Post on Cognitive Process (Massimo)

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?





8 thoughts on “Post on Cognitive Process (Massimo)

  1. The cognitivists seem to address a gap in conceptualizing students as people. An important assumption within their theorizing is that people are indeed uniform. The conclusion of Perl that “all of the students displayed consistent composing processes” (31) points to this uniformity. A similar finding emerges with Flower and Hayes, though tempered with the idea of student empowerment “to explore ideas, to develop, act on, test, and regenerate his or her own goals […] putting an important part of creativity where it belongs — in the hands of the working, thinking writer” (274).

    I appreciate the recognition that students might possess the capacity as people to learn writing rather than as ‘sponges’. But Flowers and Hayes pose an interesting question, to your point Massimo, “how is ‘knowledge’ about audience actually integrated into the moment-by-moment act of composing?” (254). That is, Flowers and hayes seem to acknowledge “a total process of writing” of which these cognitive processes are but a part. The metaphor upon which they depend is a network (265). I feel odd having to take this position, but, in defense of hierarchies, an act has to begin “somewhere” and proceed from that point. A hierarchy is only troublesome if a given node (to use the network metaphor) receives preferential treatment. Arguably, any composition theory will bestow preferential treatment (privilege) to some portion of the larger whole of existence. We as a department privilege genre, right? And only some genres. I find that the cognitivists, in an important step for composition theory, place that privilege upon the student as a creator — on writers as creators. Returning to your question, I question whether the finding of a single, biological-determined process is possible without factoring into consideration social circumstances.

    For some reason, Bloom’s taxonomy's_taxonomy seems to linger within the Flowers and Hayes piece. They do not cite the work, so perhaps the fault is with me as I associate the taxonomy very close with educational theories. However, your discussion of ranking and hierarchy reminded me of the taxonomy once again.

    I think more caution is necessary when seeking alternative metaphors. Deleuze and Guattari resort to rhizomes as a visualization beyond the flatness of 2-dimensional drawings; it is useful for breaking the specious logic of the “decent of [hu]man” by showing a sequence of hominids — which culminates with “us” (contemporary human beings). The reductionism is apparent, and rhizomes seem like a nifty way to break the metaphor; however, rhizomes are in a manner of speaking “upside down trees.” In terms of data visualization, a rhizome is equivalent to a tree — intertwined lines with shared points of origin, periodically forking into thinner lines. As a counter metaphor proposal, Peter Sloterdijk offers “bubbles”. Bubbles have moving “borders” and, more importantly, can “inflate” or “deflate”, “join” other bubbles to form “foam” — it is an interesting ontological theory which I do not want to explore as it becomes to tangential.

    The second question is tricky because bilingualism suggests more about a person’s social situation which effects cognition, right? Too many confounding factors exist to attribute cognitive traits to language. Also, what level of fluency is necessary for the effects upon cognition to be apparent? My Chinese abilities are really poor, but living in China changed my way of thinking because the social interactions were quite different. Many heritage Chinese, who have much higher fluency than I possess, experience similar shocks attributable to social interaction. They (interestingly) often report feeling “more American” being in China. [Erika, any input?]

    The premise that I work from appears in “Crazy Like Us” by Ethan Watters. Watters posits a heuristic: infect the culture, and the cognition alters accordingly. Watters is concentrating specifically on how cognitive states are perceived as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) gains greater acceptance in nations beyond the US. For example, is depression an illness or a healthy reaction to certain events? Can depression begin as a healthy reaction then become an illness? What is the threshold for that distinction? More importantly, when (if at all) should a psychiatric drug intervene for a person as a resolution to depression? In Japan, the answer was very rarely is depression an illness and almost never should a drug intervention occur. Then in the 1990s GlaxoSmithKline hired Japanese actresses and even the royal princess for commercials and lobbying. Within the span of six months, a pronounced increase in the number of clinically depressed individuals occurred and pills flowed from clinics at a steady rate. An “interpretation” was exported from the US (drug manufacturers) into the Japanese populace. I find knowing two languages will not have a similar effect on cognition. However, I fight the strong version of the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis whenever I encounter it because the abundance of counterfactuals seem sufficient to discount the claim. As a rebuttal to my firm stance on the strong S-W, I recommend “Babel No More” by Michael Erard for an exploration of the weak version of the S-W; also, polyglots are neat and it seems they highly concentrated in a few areas of the world with a few recurring factors.


