Archive | spellman RSS feed for this section

Final Case Study: Synthesis

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director's Office, and Artwork

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director’s Office, and Artwork

Overview

Pedagogically based on writing center philosophies, the Noel Studio is a multiliteracy center with a unique physical space and academic/administrative structure. Occupying 10,000 sq. ft of EKU Libraries’ main building, Crabbe Library, the Noel Studio provides both public and private spaces for consultants, students, and faculty to work.

Comprised of a core administrative staff of five (director, writing coordinator, research coordinator, technology associate, and administrative assistant) and a student staff of approximately forty-five (graduate assistants, undergraduate consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows), the Noel Studio was created to support the various communication and research projects happening both in and outside of the classroom. To support that mission, the physical space of the Noel Studio contains the Greenhouse (a large, open space with a variety of computers and touch-screen monitors), the Invention Space (equipped with wall-to-wall white boards, a CopyCam, and creative materials), Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms (small, reserveable rooms with a computer work station, large screen monitors, and recording capabilities), and a communal space that currently serves as an office for technology support.

The Noel Studio is a network of space, people, activity, ideologies, and ideologies that cannot be separated from one another. It is a complex system that impacts and is impacted by larger institutional networks. While at first glance the network-icity of the Noel Studio might appear to exist primarily in its administrative structure the complexity of the Noel Studio is reflected in many different ways.

For example, even though the Noel Studio replaced the existing writing center, it did not simply overtake the writing center’s philosophies, space, or budget. Instead, it became an interdisciplinary space in the main library, an interdisciplinary department under University Programs (UP), and an amalgamation of budget lines from UP, the English Department (graduate assistantships), SGA, and, most recently, an endowment from the initial donors, Ron and Sherry Lou Noel. The collaborative efforts to make the space a reality are seen in the artwork commissioned through LexArt and paid for through the fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Library, the physical structures and features (small and large rooms, glass walls, brightly colored walls and glass), and the upgrades that have been made over the last 3.5 years (more and larger whiteboards, more mobile furniture).

Recognizing the importance of supporting students’ composing practices, some institutions are investing in multiliteracy centers. As the first large-scale multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio has already served as a model for other universities investing in communication initiatives and support services. While many people have visited the Noel Studio for ideas and advice, it’s an often-acknowledged fact that there is no “ideal” organization or plan that fits every writing center or writing program. Instead, each situation is unique and complex in its own right, subject to a multitude of factors. The Noel Studio is not replicable, but using the Noel Studio as an object of study allows us to understand the different options we have for examining the complexity of any given writing program, answering Jackie Grutch McKinney’s (2013) call for writing centers to look beyond the traditional narrative to see and articulate the work we actually do. If we can better see and articulate this work and how our centers and programs exist as nodes within institutional and (inter)disciplinary networks, we can not only help others understand our nodual value, but we can also focus on the connections that strengthen our work and loosen connections that don’t.

Brief Literature Review

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. While Mckinnery begins to trace the complexities of writing center work, she only touches on a deeper investigation. This synthesis, then, examines the Noel Studio primarily in terms of Prior et al.’s Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), positing that the rhetorical work of writing centers occurs in a much more complex system of activity than traditional rhetorical theories acknowledge. CHAT’s approach identifies levels of rhetorical activity that can be more fully understood by also considering the Noel Studio as labor and ecosystems constituted by social networks.

The Noel Studio as a Center of Rhetorical Activity

As a multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio functions as a center for rhetorical activity. Designed to support all communication projects, the Noel Studio’s mission considered writing, research, and oral communication as the three cornerstones of its rhetorical work. In their chapter, Studio pedagogy: A model for collaboration, innovation, and space design, Carpenter, Valley, Napier, and Apostel (2012) identify six foundational criteria for the Noel Studio’s multiliteracy approach:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding, audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultant encourage student to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high- and low-tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These criteria, developed by the founding administrators of the Noel Studio, reflect both disciplinary and institutional ideologies. These reflections serve as the foundation for what Prior et al. describe as an expanded theory of rhetorical activity. Laminated chronotopes reflect the underlying ideology of the Noel Studio, as they are embodied, represented, and embedded in its rhetorical activity.

Laminated Chronotopes

Writing Center Ideology: Writing center policies and practices reflect their grounding in process pedagogy. Valuing such ideals as “HoCs over LoCs” (higher order concerns over lower order concerns), “meeting the writer where he’s at,” “minimal marking,” and “making better writers not better writing,” writing centers reflect composition theories that prioritize student reflection, student ownership, and collaboration. Students become better writers through discursive processes (the one-on-one interactions—these are important to writing center peeps…include them and explain why).

Inherent in this belief is the ideal that writing centers do not offer remedial services—rather, they support the growth of all writers in employing rhetorical strategies to develop effective communication. In addition to pedagogical strategies, writing centers also focus on space design as an important component in engaging students, resulting in what McKinney identifies as one of the tropes—writing centers are cozy homes. While the Noel Studio is not designed to be a “cozy home,” the importance of space design for the critical and creative processes of composing is one of its most important elements.

Institutional Ideology: Eastern Kentucky University is a regional university that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in general and liberal arts programs, pre-professional and professional training in education and various other fields. Established as Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1906, EKU began as a school for teachers and that legacy is still visible in the school’s self-described identity as an institution with three primary priorities: instruction, scholarship, and service, but the institution still claims the primary function is teaching (EKU, n.d.).

