Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Writing Complexity, One Stability at a Time: Teaching Writing as a Complex System

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Writing Complexity, One Stability at a Time: Teaching Writing as a Complex System

Article excerpt

The influence of complex systems theory has grown considerably in the sciences over the past several decades and shows no signs of fading away. Nobel Laureate and systems theorist Ilya Prigogine, along with Isabelle Stengers, go so far as to write that they "believe that we are actually at the beginning of a new scientific era" (7). The impact of this work extends far beyond scientific disciplines, as well. David Blakesley and Thomas Rickert argue that the study of systems and complexity theory "promise[s] to challenge and transform great swaths of our received knowledge concerning rhetoric, culture, social organization, and composition" (822). For rhetoric and composition scholars, then, complexity is an exciting new development, with important ramifications to be sorted through, and with continuously unfolding potential to transform the way we study and teach writing in all contexts.

Thinking of writing in terms of complexity theory reveals its radical interconnectivity at multiple levels of scale. Foregrounding this interconnectivity shows us the expansiveness of what is involved in how we write and what we write with and shows us how diverse assemblages of writing circulate and interact in a multitude of cultural, social, technological, disciplinary, and material networks. Foregrounding interconnectivity also allows us to better theorize the way seemingly dissimilar textual realms are in fact thoroughly connected, which can reveal heretofore unnoticed relations among elements within a single text, as well as unnoticed relations between various texts in those aforementioned diverse networks. There are also, however, substantial pitfalls entailed by these new developments in complexity and systems theory. That a system is impressively complex and thoroughly interconnected means that it is also dauntingly complex and unpredictably interconnected. One of the implications of complexity in the world around us is that we can't account for the unexpected, the random, and the unseen contextual forces always lurking in the background. As systems and complexity theorists Stephen J. Guastello and Larry S. Liebovitch explain, in a paradigm where "nonlinear dynamics and complexity" rule, change itself is an opaque phenomenon (1). Complexity theory thus upends stable ground we may use for the creation of knowledge and, especially, for the possibility of predicting further events reliably.

What that means is that the same breadth and depth we discover by theorizing complexity and so dissolving the limits of texts and of writing also make texts and writing potentially irreducible, unpredictable, and, perhaps, unteachable. If writing itself is characterized by complexity, and if complexity makes prediction difficult, then teaching writing-how to devise predictable strategies for affecting an audience, for example-becomes a difficult if not impossible task. As Barbara Couture succinctly sums it up: "If little about writing is predictable, what lessons can teachers give?" (21). Complexity is exciting, but it is also ostensibly daunting for the teacher who is to grasp its tenets and use them to invigorate writing instruction.

With the introduction of complexity into writing studies comes the question: can we actually work with the complexity of writing in a way that helps us as theorists, as practitioners, and as teachers? This article provides one answer to this question and in so doing articulates a version of the complexity of writing that encourages-not hinders-its teaching. While there are significant thorny issues that arise when one thinks of writing in terms of complexity and systems, this article argues that thinking in these terms can actually give us a way to better understand writing and can provide important new insights into how writing works, how we (and our students) understand it, and how we might harness systems theory as a way to illuminate for students the complex and often hidden functioning of texts. Embracing the complexity of writing in this way as well answers Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle's call to teach "about writing" in such a way that solidifies writing studies as a "discipline with content knowledge to which students should be introduced" (553; see also Downs; Read and Michaud). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.