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.  

 

***

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.

Apocalyptic Turn/Sparking Change

And just like that, the Spring semester has flown by and will soon give way to the joys of summer.  Before we end, however, I’d like to take some time to outline the final capstone project I’m assigning to my first-year writing students to end our time together and draw everything to a cohesive close: a research paper project that we will draft together and eventually adapt into digital form.

This final project version will be available to the public, viewable by anyone with an internet connection.  Student participants, whom I prefer to call student-writer-citizens, will develop their own unique takes on matters of public concern– such as mass incarceration, deforestation in the Amazon, eugenics, gun control and the Syrian refugee crisis– and will then contribute their six-pagers to our collaborative online publication.

I’ll post that link here as the project develops.  For now, take a look at the official assignment prompt, posted to our class blog.  We’re calling this capstone project Sparking Change (for everyone’s knowledge, my students know their writing here is public and have signed off on it).

This final project (and indeed, much of what I’ve been working through with my writing classes this semester) is oriented around the idea of an apocalyptic turn that has occurred within composition and rhetoric in recent years.  The apocalyptic turn draws on the work of Paul Lynch, Lynn Worsham, Derek Owens and Kurt Spellmeyer, all of whom perform various critique of composition in the age of economic downturn, social upheaval and the anthropocene. Lynch explores a simple question in regards to these various affairs that loudly menace our world: “What can composition do to ameliorate these threats?”  He ventures a variety of semi-satisfying answers, which I’ll link to here, but this capstone first-year writing project is positioned as a partial answer to one of Lynch’s more contentious claims: that “our ignorance about how to avert the apocalypse is actually the best argument for making it our project.”

I’m working on a longer piece responding to Lynch’s claims, but I’m not sure we, as writers, compositionists and even apocalyptic writers/compositionists, lack a clear and obvious path forward to engage with the issues of environmental calamnity.  Is not writing itself, the writing we do every day– poetry, blog posts, Tweets, Facebook shares, YouTube uploads, academic essays– a proper response? Do our actions not impact the anthropocene, ? When I post these brief paragraphs to my website in a moment, I will tag the post with environmentalism, and it will join the discourse of environmental writings that have been combatting the anthropocene since the 70’s.  Our efforts may not be adequate, but I fear they may be all that we have available in our quiver of scientific, technological and political tools.

Poetry– our poetry— may be the answer we’re looking for. Can writing be constructive?

The Space We Occupy

My sister Andrea has spent the morning researching our family’s roots in Germany, Switzerland and France, in turn educating me on the interesting findings she’s uncovered. As it turns out, our family occupies a not-so-small bit of space in the world. Here’s a bit of what she’s shared:

Firstly, a direct ancestor of ours opened the Kresge chain of grocery shops, which eventually developed into the K-Mart chain of retail stores. Yay, big capitalism!

Secondly, my grandparents shared common ancestors that aren’t quite as far back in the family line as we’d wish they were. Yay, incest!

There’s a town in the Catskills that’s named after an ancestor of mine.

And lastly, my grandfather participated in D-Day, though he originally enlisted in the Air Force, in his own words, for the “excellent recreational activities… pool/billiards, volleyball, basketball, softball” which were apparently “unavailable otherwise.” His group was assigned the first mission of the day on June 6th, 1944. He went on to fly 62 missions in France and Belgium.

And before all of this, he moved 34 times and changed schools 28 times before graduating from high school. There’s so much to talk about.

A Blast From the Past

I’ve been reading a lot recently on literacy narratives, chronicles of time and transformation in which writers reflect on their past experiences reading, writing and communicating in conversation with others.  I’m intrigued with what I might find myself writing were I to begin a literacy narrative project, especially considering my literacy, as it stands, is only just in its infantile stages of development.  Today, for example, I had the opportunity to sit down with an associate professor at Syracuse University for half an hour to discuss publication, PhD programs and the world of writing and rhetoric.  The conversation, frankly, changed my outlook on my own literacy and, now that I think on it, my own personal narrative as a writer and a scholar.

So, here’s a link to my own literacy narrative published in The Crystallize Review way back in May of 2015.  Excuse the existentialism present in its opening (and closing) lines (and middle lines, too, ugh)– I was big into Sartre and Camus at the time.  I still am.

Here’s to always questioning our own literacies, and to writing reflectively about our relationships to knowledge, reading and writing themselves.

Writing and Mindfulness

Writing and Mindfulness

I first encountered meditation during the spring semester of my senior year of college.  A group of twenty or so of us sat in a two-tiered circle, red and blue light shimmering inside from the interfaith center’s stained glass windows, as a philosophy professor/smiling mystic led us in breathing exercises.  These exercises relaxed our group of early-20’s non-Buddhists, set a tone and a mood for the mid-morning class session, and were followed by some tai chi and finally fifteen minutes of focused stretching and meditation.  They were, looking back, one of the most peculiar and most productive aspects of my entire undergraduate experience.

I moved away that summer, first to Massachusetts and then to Buffalo, New York.  In each place, I brought my meditation pillow along with me, stuffing it into suitcases whose finite space it filled half of. In Buffalo, I entered graduate school. My daily habits reading and writing improved during this time. In fact, this was when I first developed a real understanding of what it meant to consciously fill my day with the parts of my life that meant to the most to me一 see here.  My mindfulness habits, however, fell off almost completely. I don’t mean to say they’d even really developed in the first place, as meditation was something I would do once a week during class and then fail to find the time for on subsequent weekdays, but once I entered graduate school the meditation pillow became permanently stuffed underneath my bed, little more than a prop in a story to tell guests when they entered the confines of the room.

