The Faces of Janus: Rothenberg, Divergent Thinking and the Productivity of Gray Areas

I’d like to begin this post by posing a question to my readers, especially those involved in the ever-complicated undertaking that is the teaching of the craft of writing: how can we press our writing communities, whether they be inside of the college classroom or outside of it, to travel intellectually beyond current thinking into realms and regions entirely foreign to them, realms perhaps even new to public discourse as a whole?

Many composition scholars point to diverse and multifarious reading lists as a beginning answer to this question, and they’re absolutely correct to do so. Posing students with unfamiliar ideas found in materials they’re unaccustomed to has certainly proven its worth time and time again in the quest to expand intellectual horizons. Many instructors list this as their primary motivation when constructing the textbook or online content requirement of a writing course. Asking students to engage with a multi-faceted and many-sided series of texts, videos, images, sounds and website experiences is sure to spark connections between new information and their existing knowledge. Recent studies in cognitive neuroscience and psychology posit the important role of “conceptual networks” in the learning process. Learners, our students among them, integrate new information into existing knowledge structures gradually, assimilating the new into the old in a complex cognitive process neuroscientists are only ankle-deep into exploring. These “conceptual associations,” I contend, play a major role in the learning that goes on in the brains of young writers experiencing college-level educational materials for the first time in their lives, and should be considered paramount in our understanding as professional educators of their learning experience.

But back to the original question: how best to encourage our students to explore new territory in their writing? Many would now turn toward a familiar friend and catchword to our discipline: critical thinking. Setting aside Paul Lynch’s rebuke in College English of critical thinking perhaps having outlived its usefulness, we might also examine critical thinking’s conceptual cousin: creative thinking. Creative thinking, as I’ve written about previously, is entirely capable of being nurtured within writing classrooms, and we should perhaps be doing this more if we are to heed Lynch’s advice and cultivate creative thinkers in our newer generations. This all leads me me to an interesting possibility for our discipline. Might we take our emphases on critical and creative thinking and blend them together into what I contend to be reminiscent of American psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg’s concept of divergent thinking? If we can, what might it look like, and what would be its value? Rothenberg’s concept of divergent thinking involves examining, together and simultaneously, multiple lines of thought and the many antitheses and counter-theses that are raised when something is examined, deconstructed and decoded. Divergent thinking considers opposites, supplements, associations, connotations and links as paramount generators of what may turn out to be profitable ideas. This particular method of inquiry seeks not to answer questions or to draw conclusions, but rather to explore the entangled points of view that multiple interpretations can conceive. Divergent thinking, which Rothenberg also terms Janusian thinking after the two-faced Roman goddess Janus, seeks to examine from all angles a central line of thought and contemplation, to embrace its fundamentally complex, manifold knottiness.

Renewed conviction in the areas of critical contemplation, including increased exploration of gray areas, may serve the composition classroom in a few important areas, which I’ll outline in the coming paragraphs. Gray areas are where cognitive seeds are planted, and in turn are the sites in which lifelong habits of critical contemplation, reflection and reasoning are cultivated in the habits of developing writers and citizens (as well as their material, neuroplastic brains). Divergent/Janusian thinking, in Rothenberg’s estimation, prompts thinking into four directions valuable to our field: (1) Thinkers are forced to create something entirely new, in a group or on their own; (2) Thinkers deviate from what they’ve already thought of or experienced, exploring previously uncharted territory; (3) Thinkers critically contemplate multiple attitudes toward a single issue; and (4) Thinkers crystallize previously unconnected ideas and attitudes into new, interconnected networks into theories or products that may be entirely new or constructive in their own way. Rothenberg believed influential and worthwhile ideas tended to be formed from thinkers responding riskily and experimentally to existing norms, exemplified in his mind by masters such as Einstein, Picasso and Mozart. How might composition embrace gray areas and find the potential for productive thinking residing in them?

An assignment I’ve conceived for my upcoming first-year writing classes involves reading the historical text Autobiography of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The writing activities involved with the assignment involve students examining their own literacy as 21st century Americans, then comparing it to the literacy Douglass develops throughout his lifetime and the impact forces such as race, class, and cognition play in transfers of power, information and influence. Studying and contemplating literacy in this way not only accomplishes some of the chief goals of composition, ie. exploring writing, reading and information in society, but also spurs students toward new considerations of their own unique worldviews informed by considerations of race, gender, history, economics and cultural values. We’ll explore the hallmarks of first-year writing through this unit– ethos/pathos/logos, counterpoints, etc.– but also will delve into reflective writing on the metacogntivie aspects involved within examining literacy as represented in Douglass’ text and the literacy students act within throughout their everyday lives.

The gray areas within literacy as it exists within historical circumstances are fertile ground for planting cognitive seeds that may prod developing critical thinkers toward dynamic ends. This exercise answers Patrick Sullivan’s call for increased creative thinking in the composition seminar, as problem-solving neural pathways are opened and new networks are created, breached, strengthened. Students synthesize new connections from existing conceptual networks and associations that have already been formed, building on their past experiences in a productive exercise in divergent thinking that arouses new understandings of their place in society.

What else does composition have to gain from renewed consideration of the productive potential residing in gray areas? Divergent thinking hold the potential to drastically change the way we approach writing and literacy. Gray areas encompass entire worlds of meaning that our students are likely to find to be valuable resources for developing critical thinking and writing skills, surely a valuable goal in light of the circumstances transforming our field outlined by “apocalyptic turn” writers such as Lynch. Renewed exploration of gray areas may be just the worthwhile endeavor composition has been searching for to mold the next generation of critical, contemplative thinkers.

Cognitive Seeds: 2017 SUNY Council on Writing Presentation

In a few weeks I’ll be presenting at the 2017 SUNY Council on Writing conference to be held at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, NY.  Here’s the abstract of the presentation I’ll deliver, which delves into creativity, cognition and the college writing classroom in the age of distraction.