Like most institutions of higher education, EKU values grades as representations of academic success and predictors of future success. For the institution, success is often defined in terms of retention and graduation rates and programs that can demonstrate direct contributions to retention and graduation through quantitative assessments are more likely to receive funding.

Functional Systems and Literate Activity

From these laminated chronotopes emerge what Prior et al. identify as functional systems. According to Prior et al., “mediated activity means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space, and among people, artifacts, and environments” (pp. 17-18)–or functional systems. These functional systems are tied together by “some array of current objectives, conscious or not” (p.19). The primary objective tying these functional systems together in the Noel Studio is to help students become more effective communicators. Other stated and unstated objectives include creating opportunities for the students who work as consultants, creating an open and creative work atmosphere, and maintaining knowledge and practices to support EKUs evolving communication climate.

And from the functional systems emerge literate activities. According to Prior et al., the “terms of the map of literate activity . . . are not intended to evoke a series of steps, but to signal a multidimensional model” (pp. 19-20). This map of literate activity includes production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, activity, and ecology. At this level, activity is concrete and visible, encompassing the enactment of rhetorical moves—the actions that enable the work of the Noel Studio to manifest in students creating visible representations of their ideas.

While Prior et al. identify functional systems as ecologies, people, communities, artifacts, and practices, they fail to explain how these functional systems emerge and contribute to the rhetorical activity of the larger network. The ambiguity of these functional systems (and thereby, the literate activities of the functional systems), however, can be better understood by looking at how other theorists have defined these various systems.

Even though the objective of the Noel Studio situates it as a system of rhetorical activity, we cannot ignore its multiple identities. It also functions as a labor system, an ecosystem , and a social network system that operates within the larger economic and social biosphere of EKU. Examining the Noel Studio in terms of its functional systems and literate activities in terms of these other network theories allows us to understand how meaning is made and transformed, how the network grows, evolves, or dissolves, and where operations and connections breakdown (or have the potential to breakdown).

Ecologies: Spellman defines ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5). The Cary Institute expands on that definition, explaining ecology not just as interactions but as systems: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions, among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of students’ ideas into the creation of texts. In this sense, the staff, students, and physical environment of the Noel Studio interact to create visible representations of ideas.

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

This representation, or the transformation as the Cary Institute described it, is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the environment, the more effective their visual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse. With no stationary technology in the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little distraction from technology. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started to write the paper—she has the prompt and an idea for a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt, the construction of which affords the direction for the student’s paper.

After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that the consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technologies, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and the consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented through words and images on the dry erase boards. Additionally, revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased or modified if/when they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the representation of her ideas, she and the consultant could use an outline to create an outline—a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication. The CopyCam then affords saving, as the student can print a copy of the work, save it as a file on a jump drive, or upload it to the Noel Studio’s CopyCam website.

If time, or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use other spaces and technology in the Noel Studio to proceed through the drafting and revision processes (many times students do so in the spaces without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to rehearse the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’a) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final project. For instances, if the student’s project is a video that she will share with the class, her construction of the video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay down a music track over the images in the video—a rhetorical choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video-editing software afford—but if she can’t perceive the function of the software, she will have to revise her plan and make new rhetorical choices with the functions she can perceive.

Communities: In this ecosystem of rhetorical activity, growth and balance depend on the population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources, both human and environmental. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations or communities, the ecosystem of the Noel Studio only grows when there is representation from the diverse disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups that make up EKU. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in the basement of Case Annex—an old dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss a potential collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio emerged. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives of other populations, including the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources, as the English Department would no longer be solely responsible for the full funding (it still contributes to staffing through graduate assistant lines). Working with EKU Libraries Advancement, this newly-formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s Office, University Programs, and a state grant. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity, expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional communities, including the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute EKU represented in the Noel Studio.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many communities are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the college of Justice and Safety, for example, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety community’s interactions with the Noel Studio, that connection may die off as students graduate. As those connections die off, the system becomes less dynamic and resources less distributed as potential sources of funding decrease. If this trend of losing involved communities grew, the Noel Studio as a system would not be able to revert to its previous system of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is dependent on increasing and maintaining connections with EKU’s diverse communities.

People: In addition to systems of community, the Noel Studio contains multiple systems of people as well. The primary network of people is the personnel: the administrative staff (director, coordinators, administrative assistant, and technology associate), the consultants (consultants, desk consultants, writing fellows, and graduate assistants), and the students (undergraduate, graduate, and online). Institutional ideology is most predominantly reflected in this component of the functional system, as the personnel structure is hierarchical. The consultants are responsible for the work that most explicitly addresses the objective of the Noel Studio, while the coordinators are responsible for guiding and supervising that work, the AA and technology associate troubleshoot and problem-solve resources necessary for that work, and the director makes programmatic decisions that situates the work within the larger system of EKU.

