Unknowns are Unique Artifacts

An unsolicited glimpse of my teaching philosophy:

The premises by which I justify concept mapping are theoretical and, ostensibly, neurological: namely, that a) memory processes are reconstructive, b) meaning-making is, partly, associative, and c) originality is a learnable, practiceable skill. In the context of a writing course, my concept mapping-related objectives are, therefore, to a) offer a mechanism for extensive and explicit recall – for example, of the familiar features of a given topic, b) catalyze potential affiliate details – that is, words, phrases, and ideas only indirectly relevant to a given topic, and c) promote the targeted synthesis of the resulting (often disparate) details.

One likely result of my method is the formation of a writing plan substantively different than that imagined before creating a concept map. Generally, writing in an academic context may tend toward a process of explanation of a topic and its features and ramifications; the written result, in such cases, tends to be some form or another of reprocessed knowns. The emphasis becomes adherence to norms (e.g., of genre, of usage), and, consequently, the entire process stagnates – in that student writers devote time and energy to notions of correctness and stylistic obedience at the cost of their own perspectives and languages.

Relatedly, I primarily encourage the development of ‘blocks’ of text, which can be arranged and rearranged as a writer clarifies his or her purpose(s) for writing – within some minimal set of expectations. I relegate discussions of “correct” usage and document aesthetics to the end of the writing process. I do this for a few reasons worth mentioning: 1) I believe that the rules of the English language are in flux – not fixed and absolute; 2) I believe that a writer’s idiolect – his or her ownership of language – is integral to the same originality made possible (intellectually) through concept mapping. This includes multilingualism as an extreme case of ‘idiolect’ and is, I believe, an opportunity for tremendous originality and academic “ownership.” And 3) I believe that generic text containers (blocks) can be repurposed idefinitely. For example, a generic block can be transformed into an essay paragraph during one writing session and into a poem in the next.

Therefore, my pedagogical/operational analogy has something to do with the notion of an “inventory” of words and ideas which we, as writers, can catalogue, expand, and manipulate. These interrelated processes are conducive to such highly-transferrable skills as creative problem-solving and communication in a variety of contexts and discourse communities. It is in this sense that I next approach research – essentially, as a larger, social inventory of artifacts.

Yet there is one more feature of my approach to teaching, related to research, that bears explanation: not simply that when we conduct research we are locating and studying (and sometimes creating) information artifacts, but also that the very practice of research-based writing in any discipline should be founded upon a kind of adventuresome openness to discovering unknowns. It is comparatively easy to treat research as search-and-retrieval – and to be sure, searching and retrieving are core skills in the endeavor. But they are the basis of something fundamentally transformative: namely, intellectual growth. Perhaps this and the more mechanical skill-building practices of writing from sources can be thought of as parallel threads.

In short, unknowns can be the most energizing and instructive discoveries, (though I don’t mean as a fetish…) Rather, I attempt to offer a form of frontier training. Unknowns are not dead ends, they are unique, new artifacts. If, as our concept maps demonstrate, we manage to sort and classify experience using words, then we should also preemptively be ready to disassemble our cognitive categories or build new ones as situations dictate. In this regard, I regard ossified forms (like genres and grammar rules, for example) with suspicion, treating them more like consentual games that we choose, from one situation to the next, to play or not play. I will agree to play the essay game, for example, if I believe that it will serve a particular purpose.

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