Information Sheet #74

November 29, 1993


[The following Word Shop piece is excerpted from "The Ecology of Writing" by Marilyn Cooper, an English professor at Michigan Technological University.  Despite the essay's occasionally stiff prose, Cooper's "ecology" metaphor offers a powerful insight into the ways in which writers change their environment just as they are products of that environment.  Introducing composition assignments into the classroom allows for students to reinvent the classroom, the forms, the disciplines faculty are so intent on teaching and defending.   Perhaps Cooper can help us feel comfortable with the difficulties and unexpected rewards that occur when we ask students to compose new meanings for us.  --Bob Marrs]

I would like to propose an ecological model of writing whose fundamental tenet is that writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems.

An ecology of writing encompasses much more than the individual writers and their immediate context.  An ecologist explores how writers interact to form systems:  all the characteristics of any individual writer or piece of writing both determine and are determined by the characteristics of all the other writers and writings in the systems.  An important characteristic of ecological systems is that they are inherently dynamic; though their structures and contents can be specified at a given moment, they are constantly changing. . . .

The systems are not given . . . instead they are made and remade by writers in the act of writing.  It is in this sense that writing changes social reality and not only in response to exigence.  A historian writes a letter of appreciation to an anthropologist whose article she read and connects with a new writer with whom she can exchange ideas and articles.  A college president who decides to write a Christmas letter to his faculty creates a new textual from that will affect his other communications and at the same time alters, slightly, the administrative structure of his institution.

Furthermore, the systems are concrete.  They are structures that can be investigated, described, altered.  Every individual writer is involved in these systems:  for each writer and each instance of writing one can specify the domain of ideas activated and supplemented, the purposes that stimulated the writing and resulted from it, the interactions that took place as part of the writing, the cultural norms and textual forms that enabled and resulted from the writing.

One can abstractly distinguish different systems that operate in writing.  But in the actual activity of writing the systems are interwoven in their effects and manner of operation.  The systems reflect the various ways writers connect with one another through writing:  through systems of ideas, of purposes, of interpersonal interactions, of cultural norms, of textual forms.

The system of ideas is the means by which writers comprehend their world, to turn individual experiences and observations into knowledge.  From this perspective ideas result from contact, whether face-to-face or mediated through texts.  Ideas are also always continuations, as they arise within and modify particular fields of discourse.  One does not begin to write about bird behavior, say, without observing birds, talking with other observers, and reading widely in the literature of animal behavior.  One does not even begin to have ideas about a topic, even a relatively simple one, until a considerable body of already structured observations and experiences has been mastered.  Even in writing where the focus is not on the development of knowledge, a writer must connect with the relevant idea system.

The system of purposes is the means by which writers coordinate their actions.  Arguments attempt to set agendas; promises attempt to set schedules and relationships.  Purposes, like ideas, arise out of interaction, and individual purposes are modified by the larger purposes of groups; in fact, an individual impulse or need only becomes a purpose when it is recognized as such by others.

The system of interpersonal interactions is the means by which writers regulate their access to one another.  Two determinants of the nature of a writer's interactions with others are intimacy, a measure of closeness based on any similarity seen to be relevant--kinship, religion, occupation; and power, a measure of the degree to which a writer can control the action of others.  Writers may play a number of different roles to one another:  editor, co-writer, or addressee, for instance.  Writers signal how they view their relationship with other writers through conventional forms and strategies, but they can also change their relationship--or even initiate or terminate relationships--through the use of these conventions if others accept the new relationship that is implied.

The system of cultural norms is the means by which writers structure the larger groups of which they are members.  One always writes out of a group; the notion of what role a writer takes on in a particular piece of writing derives from this fact.

The system of textual forms is the means by which writers communicate.  Textual forms, like language forms in general, are conservative, repositories of tradition, and revolutionary, instruments of new forms of action.  A textual form is a balancing act:  conventional enough to be comprehensible and flexible enough to serve the changing purposes of writing.  Thus, new forms usually arise by a kind of cross-breeding, or by analogy, as older forms are taken apart and recombined or modified in a wholesale fashion.

The metaphor for writing suggested by the ecological model is that of a web, in which anything that affects one strand of the web vibrates throughout the middle.  Models are ways of thinking about, or ways of seeing, complex situations.  If we look at, for example, a particularly vexed problem in current writing theory, the question of audience, from the perspective of this model, we may be able to reformulate the question in a way that helps us to find new answers. 