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

Within the labor network of people, there are social networks that are formed at and between various levels. As Scott explains, “A social group . . . exists in a field: a social ‘space’ that comprises the group together with its surrounding environment” (p. 11). This surrounding environment is not necessarily the physical space of the ecosystem—rather the space of the social group is constructed by the paths between people and their attitudes. With a full staff of approximately 50 people, interpersonal relationships and social balance is important for establishing a positive working environment. It’s unreasonable to expect that all 50 members of the Noel Studio will have what Scott identifies as “positive” relationships with all other 49 members. As he explains, social subgroups tend to form among people who have aligned ways of thinking and objectives. These subgroupings are evident within the Noel Studio as consultants tend to converge into cliques along their identified roles (their niches): desk consultants, graduate assistances, research consultants, undergraduate consultants, and writing fellows. However, as Scott explains, each person has multiple relations outside of these networks.

Understanding the social networks of the Noel Studio allows us to understand how interpersonal conflicts arise and, potentially, can be resolved with and ever-increasing staff. Thus far, the Noel Studio has had little trouble with conflict which is potentially due to the aligned objectives created by pedagogical and institutional ideologies.

Artifacts:  The artifacts of the Noel Studio are the documents and tools used the employees use to assist in the daily work. The documents and tools used by the Noel Studio employees to assist in the daily work. These include the Records of Consultation, time sheets, handouts and resources, client reports, WCOnline, Google Docs, Outlook, and Facebook.

Spinuzzi explains that relationships, activity, and destabilization that occur can only be identified by examining the relationships of activity and genres (the tools of the work) at three different levels: the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic levels.  At the macroscopic level is the entire the activity system–the Noel Studio and its makeup (director, coordinators, consultants, desk consultants, etc) and the artifacts it use (Records of Consultation, WCOnline, the furniture, the technology) to achieve the goal of improving students’ communication skills. The mesoscopic level, reveals the actions each of the workers perform in order to achieve the goal and how the instruments mediate those actions. And microscopic level actions are operationalized behaviors.

The distribution of labor within the network is visible through the tools or artifacts that we use and create. For example, a student’s consultation is not only the labor of the consultant who works with him or her. In scheduling the appointment, either the student or a desk consultant uses WCOnline to mediate the scheduling process. When the student arrives, the desk consultant again uses WCOnline to fill out the heading on the RoC (the Record of Consultation) and then mediates the introduction to the consultant with whom the student will be working. At this point, the consultant uses the training that he or she received from the administrative staff (prior labor) to engage with the student. In working towards the goal of the improving student’s communication skills, the consultant and student exchange the labor load throughout the consultation, using both the RoC and the student’s communication product to mediate the exchange. After the consultation, the consultant returns the RoC to the desk consultant who again uses WCOnline to create a digital record of the consultation (the client report). Finally, the desk consultant passes along the RoC to the appropriate coordinator who reviews it and uses it to discuss the consultant’s success within the consultation.

Networks grow and emerge as workers create and modify genres and they dissolve as contradictions, discoordinations, and breakdowns go unnoticed or unaddressed. In the previous example, for instance, we might see a breakdown as the consultant distributes the copies of the RoC. If the consultant forgets to give the student the original, then the behavior is not operationalized and the Noel Studio will be inconsistent (and perhaps perceived as unreliable) in its processes. In response, if a coordinator or consultant notices this breakdown, he or she might develop fix–a new genre–that increases and strengthens the network.

Practices: Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or a niche, to fill. As such, “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors—a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15).The concept of balance is important for all ecosystems and the Noel Studio is no different. However, it is in the functional system of practices that the tension between writing center and institutional ideologies start to emerge. Because of writing center values of process pedagogy, forming “better writers not better papers,” and collaboration and authorship, writing centers (and the Noel Studio) have developed practices that prioritize global concerns over proofreading and editing, discussion over “correction,” and minimal marking. In contrast, because institutions value grades and assessment reporting, there is often institutional pressure to transform writing center practices to focus on product, local concerns, and editing.

These tensions are evident in every aspect of the consultation. From setting goals with students, to filling out the RoC, to having meaningful conversation to meeting faculty’s expectations, consultants try to balance the values they learn in training (and by which they are evaluated in terms of job performance) with the expectations of students, faculty, and higher administration. Despite valuing process and recognizing that students likely need to visit the Noel Studio multiple times for significant improvement in skills, consultants feel obligated to help every student move their project from whatever “grade” it is at to an “A” (as subjectively defined by every instructor at the institution). As consultants face pressure from students, coordinators face criticism from faculty whose ideas of what a writing center should do have, unfortunately, evolved little since North’s 1984 article.

Discussion

This synthesis feels woefully incomplete. I’m not sure if my reasons for choosing my different theories are obvious, so I’ll try to make them explicit here.

I chose CHAT as the overall framework because it explains how activity emerges from rhetorical motivations that are situated in cultural and institutional ideologies. It explains how meaning is embedded in systems that then represent the meaning through the resulting activities. Additionally, it accounts for various types of representation and how context influences rhetorical activity.

Using Prior et al. as a framework, however, was problematic for a few reasons that I tried to address with the other theories. First, it didn’t offer any ways of establishing boundaries for analysis of rhetorical activity. Even though my OoS itself helped set boundaries, much of the action that impacts students’ communication skills occurs outside of the Noel Studio on an individual basis, but examining those influences wouldn’t help us understand the Noel Studio as a network better.

