Ambrose Bierce and the Stuffed Chief of Police

What makes writing good?

I’m not talking about the object — the product of writing-as-activity — but about the doing itself. The gerund. The activity. The habit.

I have some ideas, largely rooted in process-based pedagogy, which I know may be problematic for the composition scholars who identify themselves as post-process. In “Professional Writing Expertise,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 389-402), Ronald Kellogg points out that “[s]erious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task” that involves “hold[ing] multiple representations in mind while adeptly juggling the basic processes of planning ideas, generating sentences, and reviewing how well the process is going” (389). I’d say that’s a pretty good picture of what we teach our students to do, whether we characterize ourselves as process or post-process. Teaching that array of skills is a complex endeavor, and I can understand why plenty of composition specialists and theorists and pedagogues — you, my friends and colleagues — would want to resist reducing it to the lock-step single-sequence method that a sequence of lessons or a syllabus can sometimes make it look like. But that’s unfair: we all know, always and already, how rich and complex and challenging teaching writing can be, and we know it’s not a lock-step method. If we argue in good faith, I think, it’s hard to not see the post-process objections as ways of setting up a straw man that we’d like to beat with a stick.

We understand that post-process theories of writing assert that they take the understanding of writing-as-process as given; as an understanding so obvious that we no longer need to think or argue about it. In other words, the process understanding of writing is so basic as to no longer be able to generate interesting questions. I disagree: while process pedagogy in many places is largely taken for granted, it’s also still clearly generating argument and disagreement. When post-process pedagogues declare process pedagogy to be foundational and monolithic, I want to say: yes, of course, but not so fast.

In 1987, I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. In the general psychology 100 course that all freshmen were required to take — Cognitive Processes Theory and Practice, led and lectured by John Hayes — we were required to participate in empirically-based psychology experiments for course credit.

Flower and Hayes were doing work that was beyond reproach, empirically speaking. (They weren’t raiding appealing theories and conducting thought experiments that said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the ways we looked at writing confirmed or denied what these other authors say?”) Flower and Hayes demonstrated that translating ideas into words and words into ideas (Kellogg 391) is an enormously difficult task. It’s complex, recursive, situation-dependent. As compositionists, we’ll often see students who translate parts of texts into ideas, and vice versa, the disconnected splinters of meaning laced together with unwieldy syntax. That which we see is so often a perfect model of a student in the process of understanding. The reason we use the process model and slow down that process is to give students different angles and attempts at producing their understandings.

We know that when you’re writing, it’s harder to think about other things, and it’s harder to bring in outside knowledge when you’re in the flow (Kellogg 392). The back-and-forth shuttling between present knowledge and past knowledge is extraordinarily difficult and requires enormous amounts of practice. Outloading your brain — dumping memory-recall tasks into the generative-writing tasks of notes, freewriting, brainstorming, tagging, so that you can then later return — all these are tasks that help reduce your cognitive load. They move the thinking-burden outside and make it easier for you to just write. These are all things that the writing process advocates, things that we know we take for granted. I worry that being post-process means we don’t need to remind ourselves of such things. I think we need to remind ourselves of how difficult writing is. I think the process model helps us do that.

The various approaches that fall under the broad umbrella of post-process writing theory model do something different. They allow us to be smart and complex and sophisticated in theorizing writing. I think that’s valuable work. I like to pat myself on the back and think that it’s what I’m doing when I try to engage the political economy of writing. But theorizing writing is different from teaching writing, and teaching writing is different from doing writing. In “Post-Process ‘Pedagogy’: A Philosophical Exercise,” Lee-Ann M. Kastman Breuch notes several of the assumptions that post-process theory makes about writing (110): first, that “writing is public” and “meaning making is a product of our communicative interaction with others rather than the product of an individual” as “a product of language-in-use” (110); second, that “writing is interpretive” and more specifically that “the production — not just the reception — of discourse is thoroughly interpretive” (113) to the point where everything we do with knowledge and meaning is so thoroughly embedded in ongoing acts of contextualization that building upon previous acts of interpretation is inescapable (114); and third, that “writing is situated” in that it “respond[s] to specific situations rather than rely[ing] on foundational principles or rules” (115). I share these three assumptions, but I don’t think of myself as being in any way necessarily “post-process.” Have I always been post-process, and just came to process pedagogy too late, with poststructuralist eyes and poststructuralist assumptions? Did I always simply mistake the work of Murray and Elbow and Flower and Hayes as acknowledging writing as necessarily public, interpretive, and situated? Did I mistakenly assume as well that their work attended to writing-as-activity rather than “writing as a ‘thing'” (Breuch 110)?


I think that the scholars whose work Breuch synthesizes in her article are at times hair-splitting a distinction without a difference: doesn’t Murray focus on writing as activity? Doesn’t he reject easy and formulaic approaches? Doesn’t Elbow — by making an argument for ignoring audience at certain stages in the composing process — necessarily insist on writing’s public and dialogic qualities? Don’t the experiments of Flower and Hayes demonstrate just how grounded in the acts and contexts of situated cognition the process of writing is? Of course they do. They all do. And too often, those who would indict them for saying otherwise (see, for example, the way Peter Elbow takes Joe Harris to task for performing an unfortunately careless reading of his scholarship in his College English piece on revisiting voice a couple years ago: Joe’s scholarship is habitually insightful and methodical, and I like what he has to say, but I’m siding with Peter on this one) have failed to pay sufficiently close attention, or (I worry) are seeking a straw man to beat with a theoretical stick.

In the field, we’ve seen such beatings happen before. As brilliantly as James Berlin’s scholarship continues to shine, he unfairly and reductively landscaped many composition scholars, turning them into potted plants to gesture at with some degree of disapproval while pointing toward a brand (and, yes, it’s been a brand for a long time now) of composition scholarship with a particular perspective and agenda. As a Marxist scholar, I have enormous sympathy with many aspects of that perspective and agenda, but I don’t much care for the means by which Berlin attempted to further them.

Of course, I’ve got my own theoretical stick, and there have been plenty of occasions when I should have thought more carefully about what I was doing before I went after people with it. (Kelly Ritter, this is my public apology to you for the whole “economy” thing: I’m sorry that my response to you was reductive and took you to task for topics you weren’t even addressing.) I’m pretty sure that I’m one of only a relatively few people in the field (others far senior to me and far more accomplished who come immediately to mind would include Donna Strickland, Jim Porter, Bruce Horner, Joyce Locke Carter, John Trimbur, Min-Zhan Lu, and Marc Bousquet) who are full-on engaging economic issues qua economic issues using economic scholarship to do so, but I know as well that it’s something of a hot topic and other scholars who are as junior as I am are starting to do the same. So in some ways, my apprenticeship with Julie Graham only goes so far, and only grants me a bit of a head start in beating various straw men with a stick labeled POLITICAL ECONOMY. Certainly, Berlin did it, but he came from a perspective informed by an industrial capitalist economy that had three big car manufacturers and three big broadcast networks. We’re in a different place now, carrying different sticks, and beating different straw men.

Ambrose Bierce and the Stuffed Chief of Police

One thought on “Ambrose Bierce and the Stuffed Chief of Police

  • November 2, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Great piece, Mike, great piece. Your thinking through these issues for yourself helped me collect and organize my own thoughts, too.

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