Those in the writing community have a reflexively negative reaction to the idea of a person dictating their written works to another, which is inextricably linked to belief in the Cartesian cognitive theory of knowledge: ideas come from somewhere inside the individual and are articulated through verbal and written language in order to communicate with others in an external context. As such, every part of the writing process, from brainstorm to outlining to writing to revising, is inherently individual—the ideas are theirs, so the words they come up with are theirs, and letting anyone else’s hands on their work means a loss of ownership.
Such possessive treatment of ideas and written work places limitations on writers, tutors, and teachers and draws a very clear picture of what a socially acceptable writing process looks like. And what it does not look like. Therefore, cognitive theory influences ideas about writing processes that make invalid some of the most effective ways to spark creativity and intellectual communication:
Collaborative writing confuses copyright claims. In both the academic and professional arenas, collaborative writing instances bring up the touchy subject of copyright: how much of the document can one writer claim ownership of, especially if the document isn’t broken up into sections by author? How can you say, definitively, which ideas and words were yours and which were not?
Dictation or discussion in the development phase borders on appropriation. Tutors and teachers have to tread lightly when helping student writers with papers, making sure that they know the line separating helping a writer better develop and understand their viewpoint and appropriating a student’s work to ensure they arrive at your conclusion.
The concerns raised above all deal with the Who of the situation; cognitive theory trips itself up any time the agent of a work comes into contact with outside influences because the theory itself rests on the belief that each person has some individual, inherent Self that exists in a vacuum. That belief no longer holds weight in a world moving towards the belief in an interconnected universe and human consciousness.
Enter, social construction theory, the postmodern epistemology. Alternative to cognitive theory, social constructionism sees the creation and formation of knowledge as a social affair. Belief in socially constructed knowledge crops up in a diverse range of fields from linguistics to Eastern faith traditions to developmental science and supports the idea that nothing is ours. All our beliefs and thoughts and ideas are shaped by and drawn from everything we experience from the moment we are born. In the realm of writing, social constructionism means that our ideas and thoughts are formed via conversations with peers and the physical act of writing serves only to fix those ideas in static, visual medium for others to study and draw from.
The hurdles cognitive theory fails to pass are no longer a problem once the perspective lens is switched to a social constructionist setting. The concerns now being raised are not “Who wrote this,” but “Why, How, and for What Purpose did they write this.” By removing the barrier presented by copyright contention and embracing theories of social construction, we allow for writers to incorporate a wider variety of techniques into their individual process.
In my final exploration into the theories and practices of writing tutoring and conference, I will explore how dictation and collaboration benefits student writers using several key sources including: Walter J. Ong’s ideas on the oral nature of language, Stephen M. North’s position on talking in tutoring centers, Kenneth A. Bruffee’s interpretation of the epistemic nature of social constructionism, and Muriel Harris’ study of collaborative writing versus collaborative learning.
Opening up our understanding of the ideal writing process from an isolated genius hunched over his desk, words pouring forth onto a page from deep inside his soul, to a lively give-and-take between peers who ascend to a more meaningful level of debate by talking to each other, brings intellectual conversation into a more social realm that is less concerned with the people involved (who they are, where they come from, which author is right and which is wrong) and more concerned with the flow of ideas taking place.