Using Spinuzzi, Scott, and Spellman to define the types of functional systems in terms of a labor network, a social network, and an ecosystem help set useful boundaries and address ways in which the system grows, evolves, and could, potentially dissolve. Finally, they helped explain how the literate activity manifests from the functional systems and laminated chronotopes and how individuals and groups both form complex networks. Additionally, while CHAT accounts for the impact of environment on the rhetorical activity, theories of distributed cognition (Gibson and Norman) explain how that impact happens. In short, each of the supplemental theories attempt to explain the how that Prior et al. neglect.

References

Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Prior et al. (). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/topoi/prior-et-al/core/core.pdf

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from Kindle.

 

 

 

Case Study #3

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

The Noel Studio is typically identified as a multiliteracy center and discussed in terms of writing center structure, theory, and pedagogy. Because not much has been written on the Noel Studio specifically, it’s helpful to look to writing center studies.

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. Similarly, in their chapter in Cases in higher education spaces,  Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, and Napier (2013) challenge the typical narrative of writing center work by examining approaches to working with multimodal and digital compositions. More specifically, they examine what they call “a studio pedagogy,” arguing for the importance of space design in writing center work. They propose five criteria for a Studio pedagogy:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultants encourage students to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative Collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high-and-low tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources.

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These six criteria are directly connected to the physical environment in which students collaborate and compose. As such, it seems appropriate to apply ecology and distributed cognition to the Noel Studio as an object of study to better understand how the individuals interact with their environment to enhance the collaboration and composing processes.

 

Ecology of the Noel Studio

Spellman’s definition of ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5) offers the foundational lens for understanding how the Noel Studio operates as an ecosystem. The physical space of the Noel Studio was designed to afford the collaboration and the composing process and includes

  • The Greenhouse: the primary, large open space, equipped with large green tables on wheels that, combined with the tuffets for seats, force individuals to face each other when they talk.
Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Media Wall in the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

  • The Medial Wall: 3 stations, each with a large, touch-screen monitor attached to a PC, a dual screen monitor, and another screen with cables to attach additional devices. Each station also offers chairs on wheels and mushroom tables with integrated power sources. Individuals or groups can use these stations to work with potentially three documents at once. For example, students could be constructing a Prezi on the large, touch-screen monitor, looking at the outline on the dual screen monitor, and researching on the laptop attached to the third monitor.
  • Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms: Intended for small-group (the Breakout Spaces) or one-on-one (the Practice Rooms) interactions, each of these rooms is equipped with a large-screen monitor attached to a computer work station, video and audio-recording technology, whiteboards, and mobile chairs and half-round tables. In these rooms, students can plan and rehearse presentations.
  • The Invention Space: Equipped with wall-to-wall whiteboards, a CopyCam, rocking chairs and stationary seating, and manipulatives (Playdoh, Legos, Jenga, crayons, etc.), the Invention Space affords play and creativity for brainstorming and visualization activities.
  • The Discovery Classroom: a large, informal classroom with 3 projectors and drop-down screens, a massive whiteboard, comfortable and mobile chairs, 24 laptops, a lectern, and a media center (VHS and DVD player) with a control panel.

Additionally, the Noel Studio also contains 5 offices for administrators and consultants, public computer work stations, mobile whiteboards, and a break room. Throughout the space, there are floor outlets and Ethernet ports that allow individuals to charge and connect mobile devices necessary for new media composing.

Spellman explains that ecology is typically categorized according to complexity (p. 5), which results in levels of organization (p.14):

Organs–>Organism–>Population–>Communities–>Ecosystem–>Biosphere

As organisms are living things, the organisms existing in the Noel Studio are all humans. Having distinguished that, we can define the resulting levels of organization:

Biosphere: The biosphere that encompasses the Noel Studio is Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), which is comprised of many other ecosystems (colleges, departments, offices, and organizations)

Ecosystem: The Noel Studio is an ecosystem–it is a complete system on its own but is also a component of biosphere. Complex systems, Syverson explains, are simultaneously spontaneous, self-organizing, adaptive, dynamic, unpredictable, disordered, and structured, coherent, and purposeful (p. 6). The components of the Noel Studio work together with the purpose of developing effective communication skills.

Communities: The communities within the Noel Studio are administrators, consultants, consultees, collaborators, and donors.

Populations: Even though all of the organisms in the Noel Studio are human, they constitute different populations: students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. These populations create communities. Although all of the organisms in the biosphere have the option of being a component of the Noel Studio, only a small percentage of those populations choose to be.

Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or niche, to fill. As such “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors–a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15). As such, organisms and the environmental components all serve as nodes within the system, though the organisms have agency whereas the non-living environmental components do not. Rather, nonliving environmental factors serve as affordances or constraints for the activities of the organisms. Thus, homeostasis, or balance, is dependent on each organism’s ability to perceive the positive and negative affordances of the physical environment.

Relationships and Movement

To understand what moves in the ecosystem of the Noel Studio, let’s turn to the Cary Institute’s expanded definition of ecology: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of student’s ideas into texts. Consultants and students interact with the physical environment to create visible representations of ideas.

This movement, then is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the physical environment, the more effective their textual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse–with no permanent technology in the open space of the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little technological distraction. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started writing the paper–she has a prompt and an idea of a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt–the construction of which affords direction for the student’s paper.

