Post-process theorists (Kent, 1993), and proponents of Activity Theory place emphasis on language-in-use as public interaction with others in the world while advocating a “problem-posing” concept of education a la Freire. The rejection of the idea of teaching and learning as exercises of mastery is also central to these theories, as is the move away from foundationalist perspectives. Writing, reading, and speaking are situated social acts influenced, in their unfolding, by a plethora of external factors that we have to include in the picture if we want to provide a thick description of various types of verbal interaction. I use the expression “thick descriptions” to intertextually evoke anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s similar focus on context and externalist perspectives as delineated in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). If I understand correctly, David Russel himself associates the move from Process to Post-Process to the corresponding transition from an approach based on psychology to an approach based on sociology and anthropology in the study of writing. Looking at the big picture, the historical evolution of composition theory appears to move from the simple to the complex in response to a theoretical urge for inclusiveness, a drive to expand the scope and the boundaries of research from the text and the solitary (and a bit sad) author to the world that surrounds the author and text, with its bustle and din.
It appears to me that Russell is not dismissive of Process theory but he warns us against the danger inherent in this approach: the danger of overgeneralizing processes until they are useless, the dangers of commodification. When we see how too many textbooks reduce complex theories to dry, lifeless, and template-based instruction, we can’t help wondering what happens to the beauty of theory when theory is gradually translated into pedagogical practice. Perhaps theory is like poetry, as soon as we try to translate “amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona” (Dante) we lose all the beauty of the verse. In other (less-poetic) words, commodification is a dangerous pollutant that can contaminate Activity Theory as well, especially if we try to force students into interpretative patterns and modi operandi without having (gently) guided them towards an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the theory that lays at the foundations of a class activity/assignment.
Kain and Wardle offer a useful set of questions as a starting point for activity theory analysis; their effort is commendable; undoubtedly, they identified a good starting point and a valid method, provided that we constantly try to expand and update their list in keeping with the ethos of this dynamic approach to the study of situated writing.
Gracious and patient reader, before I conclude let me add that Kain and Wardle’s list of questions evoke a similar set of questions that guide research efforts in rhetorical criticism. Shakespearean scholars will also recognize the silhouette of Stephen Greenblatt (neo-historicism) hovering around Activity Theory: what the New Historicists reacted against was the idea that the text stands alone, isolated from the audience, separated from its historical context, from all other works that came before it, etc.
How can you describe the connection between Post-Process and Activity Theory?
Is Activity Theory a way to translate the vagueness and poetic beauty of Post-Process into operative prose and a pedagogical strategy?