Cognitive Seeds: The Role of Creative Thinking in First-Year Writing

Debates have raged for years within composition about the role creative writing ought to play in our first-year writing classrooms.  However, an overlooked and neglected hinge within this debate is the variety of affordances creative thinking might contribute to our students’ intellectual and cognitive palates. A recent surge in interest regarding creative thinking’s role in writing classrooms has been stimulated by important scholarship from a diverse array of writers including Hyde, Robinson and Sternberg.  Recently, Patrick Sullivan has introduced this growing trend to the pages of College Composition and Communication, where he makes the case for creativity as a foundational and highly-sophisticated aspect of human cognition that proves hugely valuable within higher education and for composition in particular. In this presentation, I will outline some of the many merits of creative thinking instruction, moving toward a central point I consider particularly valuable for our understanding of the thinking that occurs within our writing communities: that creative thinking is not something that is instilled within our brains at birth, but rather is a collection of skills, habits and proficiencies that can be cultivated, refined and developed through instruction.  I will share from my own classroom experience instances in which creative thinking exercises proved valuable for student learning, as well as instances in which our attempts’ missed the mark and failed to stimulate much intellectual expansion.

Republicans and Higher Education

A recent report coming out of the Pew Research Center on U.S. politics and policy issues lays bare a startling dataset which paints a challenging– and incredibly polarizing– picture of how Americans view the landscape of higher education in 2017.

The Pew report surveyed Americans registered to the two major political party affiliations on their opinions relating to a variety of hot-button issues, among them the popular news media and other major institutions such as churches, banks, financial organizations and labor unions. Most interesting are the numbers revealing a sharp partisan divide in how we view the purpose, value and recent performance of institutions of higher education. The numbers are, frankly, troubling in a way never before seen within American education.

According to the report, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents (58%) believe that universities have a negative impact on the country. Only a year ago, this number hovered closer to (45%), still sharply contrasted to Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents, (72%) of whom believe colleges have an overall positive impact on our nation. This number has remained largely consistent over the past few decades.

Let me be clear: these developments are not the same bear as the long history of anti-intellectual sentiments that have always dogged popular American politics. It’s never been particularly fashionable to speak difficult, culture-breaking truths to the public– for reference, consult the long list of public orators to have noticed this trend, a list that includes the names of Socrates, Copernicus, Martin Luther, Al Gore, and most recently even James Comey. The data’s relevance is entirely different from the long-running conversations that have plagued academic culture, from evolving conversations on academic language to considerations of free speech as it exists on college campuses.

Why have conservative voters come to develop such alarming opinions on the role higher education plays in the development of your young citizens? As anyone versed in dialectic knows, self-criticism and self-evaluation are integral to the successful functioning of any social apparatus. What can we, as academic professionals, do to address this trend?

Here are three avenues we might consider moving forward both in writing classrooms and in academia in general. We should:

(1) Renew our traditional emphasis on the evaluation of information. What has “fake news” come to mean? How might our students define this term differently than we do as academics? Can this conversation on the reliability of popular news sites, bias, ideology, cultural geography and spin (rhetoric! rhetoric! ethos, pathos, logos!) be a generative one?

This is one conversation in which academics traditionally tend to shy away from. We tend to dismiss our students’ opinions as naive, uninformed projections of the expressions they hear from their parents or on popular media forums, be they on television, the internet perhaps even on daytime talk radio. As many composition scholars have noted, the Freshman writing classroom is, in its very nature, training in exercise of citizenship.

(2)  Renew our interest in asking our students these same questions that the Pew report ventures. Is a college education good or bad for the country? I like to periodically ask my first-year writing students, once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end, what new methods of thinking their college education has garnered them. What have they learned? What can they do now that they couldn’t do before? Why has college been worth it?

Predictably, some students tend to relish this type of open-ended question, generating responses as varied as a newfound ability to critically think, fresh appreciation and openness to differences and exposure to previously unheard ideas. On the other hand, many students answer these questions with a literal directness that is not altogether unproductive. “I’ve learned to improve my study habits,” is a valuable reflective lesson for any first-year students to consider, and it never hurts to remind young writers that what they’ve accomplished in just the past year, including successful completion of a composition course and all that it entails, is no small feat.

(3) Envision new opportunities for classroom writing and reflection that reports such as these might open up. Might the college composition classroom be just the place to nurture and cultivate the types of thinking that can save democracy in the era of fake news, which in recent months has come to mean nothing more that this report is disagreeable to the interests of the current presidential administration. It would be wholly inappropriate for a composition instructor to willfully attempt to sway her/his students toward one political ideology over another. However, a major aspect of the task composition has historically set for itself is the preparation of critical thinking and evaluation skills that will be utilized throughout a student’s time in the university. Is it unfair to reject the realm of popular politics when tackling this endeavor, given that the political realm is perhaps the one realm of popular consciousness that each and every student will likely have at least some previous, outstanding knowledge of? My technique in the past has been to consciously ask my students to forsake their traditional party affiliations (red, blue, green) while in the classroom in favor of policy-based discussion. We don’t discuss names, but only how issues are marketed, represented and ingrained into the popular consciousness.

To me, policies such as the construction of a border wall with Mexico or the flying of the Confederate flag over publicly-funded state buildings seem glaringly, plainly, unmistakably antiquated– a viewpoint fostered by years of consideration of the United States’ history of racist, xenophobic, sectarian intolerance. Our students have only just begun this consideration. For many, they are being asked these questions for the first time, and are being pressured too soon to formulate a final, life-long identity as either a Republican or a Democrat. I, for one, entered the university from a blue-collar, staunchly Republican family background only to discover, in Geoffrey Bender’s first-year writing course all those years ago, that my opinions did not match those of my larger family, not to mention many of my high-school teachers, coaches and administrators. What we fail to realize is that oftentimes our students’ political affiliations and opinions are in fact shaped during their early university years, and that the treatment their opinions receive in the college classroom goes a long ways toward how they’ll remember, evaluate and value their education– frankly, what they take away from the hard work we as instructors make it our mission to provide.

