digital rhetoric

The Write Brain

Recently I read through Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. The book expands on his Wired article where he argues that we are coming to the end of the knowledge worker era where elite American professions were typified by "left-brain," rational processes–jobs like engineering, programming, accounting, and so on. In it’s place he sees the increased importance of "right brain" creative processes–design, storytelling,  seeing the big picture.

The book is lite, as you might imagine a book for a general readership to be. And I am not as enthusiastic about the changes Pink foresees as he is. Yet, I also think there is some validity to what he is predicting and something useful to how he tries to characterize "right-brain" professionals (as long as one doesn’t try to get all left-brain analytical about what he’s trying to say).

In any case, I am a little concerned about the fate of higher ed, particularly the teaching of writing. Obviously higher ed is going online. Some may complain about it; some may say it’s not the same or not as good. But I don’t think any of that is going to change the fact that online education is going to expand. So if we can teach composition online, why not hire MA’s from India to teach it?

Pink writes

To survive in this age, individuals and organizations must examine what they’re doing to earn a living and ask themselves three questions:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

For composition I think the answers are as follows:

  1. Not yet, but soon. I think if we accept the premise that composition can be taught online (and I think we have to accept that), then we also have to accept that it can be taught online from anywhere. If a college could hire an adjunct living in India with an MA in English (perhaps from an American university–perhaps from an online program!) for $300, wouldn’t you think that colleges could eventually figure out the logistics of it and a way to rationalize that decision in terms of education?
  2. Well, we’ve all heard of programs for grading papers. I suppose that could happen some day. Also though, to the extent that a course is comprised of lectures, texts, and other presentations, it can be delivered more effectively by a computer than a person. You could almost imagine a composition course that was simply computer-driven with perhaps some MAs at a help desk.

Before I get to question three, let me pause for a moment.

I don’t entirely agree with my answers to questions one and two, b/c I don’t agree with the implicit vision of composition they represent. Since the (re)birth of composition in the sixties, there’s been a great deal of effort to understand and defend the discipline in left-brain terms. We were in a position of insisting upon the value of composition for a left-brain knowledge economy. The traditions of technical writing are heavily steeped in these values. That’s not to say that everything we did was in those terms (e.g., expressivisim), but much of academic discourse has been about logic and argument and structure.

However, if you read Pink’s book as a rhetorician, it is quickly clear that the right-brain world he’s describing is all about rhetoric. It’s just not about the logical argumentation and values of correctness that has predominated much of composition instruction. Indeed, one of the primary values Pink identifies (symphony) is fundamentally about composition: it’s just a different kind of composition.

Pink’s questions make sense, but like much in his book, they are a little oversimplified (I’m going to guess this is for audience purposes). When we ask if someone overseas can do our job more cheaply, the question is a little misleading. There are already universities and colleges overseas. They could offer cheaper online education than we do, and our schools could hire their professionals at a lower cost.

Instead, at least in Pink’s terms, it is necessary for us to be able to articulate the "right brain" qualities of teaching and writing. It seems obvious that if industrial jobs and information jobs can move overseas that eventually these "conceptual" jobs will also move overseas. I suppose that’s tomorrow’s problem and I don’t know what happens to the global economy when no one can afford to pay Americans enough money to buy all the merchandise built and services offered overseas. But that’s an issue for a different post.

Here I want to focus on the immediate issue of how we might shift from thinking of our discipline and pedagogy as left-brain. That might sound easy, because we have this image of English-types as not-scientific and not-mathematical. However, think of how our discipline-in-practice is permeated by reading quizzes, short answer exams, memorization of poems and literary facts, various trivia-type facts (e.g. who wrote what when?), grammatical "correctness," MLA style, logical argumentation, quotations as evidence, and so on. It’s not that all these things are now "bad." Pink’s point is that we need a whole new mind, both left and right.

