Moving from the Middle: The Definition of Meaning

Last week I reflected on an article I am writing about an influential 1994 conference on the sciences of “Complexity.” I am making a connection between this conference and the way we understand, enact, and teach writing.

I am using Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality (the conference’s published proceedings) as one of my primary texts.  It is not–all 717 pages of the scientific papers and the debates around them– beach reading. (But, really what is?  If summer is when you could “get away”–to the beach or park or someone else’s summer house–wouldn’t it be the right time to read exactly what, in mid-February, feels like one more burden in a day that’s dark by 4pm?)

But…considerable surprise and delight surfaced as I read this (inside, with the blinds shut up). Because some very “low-stakes” activities accompany the data on “complex systems.” “Low-stakes” is a term taken from a well-known essay by Peter Elbow. It refers to writing activities that are not assessed in the way we think of “grading” in academia.  Low-stakes writing helps students (or anyone) “write to learn”–to figure out what to say and how, to explore and experiment without the usual consequences of school-based work.

I’ve been keeping a list of complexity’s favorite low-stakes lessons, but that is for another time.  Yet the pairing of low-stakes activities and “complexity” proved fascinating and beguiling.  It led me (in last week’s post) to make the following statement about writing and beginners (or disciplines and disciples):

Once complexity becomes “C”omplexity (the mid 1990s) and writing becomes “W”riting (solidified as such in the same decade) they are more manageable entities to describe and define.  This is good–we need to be able to observe our world.  But disciplines also breed distinctions that deny access.  Strong disciplines and closed systems open vision but restrict expanded participation.

More on what it means to “expand participation” next week.  For now, I’ll only say this. Without expanded participation in the way of beginners’ access, we have nothing but boundaries.

It is next week (and then some).  So here is that one paragraph on what I mean by “expand participation”:

“Access” as associated with writing has a long and rich history, especially at my home university, the City University of New York, where open admissions, political activism, literacy, and the birth of Composition are all connected.  But by “access” and “expanded participation” I conjure this history and have a very present take on it in mind.   I mean having a definition of writing that is expansive: wide enough so that students at every level can explore the ways writing moves, and how we move it, and, in turn, each other.  That kind of participation in writing demands more than a “Writing in the Disciplines” approach to learning and more than a “skills” and “outcomes” driven first-year Composition course.  It means considering Writing a project where everyone is making its definition.

At this 1994 conference on complexity, scientists presented their research and data and then had to come together to figure out how that molded into a definition of complexity.

In 2012 we know the meaning of writing and Writing and plug in research and data to keep it simple.

I am stuck in the middle of these two moments in time.  I think at one point we thought that low stakes was it–the journey was the destination, the process was the panacea.  If only we wrote and wrote and told our students to do the same, we’d find our text, our discipline. The meaning was in the looking.  And now our assessment-based education culture (and discipline) seems all endgame.  We work backwards: we begin our classes, and sometimes research, with a defined outcome.  The definition gets molded out of a prescribed purpose. The meaning is in the beginning.

That feels short-sighted.

So, more on an expanded definition of middle next week.



About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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1 Response to Moving from the Middle: The Definition of Meaning

  1. Nora says:

    the journey is the destination….. the outcome preceeds the intervention…
    sounds like your midfulness weekend has landed your cushion in the middle of a zen koan. Or, perhaps mediation has allowed you to discover the the ameliorative synthesis of two thesis that need to be relegated to the ash heap of critical theory and pedogological practice. Someone has to usher in future. The middle might be just the place to start.

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