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.  



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–  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.