“Narrowing the Mind and Page: Remedial Writers and Cognitive Reductionism” Mike Rose (1988)

I am not going to bother summarizing this article because Rose includes an extensive conclusion that if you do not have time to read the entire article, will give you a clear idea of the cognitive reductionism he identifies and the problems that arise: limits, internal contradictions, overgeneralizations, simplified cognitive oppositions, and social and political motivations embedded in such dichotomies. Rose’s conclusion will also demonstrate how important this article was at a time when social forces were still pretty much divorced from cognitive theory. I would urge you not to simply read the conclusion to this article, however. Of all the articles I have read this semester in all of my courses, this article has moved me the most, perhaps, because I have been working with a student in the writing center who does not appear to be capable of abstract thinking on the page. Rose’s article challenges me to resist from labeling this student as cognitively challenged and instead interrogate my own cultural biases about cognitive differences.

This student I have been working with is white female from a middle class upbringing, who has learning disabilities, the extent of which I am unaware. It is obvious to me, however, that she has a difficult time with analysis and synthesis, much like the basic writers Lunsford describes in “Cognitive Development and the Basic Writer.” I will be completely honest here and admit that while I have been working with this student, on many occasions, I have been almost exasperated at her apparent lack of being able to what I have previously identified as “critical thinking on the page.” Because this student has not demonstrated the ability to analyze and synthesize at the level I deem “average” for a college-level student, I have often found myself marveling at her “obvious” learning disability. After reading Rose’s article, however, I have begun to rethink my student’s cognitive abilities. Even more so, I have begun to interrogate the kinds of intellectual acts that I privilege as “competent,” “sophisticated,” and “smart.” It appears I am guilty of buying into the Western anthropological belief that “considers concrete reasoning to be less advanced than abstract reasoning” (Rose 371).

This realization is important because I now realize that my pedagogy and assessment also privileges “abstract” thinking on the page. For instance, this semester, I am teaching a rhetorical analysis unit that focuses on the construction of racial identities in the media. Thus far in the unit, my students have been reading articles, which explain how the media contributes to subliminal and institutional racism through its representation of both members of dominant and non-dominant cultures in America. We have also spent a large amount of time actually analyzing actual images from the media, which serve as proof for this claim. I have told my students that to do well on their final paper for this unit, they must not only deeply analyze the particular image they are focusing on, but also synthesize information and discourse from the various of articles we have read to comment on whether or not this image contributes to the kinds of racism/oppression we have been learning about. If my students do not conduct what I deem as “deep” analytical thinking on the page, do not adopt the discourse we have learned throughout the unit, and do not synthesize the information from the various articles, I know I will not give them an “A” or a “B” even if their work is structurally sound. What does this privileging indicate about my own biases? How does this privileging set up some of my students for failure and others for success?

Rose asks us to consider that “poor writers” in my class may not perform well on this rhetorical task because in the past they may have “lack[ed] opportunities to develop both oral and written communicative facility in a range of setting,” or they may resist the rhetorical lessons I am trying to teach them out of “anger or fear or as an act of identity.” This realization is important, and it complicates assessment. As Rose asks, how do I “go about judging the thought processes involved with reading and writing when performance is problematic, ineffective, or stunted?” I am at a loss here in terms of assessment, especially when we have been told to avoid grade inflation and make sure that we grade upon the level of thinking and writing ability that is on the page. In other words, we have been taught to grade according to a system that privileges certain kinds of thought processes, which students often acquire at different levels due to social forces in their lives.

Other questions Rose makes me think of are: Does our pedagogy encourage a “ single, monolithic,…cognitive activity? Does[ it] honor the complexity of interpretive efforts even when those efforts fall short of some desired goal?”
I am not convinced that I can answer no to the first question and yes to the second. Again, I am at a loss here with answers, especially when the two first year composition programs I have worked in seem to be in a similar situation as me in answering those questions. Perhaps, WRT 105 encourages two cognitive activities (analytical thinking and argumentation). Does it honor complexity of interpretive efforts when those fall short of some desired goal? I have been told that a “C-” is a grade that is honorable, but do students conceive it that way, and if not, are we really honoring anyone or any cognitive activities that fall short of our biased expectations?