The good news for higher education is that large majorities still view hallmarks of American democracy, Lockean ideals such as checks and balances, free and open elections, and the right to assemble peacefully, as being fundamental to the survival of our society. What remains to be seen, however, is how the American university will address the issue of why it is so unpopular with such a large proportion of the American population. These problems are thrown to the forefront when, as in recent years, the mainstream political party that embraces academic institutions proves itself fully impotent to address issues relating to working-class economics and near-completely incapable of winning elections at many local, state and federal levels.

Should we re-invent ourselves as academics? Or, as I contend, is now the perfect time, the ideal kairos, to re-consider the values of academic institutions with an increased emphasis on critical information evaluation and on popular rhetorics and ideologies as they exist and are continually re-made in our culture? In other words, might we re-consider the university’s role in the cultivation and nurturing of young minds, steering them toward old ideals of truth, transparency and openness? Might we move toward the Socratic ideal of truth, Sophists of the internet age, reestablishing and reaffirming the dedication of our discipline to our understanding of rhetoric in society, a long-belated move toward a role we should’ve embraced long ago?

A Prose Poem for the Fourth of July…

This is lifted from a creative piece I wrote a while back. It fits the mood of this Fourth of July well, when my mind drifts into fantasies of deserts, golden hayfields and cacti caked in the red glow of sunset–essentially anything recent political developments haven’t infringed as of yet (as hard as Scott Pruitt might be trying). 

The long California shoreline faded purple to the sun in the late summer’s evening as she set her soft head and light cheeks onto the old man’s chest. The thin white hairs on his red skin smelled of smoke from his Cuban cigar and his white polo shirt hung loose on his age-fattened hide, his skin tanned like sun-beaten leather caked in dust. His hands were scarred from the fishing in his youth but they were dark as if covered in a thick layer of dust from years of not moving. He bore a sharp tan line around his right wrist where a solid-gold watch ticked slowly. His eyes were proud and old and brown with sharp interest; hers’ were brown too but were spiced like cinnamon and if both their brown eyes were trees his had many rings and many small scars and hers’ had few rings and only one or two big scars. But they were deep and noticeable and if her brown eyes were trees you might think they had been struck straight up with lightning many years ago in the past and like tree bark as a map of a life the scars will stay forever and ever and can only fade with the moss.  And like tree bark each day they are renewed but the chiseled incantations remain etched upon the husk, skin and synapse alike recalling days that were different, days that seem peculiar now, days that when considered in the depth of this desert porch moment begin to mend the fabric of the past into a piecemeal quilt of the present, a pastiche of moments that defies the pre-ordained narrative yet mends the bark anyway lets the sooting fog rise high at dusk to ease the  mind into darkness.

Can We Hold Class Outside, Professor? Nature, Cognition and Composition

Composition and education have long questioned a central premise of the academy and university life in higher education: What is a classroom?  Recent research published in Psychological Science steers us toward a premise that is of paramount interest to our discipline.  What would it mean for the natural world to serve the acting, thinking brains of our student-writers?  Other questions hold even more promise for cultivating the types of writers and thinkers our discipline has long desired: What should a classroom be? What can a classroom do? What should a classroom do? The contributors to the Psychological Sciences query introduce a central premise that I contend, in light of the cognitive turn within Composition and Rhetoric, to have great potential within our rapidly changing discipline.

Many have suspected nature’s restorative and energizing effects on the working brain. From Plato and Shelley to Heidegger and Snyder, writers in particular have long associated reflective mentalities, deep attention spans, clear mindsets, responsive memories and dexterous reasoning abilities to the state of higher thinking that nature is uniquely able to cultivate within their minds, a state that they maintain as having a profound impact on their ability to think clearly and lucidly when putting language onto paper.  Marc Berman, John Jonides and Stephen Kaplan offer research presenting frankly startling conclusions about the ways our minds interact with the natural world. Cited in the closing pages of Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer Prize-finalist book The Shallows, their study The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature introduces evidence asserting the natural world’s potential to nurture calmer, sharper brains more readily capable of the demands a complex activity such as writing demands. The study is situated within the emerging field of Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which posits that when brains aren’t constantly besieged by torrents of external stimuli, they are able to revamp into versions of themselves more inclined to extended focus, contemplation and affective metacognition. They become, in effect, more flexible and resourceful brains that are better-suited to the complex application of mental processes asked of them by college writing.

The human brain has long been known to be extensively malleable, elastic and pliable. Writers such as Carr, Catherine Malabou and Norman Doidge have elaborated to great fireworks and fanfare in recent years about the brain’s ability to quite literally transform itself based upon habit, repetition and interaction with intellectual tools, practices and stimuli. What we do, the actions we ask our brains to perform, literally and anatomically determine the physical contours of our minds. We are, it seems, what we (ask our brains to) do.

Berman et. al’s research suggests its premises based upon two respective experiments that, in tandem, lead them to their conclusions on the striking impact of the brain’s interaction with the natural world:

(1) A test in which subjects were administered a comprehensive, demanding test of reasoning applications and then asked to take a walk in one of two spaces: a city street or a rural, outdoor park environment. Both groups then took the test a second time. The group that spent time in the natural world “significantly improved” their cognitive performance and attentiveness.  Simply spending time in an outdoor setting was enough, in this study, to indicate an overall improvement in mental dexterity, deep-thinking ability and attention span. Walking in the city, comparatively, offered no improvement in cognition performance.

(2) The second study involved a far less comprehensive method. Participants in one group were asked to examine images of a calm, rural scene while others examined an image of a busy urban setting. In Carr’s summary, “the people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness” (220). Summarizing the results of both tests forming the study, Berman et. all conclude that “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” The study proves spending time in the natural world to be of “vital importance” to what the researchers term “effective cognitive functioning” (1211). Many of the skills we spend so much of our time nurturing within composition– those related to critical thinking, researching, thinking about writing and the writing process– stand to be improved and supplemented by increased attention to neuroplasticity.  Might outdoor classroom settings be a small but meaningful part of this renewed emphasis on the relationship between cognition and writing?

