class were amiguous and challenged our own conceptions of the mind and self, creating more ambiguity. With all of these layers, it seems natural for a class to tend towards order. And this doesn't include the overarching American culture strongly tied into value judgments and order.

Also, let me mention an embodied limitation. As graduate students with busy loads and lives, the time we spent outside of class ordering our thoughts so we could explore more in class was limited. If I'd spent more time outside of class researching to understand concepts, I would have been able to exploit that learning in class.

Using our class as an example, complexity theory does a good job of describing our system. The big question remains, though: what changes can be made to the system in order to influence a greater level of tolerance for ambiguity in the future?

musings on a central brain...

It is difficult for me to talk about a central brain at this stage of the semester because I seem to have no brain at all (or maybe I have reached a higher state of emptiness? Er, I doubt it somehow...)

Anyway, I'd like to congratulate myself for learning enough this semester to understand what our esteemed professor was writing about; I'd like to congratulate our esteemed professor for writing so clearly on a topic that poses some central questions that I have to negotiate for probably the rest of my professional life. Now that I am finishing my paper, I'd like to pick up on one of the "challenges to an ecological theory of composing" (200):

"If complex systems are not controlled by a central "brain" or processor, how do some agents - particular readers, writers or texts, for instance - come to have a greater influence on such systems and why?" (200)

Now here's a thorny question. My own paper (were there time to rewrite it) would focus on this very topic. My particular area is historical in nature, so the recovery of an ecological environment is almost impossible (before tomorrow at 5pm, at any rate). Shore would argue that we focus on culture and the symbolic realm because of the legacy of Victorian ideas of evolution. I would amend this argument to say this: cultural historians focus on the level of symbol because that's all they have, in many cases. To develop an ecological network can ever only be incomplete when it comes to historical texts. Yet, if a cultural historian is to be honest, he or she must look for some "central brain" that pushes through the culture, particularly in charged atmospheres (colonial Ireland being my particular hotbed of intrigue). If you introduce power structures into the equation, it is REALLY difficult for me to say that a particular cultural form is ecological in nature when a central brain like the English colonial system is coming down on the historical situation like a ton of bricks.

Of course, in my paper I have said that my topic is ecological in nature. And I believe it. But to argue that I have literally had to leave 700 years of colonial history out of my 15 pages. If I got into that quagmire, you probably wouldn't see me for the next decade, and I would probably be waving to you from the bottom of a whisky bottle.

I suppose that I see a chasm between the theory and putting it into practice when there is an absolutely overwhelming psychic trauma going on in a culture and there is very little chance of creating a genuine ecological situation because the information is simply not available. Even if you look at something ecologically in such a charged atmosphere, then the charged atmosphere will inevitably win, and somehow the symbolic argument and the ecological will end up looking the same, ie colonialism was bad, bad, bad, and you can see that everywhere in the culture.

I know that this totally simplistic. But as I said, I have no brain at this stage of the semester. Now, where IS that whisky bottle...?

The path set down in walking: a valediction

I am aware that I risk writing a sappy yearbook entry (BFF, MTT!), but I couldn’t resist the opportunity Dr. Syverson’s book provided to reflect on the course. It was a really strange sensation to be along for the ride (or walk) through THE WEALTH OF REALITY (who would have thought back in September that the grounds of the first chapter would have felt like such familiar terrain?). I had expected at the start of the course to obtain some discrete body of information that would serve as a foundation for my studies; what surprised me throughout was how much the readings spilled into my thoughts about being a graduate student, about teaching, etc. In particular, the Reznikoff chapter had an unexpected personal resonance: first, I have a special fondness for/interest in the Lower East Side, with its rich immigrant history (including that of my Sicilian grandparents). Second, I loved the image of Reznikoff walking through the streets and enacting a sense of (poetic) self and a city in the process; it really captured that sense of *movement, of the city revealing itself to you in a different way every time you walk through its neighborhoods. This example helped to bring home for me how much one’s environment and interaction with it can shape a self (and to understand why being a pedestrian in Austin doesn't have quite the same effect.)

