we have never written by process

Recent talk of process has made me curious about the role that Latour has or hasn’t played in rhetoric and composition. Thanks to the great work Collin and others have done with CCC Online, you can actually search the works cited of CCC articles going back to 1987. So that’s a start.

Looking there you can see Latour cited in a Mike Rose article in 1988 that deals with issues of cognition and teaching. There’s a second article in 1990 by Dorothy Winsor on engineering, one by Cynthia Selfe in 1999 that deals with technology and literacy, and two in 2005 by DeVoss et al on new media and Moskovitz and Kellog on science writing. That’s not to say these articles deal substantively with Latour, only that Latour appears in the works cited page.

Check MLA and you’ll get 19 hits for Latour, Bruno dating back to 1994, seven in 2005-06, mostly in "theory" journals or science fiction or science studies. Nothing in rhet/comp. Search for latour in comp pile and you’ll get four hits. Two articles from the journal Science, Technology, and Values, a dissertation from 1995, and an article in an essay collection on the machine grading of student writing. Of course this doesn’t tell the whole story. Latour has been put to work in technical writing. In TCQ there have been more than a dozen references in the last few years. It is also not uncommon to find reference to Latour in computers and composition.

However, there is a general story here. We read Latour as speaking to the issues of science and technology. Those of us in English Studies interested in those matters, whether we study science fiction or technical writing or computers and writing or science and literature, have a tendency to reference Latour. Otherwise, not so much.

But there are some very interesting implications, particularly about process, in thinking through Latour.

For example, as is oft-cited, Latour discusses Robert Boyle’s invention of the vacuum pump as a significant node in the emergence of modernity. Boyle used the device to conduct experiments that allowed him to fabricate scientific facts (e.g. Boyle’s Law). These facts where then able to spread, with the device. That is, where one had a pump, one could re-fabricate these facts. In this fashion knowledge passes along a network, through the mediation of non-human actors like the pump.

How does the "writing process" spread? Like Boyle, who brought in gentlemen scholars to witness his experiments, we bring graduate students into pedagogy courses and fyc programs to witness the experiment of teaching and to practice conducting the practice themselves. Instead of a pump, we have textbooks that mediate the spread of the writing process across fyc programs. We have programmatic syllabi, course requirements, and so on that serve the same purpose in local contexts. Typically we have the process rolled inside the modes. So students write mode-driven essays (e.g. compare/contrast, the argument, the summary, the process, the research paper) and in each instance they reinact the same general process (invent, draft, revise, edit). Like Boyle’s laboratory, FYC is a writing lab where we can suck all the
air out of the room and fabricate facts about the writing process, an
activity that can be repeated in other labs provided that we pass along
the non-human actors (textbooks) and train the teachers to use the
devices.

That is what we propagate. It is certainly what gets propagated at Cortland where the particular required modes are "respond to one reading," "respond to two or more readings" (i.e. compare/contrast), the argument, and the research paper.

Is it good or bad? I don’t care. Not interested in judgment. Certainly we could make a similar analysis with computers and writing. (In fact I do something along these lines in an article I’m working on right now.)

Equally interesting to me is the way process theory (or theories) rely upon the dividing up of knowledge and the abstraction of knowledge from materiality. As Latour argues about science, scientists can insist that their knowledge is objective and pure, even as they fabricate it in labs that work in social competition with one another and wrangle over grants and laws and commerical applications and so on. Knowledge like the process is made possible by the dividing up of the
world which says we can make the brain into a black box, and we don’t

have to worry about social contexts outside the immediate context of
the author and audience–though in doing so, we overlook that
the process is mediated by textbooks, syllabi, classrooms, general
education requirements, discoures on literacy, perceptions of student
writing, and so on.

So if post-process is generally (though not in all cases) an assertion of the social, it tends to function as using the social (and hence ideology) as a framework for composition. However, much like the writing lab knowledge of the process, ideology is also fabricated at local sites and mediated across the network by non-human actors. I should note there isn’t any particular origin point, just a starting point for investigation. Process does originate in the lab. Ideology doesn’t originate at a particular point. But we could say, from Latour’s perspective, that neither process nor ideology serves as a meta-structure for the other. The crucial point being here that situating writing practices as a function of ideology doesn’t offer much insight into how to write.

Learning to study the local interactions that shape writing practices may be a kind of specialized knowledge that is unnecessary for most writers. I’m not suggesting that we teach these things in FYC. I’m just suggesting that the relatively unsophisticated practices we teach students, while perhaps appropriate for them, may not actually describe writing. But then this has always been a kind of dividing point in rhet/comp, right? Is a focused on figuring out ways to teach students to write better? Or is it focused on the study of writing practices? Perhaps both, but the two are not necessarily reinforcing. There’s plenty in the latter that would be of little use to the former, and focusing on the former probably wouldn’t get you very far with the latter.

