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.


Blogger Eileen McGinnis said...


You are such a proselytizer for the ecological matrix [JMJ also advised me to restructure my final paper in these terms]!

I also thought the pedagogical and theoretical implications for composition studies were inspiring, though I wondered about another aspect of these readings in cognitive science and complexity: the opportunity for teaching foundational undergraduate courses that cross the arts-sciences divide. I am thinking in particular of the Paulson book on the recommended reading list (which I have yet to read versus skim): “Biological science is becoming increasingly a science of information, a cybernetics of the living, a science of the codes, the order and disorder that interact to define autonomous living systems. The last concepts thought to be the special province of humanists are, in their turn, becoming a pat of the discourse of science, even as the humanists squabble over them in a debate uninformed by science and dominated by positions of traditionalism and nihilism” (28). Paulson is referring mainly to possibilities for intellectual collaborations among academics (I think) but if cognitive science is such a rich intersection point for the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities (as evidenced by this very graduate course!), I wonder if some version of it would provide a successful core interdisciplinary course at the undergraduate level.

Also: I wonder if an awareness of these ecologies in which we are situated should not only be considered in case studies of composing situations, but also be taught to undergraduates in writing courses, a process of self-awareness that would be included in the curriculum? (Or maybe this was already suggested in the book?)

12:02 PM  

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