Also: I wanted to ask about the issue of intellectual property and authorship, which Dr. Syverson raises in the final chapter, especially as it applies to this more traditional example of a poet’s published works. Certainly, the archival work provide a rich context for his poetry, and the ecological method is a way of synthesizing a variety of different critical approaches (and showing their necessary interrelatedness). I understand that the unit of analysis here extends beyond Reznikoff’s skin and the texts themselves, to a variety of other texts, family members, environments, readers, etc. but what do we do with Reznikoff? In what sense is authorship at issue here? Can we still claim a place for Reznikoff’s creativity? Perhaps, for all my de-stabilization of the boundaries between self and world in the cognitive process, I am having some trouble dropping the idea of the individual author (if that’s what I’m even being asked to do), which is preventing me from journeying all the way.

An ecology of making a mess?

In line with what has already been posted, I also enjoyed this week’s reading! I now feel more certain that I have grasped the concepts from our previous readings. And I now see how these concepts can be applied to a variety of human interactions. Chapter three captured me, probably because it elicited memories of devastating collaborative writing projects that I have been engaged in myself. I know what it feels like to be sitting in front of a computer with two other persons and arguing about the wording of a particular sentence – at four o’clock in the morning. And finally, the reading directed my thoughts back to the co-op were I currently live at. Could there be an ecology of making a mess? If so I will one day write a book about it (as part of my recovery process from the traumatic experience of living there). But since that project is far into the future and I cannot think of anything else to write about the co-op has to serve as my topic for today.

The co-op certainly is a complex system. With more than a hundred students – “independent agents” – who act and interact in a multitude of ways the course of events is never quite predictable. If we include each student’s family, classrooms and friends, thus a number of other complex systems, the co-op can be described as an ecology – “a set of interrelated and interdependend complex systems”. In this ecology, the mess in the kitchen is a special phenomenon. Making a mess is a distributed process. No single individual could be responsible for the piles of dirty plates and the heaps of trash on Sunday mornings. Therefore the process is divided among the members of the co-op. However, the process is also shared because at times there are certainly two persons in the kitchen. One might see the other stack a dirty plate on top of a pile and this might influence the actions of the witness. As I have described in my post a couple of weeks ago, the mess is an emergent property of the complex system consisting of more than a hundred co-opers. There is no central figure at the co-op. The mess emerges as the result of countless local interactions between co-opers, kitchen utensils and food. The mess is also a physical experience and thus embodiment is another characteristic of this process. Fourth and last, each of the co-opers experiences the emerging mess at more than one time between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, and most students probably contribute to it more than once. When I enter the kitchen on a typical Saturday night I am aware of what is happening and based on my prior experiences of the weekly mess I form interpretations of the behaviors of the fellow co-opers I meet in the kitchen. This process of repeated experience and interpretation is not restricted to me. Although I have no proof of this I am sure that other students are aware of the process and interpret it themselves. Therefore the process of making a mess is characterized by enaction.

Building on this very cursory analysis of the processes going on at the co-op, I have one question to ask. Everything we have read about complex systems before gave me the impression that complex systems are only named such if they function well. But what about a system like the co-op? I see no other way but to describe it as a complex system (at the edge of chaos) but the mess is not a positive outcome. Could I still describe it as a complex system? I see so many ways of applying our past few readings to social processes and group functioning. In a more serious way than above, could there be an ecology of making a mess?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


I, too, enjoyed the way Dr. Syverson’s book tied together the works we have been reading It gives the course a pleasant sense of completion. What I found most helpful about the book was the way in which it modeled a method of applying the material we’ve been reading to a different field. I found the “ecological matrix” on page 23 especially useful, for I think it provides a good way of organizing other writing in English using this material.