The discussion of how authors should deal with their audience has in recent years focused on the opposition between those who argue that authors must analyze the characteristics of a real audience and those who argue that authors always imagine, or create, their audience in their writing.  The opposition, of course, has classical roots:  in the Phaedrus Plato suggests that the rhetorician classify types of audiences and consider which type of speech best suits each; while at the other extreme, epideictic rhetoric sometimes took the form of a contest in which speakers imagined an audience.

I would like to draw attention, however, to what unites both these perspectives:  whether the writer is urged to analyze or invent the audience, the audience is always considered to be a construct in the writer's mind.

As should be obvious, the perspective of the ecological model offers a salutary correction of vision on the question of audience.  By focusing our attention on the real social context of writing, it enables us to see that writers not only analyze or invent audiences, they communicate with and know their audiences.  They learn to employ the devices of audience-adapted writing by handing their texts to colleagues to read and respond to, by revising articles or memos or reports guided by comments from editors or superiors, by reading others' summaries or critiques of their own writing.  Just as the ecological model transforms authors (people who have produced texts) into writers (people engaged in writing), it transforms the abstract "general audience" into real readers.

The focus on readers as real social beings opens up new vistas for research on audience and for classroom methods.  Questions we might seek answers to include: 

What kind of interactions do writers and readers engage in?

What is the nature of the various roles readers play in the activity of writing?

What institutional arrangements encourage writer-reader interaction?

How do writers find readers to work with?

How do writers and readers develop ideas together?

How do writers and readers alter textual forms together?

In the classroom, we can enable our students to see each other as real readers, not as stand-ins for a general audience.  Students learn about how to deal with their readers not "by internalizing and generalizing the reactions of a number of specific readers" and thereby developing a "sense of audience," but by developing the habits and skills involved in finding readers and making use of their responses.  Students, like all writers, need to find out what kind of readers best help them in the role of editor, how to work with co-writers, how to interpret criticisms, how to enter into dialogue with their addressees.

In contrast, then, to the solitary author model, the ecological model projects an infinitely extended group of people who interact through writing, who are connected by the various systems that constitute the activity of writing.  For these "engaged writers" ideas are not so much fixed constructs to be transferred from one mind to the page and thence to another mind; instead, ideas are out there in the world, a landscape that is always being modified by human discourse.  They "find ideas" in writing because they enter the field of discourse, finding in the exchange of language certain structures that they modify to suit their purposes.

Nor for them do purposes arise solely out of individual desires, but rather arise out of the interaction between their needs and the needs of the various groups that structure their society.  "Ultimately, the functions served . . . must be derived directly from the purposes and needs of human persons engaged in social action, and are what they are:  talking [or writing] to seduce, to stay awake, to avoid a war." 

The various roles people take on in writing also arise out of this social structure:  through interacting with others, in writing and speaking, they learn the functions and textual forms of impersonal reporting, effective instruction, irony, story-telling.  In the same way, they learn the attitudes toward these roles and toward purposes and ideas held by the various groups they interact with, and they come to understand how these interactions are structured by institutional arrangements.  These attitudes and arrangements make up a system of cultural norms that are, however, neither stable nor uniform throughout a culture.  People move from group to group, bringing along with them different complexes of ideas, purposes, and norms, different ways of interacting, different interpersonal roles and textual forms.  Writing, thus, is both constituted by and constitutive of these ever-changing systems, systems through which people relate as complete social beings, rather than imagining each other as remote images:  an author, an audience.

The image the ecological model projects is an ideal one.  In reality, these systems are often resistant to change and not easily accessible.  Whenever ideas are seen as commodities they are not shared; whenever individual and group purposes cannot be negotiated someone is shut out; differences in status, or power, or intimacy curtail interpersonal interactions; cultural institutions and attitudes discourage writing as often as they encourage it; textual forms are just as easily used as barriers to discourse as they are used as a means of discourse.  The ecological model can be used to diagnose and analyze such situations, and it encourages us to direct our corrective energies away from the characteristics of the individual writer and toward imbalances in social systems that prevent good writing. 

Writing is one of the activities by which we locate ourselves in the enmeshed systems that make up the social world.  It is not simply a way of thinking but more fundamentally a way of acting . . . an activity through which we become most truly human.  By looking at writing ecologically we understand better how important writing is--and just how hard it is to teach.

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