20100920noel-studio-scenes0042After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that their consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technology, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented on the dry erase board. Additionally, the revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased as they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the ideas that are represented, she and the consultant would use the CopyCam to create an outline–a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication.

If time or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use the spaces and technology to proceed through the revision process (sometimes students will do so in the space without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to practice the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’s) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final product. For instance, if the student’s final project is a video that she will share with the class, her video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay a music track over the video–a choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video editing software afford–but if she can’t perceive the function of the software that affords that design choice, she will have to revise her plan. In this ecosystem, then, the ideas are transformed as the move throughout the nodes (both organisms and environment) of the network.

How the Network Grows and Dissolves

In an ecosystem, growth and balance depend on population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources. This is true of the Noel Studio as well. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations in the Noel Studio, the ecosystem only grows when there is representation from the different disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in a basement in Case Annex–a dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio formed. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives from various populations–the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of the populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources as the English Department would no longer be responsible for the full funding (although it does still contribute to staffing). Working with the Library Advancement office, this newly formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s office, and University Programs. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity–expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional offices, such as the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute the EKU biosphere represented in the Noel Studio ecosystem.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many groups are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the College of Justice and Safety, for instance, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety student population in the Noel Studio, that population may die out as students graduate. As populations die out, the distribution of resources becomes less spread out and decrease the potential sources of funding. As funding decreases, the ability to support diverse populations also decreases. In this case, the ecosystem would not be able to revert to the previous situation of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is reliant on increasing and maintaining population diversity.

Affordances and Constraints of Ecology as a Theory

More so than previous theories, ecology helped me think through the consequences of having a homogenous population of student and faculty participants in the Noel Studio. While diversity of students is typically something we think about at the staffing level and do, to a degree, look at population diversity in end-of-semester reporting, thinking about how that diversity potentially affects the growth, decline, and future of the Noel Studio forces me to re-evaluate the amount of outreach we currently do. We offer services for distance students, but we could definitely do more marketing. The colleges “across the bypass” (there is a bypass that literally divides campus) house the disciplines that we contain the Noel Studio’s lowest population of users, indicating a need for more outreach which could lead to more resources. Too often, I think, we consider the resources we have before trying to increase our population diversity rather than the resources that we can gain.

In terms of constraints, one of the frustrations of this theory was trying to think about the environment and technology as only tools that afford action. Thinking about agency as limited to the living organisms made it difficult to talk about the affordances of the technology without assigning agency to the environment. As a result, agency in this theory relies on the organism’s ability to perceive its agency. This is a gap I plan to consider in my final synthesis as it seems important to consider whether the technology can help shape the representation of ideas (as a mediator) or if it really is just reliant on what humans can perceive as capable wherein technology continues to be only a tool.

References

Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Syverston, M. A. (1999). Introduction: What is an ecology of composition? The wealth of reality: An ecology of composition. Carbondale: S Illinois University Press.

Mindmap Gets Another Update_Ecology Theory, Ecosophy, and New Connections

Mindmap: http://popplet.com/app/#/1589875

Mindmap updated for 30 March 2014.

Mindmap updated for 30 March 2014.

haha Every time I look at my mindmap anymore, I am reminded of the skill system from Final Fantasy X.

Grid sphere system from Final Fantasy X. Image hosted on the website The Philippine Final Fantasy Portal.

Grid sphere system from Final Fantasy X. Image hosted on the website The Philippine Final Fantasy Portal.

The grid sphere system, especially upon first sight, sprawls out like some curled serpent moments from waking. The more I look at my mindmap, the more impressed I am by how large it has gotten in the last three months. For my own sanity, I keep a mindmap drawn on paper with the overarching theories drawn on it.

But, enough about that. Time to talk about what I have added, my three nodes and my little links between them. This week continued Ecology Theory, with Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies, Frank Spellman’s Ecology for Nonecology, and Margaret Syverson’s Wealth of Reality. This week’s additions were a bit easier since I had already laid the ground work for Ecology nodes.

So, what did I add?

First things first. A definition of Guattari’s term ecosophy – “‘An ethico-political articulation…between the three ecological registers (the environment, social relations and human subjectivity)’ that Guattari believes could help the ‘ecological disequilibrium’ that has been generated by the ‘period of intense techno-scientific transformations’ we are facing (19-20).” I wanted to make sure I had this in my mindmap because it gives me an idea of what ecology theorists may want to do with their theories. Why link ecology to computer systems and politics, why have so many texts that try to make sure people know just how inextricably connected we are to all the ecosystems we don’t think about? Guattari’s text may be short, but it gave me a lot to think about.

What, then, could follow Guattari? Spellman’s discussion of an organism’s environment:

“The organism’s environment can be divided into four parts:
1) Habitat and distribution – its place to live
2) Other organisms – whether friendly or hostile
3) Food
4) Weather – light, moisture, temperature, soil, etc

There are four major subdivisions of ecology:

Behavioral ecology
Population ecology (autecology)
Community ecology (synecology)
Ecosystem” (Spellman 5)

This was another thing I wanted to be sure to add as it dealt with concepts I had read about in the prior week with Gibson and Bateson, drawing in information played out in the video on the Cary Institute’s website. Here, there were habitats, affordances, and neighboring ecosystems, but also the subdivisons that make up an environment with the different kinds of ecologies. I linked this node to a node I had made for Gibson’s “Theories of Affordances,” which I think linked to a node about CHAT’s creators defining what CHAT is supposed to be: “As objects and environments are formed and transformed through human activity, they come to embody the goals and social organization of that activity in the form of affordances for use.”  The Ecology Theories we have been reading give me more perspective on what “affordances” meant (something I wasn’t totally sure about before), but also gave me the understanding that this definition of CHAT is looking at the modification that Bateson and Gibson had been discussing. This was hindsight leading me down new rabbit holes.

