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The OoS Matrix: FrankenTheorizing Composition MOOCs

Composition MOOCs: Theorizing Pedagogy, Space, and Learning. Why Here? Why Now? As argued in earlier case studies, the Composition MOOC is one of many different types of course offerings in an emerging trend (some would call it a fad) of … Continue reading

Reading Notes: Ecology and Distributed Composing

I plowed through all of these readings in a single sitting, which did not help much with comprehension, but which did affect my experience reading. I’m a composition teacher who prefers to grade all assignments in a single sitting, an web manager who prefers to make changes that affect multiple parts of the navigation structure in a single work session, and a reader who, honestly, prefers to read at least an entire “piece” of writing in a single reading session. What I discovered as I read these in a single sitting is that the works built off one another in interesting ways. I’ll admit to being puzzled by Guattari; it’s always troubling when the translators’ introduction is clearer than the text itself! But I found that, once I started writing myself into a summary, I began to better understand what I had read (no surprise there, of course). More significantly, I found elements of Guattari’s (2012/1989) focus on the interrelationships and interplay among mental, social, and environmental ecologies informative in understanding the relationship of abiotic processes and elements in a natural or agroecology (Spellman, 2007). And Guattari’s insistence that we humans must be engaged in addressing and recovering our environmental ecological equilibrium offered a useful insight into ecological homeostatasis. Finally, Guattari, Spellman, Bateson (1987/1972), and Gibson (1986/1979) were important background readings that made Syverson (1999) accessible and understandable.

Dynamic Interrelationships

Repeated emphasis on the dynamic relationships within ecology was not lost on me. Guattari (2012/1989) refers to “the tangled paths of the three ecological vision” (p. 44) while the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (2014) notes that ecology is about relationships, an “encompassing and synthetic” rather than “fragmented” view of nature. Spellman (2007) writes that “ecology is all about interrelationships, infraspecific and interspecific, and how important it is to maintain those relationships—to ensure our very survival” (p. 6). And Syverson (1999) draws on all these sources and more to define ecology as it relates to composition as “An ecology is a kind of meta-complex system composed of interrelated and interdependent complex systems and their environmental structures and processes” (p. 5).

These references reinforce my emerging understanding of networks as connected, interrelated, and active. I’m being drawn to articulate networks as requiring dynamic connections. Without active interrelations, the only aspect of the network that exists is a framework and/or a trace. But when the activity occurs — and the activity may take only a split second to occur — in that moment the network emerges. Ecologies are active networks. They don’t exist merely as frameworks or traces, although they may develop their own frameworks and hierarchies, like those described by Spellman (2007, quoting Odum 1983): “the best way to delimit modern ecology is to consider the concept of levels of organization” (p. 14). They can certainly be traced, as evidence my Spellman’s multiple examples of tracing ecosystems and populations within ecosystems.

Composing Ecologies

Word map

Mapping a composition ecology: WordItOut CC licensed image

I’ve thought a great deal this semester about the way I teach composition. I’ve radically altered my instruction this semester to reflect my nascent understanding of current composition theory. I’ve spent much of the semester convincing my students that composing is an experience that encompasses much more than the rhetorical triangle. Syverson offers a much clearer way to articulate what I think I’ve been hinting at all semester:

“I would argue that writers, readers, and texts form just such a complex system of self-organizing, adaptive, and dynamic interactions. But even beyond this level of complexity, they are actually situated in an ecology, a larger system that includes environmental structures [see the Ecology Map of My Classroom]… as well as other complex systems operating at various levels of scale…” (p. 5)

I’m encouraging my students to problematize their own understanding of the writing process as a class experience, as a social experience, and, I can now claim, as a complex activity system in an ecology. I believe doing so positions them to succeed in the real-world writing they will be asked to do beyond my classroom, academic, professional, and personal. And I also believe that doing any less robs them of an understanding of composing that makes too many assumptions about what writing is and is not.

Tricksters on the Edge

Anansi the Spider image

Anansi the Spider: A trickster who weaves a web of deceptions, but also creates a subversive narrative.

Once again I somewhat reluctantly admit trickster back into my understanding of Syverson specifically, and ecologies more generally. Syverson (1999) writes that “complex systems are dynamic, more unpredictable, spontaneous, and disorderly than a machine” (p. 4) and “the frontiers of knowledge are found… in the articulations between levels of organization of the real that correspond to different fields of knowledge whose techniques and discourses do not overlap” (p. 3). The dynamic tension that affords complex systems is precisely the dynamic tension of interstices and boundary spaces that trickster inhabits. Trickster inhabits liminal spaces and takes advantage of boundaries as crossing spaces and times. Boundaries are spaces in which connections can and do occur, the results of dynamic tensions at articulation points. And that is one way to describe the environment of tricksters and the affordance of ecology. If ecology is about interrelationships, then boundaries contain the connective tissues that afford ecologies. And where boundaries happen, tricksters emerge, sometimes releasing raw sewage into the stream, the immediate result of which is destruction, but the long-term result of which might ultimately be Spellman’s (2007) ecology succession, the method by which an ecosystem either forms or heals itself (p. 82). And sometimes the trickster creates something new from the dynamic interrelationships, like a genetically modified organism.

Trickster generally creates to destroy and destroys to create, unpredictably and selfishly. Sounds a little like a problem to which Guattari’s (2012/1989) focus in The Three Ecologies seeks a remedy.


Bateson, G. (1987/1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Gibson, J. J. (1986/1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Guattari, F. (2012/1989). The three ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar & Paul Sutton. London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Spellman, F. R. (2007). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes, 3-23; 61-84.

Syverson, M. A. (1999). The wealth of reality: An ecology of composition. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1-27.

[Featured image - Distributed composition: CC licensed image by Flickr user Gexydaf]