Massimo on Post-process

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.

My questions:

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?


6 thoughts on “Massimo on Post-process

  1. Post-process as Breuch outlines can only occur in a limited manner. My reasons for arriving at this claim are not novel — the mentorship model requires a low student-teacher ratio that approaches 1:1; introspection as a teacher has no value without several layers of institutional support in order to implement discoveries (just look at Figure 2 in Kain and Wardle but also prepare to have that interpreted when see how students “invent the university” in Bartholomae for Thursday); bodies of knowledge tend to incorporate – ‘form into a body’, right? – many of the facets ascribed to activities.

    I find activity theory is a means to smuggle linguistics into composition without referencing linguistics. The mechanism is to label it as an anthropological endeavor, replete with ethnographies and bristling with “triangles” to visualize interaction. They seem to be structuralists with an identity crisis.

    Post-process can be implemented without activity theory but the implementation is unsustainable — student conferences. They are a challenge with two sections; imagine holding conferences for four, five sections — or even six — or conferences for five high school classes, five days per week…yikes. Post-process seems to be the theory that cannot find a praxis because circumstance invalidates the premises.


    • As a voice from the secondary world, I do know teachers who do not spend time making comments of drafts, saying that they are a waste of time as students do not understand the written comments anyway. They instead opt for condensed conferences. However, in the reality of the large student-teacher ratio, these conferences are often quite short.


  2. I also appreciate that in post-process there is a willingness to challenge “systems.” My appreciation stems from a realization that writing as process benefits from lock-in:

    At its core, to benefit from lock-in, a technology needs to scale effectively. Note, scaling effectively only means the technology can spread quickly. It is not necessarily “the best” in any other regard than its ease of spreading among users. There is a distinction between lock-in and “virality” or “memes” but I will refrain from delineating the distinction. For now, I would emphasize that writing as a process spreads, in part, because the commodification exists as Russell notes.

    Hopefully we will discuss the idea of lock-in further when we shift to theorizing with discourse communities.


    • This comment about lock-in has gotten me thinking about the degree to which we are currently locked in to the scale of our current campus-wide general education program. The persistent questions about implementation are all about how hard it is to turn around the ship, even if we don’t like where it’s headed. But I’m simultaneously aware that we could be trying to force lock-in with the new model–how to remain open and keep things moving forward? So, that’s all just a “thanks” for getting me thinking about this concept, Matt.


      • Thanks for the new phrase for me–“lock in”–and applying it in this context. To relate it back to Massimo’s metaphor regarding poetic translation, I think as soon as we move from theory to praxis some sort of initial lock-in mentality comes to mind due to, in part, how we ourselves were educated.

        For a cultural reference, I’m thinking now of Downtown Abbey and the fact that the (upstairs) children of the house seem to be educated by tutors, so more of a mentorship model. For those who learned like this (or home schooled children today?) perhaps there’s less immediate move to scaling of theory? In short, I suppose, I’m asking how our educational experience, and those of the theory writers themselves, is already biasing us towards a certain way of reading.


  3. Massimo says “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.”

    My primary question for you is, do you think Russell is advocating that we teach the theory as theory at the undergraduate level? He certainly recognizes the oversimplification and generalization, as you say, and he recognizes the commodification of theory, yet he doesn’t seem to lament that commodification and even seems to me to suggest it’s both inevitable and possibly useful as a way to distribute theory more broadly. So, to what degree do we teach the theory? And what would it mean to live peacefully though not uncritically with commodification of theory? Do we need to avoid that at all costs?


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