The implications for composition are clear.  From a purely neurological and cognitive standpoint, our developing student writers are bombarded by an endless stream of Tweets, texts, news reports, Facebook messages, Instagram notifications, emails, and Blackboard updates. Their brains face a bevy of overstimulating stimuli that catalyze cognitive developments counterproductive to the goals of composition: short attention spans, bursts of focus followed by long periods of distraction on smartphones or internet applications, even an inability to communicate effectively with others. By asking our students to engage reflectively in an outdoor setting undisturbed by electronic devices (perhaps voluntarily leaving them locked inside of the indoor classroom), we condition their brains for the sustained attention, etc. that many within composition have expressed as one of the chief values of the education we provide. By separating our brains from electronic stimuli and relocating to an outdoor setting, we consciously practice the mindful controlling of our thoughts that quality university-level writing is so reliant upon.

When we engage our students into the standard processes of composition such as in-depth scholarly researching, drafting of papers, peer editing and sustained attention to a single subject, we re-route and create new neural pathways in our students’ brains that strengthen the utilized cognitive areas for the rest of their lives. Our students’ brains literally change before our eyes as we ask these new tasks of them throughout the course of their time in higher education and the writing classroom. Factoring in the research of Berman and ART, it seems our discipline would profit from occasionally engaging our students in an outdoor classroom setting.

So when on the next sunny Spring day a student asks if the class might be held outside, a controlled natural environment might prove an ideal spot to practice many of the higher-thinking actions our classrooms demand.  Relocating the classroom to an outdoor setting can, as Berman’s research confirms, be an effective strategy for achieving many of the target objectives writing classrooms seek to bring about.  We cannot deny that we, as compositionists, literally and anatomically change the brains exercised in our classrooms. We must take this charge as a call to action and attention, as a symbolic opening and exigency, as a practical and opportune moment to nurture, cultivate and nourish the cognitive habits that result in the successful writing act. Let’s go outside.

Developing Habits, Developing Minds: What Can Neuroplasticity Do For Composition?

A bevy of scholarship within both the sciences and the humanities have surveyed the implications presented by recent research into the human’s brain’s astounding and only recently-realized levels of neuroplasticicy.  The brain, the body of research suggests, is not a static entity that exists in fixed and stationary configuration, but rather is malleable, changeable, pliant and adaptive.  The synaptic connections and networks that form the brain, it seems, physically and systemically change based upon the habits, routines, practices, operations and actions they are asked to carry out.  Habit, in the case of the brain, has the potential to configure and metamorphose the space devoted to different regions associated with particular cognitive functions.  As experiences are repeated, the synaptic connections utilized in thinking through these actions become stronger, more deeply ingrained, and more substantially resolute in the influence they exert on our ancillary modes of thinking.  

It is not just the brains of children that literally are subject to remarkably high levels of change, but also those of teenagers, adults, even the elderly. Even more interestingly, these changes to the functioning of the nervous system do not take nearly as long as one might expect to impact the operation and performance of the brain.  This particular detail within recent neuroscience research is particularly valuable to the realm of writing instruction, which typically relies upon 15-week courses to achieve central goals for students.  If the brain can truly and literally transform, allowing for expansion of specific and targeted cognitive functions, a few vital questions arise: firstly, what changes are composition and higher education already enacting upon the brains of our students? Secondly, how might a greater understanding of the plasticity of our students’ brains allow us to better achieve our goals in the composition classroom? Lastly, what potential do writing, literacy and rhetorical action promise in a society informed of neuroplasticity?

Though neuroplasticity has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, its implications for composition as a discipline have only partially been explored, and the surge in research has opened up a world of possible theoretical and practical angles in which composition might benefit.  Explored most accessibly in Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, nueroplasticity has been explored in-depth within the humanities by noted scholars and philosophers related to composition such as Katherine Hayles, Catherine Malabou and Alan Liu.  Carr, Hayles and Liu all largely focus their analyses of neuroplasticity onto the impact of digital technologies on the human brain, on how these technologies aren’t just tools but, as Liu artfully phrases, grow into “tools that we think through.” Carr concurs, stating that “we become, neurologically, what we think.” The daily actions and exercises we subject our brains to, whether they be tracking the seconds on a clock or scrolling through an Instagram feed, re-program and re-purpose our thinking faculties.  My assertion in this short blog post is that composition should make further exploration of this topic a prompt and vigorous priority for our discipline.  Renewed and reinvigorated attention to neuroplasticity has the capability to change not only how our students write, but also how they think, act, reflect and classify.

I would like to propose a calculated, targeted approach to writing instruction that might help us to cultivate the regions of our students’ brains that a regimented and comprehensive higher education curriculum already serves to develop: the regions of the brain that work to critically consider and evaluate the world around them.  Critical thinking, despite Paul Lynch’s cogent and effectual quibbles in Composition’s New Thing: Bruno Latour and the Apocalyptic Turn, has lost neither its value nor its usefulness in light of the anthropocene.  Rather, critical thinking is now more valuable a skill than ever, and nueroplasticity may be one of the means by which composition responds to this call.

Now, on to the specifics. Before moving directly into an analysis the research supporting these hypotheses, I’d like to anticipate critics of neuroplaticity’s promise within composition, many of whom are likely to charge my assertions as being too reliant on the construction of long-term habits to inspire actual neurological change.  While reading Carr and Malabou, I too was struck by these questions of time, utility, and real, concrete effectiveness. To respond to these assertions, I’d like to introduce the research biologist Eric Kandel performed in the 1970’s on sea slugs as perhaps the first conclusive indication that the central nervous system can be fundamentally changed in a radically short amount of time. Kandel performed his research on a type of sea slug known as aplysia, choosing this particular slug because of its relatively simple and uncomplicated nervous system.  Noting that the slugs reflexively recoiled from physical touching of their gills, Kandel began repeatedly subjecting the slugs to this unconscious mechanism until, after repeated sessions in which the animal experienced no actual harm, the slugs grew so accustomed to the touching that they no longer responded with their original reaction. By tracking the slugs’ central nervous systems, Kandel learned this observed behavioral change was paralleled by a “progressive weakening of the synaptic connections” between the sensory neurons that work within the slugs’ touch and motor systems. The gills, after being touched just forty times, showed clear behavioral changes accompanied by neurological evidence for the transformation: only ten percent of the sensory cells, after those forty touches, maintained connections to snails’ motor cells.  The study lends dramatic support to the ability of synapses to undergo broad and substantial changes after only a relatively small amount of targeted training.  Kandel would later go on to earn a Nobel Prize for his work on cognition in animals and humans. Could similar practices, repeated in our writing communities and societies, have similar power to encourage brain expansion in targeted areas utilized in critical, evaluative thinking?