I don’t know about other fields, but I think that for any kind of study of writers, be it in composition studies, literature/cultural studies, or rhetoric, I think the complex systems model provides a good theoretical tool for examining what (I believe) has long been a folk understanding of writers and writing that lacked any sort of theoretical credibility. Very few people would admit that in all cases writing was a simple matter of someone sitting down and tossing off perfect prose or balanced and lyrical verse. The inability of theorists to understand why writing was so hard, why it was difficult to teach, why it seemed like so few people were good at it, gave rise to theories that turned writers into solitary geniuses, who were somehow more capable, more intelligent, or more blessed than the rest of us. The known complexity of writing situations (and the complex results we get when we attempt to write) has privileged these interpretations because there was no other theory that could explain why some writers were successful and others were not.

Rhetorical studies are a good example of this phenomena. Since its inception, the primary function of rhetoric has been training speakers (now writers) how to create effective texts. To this end many manuals in rhetoric providing copious examples of “good” writing have been given to students in order to scaffold their understanding of composition. But, still some writers were much “better” than others, and Aristotle’s lists of topoi or psychological analysis of audiences could not explain why different writers could follow the same rules and produce texts that were successful and unsuccessful.

In these situations, failure was seen to be faulty application of the rules, a deficiency of the speaker, or a lack of skill on his or her part that led to imperfection. Rarely was the question of why a “good” text produced poor results asked. Complexity theory, as in Dr. Syverson’s matrix, provides a method to explain the success and failure of “good” or “correct” writing through its focus on emergence and embodiment, as well as the social and physical settings of the writing situation.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ecology of Composition

The Syverson book was a nice way to end this course. I felt it really tied in for me many of the books and concepts we had discussed during the semester from thought collectives to complex systems. I thought the most interesting aspect of this book was how well it tied in the process of applying the ecological system to composition research and pedagogy. The three case studies in the book were very diverse but effective for me in understanding the four attributes (distribution, embodiment, emergence, enaction) behind the ecological system of writers, readers and texts.

The example of Reznikoff’s poetry helped me understand how much the text cannot be separated from the environment, the writer or the audience because of how much his poetry was influenced by the people he interacted with, his family members, the notes that helped craft his poetry, and the environment in which he and his family lived in. It made me start to think of my own writing experiences over the years and how much they were embedded within so many other factors. It really changed my mind how on how composition forms and the writing process.

Another part of this book I enjoyed was the focus on learning. One aspect that I found hopeful and inspiring was on page 125 when Syverson states how much the learning environment needs more flexibility for students, “…our composing environments should be engineered so that it is safe for students to attempt different approaches – even to “crash and burn” and “crash and burn” again until they are competent, confident pilots of their own texts.” In my previous experiences as a child in the classroom, there was a lot of pressure in the classroom to get writing “right” from the first draft and this produced a lot of anxiety, stress and lack of creativity for me at times. I agree with Syverson that if there were more opportunities for the classroom environment to be engineered for more flexibility and constructed to encourage a climate of challenge, the classroom could be a much better place for the student.

Syverson states on page 198, “Classrooms are ecological systems of students, teachers, resources, and physical environments in continuous interaction.” I think this aspect is often ignored and the classroom is viewed more as a system that is controlled by or monitored by the teacher while the rest of the environment and the students follow the teacher’s lead. But Syverson’s approach in this book emphasizes how much these aspects are treated as one and how they emerge together versus separate at different points in time.

The overall book made me wonder about the concept of writers, readers and texts from a journalism perspective and taking it into ecological realm. Particularly in the aspect of how citizens and readers were involved in the news reporting process through the most recent catastrophic events of Hurricane Katrina and the London Bombings in which citizens were giving reports of what they witnessed through cell phone images, blog posts and raw reports on news sites. As these two stories developed, the combination of the journalist, the reader and the audience helped to tell the story more effectively than if it was just the journalist getting the information and the reader taking the information in. It has made me think how much the pedagogy practices in journalism schools could consider this ecological perspective for the classroom for some of the basic reporting and editing classes.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The importance of being right

I was very disappointed by the tone of our discussion last Thursday. It seemed to me that a lot of energy was expended in proclaiming right and wrong, which is not something that interests me and is the opposite of why I registered for our class. What value is there in critiquing other people's experiences?