At the NeMLA conference I attended in Baltimore last weekend, I caught a number of sessions within my chosen field of writing, composition and rhetorical study.  The panels dealt with a range of topics一 smartphone communication, syntactic instruction, classroom collaboration, online learning groupwork, food-writing communities, public writing initiatives, even emoji linguistics and emoji poetry. One can’t go wrong with any of these panels, and the people leading many of them were outgoing, well-informed and happy to answer my questions on their respective topics (and as a burgeoning scholar, I had plenty of questions, which I did not hesitate to ask).  The panel that struck me most, though, taking into account my current and future profession of teaching college writing and composition, was a panel on mindfulness, meditative mind exercises and their intersection with the craft of writing.

My approach to teaching writing is to walk my students slowly through a continuum of skills: exploring and discovering what’s out there and what we already know, brainstorming ideas, organizing topics and details, researching thoroughly, sitting down at a desk, opening up a Google Doc (I require my students to write in this mode, as we utilize a Chrome extension tool called Draftback to track our writing habits), and then, as we inevitably will do, typing haphazardly and semi-focusedly as we ease ourselves into the abyss of, as Anne Lamott would say, our “shitty first drafts.”

Indeed, I oftentimes feel this is the one aspect of writing instruction I occasionally fail my students in.  How do I teach them to visualize a composition that fulfills all of their goals, and then to make it happen, to piece a project together? I attempt this through project-based learning. I can lecture on MLA format and in-text citations with ease. I can fix syntax and semantic errors in a jiffy. I can lead next-level conversations on ethos, pathos and logos, and I can introduce my students to writers even more informative than I.  I can talk all day about the craft of writing一 if you ask my students, they’ll tell you that I often do.  But how do I help my students enter the “flow” that getting words down on the page of your “shitty first draft” requires?

Writing is thinking, but it’s far more than that. How might we teach the mindstate that a steady, sustained outpouring of words requires? How does one develop “intuition” in the craft of writing?

There have been a number of so-called “turns” in rhetoric and composition. I think our field has a particular penchant for them, actually.  My recent interests are in the “public turn” and the “apocalyptic turn” that Paul Lynch, among others, have written about in the age of the anthropocene.

The surge in interest in the public humanities, in neuroscience, in interdisciplinary work within the study of writing and writing communities is of tremendous interest (and excitement) to me.  A former teacher of mine incorporated implicit elements of mindfulness into his class sessions.  His influence on my teaching has been substantial, and have led to my own experimentation with focused, guided thinking in my own classrooms. Though he never came out and directly stated it, there was clear and decisive focus on freewriting, freethinking, contemplation, journaling, reflection, questioning, communicative thinking, inclusive group construction, and contemplation of music and art within his classes. I now build my classes, a few years later, on this type of model.

This isn’t a “take your shoes off when you enter and light a few candles” type of mindfulness initiative. It’s deeper, more substantial, more valuable than that.  It’s thinking-oriented. We aren’t concerned with appearances or aesthetics or with giving our students funny stories of their wacko professors to tell their friends about. Instead, our focus is on asking our students to connect the intuition of their interior lives with the words (worlds) on their pages of writing. Moving in this direction, bridging this gap a bit over the course of a semester, is the ultimate goal.  

A recent panel at CCCC’s in Portland (Rhet/Comp’s largest conference) tackled the emerging theorem of mindfulness in the writing classroom.  A panel at NeMLA that I participated in explored the topic as well. Steve Shoemaker spoke very elegantly about the “neuroturn” in metacognition and mindfulness in his own research and classrooms, as well as about his attempts to instill a “focused-but-relaxed” mindstate in his his students as they enter the writing act. Neuroplasticity, the human brain’s magnificent and breathtaking ability to rewire and reconfigure itself, requires practice and repetition.  Shoemaker enlists freewriting exercises in his classroom to make this happen.  Another scholar-teacher on the panel, Natalie Mera Ford, incorporates a “friday freespace” writing activity into her curricula in which students write creatively, reflectively and without restriction in a notebook separate from anything they do elsewhere in the class.  Rachel Spear opens some of her classes with a short yoga exercise activity; when performed once, it’s a gimmick and isn’t especially productive, but when repeated time and time again, it seems to make an impression on students, especially those in STEM-oriented fields who aren’t normally asked to discuss emotions, feelings and mindsets in their writing.  

I teach at an athletically-minded school, and my typical classes aren’t composed of English or humanities majors. Regardless, we find ways to incorporate mindfulness into the classroom each day and do our best to weave it into the act of writing itself.  Writing is a craft that’s intertwined with mindfulness, though not how the uninitiated reader might expect: it’s a craft of controlled breathing as often as it is of sudden bursts of revelatory insight; of piecing together coarse and jagged paragraph fragments as often as it’s a steady flow, a Zen-like trance; of writing banality as often as it is of writing insight, stimulus, arousals.

I’ve become interested lately in neuroscience, particularly on interpersonal neurobiology, how our social relationships shape our brains.  Kirke Olsen explores this topic in her book The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience and Mindfulness in Schools, which I suggest wholeheartedly for anyone interested in the subject.  Incorporating mindfulness, both explicitly and implicitly (more of what I’ve been doing with my classrooms) into the teaching of writing is a means of teaching our students a variety of difficult thought elements, but I’ve found it particularly helpful in one specific area: personal intuition, vital for student growth and empowerment.

Vanderbilt University maintains an excellent website on contemplative pedagogy for incorporating mindfulness into the daily class meeting. For further reading, I’d suggest giving their site a visit.  Otherwise, I love talking about this stuff.  Get at me.

I’m done writing for the morning (the watch on my nightstand says it’s 8:21AM).  In a few minutes, I’ll prop myself down on the floor, stretch, and tap on my muscles with my fists as my old philosophy teacher once instructed me to do.  

I’ll be sitting quietly, doing nothing.  I may write again after.  I will likely be in the mood for it.