Carr cites multiple studies which can serve as de-facto proxies for the cognitive changes composition might undergo if we were to implement a more neuro-aware approach to writing studies. We’ve long known of the impact tools and interfaces can have on the brain’s inner workings, but we’ve only recently become familiar with the repercussions mental and intellectual processes of thinking can have on the brain. Carr cites the work of Maguire, et. al (2000), who studied of the brains of taxi drivers and then compared them to a control group from the general population.  The taxi drivers all had between two and forty-two years of experience navigating the streets of London. When compared to the control group, the taxi drivers’ posterior hippocampus, the region of the brain that stores and manipulates spatial representations of experienced surroundings, was revealed to be much larger than average. Additionally, brain scans indicated that the longer a person had been on the job, the larger her/his posterior hippocampus was likely to be. The researchers concluded the constant spatial processing requisite for maneuvering the London roadways to have been “associated with a relative redistribution to gray matter in the hippocampus.”  The mental activities demanded time and time again on the streets London had etched themselves, quite literally, into the brains of the taxi drivers.

Even more convincing is the work of Pascaul-Leone at the National Institute of Health. Pascaul-Leone studied recruits from the general population with no experience playing piano, and taught them how to play a simple string of a few series of notes. He then split the test subjects into two groups: one he asked to practice playing piano for two hours a day over the next five days, and the other he asked to sit in front of a keyboard for the same amount of time but to only imagine playing the song– never actually touching the keys of the piano. Mapping the brain activity of the participants, Pascaul-Leone’s team found that the group asked to only imagine playing piano exhibited exactly the same degree of change to their brains as those who had actually operated the keys. According to Carr, “their brains had changed in response to actions that took place purely in their imagination– in response, that is, to their thoughts.” Could a similar phenomenon occur, proxied and repeated in the composition classroom? Might repeated exercises in, say, critical thinking serve to expand and invigorate the regions of our students’ brains that are utilized in these important processes?

These exact changes are already being wrought on our students’ brains whether we recognize them or not as they move through higher education. For many, college represents the first sustained relationship with evaluating and engaging with complex ideas in formalized, written form. So, what might application of these ideas actually look like?

As stated previously, we as composition instructors are already affecting these changes whether or not we pay conscious and vocalized attention to them.  However, might we further our goals by knowingly targeting specific cognitive endeavors in a targeted, purposeful method? An approach emphasizing critical thinking might materialize as something like this: curricula that endeavors to expand regions of the brain, asking students to pay particular attention to their own cognitive processes as well as how those processes influence their academic and writing habits.  Most composition instructors stress some sort of importance within their first-year writing classrooms to prioritize in-class writing, whether it be writing in creative genres, freewriting, reading as response or as rhetorical exercises.  In doing this, we strengthen our students’ writing abilities, but also exercise the regions of their brains devoted to these higher-level functions– and this we sustain over the course of a semester or a year. What if we dedicated time, even just a few minutes of freewriting, asking our students to reflect upon their own brains, the strengths and weaknesses of their thinking, their attention spans while writing, their academic habits that may be partially in/out of their control? Even more radically, we might identify the core pillars of writing instruction identified by our professional writing organizations (NCTE, etc.) and design assignments and curricula structured to strengthen even further than we already are the parts of our student-writers’ brains that spur rhetorical thinking, critical application and on-paper writing practice. When our students repeatedly practice the pillars of our instructional goals, their brains are sure to expand in areas that will bolster what they enter their college careers equipped with.  Is this not a vital component of what higher education strives to do?

For her part, Malabou is calculated and purposeful in her differentiation of plasticity from mere flexibility.  Whereas flexibility oftentimes involves passive submission to external systems, stimulations and structures (specifically those of global neoliberal capitalism, of chief concern for Malabou), plasticity maintains the potential for resistance and reconfiguration.  Plasticity takes on new importance in this arena; Malabou views the brain’s power to change and transform as one of the routes by which humans might transcend the misgivings of global neoliberal capitalism.  As we’ve seen, it’s a measure toward creating stronger writers and critical thinkers, too.  

 

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It’s my belief that neuropalsticity opens up doors composition has not yet broached, and I’m considering it as a long-term, full-length scholarly project.  Does anyone within rhetoric and composition have any thoughts, comments or criticisms on this potential endeavor? If so, I’d love to hear them, whether in a comment on this page or by email– Jacob.richter10@gmail.com.  An existing body of scholarship already exists exploring this relationship, but it is my belief that it can be augmented, enhanced and synthesized with research in other disciplines to create something of value with both practical and theoretical environments.  Hope to hear from you, readers!

Today’s cool fact on my life: I’ve decided, after serious thought and deliberation, that tart white wines are my drink of choice, at least in summer months.  Believe it or not, this is a major life transformation for me.

On the Value of “Soft Reading”

Blame it on Oprah.  Blame it on One City One Book.  Blame it on the declining reading habits of ordinary Americans (as recent popular wisdom would have you believe). Just about every highschool, community center and early-college common curriculum in the past decade or so has tried out some version of a community-read initiative.  SUNY Cortland, the state college at which I teach courses in first-year writing, has selected Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s non-fiction book We Should All Be Feminists as its community read for the upcoming Fall 2017 semester.

We Should All Be Feminists originated as a talk delivered at TEDxEuston, a yearly conference concerned with all things Africa: culture, economics, sociology, entertainment, pop culture, technology, innovation.  The book (and its accompanying TedTalk) argue a number of relevant points in their brief spans.  Running a mere 48 small pages, the book is not what anyone might call heavy on detail.  Indeed, I was able to comfortably read it in its entirety while watching Cornell rowers begin and run through their practice at Cayuga Lake’s Cass Park.

