Linda Flower and John R Hayes address a crucial problem in the field of Composition, a problem that, if solved, could provide a way out of many excruciating pedagogical dilemmas. They opt for a scientific method and elect protocol analysis as their research tool. Now, I believe that this is where the problems start. Saying aloud has an impact on the very cognitive processes that the researchers are trying to investigate. If I need to report orally on what I am thinking when I write and as I write, other areas of my brain are likely to be activated and my writing task will have to compete with other tasks that I will have to complete. In other words, the whole writing process will be impacted by the research protocol.
The second problem with Flower and Hayes’ is that they want to move beyond the linear model by using metaphors that are ensconced in linear models. At the foundation of their theoretical constructions lies the keyword “hierarchy.” Events in a hierarchical process “are not fixed in a rigid order,” they claim. The Oxford dictionary defines hierarchy as “A system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.” The semantic prosody of a word is shaped by the words that tend to co-occur with it, two important ones, in the case of hierarchy, are ranking and power. Is ranking non-linear? Are power structures non-linear? In opposition to the arborescent model that works with vertical connections, Deleuze and Guattari have proposed the terms “rhizome” and “rhizomatic” as the kernels of an alternative metaphor to describe structures and networks. I believe that Flower and Hayes could have chosen better metaphors to ‘translate’ their cognitive theory. Patricia Bizzell deals with this word choice issue with a touch of irony: “we find out eventually that ‘monitor’ means simply ‘the writer’s mind making decisions.”
Besides methodology and terminology, Flower and Hayes’s approach and the assumptions that sustain their research raise criticism for the lack of focus on context. As Patricia Bizzell argues, their inner-directed approach does not take into consideration the “social processes whereby language learning and the thinking capacities are shaped and used in particular communities.” Our cultural affiliations have a profound impact in the development of our cognitive faculties and functions. I learnt how to write essays in Italian from educators (both teachers and parents) who always emphasized the importance of the stage of ‘translation’ whereas I notice that in the US the focus is on invention and arrangement. We could ask ourselves if these two different approaches to the teaching of writing have an impact on cognitive processes.
While not dismissive of the cognitive turn tout court, Bizzell is right on target when she shines a light on the limits of Flower and Hayes’s research: “what is missing here is the connection to social context afforded by recognition of the dialectical relationship between though and language.” Because she understands language as an expression of the culture of social groups and discourse communities, she attributes educational problems associated with language use to the difficulties that students have when it comes to join unfamiliar discourse communities; when it comes to speak a language and follow rhetorical conventions that they do not understand. Bizzell concedes that perhaps learning language does not exactly teach us to think (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but it certainly “teaches us what thoughts matter,” in a specific social group, I would add. I believe that Bizzell deconstructs Flower and Hayes’s theory in a very effective way, not by simply belittling their efforts, but by advocating for more inclusive theories that can reconcile inner and outer-directed approaches to the study of writing.
Question I: can we formulate universal rules for context-based activities?
Question II: does bilingualism have an impact on cognitive processes?