For my last node of the week, I pulled from Syverson’s text: “In a complex system, a network of independent agents–people atoms, neurons, or molecules, for instance–act and interact in parallel with each other, simultaneously reacting to and co-constructing their own environment” (3). This quote reminded me a lot of Foucault’s discussion of the physician and the role the physician plays being dependent upon everything going on in the field around him or her. The complex system that Syverson is discussing is more organic than the constant restructuring of the medical field with advancements in technology and anatomical understanding, but it was the idea of “simultaneously reacting to and co-constructing their own environment” that seemed to underlie the constant cycle and layering of discursive statements that populate history. Is this what was meant by Bateson’s cybernetic epistemology and ecology of the mind?

Add This to the Ecosystem of Sounds Filling the Room:


Mind Map: Week 11

Mindmap11

In my mind map this week, I added a primary node of Ecology with smaller nodes linking out to Spellman and Syverston (since my book didn’t come until Tuesday, I only read summaries and, thus, I need to read him before I try to add him). As a result of our discussions in class this week, I created a connecting contrast node between Spellman and Latour. I actually had a date with a biologist on Saturday who studies freshwater streams and lakes, so this was a topic of our conversation. It was interesting for me to try to explain my perception (based on our readings and discussions) that ecology focuses on groups and classification. He didn’t see it until I explained how Latour’s theory of tracing all of the messy connections to an individual helps to define that individual’s network–the result of which would not be generalizable to other individuals. For instance, a species of fish serves a role in an ecosystem–its niche–and the role could be filled by any other of the fish in that species. However, while human individuals also serve a role in their network, all of an individual’s roles within his or her own specialized network cannot be fulfilled by another individual, because we have such a high level of agency and the importance we place on social systems.

I also added a primary node for Syverston and connected her concept of emergence to Bazerman, as I see a direct connection with the concept of speech acts and genres. This is a connection I plan to explore more as part of my own research.


Mind Map: Ecologies Part II (March 30th)

Link: http://popplet.com/app/#/1571354 Last week’s activities asked us to apply our network questions to the Ecology readings of Syverson, Spellman, the Cary Institute, and fill in the gaps with Guattari, resulting in new connections for my mind map. And even though … Continue reading

Mind Map #10: Seeking Homeostasis

Popplet mindmap visualization

Mindmap #10: Seeking Homeostasis (Popplet visualization)

The ecology of my mind map seeks homeostasis, a natural balance among its many theories. My mind map has become, in Charles Darwin’s words, a “web of complex relations” (cited in Spellman, 2007, p. 4).  Well, maybe not as complex as all of nature, but if we follow the formula for the value of a network from Castells (2000) — “the value of a network increases as the square if the number of nodes in the net” (p. 71), expressed as V=n(n-1), where n is the number of nodes in the network — then we’re looking at a pretty significant number of potential connectivities among all these theories. That’s pretty complex. (I had to check: the number of nodes related specifically to theories in the mind map is around 75 right now, so V=7574. That’s higher than any calculator I have access to can count.)

I linked the three ecologies from Guattari to my ecology node. I used Spellman’s (2007) focus on homeostasis (p.15) as a node as well, connecting it to the both the relationship between the organism and the environment (an important aspect of the definition of ecology) and the relationship between Guatarri’s three ecologies. Both Spellman and Guattari invoke the importance of seeking an equilibrium within ecologies or biosphere. Since “it is people through their complex activities who tend to disrupt natural controls” (Spellman 2007, p. 15), achieving homeostasis in ecosystems in which humans are active participants is incredibly difficult.

I focused specifically on the relationship between environment and organism as the focus of homeostasis, but I also added distributed intelligence as a node related to all aspects of the network of ecology. Distributed intelligence, cognition, value — whatever the term we wish to use — is becoming an important, common theme among several theorists. Our theorists are no longer willing to propose meaning be found in a single aspect of a networked environment; on the contrary, value has been placed in the interrelationships among network nodes. If I had to define what I consider a network right now, I’d probably focus on distributed value among actively connected nodes. Individual nodes may be valuable, but in the network system, the value of an individual node is found in its contributions to the distributed meaning or value of the network itself. And that distributed meaning gains value only in its active state; in a passive state in which connections are theorized but not activated, the nodes provide only a framework for potential connectivity, distribution, and meaning or value.

I’m not sure how to convey all this in a mind map yet, but I expect I may center and enlarge “Distributed Intelligence” and start connecting many different mind map nodes to that important concept as I move forward. Castells shows so signs of moving away from this model of distributed meaning and value. And maybe it’s in emphasizing this distribution that my mind map will find the homeostatic condition it seeks (or maybe I’m on the one seeking it).

References

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.

