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…..