As a former professional cellist, I would be the first to assert that some amateurs and even novices may receive deeper enjoyment or fulfillment from listening to a symphony concert than some professionals. But, who cares? Why is it important or valuable to decide whose reading of a text or whose listening of a piece of music is "right"? If we want to defend standardized tests, then this is a good line of argument, but otherwise, it seems to shut down exploration.

In my work with organizations, I've found (as have many more famous organizational development theorists) that proclaimations of Good and Bad, Best and Worst create constriction and prevent the organization from moving beyond its perceived limitations. As a teacher and a consultant, my goal is to inspire more exploration and reflection in people so they will discover truths/options/perspectives that work for them; as a student, my desire is to express my opinions without having to defend that I am "Right" or prove that someone else is "Wrong."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Beyond the capacity of human minds?

What an entertaining book! I very much enjoyed reading Complexity although at times I felt too much drawn into the personal life stories of the “great wise men of Santa Fe” – especially when it came to who dated whose daughter and whose parents participated in sit-ins. I eventually had to stop reading sitting at Houston airport laughing away at p.206 (“Langton hooked up with another group of psychologists who were studying social interactions among short tailed macaque monkeys […]. The problem, unfortunately, was that the humans on the primate center staff were entirely too similar to their subjects.”) because a woman who I had talked to on my previous flight gave me a very questioning look and I did not want to feed the stereotype of the crazy psychologist any more.

I was very much fascinated by how Waldrop introduces the reader to complexity theory and emergent properties by presenting how the field itself emerged as a result of the interactions between real world problems and a number of scientists and researchers. Also, the history of this emerging science directed my thinking back to Fleck. The origin of scientific knowledge is not the individual mind. Great ideas are not born in an isolated laboratory in a moment of utmost inspiration. Instead a change in scientific paradigms, a new line of research or a synthesis of several fields are slow processes initiated and sustained through the interactions between individuals. These individuals form – in Fleck’s terms – a thought collective. For the case of Santa Fee Institute, Waldrop shows that the individuals that were brought together in this endeavour had been working on or thinking about complex systems in one way or the other in various fields and over various time spans. Some of them had communicated their ideas but, as in the case of Brian Arthur, some of them had not been aware of the fact that so many others were playing with similar ideas. In line with Fleck, Complexity also shows that within the thought collective a certain thought style has to prevail to make the development of a new theory possible at all. Santa Fee institute created such a thought style by bringing together scientists and researchers who shared, at some level, certain basic ideas. This combination made it possible to look at real world problems in a new way.

Waldrop’s history of complexity theory also ties in with the approaches of Lave and colleagues. Persons, and their interactions with one another and the world constitute knowledge. Maybe this is why Waldrop so extensively portrays the vitae of the persons involved and their interactions with one another. In doing so, he situates the processes at Santa Fee institute and beyond in a larger context showing that science does not happen in a vacuum but is instead a truly situated activity.

As much as I was fascinated by the idea of complexity, a question remained for me. I remember a conversation I had maybe a year ago with a very good friend of mine. We argued in a good natured sort of way about the predictability of certain phenomena, such as the exact outcome of rolling a dice or the behavior of an object in a “chaos bowl”. While at that time both of us had not the slightest knowledge about complexity theory, I was arguing that some systems are not predictable with whatever means. Whereas he on other side was arguing that every system whatsoever could be predictable, and if only we had all the knowledge possible about this system and the computational power we could predict its behavior from moment to moment. This is where my question comes in. Does Waldrop, i.e. the researchers he refers to in his book argue that complex systems are not predictable at all because they are in a constant state of change and readaptation? Or is this just a surrender to the fact that as human beings even with the most enormous computational capacities imaginable we could not come to the insight necessary to make such systems predictable? Let us assume the following thought experiment. If we could hook up two chess players to some sort of machine that would allow us to “read their minds” and we could feed this information into a computer with the appropriate capacities could we predict the course of that game of chess? Just a thought experiment, as I said, but does anyone have an idea? Or is this question like the one about what lies beyond the edge of the universe?

