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C o nc e p t 5 Writing Is (Also Always) a Cognitive Activity DOI: 10.7330/9780874219906.c005 5.0 Writing Is (Al so Always) a Co g ni ti ve Ac t ivit y Dylan B. Dryer Behind the claim by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle in “Metaconcept: Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study” in this volume that “writing can never be anything but a social and rhetorical act” are decades of research inspired by what is now known as the social turn. Those applying insights from the social turn to the study of writing found again and again that any act of writing is situated in complex activity systems that enmesh any writer’s motives with other spaces, traditions, values, ideologies, other humans, previous iterations of the genre, and the constraints and affordances of language itself (see 1.5, “Writing Mediates Activity”; 2.1, “Writing Represents the World, Events, Ideas, and Feelings”; 2.3, “Writing Is a Way of Enacting Disciplinarity”; and 3.2, “Writers’ Histories, Processes, and Identities Vary”). But if writing is always a social and rhetorical act, it necessarily involves cognition. While contemporary advanced research on writing is profoundly and productively oriented to influences on writing outside the skull, as it were, the four concepts in this chapter signal the beginnings of a convergence as potentially transformative as the “social turn” itself (after all, the “social turn” was in part a rejection of prior attempts to conceptualize writing as a solely cognitive phenomenon ). To see this potential clearly, we must revisit what is known about composing processes inside the skull. Well before the social turn, writing researchers in the late 1960s were examining cognitive aspects of writing, and their work became particularly relevant to those teaching in the open-admissions campuses of the 1970s. Many students came to those campuses with writing experiences and composing strategies that perplexed and dismayed their instructors; some faculty declared that many of these students could not write at all (for more on this era, see Bizzell 1982; Lu 1999; 72   Part 1 : Threshold Concepts of Writing Soliday 2002). Even as some faculty members and researchers attributed students’ writing struggles to mental and even cultural “deficits,” others were trying to map mental processes in a more descriptive way (Flower and Hayes 1981; Perl 1979). By observing writers who had been asked to verbalize what they were thinking while they were drafting and revising, these researchers found evidence for a writing process that extends before and after the moment of text production. The models these researchers produced helped break the grip of stilldominant assumptions that writing was simply a matter of transcribing thought while avoiding error (for more on this, see 1.4, “Words Get Their Meaning from Other Words” and 1.9, “Writing Is a Technology through Which Writers Create and Recreate Meaning”). Researchers in cognition and writing attempted to diagnose and develop interventions for issues still important today: What makes writers “blocked,” or causes them to stall once they get going? What can writers do to overcome anxiety? Why do writers interrupt higher-order attempts to shape meaning to correct lower-order issues of spelling and punctuation, and does it matter? What happens when writers’ plans for the texts they hope to produce or the readers they hope to reach are changed by the texts they’ve already produced? What are writers doing when they pause while writing? Is there a relationship between syntactical complexity and “maturity” of thought? How do the strategies of skilled writers differ from those of novices? Can thinking about thinking enhance writing, reading, and/or revision practices? All of these questions are about cognition although, as previous threshold concepts demonstrated , we know they are not only about cognition. This early cognitive research produced findings that continue to underpin our field’s beliefs and activities. For example, anxiety (about error, imagined audience, or perfectionism) can overwhelm composing processes and can be mitigated with low-stakes, generative writing (Bloom 1981; Elbow 1981; Rose 1985); revision strategies depend on what writers think revision is (Bridwell 1980; Sommers 1980); composing and revising processes are malleable and genre specific (Britton et al. 1975); composing practices can transform as well as transcribe knowledge (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987); and, perhaps most generally, the ways people think about approaching a writing task affect their experiences with it. Researchers in the cognitive sciences who happen to study writing have independently and empirically validated much of that early work...


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