Over the course of this semester, I have been quite amazed at how my “brain has stretched” for lack of a better way to describe the phenomenon. The threshold concepts we have been studying in regards to writing have changed my outlook on various aspects of composition; this week is no exception. I have always been interested in how the human brain processes information, hence why I chose the field of psychology for my undergraduate degree. The title of this week’s threshold concept is, “Writing is a Cognitive Activity.” According to Dylan Dryer, one of the premises of writing is, “… if writing is always a social and rhetorical act, it necessarily involves cognition” (71). Further research suggests that not only is writing a social and rhetorical act but, “neural processes essential to writing must be successfully coordinated across different areas of the brain; revision, even for seemingly uncomplicated ‘errors’ is cognitively quite complex” (73).
The human brain has a workspace known as working memory. This is where bits of information are processed and stored for easy access in cognitive events. As Dryer mentions, “… writing is cognitive not only because it draws on the full resources of our nervous system but because it actively influences our nervous system as well” (73). Have you ever stopped to wonder how the human brain facilitates the thought process a writer undergoes when composing? Below is a short video by Trace Dominguez that describes how your brain actually powers your thoughts.
Have you ever noticed that writing a paper, article, or even blog post is easier and more enjoyable when you have an emotional connection to the topic being discussed? Charles Bazerman and Howard Tinberg explain this paradigm, “The emotional engagement of scientific writers for their subject may entail careful attention to evidence and reasoning grounded in prior work in the field and understanding of the theory and methodological principles of the field; yet without a passion for the subject that turns a writer’s full mind and thought to the task of producing new words and ideas, little of value would get written” (74-75). As writers, we love to write about topics in which we have an emotional connection or issues that we find relatable. I know for myself, one of the most challenging forms of writing I have experienced was the standard five-paragraph theme essay in high school. Writing exactly five paragraphs on something of little interest to myself, was not enjoyable. However, the repetitive style that was required led to a familiar situation explained by Chris Anson, “repeated practice of the same mental task or activity can lead to what psychologists call automaticity or unconscious competence, the application of a process or the retrieval of information that doesn’t require conscious attention” (77).
Leigh Hancock, an English instructor for Columbia Gorge Community College, explains to her students how writing involves the full brain. With each hemisphere of the brain specializing in different aspects, they must work together for elements involved in writing to manifest.
Not only is writing a cognitive process, but it also involves metacognition. Metacognition is the process of “thinking” about mental processes! As Tinberg suggests, “Metacognition is not cognition. Performance, however thoughtful, is not the same as awareness of how that performance came to be” (75). One form of metacognition employed by writers is the technique known as reflection. The goal of reflection for a writer is to consider why they made rhetorical choices they chose. As Kara Taczak stated, “… writers who are more attuned to conscious reflection make deeper choices” (79). This process gives writers an opportunity to learn from their methods, identify meaning behind their chosen style of rhetoric, and adapt future writing based on the knowledge they glean from studying their own preferences. Put simply, metacognition is a valuable methodology each writer has the ability to utilize to become a better writer. Taking time to understand their stylistic decisions will help them identify areas for change or development.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle, editors. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition. Utah State University Press, 2016.
Altmann, Gerd. Pixabay. 2019, pixabay.com/illustrations/board-think-structure-solution-765310/.
Anson, Chris M. “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 77-78.
Bazerman, Charles, and Howard Tinberg. “Writing is an Expression of Embodied Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 74-75.
Dominguez, Trace. “This is How Your Brain Powers Your Thoughts.” YouTube, uploaded by Seeker, 9 April 2017, youtu.be/yxUkUaV2VPs.
Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing is (Also Always) A Cognitive Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 71-74.
Hancock, Leigh. “Whole Brain Writing.” YouTube, uploaded by Columbia Gorge Community College, 14 August 2014, youtu.be/uebN8sUvgsc.
“Reflective Writing.” Youtube, uploaded by SkillsTeamHullUni, 3 March 2014, youtu.be/QoI67VeE3ds.
Samuels, S. Jay, and Richard F. Flor. “The Importance of Automaticity for Developing Expertise in Reading.” Reading & Writing Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, 1997, pp. 107-121, doi:10.1080/1057356970130202.