One last question, does anybody know which role Waldrop himself played in the history of Santa Fee Institute? I have not read the whole book, so forgive me if this question is answered in a later part of the book. But I am really curious what allowed Waldrop such insights and from which point of view he approached the story.


The Santa Fe Instituted is interested in more than just Economics and Physics.

The Backstory: Last night, since I was slightly ahead on my coursework, I decided to spend some time relaxing with a little pleasure reading. In actuality, I was under a little pressure to do some pleasure reading, because the book I had intended to read leisurely over the break, Cormac McCarthy's new novel No Country for Old Men, had been recalled by some kind soul, and I had to have it read by next Tuesday. A cynical person might wonder how the library and this person (no doubt someone who has a serious paper due on 20th Century Southern Authors in the New Millennium) had conspired to turn my pleasure reading into an assignment with a due date, but I am not cynical, so I dutifully grabbed the book on the way to bed, determined to knock off a few chapters before sleep.

This particular assignment wasn’t that horrible, really, because I like McCarthy, and I have been wanting to check out his new book for a while. Even though I’m not studying literature, it seemed wise to get away from the Waldrop’s of this world and indulge a few whims and personal interests every now and then.

And lo and behold, what should I see on the dedication page but this:

“The author would like to express his appreciation to the Santa Fe Institute for his long association and his four-year residence.”

They’re everywhere.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

asimov anyone?

Has anybody read Isaac Asimov's Foundation series? The fact the I have means either: (1) I am a total geek, or (2) I am a highly sophisticated feminist who enjoys reading "boy's" science fiction and giggling a lot. must be both. ha ha.

Anyhoo, this book reads just like the first Foundation. Here's the summary from Amazon:

For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future--to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire--both scientists and scholars--and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

[Using a new theory called psychohistory], Seldon can scientifically predict the future, and it doesn't look pretty: a new Dark Age is scheduled to send humanity into barbarism in 500 years. He concocts a scheme to save the knowledge of the race in an Encyclopedia Galactica.

You can't really tell from this description, but psychohistory is this new form of super-math that allows a handful of elite (and there's generally only one or two each generation) to be able to understand its logic and harness the "power." Basically, you can create algorythms for certain givens you know about patterns of human behavior, cultural schemas, technological development...etc. (published in 1951). You can poke fun at it in this blog, but I'd caution you not to do so in a sci-fi blog. People are fanatical about this book and will tear you to electronic pieces. Waldrop certainly draws on this standard narrative to give shape to the development of Complexity theory at the Sante Fe institute.

Although I was certainly giggling in places, I enjoyed it. Even though it obviously glamorizes yet another Great Man history, it was a nice break during a busy week. Sorta a case study of interdisciplinary collaboration--including issues of personality and ego.


This book was an interesting read--a kind of case study of the complexity that formed the complexity theory. That I enjoyed. My question is, where does this all fit?

With the heavy emphasis on computation, it would seem that the participants in the Sante Fe institute built upon cognitivism in approaching cognition. However, their work was in reaction against reductionism, and the heavy emphasis on symbolic representations and cultural universals (Shore) found in cognitivism would be contraditory to their approach. The emphasis on complexity--that systems self-organize--could be seen as enactive (Varela), but there isn't a lot of discussion placed on the dual emergence of environment, plus all of this happened in the 1980s before enactive approaches really took off. Does that mean we lump the approach into connectionism?

This class is an example to me of self-organizing systems. We have been bombarded with a ton of new ideas and concepts, and together, through the use of the blog and class discussions, we have created order and meaning to the mess. In fact, the past readings have been so tightly ordered in my mind that I have assumed they logically led in succession and no other order would make sense. That's partly why I don't know where to stick complexity.

Last thought. Wouldn't it be cool to be so smart that someone would invite you to a Sante Fe Institute to sit around and shoot the breeze?