So here are some ideas:

  • Pedagogy as real-time, experience design: teaching is not about the rational communciation of discrete pieces of information, nor is it about running a preformatted program. Constructivism talks about creating spaces in which a student-centered practice allows students to engage in their own learning. But we also need to add the time element. Learning is an event. Like the symphony that Pink references, a classroom requires a composer, but it also requires a conductor (though perhaps a jazz ensemble with a leader is a better analogy for the freedom of the right-brain classroom).
  • Writing as rip/mix/burn composition: which I’ve discussed elsewhere, but basically by this I mean seeing writing as unfolding from a network of distributed cognition both inside and outside the body. Writing as an affective talent, feeling one’s way, riding a wave.
  • Rhetoric as design: the notion of rhetoric as ornamentation is longstanding. We’ve generally seen that as a criticism (because until now we’ve consider design to be secondary). Now that design is viewed as central, rhetoric-as-ornamentation should be integral to our approach. In other words, teaching writing should not (only) be about clearly communicating information but about designing the media experience.
  • Ethics and empathy: we can articulate rhetoric as an ethical practice in empathic terms. Audience consideration can and should be about empathizing with the "other."
  • Writing, pedagogy, and community: something we often already do, we need to articulate the importance of establishing a community of writers in the teaching of writing. Pink mentions the rising importance of the MFA and MFA-type thinking (declaring the MFA is the new MBA). Part of what makes the MFA valuable is the pedagogy.

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One reply on “The Write Brain”

Some random observations, backwards to forwards:
There was an article in the NYTimes a couple years ago about MFA’s being the new MBA’s. I pause and wonder whether Pink wrote that article or if he is borrowing the idea. Haven’t read Pink’s book myself.
Second, rhetoric as design, as you postulate it, mirrors rhetoric as performance — not merely a dress for thought but the designing of a consumable experience vis-a-vis words, as you suggest. I am thinking *Conquest of Cool* by Thomas Frank, wherein he makes similar observations.
Third, regarding your thoughts — or Pink’s thoughts — about farming out labor abroad. What’s interesting is that even as the technical labor of mass production (or mass communication in the case of customer service) has increasingly been farmed out, the design work often stays in the United States — I am talking about the design blueprints underlying the mass-manufactured widgets. I recently had a conversation with an artist who does the designs for mass-manufactured, “made in China” paintings that shows up in major American retail stores. The designs are often by American artists. So, in that sense, the creative side of the work is, in fact, staying in the United States. The problem, of course, is that only a select, annointed few get to become the designers — the Martha Stewarts of the world — while other art-craft practitioners are driven out of business by the low-cost, mass-produced imitations. The issue/problem then becomes, by my assessment, one of authenticity and needing to somehow teach consumers why material authenticity and local craftsmanship should matter. Because it really becomes a matter of how craftsmanship is displaced in any automatic, mechanical production system. The sensitivity to materials and craft are lost as the designer is separated from the process of making and the process of making becomes reproduction a la Walter Benjamin.
From a personal standpoint, I have had to do business with a couple of major US corporations who farm out their customer service to India. It’s often an amusing experience when the issue needing resolved is tangengially related to US geography or US law — that’s when the communication process usually breaks down and I have to ask to be transferred to an American customer service rep. As friendly and fluent as the Indian reps are, the cultural translation process can be frustrating all of the same. In other words, they don’t have the same points of reference — thus, I can only imagine, that similar difficulties would appear should universities ever attempt to farm out the teaching of composition. Similarly, students would likely become similarly frustrated and want to be transferred back to American instructors. And I think what budget-cutting university administratrators often forget, is that students do have the final say in the sense that they can vote with their pocketbooks to go elsewhere if they feel that they have been put on an assembly line. You know, maybe there’s something to be said for “rugged individualism” after all — as damned as that concept has become in much of cultural critique, students still have the individual agency to reject the automation of education. Maybe that’s where the right brain kicks into effect.
And it’s long been my sense that in the real world, “right brain” activities such as storytelling and design sell much better, rhetorically-speaking, than “left brain” communicative methods.
Again, random thoughts.


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