Saturday, April 7, 2007

Comparing Apples to Oranges: Science in Basic Writing

In Mike Rose’s article, “Narrowing the Mind and Page,” he talks about the ways in which we seek to explain the mind of a basic writer, we are partial to “using a singular, unitary cognitive explanation” (LE, 23). Rose links this classification phenomenon to the idea that everyone can function in the world only according to their level of IQ. His overall term for the classifications is “Cognitive Reductionism,” which seems to be fairly correct.

I think Rose has a good point here. Why is it that we as teachers, educators and experienced writers tend to “pigeon hole” basic writers into one category or another when there is a wealth of reasons why a writer is failing to advance in style, form, or grammar?

I think a lot of our need to classify goes back to the idea that in order to make the field of composition and rhetoric “valid” it must rely on more scientific methods and mimic the highly respected fields of the sciences. In our attempt to categorize basic writers we are also attempting to validate composition by using the same methods one might use in a chemistry experiment.

Rose is simply saying: Basic writing is not a science. We can not use the methods and THEORIES from other fields to produce explanations as to why basic writers still exist.

Rose then goes on to tell about the “field dependent-independent” experiment in which subjects were asked set a metal rod straight within the confines of a wooden box; those who set it upright regardless of the tilt of the box were labeled “field-independent” because they saw the box’s orientation as separate from the rod’s (LE, 25-30).

While reading the experiment I wondered how in the world there was a link between this experiment and writing. I also asked myself what I would have done as a subject in this experiment (I am field independent) before I read the possibilities of what a subject might do. As I read that field dependent subjects were linked to those who write poorly, I was curious as to why they might be poor writers.

On page 26, Rose shows us a personality explanation of the two which offers that: field dependents are more social, tend to take social cues, and depend on others for reinforcement whereas field independents are more individual, use themselves as reinforcement and have internalized frames of reference.

However, I found this to be a little bit of a backward “diagnosis” (as did Rose) because as beginning or basic writers we want our students to use other frames of reference in their papers, we want the students to be aware of their readers, and we want students depend on others for reinforcement (supporting evidence).

We also tend to see writing as a form of communication and those who are most social are often seen as the most effective communications. Why then are these field dependent subjects linked to basic writers when they very well could be the best and most likely learners or communicators? Why must we create a dichotomy of being one or the non-one?

Isn’t it unfair to apply principles from one theory to an entirely different field when the subjects are not even completing the same experiment? We wouldn’t compare the “orangeness” of a navel orange to the “orangeness” of a granny smith apple because we know that the two can not accurately be compared.

We are attempting to compare apples to oranges when we use theories from other fields to explain basic writers and I think Mike Rose has it right when he rejects these comparisons. Besides, I really don’t want to see my granny smith apple in terms of a navel orange, nor do I need to see basic writing in terms of “the scientific.”