the pedagogic agora: cognitive demons at the crossroads

Jeff Rice writes about situation in the teaching of writing, noting the importance, as a writer, of recognizing one’s situation within a network. Yes, of course, we always talk about the "rhetorical situation," the well-worn rhetorical triangle with its counter-intuitively four(?) parts: author, audience, context, and medium. But that rhetorical situation has been a commonplace and as such hardly a "place," a situation, at all.

Classically rhetoric is in/of the agora: the marketplace, the crossroads. Yet the academy, classically, is not, and writing pedagogies, including textbooks, have generally sought to remove composition from the marketplace, to purify the writing process, (as I said earlier) to suck the air out of the writing classroom. Rice is right in noting "a textbook always feels like the last place to find intersections." Unfortunately (at least from some perspectives), writing can’t really be extricated from the market. It’s value is always a market value, unlike the imagined absolute value on the constative statements of science.

More importantly, writing always occurs at a material intersection. There’s a symbolic-informational network participating in every compositional event. There’s also an embodied, cognitive, material network (interlinked with that symbolic-informational network) in every compositional event. All the cultural-ideological matters we discuss unfold within these networks. They are apprehensions of these material, networked events, which feedback into the event (which is how ideology shapes composition–apprehending yourself as a "writer" shapes the events of composition).

So this leads us back to the crossroads.

The crossroads, as we all learned from Robert Johnson, is the site of supplication: pray to the lord and sell your soul to the devil. The crossroads of compositional events is the site where the fantasied, independent authorial mind intersects with the cognitive demons of the mediascape. It’s not magic, and it’s not romanticized. It’s a recognition of the permeability of the presumed boundary between the inside and outside of thought. Perhaps you can apprehend some of the affective vectors intersecting a compositional event and put them to the question, pin them on a grid of rhetorical tropes, name them as citations, or call them inspirations. But, of course, you can never capture them all.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t teach writing. But it does mean that you can’t capture it, purify it, and put it in a textbook. It means that you learn to write in the marketplace, at the crossroads, even though there are risks.

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5 replies on “the pedagogic agora: cognitive demons at the crossroads”

Sounds romantic. Sounds like Keating.
This: “Perhaps you can apprehend some of the affective vectors intersecting a compositional event and put them to the question, pin them on a grid of rhetorical tropes, name them as citations, or call them inspirations. But, of course, you can never capture them all.”
Sounds like a watered down version of
This: “I want to hear nothing but ripping of Mr. Pritchard.”


There’s no doubt that the Romantics sought to understand their process. But this is not the celebration of individuality or personal expression. It is a refutation of the claim of the totalizing power of ideology and the claims for totalizing knowledge that some brands of critical theory claim as their own.
But it is not the individual or the individual’s “expression” that go free here. I’m talking about subpersonal, molecular, micropolitcal affects.
Inasmuch as one can see a networked event occurs at one particular node, the compositional event takes place within the embodied cognitive processes of the writer. Those processes are fed a continual stream of media and information. All the information arrives as affective vectors, as intensities: light, sound, pressure on the skin, etc. Those intensities carry other coded information–words, images, graphics, etc. In the recursive flow of this network of distributed cognition, we compose conscious thoughts, which form a basis for what we compose “on paper.” But those thoughts are only part of the event, and the narrative we might create about “how we compose” is also partial.
It’s perhaps the dramatic reversal of the romanticism you identify. Even in Keats’ negative capability, the author allows himself to be influenced. There is no creative genius here, just the unfolding of thought across a network of distributed cognition and a compositional event that might be located at a particular node, situated in a network, but only for pragmatic, tactical, rhetorical purposes.


No, I mean it sounds romantic in the sense of wanting and needing the mystery. You say it isn’t magic, but what else but? The academic take on it is, seems to me, terribly romantic. Not with a capital R. Keating, not Keats. Even draped all about with the academic speak–“the recursive flow of this network of distributed cognition”–it all seems to boil down to “it’s all very mysterious, overdetermined, and partial–we don’t know how it works, and any attempt to codify, describe, or even just *relate* it must, perforce, fail.” So, what’s new or useful in that? Is it something we didn’t know? Is it materially different an urge than, “Be gone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.”? Seems, on the face of it, not to be. And it even involves the same kind of tortured self-esasure: whatever you say–even any attempt to edge up on the complexity–is immediately undone. Ripping the pages out is, itself, an act of simultaneous destruction and composition.
Fun, in a bleak sort of way, but what to do with it as a writer or a teacher or a teacher of other writing teachers? What to do with it even in the more rarefied realm of writing studies?


aahhh. OK. Well that’s a good question, and I have a couple responses to it.
1. I think there can, must, be a separation between research in writing and teaching writing. Research does not need to be held to the standard of being practical for teachers.
2. I suppose it is mystification, or at least estrangement, but to me it is more a critique of the attempted codification of writing by textbooks and teachers. Obviously one can abstract something from writing, call it “basic” or “fundamental,” and devise some systematic pedagogic program from it. I think this is why so many teachers fall back on grammar where they feel they can mark things as right or wrong (even though even that concept of “error” is largely arbitrary).
3. While I don’t believe that you can draw a total picture of the process of composition, one can certainly develop a “good enough” understanding of how composition unfolds to develop tactics and strategies. Obviously we do this all the time. I suppose that if we believe that an understanding of compositional processes, whatever they may be, is of use to a writer, then I would think that studying the network in which composition unfolds offers a better representation of that process than the “divine inspiration of the solitary author” or the conventional representation of the writing process or the social-epistemic analysis of discourse communities.
I suppose it is somewhat bleak, but it isn’t romantic to me but instead philosophical (in the everyday sense of “being philosophical” about a situation). Composition encompasses a complex network of embodied, cognitive, material, technological, cultural elements. I don’t think we are in a position to account for all of them. To me that’s not a romantic statement; it’s a recognition of the epistemological limits of the work we do.


Yes, that’s what makes it so deeply absorbing, so fun, so delightfully maddening–it is beyond accounting. You find the philosphy in that, and I see the poetry in the philosopy: “They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?”
Composition–oceans in thimbles. And so we watch. Sometimes, that can be bleak (poetry and philosophy, both, do entail and even require some steady looks at the bleak), but then again it’s a great cosmic joke, and a thing that’s, in some respects, both at the heart of the matter and quite beside the point. Human sexuality, too, is a quite beyond our accounting, and still we study it, find it absorbing, learn tons from it, and so can grow, if all goes well, much more compassionate about our entire approach to it. And there, too, our study might or might not lead us to become any better at dealing with it on a personal, day-to-day level. Still, people snap up the books that make the whole gloriously complex mess somehow more approachable, even though these texts inevitably simplify–inevitably fail to account for every factor and variable. So what? It’s a path in. And those beginner texts vary in quality and purpose–some make better paths toward academic and philosphical appreciation than others, and some make better paths toward coping with immediate issues than others. That’s okay. Writing texts are a path in. What matter if it’s The Joy of Sex or the Joy of Text? Sex isn’t a collection of techniques. Writing isn’t a collection of techniques. But the collections of techniques can open worlds of possibilities people had never before considered. Dr. Ruth and Grammar Girl–not all that different. Often, just the open discussion about the topic at hand lifts what may seem like simplistic conversations to a higher place–a place, for instance, where people *do* talk about things, think about them, wonder about them, and not only learn, but begin to develop an attitude of learning.
So. Probably the last ten or so years of my teaching career, I required students to secure access to our online space, but didn’t require a textbook. Still, I love textbooks for what they are. I don’t expect them to be what they aren’t.


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