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5 thoughts on “we have never written by process

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  1. Well said. I would add that the processes we teach students, which are the processes of experienced writers, are not the processes through which experienced writers acquire their expertise. And knowing the processes of learning (to write) is as important as knowing the processes of experienced writers.

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  2. I hope Charles pops back in to say more about “the processes through which experienced writers acquire their expertise.” I think there’s a key notion, there, and one I’d enjoy hearing about in more depth.

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  3. Yes, the separation between fabricating approaches to teaching composition and fabricating understandings of composing–neither of which are separable from their devices–is a place where more interesting exploration might transpire. As one who mostly identifies as “writer” rather than “writing teacher,” these days, I find myself actually more absorbed than ever by the devices of teaching composition, though, and the ways in which so many of those alienate the writer and the writing.
    Sometimes, I’m in a good enough mood to explore the richness of the alienation, but often I just find it disheartening. Academics writing endlessly for each other, farther and farther away from writers.
    In the heyday of process theories, we dragged actual writers in all the time. I rather miss that.

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  4. Charles, I think a good part of the process by which experienced writers learned to write goes back to motivation (something I blogged about a few posts ago). I discovered a desire to learn to write when I was in elementary school. It was a product of reading fantasy and science fiction and dreaming of writing my own story. One of the first guides to writing I picked up was good, ol’ Strunk and White. I think most comp teachers would agree that that kind of prescriptive instruction is not ideal. However, I learned much from that book, not so much b/c it was great, but b/c I was motivated.
    We find ourselves, however, in a difficult professional bind. As a researcher of writing and writers, I am separated from those objects. Should my research be of interest or use to the average writer? Not necessarily. Should it have the purpose of helping teachers teach writing? Again, not necessarily. Instead, the research simply manufactures knowledge about writers and writing. Now, that said, in principle, as some point this knowledge might be applied to writing practice and teaching.
    At least that would be the general model of academic research, right?
    By the same token, researchers certainly could focus on teaching practices or more practically-oriented, “applied” research.
    In any case, we would need to recognize (and I believe we do) that rhet/comp scholars are not the only ones manufacturing knowledge about writing. There are novelists, poets, playwrights, etc. There are also journalists, technical writers, and other professional writers and editors, as well as the amateur writers of the blogosphere and such. Finally, there are many writing teachers who do not produce scholarship (at least not in writing).

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  5. Here are thoughts I’m still muddling through.
    Certainly, comp/rhet scholars can research the processes of writers or the processes by which people develop their writing or anything else related to writing. But if we teach FYC, creative writing, etc., then we have some responsibility for understanding how our students learn. And we shouldn’t conflate the two. Yet that seems to be the approach of many. That is, composition instructors teach according to a sort of “Here You Are and There You Need to Be” approach that notes the two ends but does not map out the path of processes connecting them and through which good writers acquired their expertise. Perhaps that mapping is not necessary, but we should at least recognize that it exists.
    What is that mapping? One way of looking at it is contradictions. Whether you take a radical constructivist perspective or a sociocultural one, it ends up being a resolving of contradictions that drive learning: contradictions, or dissonance as Sommers put it, between individual understandings or contradictions among individuals and social activities. Because contradictions are ever present, I’m not sure how it can help us in our teaching.
    Another way of looking at it is levels of recombining and emerging building blocks–not mechanically but dynamically. Think in terms of DNA: four building blocks have recombined and emerged in myriads of species.
    This is similar to Leont’ev’s “ascending from the abstract to the concrete,” but I draw upon John Holland’s model of complex systems. He gives an example of quarks as the fundamental building block in physics, which when combined, give rise to the next level of nucleons, which in turn combine to form atoms, and so on. Notice the combining of building blocks at one level lead to a new building block at another level that has different properties than those of the previous level.
    Again, this is not a mechanical process but a dynamic one of interaction, adaptation, and emergence. Like DNA, interactions between building blocks of writing and social environments generate species of, for example, arguments, each one adapting to social niches, such as political speeches, academic articles, newspaper editorials, and family squabbles.
    As with contradictions, to recombine ideas is fairly normal in learning. After all, nothing is learned de novo. But we gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: it adds an interlocking picture of the structure of whatever we are studying.
    What should those building blocks be? I’m not sure yet. Perhaps something out of classical rhetoric, something out of systemic functional linguistics, or yet something else. But one thing that makes sense to me is that novice writers aren’t at the same level as experienced writers, and so aren’t using the same building blocks. This is one of my main interests: to determine building blocks at different levels that when recombined take a writer to another level. Teaching then becomes understanding what level students are at, orienting them toward recombining building blocks appropriate to their experience, re-orienting them to the new blocks and again recombining them in ways that create a coherent understanding and development of writing.
    Obviously, I’m interested in researching how people learn. But although it’s not entirely clear to me yet, I am “motivated” to figure it out.

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