I was finished by their cool-down lap.

Teaching a book like this at the collegiate level presents a number of predicaments for the dedicated writing instructor.  I’ll outline them below, but suffice it to say: the book is not heavy on detail, nor critical thought, nor demand on the reader’s cognitive, reasoning or evaluative faculties.  It asks little of students, other than to consider everyday events from the perspective of another identity (which is no small feat, and We Should All Be Feminists does this to a great extent).  The book begins a conversation, which is important, but my worry as an instructor is that the book makes no attempt to finish or provide answers to those conversations.

What is the value of “soft reading” to the first-year writing classroom, and to critical thinkers at large? Here are some considerations:

The predicaments:

(1) We Should All Be Feminists is, in all of its being, a decorated TedTalk that hasn’t even been decorated up much.  It adheres to the standard pitfalls characterizing the genre: a compulsive avoidance of any sort of complexity or fuzziness, an intellectually paralyzing reliance on the charm and charisma of its dazzling speaker, a hyperbolic hopefulness for the future and its grandiose, shiny promises.

TedTalks are full of fluff.  Their goal is to reach a wide audience, and they do this expertly.  The tradeoff, however, is that they become the Donald Trump of educational oration: emotional response, rather than knowledge acquisition, is the real takeaway, and the curators amplify this in their delivery and presentation choices.  The attention to atmosphere is paramount, as is the importance allocated to speaker ethos, to noble treatises on the capacity of technology in conjunction with human action, to the effectiveness of positivity and optimism and all things buoyant.

I left the book with feelings of optimism, rosiness and idealism.  I left daydreaming.  Where do we start? Adichie says we begin by raising our sons and daughters better, by asking them to examine the society around them and to critically examine how we treat gender, otherness and difference. But what does it say to our students, in what is likely their first semester of college learning, and perhaps is even their first jaunt into university-level reading, that we give them a document so unexacting, untaxing, untroublesome? We Should All Be Feminists likely will not be disagreeable, at least on an abstract ideas-based basis, to even the most socially conservative of students. It makes no explicit mention of white privilege.  It does not go excessively far to challenge existing constructions and institutions. It is rarely specific. This isn’t Judith Butler, for god’s sake. Adichie in this book is to feminism what a Tim Cook iPhone-release video is to hard coding and programming: a pretty face that fails to address some real, complicated headaches. Some topics may not be picturesque, but they’re worth to examination, even in first-year writing.

Adichie’s book wanders dangerously close to surface marketing divorced from actual content, unless you define “content” in the way Buzzfeed or Screenrant or The Richest do. Is this what we want our students to be confusing with intricate, complex academic argumentation?

(2) We Should All Be Feminists begins conversations it does not in any way attempt to finish or venture answers to.  A short snippet:

Culture does not make people.  People make culture.  If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture. (46)

Nowhere else in the thin pages of the essay are these short introductions to social constructivism detailed further.  Adichie does dedicate small sections to discussion of gender roles and gender performativity, but they aren’t suitable for more than a few minutes of sustained conversation regarding the specific incidents the book outlines.

(3) Practically speaking, We Should All Be Feminists is painfully limited.  I plan to spend two class sessions, at most, discussing the book, and perhaps incorporate it into a few writing assignments later on throughout the semester.  I will perhaps weave it into a possible paper topic, and I’ll maybe even incorporate a “make your own TedTalk”-like option into an “UnEssay” project I’m currently theorizing based upon a recent essay in College Composition and Communication authored by Patrick Sullivan. The practical reality, however, is that the book will be only a minor part of the course I end up teaching.  Perhaps this is a suitable position for the the community-writing initiative.  We need to be realistic, in any case. We Should All Be Feminists is only what it is.

The vindicators:

(1) We Should All Be Feminists introduces students to feminism and begins a conversation, especially among cis-male and white students, that they may not have actively discussed before. One of the chief walls Adichie attempts to broach in the book is the difficult initiative to kindle conversations that may be difficult to begin with, to spur social changes and action at the micro level. Adichie includes five or ten specific events from both her childhood and adult lives which students will, in concrete terms, be able to analyze, pick apart, discuss, scrutinize, evaluate and break down.

The book, while being simple on detail, is not altogether simple on ideas.  Masculinity, privilege (based upon gender, race and class, and often in combination), pay inequality, social construction, and structural patriarchy all make at least episodic appearances.

(2) Students read an authoritative, commanding and decisive black female writer who is able to plainly and precisely expound upon points that are problematic to encounter from any other perspective.  As a composition instructor, I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it is to find texts written by underrepresented and systemically-oppressed groups– there just aren’t as many texts written by black women as there are by caucasian men, and even in 2017, it’s not a close call.  Simply put, there are more options that fail to diversify the author list for a particular course than there are who do.

(3) We Should All Be Feminists does the dirty work.  It makes a few uncomfortable points, such as that much of the problems it brings up are completely avoidable and fixable.  It raises awareness, and it suggests avenues, briefly, in which our society should turn toward in order to better itself.

I’m excited to teach We Should All Be Feminists during the upcoming semester, though I shall do so with reservation based upon the predicaments outlined above.  I don’t plan to disparage the book for its airiness and superficiality to my students during lecture sessions. Rather, I plan to situate the book within my classroom as a piece to begin semester-long ongoing conversations on the second or third discussion session and then to periodically re-visit its pages throughout the semester, incorporating it into discussions of genre, audience, authority, purpose, ethos/pathos/logos, even discussions of citizenship, academic honesty and the power of writing. Additionally, I’d like to offer a few alternative text suggestions that might serve similar purposes for SUNY Cortland and community-reading initiatives like it: Adichie’s own Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, which could likely be taught in a single class session, or Alain Badiou’s The True Life, a short commentary on modern living from the renowned philosopher written specifically for dissemination to a mass audience to communicate what Badiou considered of paramount importance to the burgeoning generation. A third choice that might be equally fantastic is Brooke Gladstone’s The Trouble with Reality, which would ask our students to consider questions of media, representation, fact, political bubbles and the construction of reality itself.  I find these texts extremely appetizing for an introductory first-year writing course.