    • Part of what your last segment in this comment raises for me is the issue of trying to normalize cognition or figure out what “normal” cognition is. You and others have brought up the cultural differences that seem to affect cognition, we’re talking about writing itself altering cognition (we’ll read Ong’s “Writing Is a Technology that Alters Thought”), and when you discuss mental illness or even variation, the question of finding a generalizable cognitive process seems even more in vain. But putting that search aside, because I think we are in agreement as a field that we are unlikely to find a single usable process, how do we deal with the variation? How to track, study, teach when each learner’s experiences and inclinations are so different? I often get questions when doing research about the demographics of the population studied, and I value our tracking of difference in that environment, but at times i wonder how finely grained is enough? All white women from the midwest with disease in their families? And how to appropriately customize writing instruction? Perhaps if I step away from thinking like a teacher, I can envision the individual writer taking more control of his or her writing and learning about writing. Perhaps the role of the teacher is to help writers get meta and try new tools and techniques, but with an eye to the writer’s specific backgrounds.


  2. I would like to address second question that Massimo posed: “Does bilingualism have an impact on cognitive processes?”

    Myself being a non-native speaker who learnt five languages, I would definitely say “yes” in answer to the question. For a bilingual or a multilingual, it is not only ideas that are being “translated” (Flower and Hayes) or “poured” (Bizzell) into words. The first thing to consider would be “is the writer actually thinking in the same language that she is writing in?” The protocol tool by Flower and Hayes would certainly prove to be inefficient while looking at the cognitive processes of such writers. There are much more complex processes going on within “planning, translating and reviewing.” A bilingual/multilingual writer might be involved in thinking in one language, or maybe more, then translating the thought into target language and then writing. Translation from one language to the other is a constant pressure on the mind of the writer that even hinders flow of thought. One of the habits of poor writers according to the theorists is that they focus more on editing while writing instead of thought and idea. Bilingual/multilingual writers struggle with word choice more while writing. They might exactly know what word would suit more in L1 or L2 but translating the word into target language may be a challenge. In order for the text to be ready for “reviewing” it has to be written first in the target language!

    One may argue that the cognitive processes during the writing process of a writer may be analyzed when the writer is writing in L1. The dilemma here would be that English being the language of international academic writing, the writers are not trained to write in languages that they think most comfortably in. So writing in the mother tongue or the National language will even be harder for such writers because of their lack of understanding of the conventions of academic writing in the particular discourse they are supposed to write in.


    • At risk of relying too heavily on anecdotal evidence, Neelam, I’d like to further explore this idea of secondary language acquisition by sharing an experience, an observation really, I’ve made retrospectively from living in Spain some years ago that I feel tangentially addresses your comment, “Translation from one language to the other is a constant pressure on the mind of the writer that even hinders flow of thought.” This concern becomes readily apparent for English speakers from the United States trying to learn another language. I say this because it seems as if traditional American educational attitudes based on lexical correctness (Perl 35), emphasis on a finished, polished products (29), and privileging a hegemonic standardization toward a “normal” discourse (Bizzell 388) results in a couple of things: 1) U.S. English speakers always already view their language as the standard and devalue other discourse communities, including, perhaps especially, other languages; and 2) such rigidity about correctness stymies language acquisition because it reduces the process to a “dualistic” commodity (Bizzell 300), a worldview that consists of right and wrong, of absolutes, that generates fear of the exploration and contingency necessary to learn and apply a new language.

      I saw this mindset play out in my own learning experience with Spanish. I received fairly rigorous grammatical and lexical training in preparation for my trip from an American institution that was convinced the best way for learners to learn Spanish was for teachers to teach it as if it was English, but a bit more Spanish, if that makes any sense. Consequently, when I arrived in Spain after six years of Spanish in school and two months of intense language training, I knew words, conjugations, and several rules that govern the textbook version of the language. More than anything, as I reflect upon the experience now, I remember a psychological barrier, as if a voice constantly whispered that I did not know Spanish well enough to speak it. Many of the Americans in Spain I knew experienced a similar inhibiting fear and kept silent until they felt confident enough to adequately and accurately represent the language, or their interpretation of its technical correctness. Some refused to learn the language and relied on English as a universal linguistic convergence point. Of course, many Spaniards speak English fluently and are not afraid to practice on English speakers. That difference alone makes me suspect of error oriented approaches to language instruction.