I am not sure what I hope my classmates will do with this response to Rose’s article. I guess I was hoping my ruminations would inspire some kind of enlightening response that can help me work through some of these pedagogical/assessment issues. Hmmm…..



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2 responses to ““Narrowing the Mind and Page: Remedial Writers and Cognitive Reductionism” Mike Rose (1988)

  1. Laurie –

    I very much appreciate the way that you help us remember that all our “talk” must return to our classrooms and our students.

    I think I’ve alluded in class to an intellectual/teacherly crisis moment I had (one of many) in my first Theory of Writing class as a Master’s student. Your thoughts here bring me back to that space. Like you, I read something that threw me into a kind of questioning that I couldn’t seem to answer for myself. Listening to others talk affirmingly about what I found to be problematic articles in class then, I snapped!

    The situation… I reacted to the idea that we MUST sacrifice “home community” habits for academic ones if we are to provide access to what some would call “basic writers” (but, as Royster points out, people often mean specific groups of students when they use general terms like “basic writers”).

    What is interesting in what you said is that it was precisely the anthropologist in me that was angry at the use of the word “basic” which could be “primitive” in another context. So – I argued that we must change the context, as writing teachers, so that students could maintain home “habits” and acquire new ones as well… and leave room for the possibility that the home habits may allow for/enrich/instigate academic ones if positioned into a proper relationship. A very mainstream argument I think… but not when I’m preaching it, apparently.

    What I was talking about, I think now, was “cognitive development” which, to me is, of course, more cultural apparatuses than anything else. What made me angry was the suggestion that the orality of a student’s memory and past must be a stepping-stone to a “better” discursive practice of cognition if they (they the students and they the home habits) are to survive.

    This isn’t a Western anthropological view, but Western tradition’s view (which, many of the anthropologists of the 1990s were screaming to distinguish). But the bigger question – how does this negotiation work out for us as writing teachers?

    Is it a realistic expectation for us to distance ourselves fairly from the textual/cognitive/discursive values we’ve been trained to esteem?

    As my instructor in that Theory of Writing course often said to me – Why must you destroy all traditions just to get at gatekeeping? Why must you choose to either embrace cultural home space or academic ones in your classroom? Why must you create binaries – just to deconstruct one issue? Why must you be the culturally detached teacher – or the hegemonic one? Isn’t there room for instructors in the contact zone? Aren’t we insinuated into the processes of our students more significantly than the agency-driven ways you indicate? Aren’t we supposed to be exacerbated sometimes? Isn’t that recognition of difference, in that difficult moment, what makes individual opportunities?

    Boy I can move in a quick, disjointed fashion after midnight… just some thoughts that your writing inspired, Laurie. If I’m blubbering beyond comprehension, which I’m quite certain I am, question me.

  2. Eileen E. Schell

    As far as I’m concerned, you are asking THE questions that drive a lot of inquiry into questions of “basic writing” over the last fifteen years.

    You said: Does our pedagogy encourage a “ single, monolithic,…cognitive activity? Does[ it] honor the complexity of interpretive efforts even when those efforts fall short of some desired goal?”
    AND “WRT 105 encourages two cognitive activities (analytical thinking and argumentation).”

    One of the ways in which the field has tried to respond to questions like the excellent ones you are asking is to assign students reading and writing that model hybrid forms of thinking, reading and writing that mixes narrative and analysis, argument and description. To model and engage modes of discourse that are multi-modal.

    Now does this “bridge the gap” between students’ home discourse communities and others? Not necessarily, but it might provide a link, an opening into figuring out to move between different discourses. Think of Kinneavy’s plea to teach the different aims of discourse alongside one another and not to privilege just a few.

    This is only a partial solution, though. I think that part of what has to be debated is what constitutes literacy in a given community, including a literacy or literacies within the confines of an academic course, and the different kinds of literacies we do and don’t teach or even address (I know you are interested in visual literacies).

    I think we’ll find Deborah Brandt’s book _Literacy in American Lives_ an interesting way to engage the questions you are raising, Laurie. How are we literacy sponsors (or not) of our students? What kinds of literacies do we sponsor? What are the steps in bridging those different literacies? How do we find out and learn more about the literacies that our students already have that may not make themselves evident in the classroom?

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