Taczak, Kara. “Reflection is Critical for Writers’ Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 78-79.
Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition is Not Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 75-76.
“What’s Metacognition — and Why Does it Matter?” YouTube, uploaded by Edutopia, 12 October 2018, youtu.be/QJWsIJQHUxM.
Most of us don’t like the thought of any type of failure. The word itself has such a negative connotation for many of us regardless of our cultural background. When we set out to complete a project, strive towards a goal, or develop a specific skill set, we often put everything we can muster into the situation. Therefore, when the results come in less than stellar, and we perceive the effort has lead to some type of failure, we find ourselves depressed, saddened, and disappointed. Often times, this process feels like the end of the road, and the individual experiencing the failure must then decide to either try again or walk away.
As a writer, I, too, have experienced this recursive writing process of identifying mistakes made, improving the process, and determining whether I want to pursue the intended goal or dismiss it from the foreseeable future. From an academic perspective, this situation is echoed through returned graded essays. Maybe a student has written what they felt should be an A paper, yet cringed to find a C in bold red at the top of the page. For an author, maybe they thought they had just completed the next bestseller, only to find their book sales meandering next to zero sales. Everyone’s experiences will vary, but one thing remains the same; it happens to everyone.
Collin Brooke and Allison Carr describe this phenomenon best by elaborating, “…in reality, every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural thoughtful and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and through iteration, inevitably move forward” (63). Everyone experiences failure in some capacity throughout life. The difference is whether they allow the experience to define them. Finding a way to utilize the lessons of failure in a classroom setting by altering pedagogical structure would be most beneficial to students. “Embracing failure in the writing classroom in these ways makes failure speakable and doable” (Brooke and Carr 63). By changing how we view failure in academic settings, maybe students will begin to see it as just a stepping stone leading to better writing technique in lieu of the end result.
GCFLearnFree.Org is a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching skills that are needed for our modern-day society (2019). In the video provided below, they discuss the recursive cycle of writing and bring up valid points related to learning from failure.
The topic of revision in writing, while often not met with excitement by writers, is a central piece of developing one’s writing, according to Doug Downs (66). As he explains, “First, unrevised writing (especially more extended pieces of writing) will rarely be as well suited to its purpose as it could be with revision. Second, writers who don’t revise are likely to see fewer positive results from their writing than those who build time for feedback and revision into their writing workflows” (66). Downs further explains that revising shouldn’t be an indicator of poor writing. Actually, it should be an indicator of more skilled writing as the author has taken the time to polish and improve the prose.
Contrary to popular belief, I believe it is essential for each of us to remember that as Shirley Rose described, “The ability to write is not an innate trait humans are born processing” (59). Further explained by Moats and Tulman, “human brains are naturally wired to speak; they are not naturally wired to read and write.” Writing, like most things in life, takes practice. The more a writer practices the skill, the more natural the process will become. And, more importantly, failure is the key to success. Each failure a writer experiences will add to the learning. The more we learn, the better we become. So, the next time you feel as though you have failed at something, remember, it only sets you up for future success. Embrace the challenge to try again, and you never know where the trail will lead.
Altmann, Gerd. Pixabay. 2019, pixabay.com/illustrations/words-letters-disillusionment-416435/
Brooke, Collin and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62-64.
Downs, Doug. “Revision is Central to Developing Writing.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 66-67.
GCFLearnFree.org. Goodwill Community Foundation, Incorporated, 2019, edu.gcfglobal.org/en/. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.
“Learning From Failure.” YouTube, uploaded by GCFLearnFree.org, 10 July 2019 May 2019, youtu.be/MQx39z99_Js.
Moats, Louisa and Carol Tolman. “Speaking is Natural; Reading and Writing Are Not.” Reading Rockets, www.readingrockets.org/article/speaking-natural-reading-and-writing-are-not. Accessed 22 Sept. 2019.
Rose, Shirley. “All Writers Have More to Learn.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 59-61.
“The Recursive Writing Process.” YouTube, uploaded by Mometrix Academy, 16 May 2019, youtu.be/WVrvfSFrCwc.