Are these conversations not part of what composition is all about?

I’m spending the summer hosting wine and beer tastings at a winery on Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  Anyone who knows me will tell you there’s little I like more than to analyze the contours of a fine wine (the full-bodied and mature of which Paul Valery refers to as nature’s perfect objects) or to spur palate development by recommending the double-hopped IPAs I’ve become such a fan of. If you’re around, stop by Americana and say hi.  I’ll be hanging.

Wired Utopia: Expanding Technocapitalist Disability Rhetorics

In her article published just a few weeks ago in Enculturation, Bonnie Tucker lays out a theory of what she refers to as technocapitalist disability rhetoric.  Technocapitalist disability rhetoric (what I’ll call TCDR), in Tucker’s conception, is a familiar representation trope in which technology and engineering corporations utilize depictions of disability in an attempt to associate their brand with sentimentalist, aspirational social activism.  These companies overtly disguise profit-seeking motivations with superficial pleas promising the power of technology to “fix” the supposed “broken” disabled body.  The rhetorics included within this discourse serve to undermine empowering, socially-based models of disability and a-typicalities, and instead rely upon familiar tropes– the savant, the “supercrip,” the heroic revelatory electronic device– to establish technology as the solution to disability.

TCDR connects disability and technology on a basis of cure, reinforcing ableism and medical models that charge disability as abnormal, problematic and fixable through technological innovation.  Tucker’s analysis attempts to demystify and debunk TCDR by evaluating the spoken and visual rhetorics of two Microsoft advertisements aired during recent Super Bowls.  The commercials, to varying degrees, situate two different technologies developed my Microsoft (eye-gaze speaking technology and prosthetic limbs) as solutions to problems experienced by Steve Gleason, a former NFL player suffering from the motor neuron disorder Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and a young boy born without tibia and fibula bones in his legs.  These representations are problematic from a disabilities studies perspective for a variety of reasons, but none more so than their seeming disregard for two central tenets of the social model of disability: (1) The disabled person must be allotted a chance to speak for herself, and (2) the commercials situate disability as a lack or a problem that their technological innovation is able to fix.  In this way, they remove agency and empowerment from the human bodies in question and instead place it on their profit-gleaning technological tool under the guise of charitable good will toward those considered to be less fortunate.

In both of these cases, Tucker argues, Microsoft subverts the agencies of disabled people to instead position itself as a heroic savior in the minds of viewers.  TCDRs are a profitable innovation that neoliberalism harnesses for expansion into new markets or to intensify their grasp on existing ones.  Corporate involvement in social activism campaigns such as the disability rights movement conflate technology with the real, concrete, on-the-ground advances made by disability activists to subvert discrimination and social stigmatization.  Corporations frame discussions on disability to position their brand and products as solutions and equalizers, when really it is disability activists who utilize these technologies that perform the real advocacy labor and spur the resulting social change.

In this short blog post, I’d like to propose an addition to the Technocapitalist Disability Rhetoric concept outlined by Tucker.  Utopia has long been a staple within discourse originating in and circulating around the tech sphere. When Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook attempted to supply India with “free” internet infrastructure, they did so with the intent to bring high-speed internet access to hundreds of thousands of underserved and underprivileged peoples who would otherwise never have access to the benefits an internet connection affords: information, education, global opportunity, political influence, greater reach into realms of citizenship, democracy, access.  This type of utopia rhetoric, seen time and time again in the interfaces, discourses and public initiatives kindled within the tech sphere, converges with technology and disability by connecting them on grounds of cure, in this case not to particular individuals as in the Microsoft advertisements but instead as cures to pluralistic society itself, corporate-supplied technology serving as the remedy to various ills plaguing the globe.

More analysis and explication is needed here, but an indisputable characteristic of tech discourse emerges: utopia rhetorics are, nearly universally, represented as elixirs and antidotes with the potential to remedy the social sicknesses that plague society, with everything from global poverty to educational access situated as characteristics of the utopia tech companies promise to consumers. When we examine the popular crises that have been sensationally pushed by mainstream media outlets in recent decades– in regards to literacy, attention, education, social media– various forms of technology are inevitably proposed as alleviating these profoundly unfamiliar (and occasionally scary) cultural developments.

It is our job as academics, as watchdogs, as the critical thinkers of the world to seek out this bullshit, to borrow Harry Frankfurt’s usage, and expose it for what it is– a sham that trades charity for quarterly reports, good will for profit, and real humanitarianism for its shiny, corporate cousin: marketing.

 

Sparking Change Public Humanities Project

What’s the most important world issue for our society to address in 2017?

I posed this question to my first-year writing students a month or so ago, and we’ve since brainstormed, drafted and revised six-page research papers proposing solutions to a variety of diverse answers.

We’ve now re-worked those papers into a public humanities digital publication: Sparking Change, linked here. Lots of work went into this (still rough and unfinished) publication, but I’m glad to empower these young writers to publish their voices in a public forum.

When Worlds Speak: Apocalypse, Composition, Critique

 

       Compositionists have in recent years begun, in a mode similar to the ethical, social and Sophistic turns of recent decades, the collective project of mobilizing the discipline to hold in greater esteem the cataclysmic situations of public concern unfolding in front of our eyes.  We need only examine the evening news to see this great drama enacted. Systemic economic collapse, chaotic social upheaval, and, most pressingly for both citizens and citizen-compositionists alike, environmental catastrophe all threaten our conventional way of life in unprecedented scale.  The political sphere, perhaps, has seen busier times.  Scientists have been warning us for years, however, that the same cannot be said of ecological woe.  The Great Barrier Reef is likely damaged beyond repair; auto emission regulations are being rolled back; and climate change marches will take place this coming weekend in hundreds of cities around the country, including in Washington D.C., calling for a greater and more unified response to this apocolyptic threat.