[Top image – Narrative Ecology Framework flashcards: CC licensed image from Flickr user Crystal Campbell]

Mind Map #10: Seeking Homeostasis

Popplet mindmap visualization

Mindmap #10: Seeking Homeostasis (Popplet visualization)

The ecology of my mind map seeks homeostasis, a natural balance among its many theories. My mind map has become, in Charles Darwin’s words, a “web of complex relations” (cited in Spellman, 2007, p. 4).  Well, maybe not as complex as all of nature, but if we follow the formula for the value of a network from Castells (2000) — “the value of a network increases as the square if the number of nodes in the net” (p. 71), expressed as V=n(n-1), where n is the number of nodes in the network — then we’re looking at a pretty significant number of potential connectivities among all these theories. That’s pretty complex. (I had to check: the number of nodes related specifically to theories in the mind map is around 75 right now, so V=7574. That’s higher than any calculator I have access to can count.)

I linked the three ecologies from Guattari to my ecology node. I used Spellman’s (2007) focus on homeostasis (p.15) as a node as well, connecting it to the both the relationship between the organism and the environment (an important aspect of the definition of ecology) and the relationship between Guatarri’s three ecologies. Both Spellman and Guattari invoke the importance of seeking an equilibrium within ecologies or biosphere. Since “it is people through their complex activities who tend to disrupt natural controls” (Spellman 2007, p. 15), achieving homeostasis in ecosystems in which humans are active participants is incredibly difficult.

I focused specifically on the relationship between environment and organism as the focus of homeostasis, but I also added distributed intelligence as a node related to all aspects of the network of ecology. Distributed intelligence, cognition, value — whatever the term we wish to use — is becoming an important, common theme among several theorists. Our theorists are no longer willing to propose meaning be found in a single aspect of a networked environment; on the contrary, value has been placed in the interrelationships among network nodes. If I had to define what I consider a network right now, I’d probably focus on distributed value among actively connected nodes. Individual nodes may be valuable, but in the network system, the value of an individual node is found in its contributions to the distributed meaning or value of the network itself. And that distributed meaning gains value only in its active state; in a passive state in which connections are theorized but not activated, the nodes provide only a framework for potential connectivity, distribution, and meaning or value.

I’m not sure how to convey all this in a mind map yet, but I expect I may center and enlarge “Distributed Intelligence” and start connecting many different mind map nodes to that important concept as I move forward. Castells shows so signs of moving away from this model of distributed meaning and value. And maybe it’s in emphasizing this distribution that my mind map will find the homeostatic condition it seeks (or maybe I’m on the one seeking it).

References

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.

[Top image – Narrative Ecology Framework flashcards: CC licensed image from Flickr user Crystal Campbell]

Week 11: Ecological Systems

Summary

This week’s readings all center on the complexity of ecological systems. In chapter one of his book, Spellman attempts to define ecology and its importance in nonecologist terms. First, he traces various definitions of ecology, including the most widely used: “the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of living organisms and how the distribution and abundance are affected by the interactions between the organisms and their environment” (pp. 3-4). The definition he offers for his text, however, focuses more heavily on the relations: “Ecology is the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5). Like the Cary Institute’s definition (“The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter”), Spellman’s primary emphasis is on interactions and how those interactions maintain or transform an ecosystem.

Spellman explains that an organism’s ecosystem can be divided into four parts: Habitat and distribution, other organism, food, and weather. Additionally, there are four main subdivisions of ecology:

  1. Behavioral
  2. Population
  3. Community
  4. Ecosystem

He also emphasizes several key points regarding ecology. First, he asserts that no ecosystem can be analyzed in isolation( (p. 4). Next, he explains that ecology is typically categorized according to complexity (p. 5), which results in levels of organization (p.14):

Organs–>Organism–>Population–>Communities–>Ecosystem–>Biosphere

Finally, he emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or niche, to fill and “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors–a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15). The rest of chapter one explains how the different elements of an ecosystem all form a network of interrelated components that work together to maintain the ecological balance. He further identifies that energy moves through the system that operates as a cyclic mechanism (p. 17).

In chapter four, Spellman narrows his discussion to focus specifically on population ecology, defining a population system as “a population with its effective environment” (p. 62).  He identifies four major components of a population system: the population itself, resources, enemies, and environment (p. 62). Spellman identifies key principles and mathematic formulas for understanding population growth and reduction, highlighting the importance of ecological equivalency (p. 62) and the properties of populations (pp. 63-64):

  1. Population size
  2. Population density
  3. Patterns of dispersion
  4. Demographics
  5. Population growth
  6. Limits on population

 

From Mr G's Environmental Systems: http://sciencebitz.com/?page_id=41

From Mr G’s Environmental Systems: http://sciencebitz.com/?page_id=41

While he spends a lot of time on the laws of population ecology, the key factors of this chapter in terms of our networks class are his explanations of how limits (and lack of limits) affect population growth, his proposed methods for studying populations, and his explanation of how distribution occurs in an ecosystem. When all populations in a a given ecosystem are in balance, he explains, the ecosystem is balanced. Ecological succession is a key component of ecological balance. Succession allows an ecosystem to “heal” itself once the unbalancing factors are removed or overcome.

