Tuesday, October 23, 2012

WAC: Writing to Learn across the Curriculum

I have the opportunity to design a new writing across the curriculum program for college, and I'm interested to see how I might translate theory into practice. I have been writing for three years now about networking, connectivism, and rhizomatic education, but it has all been rather abstract. So let's see what practice might look like.

Let's start with a statement about writing: writing is a network phenomenon. Writing's first job is to engage, develop, and render explicit internal, neural networks. As Olaf Sporns says, and as I have quoted often enough, "Cognition is a network phenomenon" (Networks of the Brain, 181). Writing is the networking tool that helps me to verbalize my cognition. It helps me to reinforce and reform my cognition. Writing is one of the best tools we have for cultivating thought and translating it into a text that helps the writer to clarify for herself what she means. This is the primary mode of writing that I am using in this blog. I am writing first for myself to explore my thoughts, mostly about networking, connectivism, and rhizomatic structures. I don't mean to insult any who might read this blog—indeed, many have made comments that have greatly helped me to clarify my thinking—but this blog is where I do my thinking and learning. I'm really my own first reader here, and I'm writing this blog first for my learning.

As a tool for learning, writing works in two different directions. First, writing works from the inside out. Writing helps me to engage, shape, and map my thoughts in a recursive probing that I can follow and remember. Writing helps me to make what I know explicit to myself, and that is of inestimable value to me. Once my thoughts are explicit, once they are mapped to a text, then I can interact with them more objectively and systematically than I can if they are just floating about in my head. I can keep my thoughts, remember them, much better and more reliably if they are mapped to words in a document than if I just keep them in my head. I do not mean to denigrate purely mental thought—often I think things through long before I put them in text, and I am aware that much cognition is not even available to the conscious, rational mind—but I want to speak for the added benefits of writing as a supplement to cognition. Writing affords me a conscious engagement with my thoughts that is difficult to get any other way. (This recursive dynamic between the external textual network and the internal neural network is worth much more investigation than I am giving it here, but that's for later.)

Thus as a learning tool, writing works first from the inside out, but it also works from the outside in. As I have experiences—most often through constant reading and conversation with others, but pretty sunsets are also included—I use writing to develop new knowledge networks and to engage my existing networks in different ways. This allows new knowledge to bloom in my mind, and writing about those experiences is a physical process that reinforces and cultivates those new mental blooms in ways that few other activities can do.

In short, writing is a very complex and wonderfully malleable boundary between the networks of knowledge in my mind and the networks of knowledge outside my mind. Writing is one of the key boundaries where knowledge leaks out of me and oozes into me. Writing is like a cell membrane, or the mechanism within the membrane that manages the exchange between the inside and the outside of the organism. It is a zone of engagement. As a tool for building and traversing knowledge networks, writing is one of the best technologies that humanity has invented. Writing makes me smarter and more knowledgeable than I am without writing. I think writing has this benefit for everyone, and I am convinced that the more students write about the things they are learning, the better they will learn those things.
ASIDE: The cell membrane analogy for knowledge exchange is problematic. It suggests too physical an activity. Actually, I don't think there is any physical exchange when I push knowledge into the world or the world pushes knowledge into me. There is no token, no chunk of knowledge, that is passed from you to me and back. Rather, there is an echo of patterns from you to me and back. This is much more like Deleuze and Guattari's concept of decalcomania, in which a pattern in one part of the rhizome (you) is echoed in another part (me) as we encounter each other either physically or via some media such as this blog post. Thus, this echo always happens at some boundary, or some pressing of one structure against another. A text is just such a boundary, or pressing, or zone of engagement. As James Gleick describes so well in his book Chaos: Making a New Science (2008), this boundary is where all the action takes place between or among structures. The boundary is where each structure (my mind and your mind, say) begins to vibrate under the presence of the other, and pattern in the one begins to echo in the other. This echoing of pattern has a definite physical ground, but the physical substrate is not sufficient to explain it.
Anyway, if I am thinking correctly, then the first goal for a writing across the curriculum program should be to enable students to learn more and better. Writing helps students to make better sense of the knowledge networks in their own minds, and it helps to feed those networks with new knowledge from outside.
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