Thursday, October 25, 2012

WAC 2: The Rhizomatic Document

It occurs to me that some people may not agree with my characterization of writing, especially in the sense of an actual text or document, as a network phenomenon. After all, scholars have long emphasized the linear nature of printed documents, such as books, typed letters, and journal articles. Electronic documents such as this post have introduced hyperlinks, which so impressed scholars at the beginning of the Internet age, but for these scholars, the novelty of hyperlinks is that they in some way disrupt the inherent, natural linearity of documents. I think this linear view of documents is wrong. Documents have always been network phenomenon, but that fact has been obscured by the mechanical technology we used to produce them and by the lack of electronic technology to see them otherwise. While it's obvious that words in a document are arranged in a line, this line is better visualized as a curving line of genes in DNA: the starting point for an unfolding in complex network fashion into a very, non-linear organism. The words in this post are not individual bricks added one by one to build a wall between you and me for you to analyze or not. Rather, the words in this post are a set of instructions keenly sensitive to their interconnectivity to the other words and to the particular arrangement among all the words to create multi-scale, dynamic patterns that may or may not echo in you.

To my mind, the linear view of writing is part and parcel of the general linear view of reality that has been key to Western intellectual thought for the past few centuries. While the reductionist, linear methods of Western science have been wildly successful in many ways, the development of chaos and complexity theories has done much to expose the limitations of reductionist linearity as a worldview. The old linear views were based on well-established linear mathematics and linear arguments. It was very mechanical, as was much of the technology that supported such thinking. It is easy to see how someone who makes a living out of setting metal type would tend to see a document as a linear structure. But as Gleick shows in his book Chaos, the non-linear mathematics of chaos theory has revealed the limitations of linear mathematics and, by bold extension, the limitations of a linear, reductionist world view. Edgar Morin's book On Complexity shows how complexity theory—which to my mind is subsuming chaos theory, but that may be because I don't understand either well enough—how complexity theory is likewise exposing the limitations of the reductionist, linear worldview. As Albert-lázló Barabási notes: "we always lived in a connected world, except we were not so much aware of it," mostly because we didn't have the technology to see it. Now we have that technology and the concomitant patterns of mind to see that the Universe is so much more than a reductionist, linear mechanism. It's time to turn this complex networking lens on writing.

And we are turning the network lens on writing, even when we don't recognize it as such. I read just yesterday an article in The Atlantic by Peg Tyre entitled The Writing Revolution, in which Ms. Tyre describes how Principal Deirdre DeAngelis turned around her failing New York high school, New Dorp, by implementing a writing across the curriculum program that placed "an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class." The result was "an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform." Unfortunately, the article seems to cast this most fortunate development in a return to basics narrative, pitting old-fashioned instructional methods against misguided, New-age methods:
In a profoundly hopeful irony, New Dorp’s re­emergence as a viable institution has hinged not on a radical new innovation but on an old idea done better. The school’s success suggests that perhaps certain instructional fundamentals—fundamentals that schools have devalued or forgotten—need to be rediscovered, updated, and reintroduced. And if that can be done correctly, traditional instruction delivered by the teachers already in classrooms may turn out to be the most powerful lever we have for improving school performance after all.
This is certainly one way to view the New Dorp saga, but not the only way. I prefer to look at New Dorp's story as a success of network thinking. To my mind, New Dorp discovered that its students did not know how to use language to map a complex network of ideas. As one New Dorp teacher noted: "the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence," but the 14- and 15-year olds at New Dorp "were missing a crucial understanding of how language works." The students could not generate useful knowledge networks in their minds when they were reading, nor could they generate useful knowledge networks on paper when they were writing, because they did not understand the grammatical and syntactical connectors and connections which arrange words into meaningful patterns. As one student said of her own skills: "I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words … The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

Writing is not just a sea of words. It is not simply stringing along a sequence of words, brick by brick, even in grammatically correct ways, until one reaches 500 words, which is what most of my students seem to think writing is. Rather, writing is a mapping of words that interconnect and relate to each other  and to neural networks, social, and physical networks in significant ways. The sequence of words, the proximity of words to other words, the frequency of words, and the repetition of words unfolds the meanings of words, and naive readers and writers miss these dynamic and critical inter-relationships. Naive readers and writers see just a wall of bricks—one word following another in a line. They do not see the unfolding of a sequence of words in a meaningful orchestration of networked patterns. In other words, they do not see the unfolding of a sequence of genes in a strand of DNA that eventually blossoms into a kitten, which in my experience is a most non-linear, chaotic, complex structure, certainly as complex as any James Joyce novel.

Tyre actually captures this network thinking when she quotes Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany: “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding [italics added] … has become increasingly rare.” Applebee is correct, I think, and the solution is a rhizomatic program of writing across the curriculum which provides students numerous, persistent, and ubiquitous opportunities to use writing and reading documents as tools for learning. As with any beginners, these opportunities can begin small, just as Tyre describes happened at New Dorp:
In chemistry class in the winter of 2010, [student] Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although
Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.” 
Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.” 
If … This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”
This is not the old drill-and-practice and diagramming sentences characteristic of back-to-basics grammar and writing. Rather, this is using writing to map the complex relationships among chemistry concepts. Yes, it begins small, at the sentence level with precise prompts. That's fine. This provides the scaffolding for Monica to begin to construct paragraphs with even more complex networks of ideas, and this helps Monica to become a better writer and a better chemistry student. That sounds like a win-win to me.
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