 

This concern for ecological balance seems to be at the forefront of Guattari‘s argument (my book has been on backorder and should arrive tomorrow, so I’ve read several summaries in the meantime). Guattari seems concerned with what we can understand about existence as a society rather than simply an objective observation of interrelations: “Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations” (qtd. in Sytaffel). Sytaffel explains Guattari’s argument for an ecosophy that contrasts “a capitalist system predicated on economic growth.”

Finally, Syverson expands the theory of ecology from its environmental situation to a metaphorical application to writing, proposing an “Ecology of Composition.” Current theories of writing, she argues, do not account for the complex systems of writesr, texts, and audiences. Complex systems, she explains, are simultaneously spontaneous, self-organizing, adaptive, dynamic, unpredictable, disordered, and structured, coherent, and purposeful, they better reflect the network of agents that constitute the act of writing. This approach, Syverson explains, “takes into account the complex interrelationships in which the writing is embedded” (p. 6). To fully explain the metaphor, Syverson highlights key concepts from ecology and applies them to composition: distribution, emergence, embodiment, and enaction.

Syverson then breaks the theory down into the dimensions of complex systems to better illustrate “how the attributes of distribution, emergence, embodiment, and enaction can be revealed in ecologies of composing” (p. 18):

  1. Physical-material (including technology): “Texts emerge through writers’ and readers’ physical interactions with material structures” (p. 18)
  2. Social (inter-individual): encompasses not only the interactions between individuals but also social structures, practices, and relationships (p. 19_
  3. Psychological (intra-individual): the thoughts, emotions, neurophysiology of attention, language recognition, and text comprehension involved in writing (pp. 19-20)
  4. Spatial: Texts are composed across both bounded and unbounded spaces (p. 20)
  5. Temporal: discourse is historically and culturally situated (pp. 20-21)

Syverson concludes by emphasizing the need for a comprehensive theory of composing, pointing out that current theories neglect different dimensions revealed through this ecological metaphor.

Discussion

Spellman’s discussion of population diversity  and succession and Guattari’s emphasis on the human capitalist impact on the environment, made me think of the History Channel’s show, Life after People. In this clip form the episode on Chernobyl, we see how quickly the environment begins to heal itself when devastated then abandoned by humans:

The discussions of ecology have been interesting for me (especially Syverson) in that they have provided me a new way of considering new media composing. In her chapter, Syverson discusses the concept of emergence, which seems to tie with earlier conversations regarding genre and discourse. She claims that “to get a comprehensive understanding of composition, we need to understand how distribution , emergence, and embodiment are enacted through activities and practices in composing situations” (p. 13). Combined with Gibson’s theory of affordances and Norman’s theory of perceived affordances, this approach seems useful in beginning to understand the act of composing new media. As a result, I’m now going to look at adding this approach to my reading list.

 

Key Terms

Abiotic Factor: nonliving or inorganic substances such as oxygen and carbon dioxide

Biotic Factor: the living part of the environment composed of organisms that share the same area, are mutually sustaining, interdependent, and constantly fixing, utilizing, and dissipating energy (Spellman, p. 20)

Carrying Capacity: the optimum number of species’ individuals that can survive in a specific area over time (Spellman, quoting Enger, Kormelink, Smith, and Smith, 1989, p. 70). Two types: ultimate and environmental

Community: includes all of the populations occupying a specific area (Spellman, p. 20)

Complex Systems: a network in which independent agents act and interact parallel with each other, simultaneously reacting to and co-constructing their own environment (Syverson, p. 3)

Density-dependent Factors: the effect of the factor on the size of the population depends upon the original density or size of the population

Density-independent Factors: ones where the effect of the factor on the size of the population is independent and does not depend upon the original density or size of the population (p. 68)

Distribution: processes–including cognitive processes–are distributed; both divided and shared among agents and structures in the environment (Syverson, p. 7)

Ecological Succession: the observed process of change in the species structure of an ecological community over time; a gradual and orderly replacement of plant and animal species that takes place in a particular area over time (Spellman, p. 76)

Ecosystem: the community and the nonliving environment functioning together as en ecological system (Spellman, p. 20)

Egress: emigration or departure of an organism from a population (Spellman, p. 67)

Embodiment: the content and process of interactions are dependent on and reflective of physical experience (Syverson, p. 12)

Emergence: the self-organization arising globally in networks of simple components connected to each other and operating locally (Syverson, p. 11)

Enaction: the principle that knowledge is the result of an ongoing interpretation that emerges through activities and experiences situated in specific environments (Syverson, p. 13)

Homeostasis: a natural occurrence during which an individual population or an entire ecosystem regulates itself against negative factors and maintains an overall stable condition (Spellman, p. 20)

Ingress: immigration or arrival of a new organism to a population from other places (Spellman, p. 67)

Mortality: death rate (Spellman, p. 67)

Natality: birth rate (Spellpam, p. 67)

Species Diversity: a measure of the number of species and their relative abundance (Spellman, p. 75)

References

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Syataffel. (Oct. 7, 2008). The three ecologies–Felix Guattari. Media ecologies and digital activism. Retrieved from http://mediaecologies.wordpress.com/2008/10/07/the-three-ecologies-felix-guattari/

Syverston, M. A. (1999). Introduction: What is an ecology of composition? The wealth of reality: An ecology of composition. Carbondale: S Illinois University Press.


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.

References

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]