      With such immanent and dire threats pressing hard against our minds, there is compelling evidence within academic circles that scholars have begun to take matters of public concern, specifically those within environmental contexts, into substantial account and influence within their intellectual work and research agendas. The sheer abundance of subfields beginning with the prefix eco- serves as persuasive evidence of this; ecoanthropology, ecolinguistics, ecohistory and ecophilosphy are all subfields of their respective disciplines that are gaining more and more traction as independent fields of inquiry.

      Composition and rhetoric have not, to our credit, lagged behind this trend— in just the past month we’ve introduced Trace, a journal examining intersections between the technical sides of our field with concerns over environments, animals and natural bodies.  This new work, along with over a decade’s worth of conference presentations, journal articles and scholarly monographs, have asked and ventured answers to what exactly is contained within the relationship between written words and natural worlds.

      Our dire environmental situation, it seems, has not only influenced our classroom pedagogies within composition but also our understandings and definitions of composition itself.  Paul Lynch, in an essay published in College English a few years ago, asked the discipline to examine the relationship between apocalypse and critique, utilizing the French sociologist Bruno Latour as the linking bridge between the two entities.  I’ve long been fascinated with Latour’s particular brand of actor-network theory, but even more so in his commentary on deconstructive criticism itself, which he aptly showcases in his still-controversial Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? essay from way back in 2004. Lynch employs Latour to pose a challenge to composition: How might we, as a discipline uniquely suited to addressing these environmental threats, take up the mantle of turning worlds into words, of providing voices vis-a-vis Latour to the toxic, polluted and trash-strewn natural bodies in dire need of our intervention? Indeed, in Lynch’s estimation, it is our ignorance on how to avoid this forthcoming environmental apocalypse that is the best argument for making it our project. To do this, we turn to a familiar friend: critique.  

      This is not your grandfather’s critique, however, or even its post-structural sister that’s become the standard in recent years.  Instead, borrowing again from Latour, the form of critique elicited by Lynch for future composition scholarship is oriented not toward the demystification so common nowadays, but instead toward construction, collection, mess and problem solving.  He ventures to ask a question that traditional rhetors (and anyone versed in literary and cultural criticism) shake their heads in disbelief: Could it be possible that critical thinking, the typical justification for our discipline and indeed for the humanities as a whole, has “outlived its usefulness” in light of our impending environmental situation?  

      A composition, he says, should not be judged based on how incisively it debunks, but rather on how expansively it “puts together” (470).  They should be, in Latourian vocabulary, learning compacts of collective experimentation. The critic should afford a space, an arena, in which important and productive conversation is enacted. For Lynch, composotinists should stop being problem creators and instead focus our collective energies on

      I wrote and presented a piece recently on the connections between Latour’s work on critique and the Flint Water Crisis.  My interest in the relation was centered squarely on Latour’s re-conception of basic tenets of critical application: is it possible to make our intellectual work productive, constructive, even fruitful? Could Latorian thinking inform our understandings of ecocrises?

      Lynch’s analysis ventures a variety of answers to questions such as these to varying degrees of resulting satisfaction. The writers on the leading edge of this apocalyptic turn beg us to renegotiate the work composition might do for the impending environmental state of affairs. Lynch

      I’d like to, here, break away from Lynch for just a moment to suggest an avenue in which we might “answer the call,” so to speak, and mobilize composition in a direction .  Our task is to transform our students into decision makers more readily capable of tackling the problems posed by the anthropocene.  Typical criticism seems to invent and cultivate problems, to borrow from Gerald Graff’s terminology.  What we don’t need, the apocalyptic turn says, are more problems. And so the task becomes,

      To close, I want to spend a few paragraphs making the case that emphasizing creative thinking within our writing classrooms alongside our traditional emphasis on critical thinking might further our interests within the discipline.  The cultivation of problem-solving attitudes, mindsets and habits within FYW classrooms and writing programs in general could be just the place in which our discipline is able to marshall the world into words, to assemble the productive measures to build new and badly-needed conversations, and propel the next generation to a place in which they’re able to navigate waters (both figuratively and literally) that may be so potentially dire that we’re unable to articulate them at the present moment. What can composition do to mitigate these threats?

      One viable direction in which we might turn our attention toward is located in a familiar place our discipline has always shared an uneasy relationship with. Could a major aspect of our future be found just down the hall? I speak of creative thinking, fostered in our own classrooms already but even more so in the creative wing of our writing programs. Patrick Sullivan refers to creative thinking in a recent issue of College Composition and Communication as “a foundational aspect of human cognition and intelligence” that could hold tremendous clout for the ways we theorize writing after the apocalyptic turn.  Sullivan makes the case that there is a wealth of value to be reaped from renewed attention within our discipline to creative thinking alongside our traditional orientation toward critical thinking-related endeavors. He cites recent mainstream scholarship, notably Nick Carr’s The Shallows and its groundbreaking work on neuroplasticity, to further the aims and ends of creative thinking’s potential in the writing classroom. Creativity, according to Ken Robinson, is something that can be nurtured and learned, which the brain’s neuroplasticity seems at least in part accountable for.  Indeed, a lot stands to be gained from thinking of creativity as an essential and integral part of how we theorize writing.

      If we could find a way to position creative thinking as part of the rhetorical, cognitive and educational repertoires our students might employ within their literacy quivers, are we not better serving to meet and satisfy the needs outlined by Lynch and the writers of the apocalyptic turn? We’re tasked, in composition, with articulating that which is sometimes difficult to express– we teach our students to do this every day. Might our job be, in true Latourian fashion, to enable our writers to give voice to the non-human natural bodies in such dire health?

      If composition is to move itself from a discipline of problem-creating toward one of problem-solving, as Latour and others have called for, it will take a commitment to fostering not only evaluative and analytical skills, but also creative ones. After all, who will form the next generation of innovators if not the young writers writing their ways through our classrooms each semester?

 

Works:

Lynch, Paul. “Composition’s New Thing: Bruno Latour and the Apocalyptic Turn.” College English, Vol. 74 No. 5. May 2012. Print.

Sullivan, Patrick. “The Un-Essay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 67 No. 1. Print.

Latour, Bruno. “We Have Never Been Modern.” Trans. Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.

—. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2. Winter 2004.