      I suppose these reflections attempt to understand the attitudes that have shaped and continue to shape American perceptions of language in the broader community of world languages. Bizzell criticizes “a heterogeneous school population” in which “pedagogical choices will affect students unequally,” that privileges “certainty” (387). It is that certainty that distracts from rather than encourages learners to seek context, embrace error, and challenge existing worldviews.

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      • I concur and find this an interesting connection to our discussion even though writing instruction for native speakers and language instruction for non-natives may call up different challenges. But that crippling attention to surface-level accuracy seems to trip up language users in many contexts. I also reflect on the senior level Advanced Writing Workshop I taught in my first semester here. The students were capable but had been taught by a professor who continued to be very concerned with grammar and assigned grammar notebooks in college. These students wrote very clean prose but it was dead. There was no there there. So, from non-native speakers to native but struggling writers to highly effective writers, the strong attention to grammar and surface level “error” tends to lead to worse writing and less growth as writers.


  3. I find Massimo’s second question fascinating. I am not bilingual, so I cannot speak from experience, but I am interested in Kaplan’s theory of contrastive rhetoric, which argues that one’s culture influences rhetorical style. There have been numerous studies reinforcing Kaplan’s notion that rhetoric is highly influenced by one’s culture. It is also clear that organization patterns in writing are also influenced by culture; composition specialist Guanjun Cai uncovered a four-part organizational pattern in Chinese writing by analyzing historic Chinese writing samples. He also discusses how these same patterns, when used in English writing, are typically perceived as longwindedness, poor organization, avoidance of self-expression, and in-directly approaching a topic. I also think that it is insightful that Matt commented on how social interactions in China influenced his thinking while he lived there. It is clear that writing is influenced by culture in terms of rhetoric and organization, and I argue that these are both cognitive processes because they are essentially how an individual formulates, organizes, and presents his or her thoughts.

    To explicitly answer the initial question, I do think that being bilingual influences cognitive processes because learning two languages typically requires a person to become familiar with the rhetorical and cognitive patterns of that culture. However, this brings up the question: does language learning itself influence cognitive processes, or is it solely the cultural influences that shape one’s cognitive patterns?


    • Cai was writing more than twenty years ago and on a specific topic. If Chinese rhetoric is of interest, I recommend that you investigate:
      “Writing in the Devil’s Tongue” by Xiaoye You

      “Chinese Rhetoric” by Kirkpatrick and Xu

      Any article by Abrabella Lyon (she is friends with Dale Sullivan):

      Bo Wang’s article in Rhetoric Review (she is friends with Karen at the Center for Writers — they were in the same doctoral cohort at CMU):

      LuMing Mao’s response on doing comparative rhetoric responsibly:

      Vanessa Feng has a comprehensive overview of the “post-Mao” education system in “Only Hope” (the effect of the one-child policy has ‘obliterated’ previous understandings of Chinas socio-political circumstances, especially the education system)


      • Matt, thanks for the links to those resources. I wish I would have read some of those before my last teaching experience.

        Living in a different culture does make you feel “more” your home culture. My Chinese is very, very poor, but I noticed myself picking up some Chinese habits and ways of speaking English that were more Chinese (learning what to be indirect about; learning the accepted way to leave a situation–“I have something I must do” or “You must be tired; I should go”; learning how and to whom to show the proper respect; learning how to navigate relationships; learning how to understand when someone actually understands you and is not just being polite, to name a few specifics).

        I even noticed a difference on the basketball court. In general, the Chinese people I played basketball with moved parallel to the basket–more cross court– while many Americans tend to go to the basket. Social interaction even affects sports and different styles of play, challenging one to think and act differently to fit with the team.

        To go along with searching for metaphors, I have used and heard the metaphor of quotation sandwich/burger to describe how to integrate quotations into one’s paper; the traditional essay compared to a table, the main point is supported by the legs. However, the metaphor that I had heard once in China (I do not claim expertise at all nor know if this is widespread) was writing was like soup. It all works together to create a wonderful flavor, but you cannot separate the ingredients once they have been mixed–unlike a sandwich or a table. Definitely not a linear metaphor.


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