The Hard Problem of Blogging about Philosophy

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I have to admit, sitting down to write a blog post about philosophy of mind is daunting. It’s such a specified interest that hits on terms and ideas so deeply entrenched in the philosophy world that trying to make them accessible to the average, curious Internet-user overwhelmed me. We use the words “minds” and “consciousness” all the time, but not in the way philosophers do. We talk about relations and cause and effect, but not in the way philosophers do. Translating philosopher-speak into something more widely understandably oversimplifies and confuses the concepts at the same time.

Nevertheless, I sat down to write an overview of the philosophy of mind to an unknown audience of unknown prior understanding of philosophy. I knew I didn’t want to explain it like philosophers do, but I wasn’t sure how to explain it any other way. Even if I do find different words to explain the concepts, that doesn’t make the ideas themselves any more easily understood. Especially since each era of philosopher comes up with new words for the same meaning and new meanings for the same word.

For example, substance, entity, body, “thing,” object are all meant to refer to the same…thing. But see, already this is getting weird because I’m using the term I aim to define in the definition. Circular reasoning at it’s worst. In conjunction with terms that are almost so basic they don’t describe anything with clarity, philosophers use phrases like x and y are causally related instead of x causes y or  x instantiates a property of instead of simply, x has.

As if matters could get even more frustrating, this oversimplification and over-complexification sitting side by side barely covers up the fact that in four hundred years of study and debate, nothing has been decided upon. Advances in biology, technology, and physics might add a new bone to the pile, but nothing really new in terms of minds has been discovered. So in addition to making these ideas easy to understand, I also have to write my blog in such a way that the readers—if I even have any—stay interested in tossing these nebulous theories around.

I know I’m not the first person to attempt to simplify these ideas, so, lucky me, I can hyperlink to Psychology Today or TEDtalks or smart Youtubers. But will the readers all click on the links? They have to seem like the most interesting or essential links in the world in order to get the average reader to click through, and then the information on those pages has to be fun or easily digestible. In this instance, they aren’t.

The TEDtalk I posted was 25 minutes long. That’s a long time to listen to an ex-hippie Australian slowly, and with many pauses, walk us through philosophy. So I do a quick Google search for something to explain consciousness; I type in “What is consciousness?” a simple answer (or so it would seem). The first hit was a long article from Psychology Today with no pictures and no hyperlinks. It’s essentially an essay slapped on a website. The author of the article, or more likely the designer of the page, didn’t bother to make us of any of the many tools available to bloggers and online journalists that work to grab readers’ attention. They benefit from a very simple and self-explanatory title (What is consciousness?) but make no effort to ensure the reader stays. To be honest, I can’t tell you if the article was well-written, entertaining, or easily understandable because I only had so much time to write this blog and, after realizing how long it was, I clicked away for something “better.”

That’s when I realized just how important attention to visual details are for people writing on the Internet, or for anyone trying to communicate on the web. Search Engines and online news sources, even our social media platforms, put an unending amount of information at the click of a button. Even though we spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling through the web, it would be impossible to keep up with the stream of new content posted and published daily, hourly, by the second.

upworthy headersAnyone hoping to find an audience for their work has stiff competition for readers’ attention. Some sites opt for dramatic headers to get you to click the link—my least favorite method, because the titles generally hyperbolize the content and mislead the reader. Others have enticing thumbnail pictures like the one to the left, for people to share on Facebook. For all purposes, videos, pictures, and personable voices make the average reader more likely to spend time on the site or article. On personal sites, the competition is more fierce, more personal. People go through their days with half an eye on gems that would make popular Facebook posts, Instagram photos, tweets, tumblr posts, Pinterest pins, and more. The moreHook 'Em shebang your voice or photo has online the more attention and adoration you will get. Who doesn’t want that?

Of course, if you’re not necessarily a person who shares themselves easily, takes lots of photos, cares about their appearance, or hones their wit on the daily, then you aren’t going to bask in as much social media glory as some others. So we make ourselves that fun, fabulous, sassy person—we create an online persona to get more likes, shares, and comments. We write stylishly, wittily, poetically on our professional blog sites. News sources, social issue groups, advertisers, everyone develops an online voice that combines diction, syntax, media, and visual design to demand that people pay attention.

We focus so much on grabbing people’s attention that it becomes second nature, this online voice that people like so much. So now I know how to blog about philosophy of the mind. I need to stop thinking like a weed-smoking, navel-gazing intellectual of the 1600s and start thinking like an attention-hungry, cynical intellectual of the 2000s. I need to write like I speak—no, ten times funnier, smarter, and cooler than I speak, because that’s the kind of image I can create for myself on the web. That’s the kind of person that the average online reader would listen to. Kind of like this guy does–bridging the gap between science and entertainment with brightly designed and easily digested media:

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Finding Your Voice: Tutoring Techniques

Have you ever paid attention to how people talk about reading and writing? We talk about hearing voices in written work and understanding what the author is trying to say. We speak of writing and reading as if they fall under the realm of verbal communication because all written forms of communication are based off of speech.

(I mean, you’re reading this blog in a fixed, visual format online rather than hearing me talk in person or via video, yet I’m sitting at my computer imagining myself speaking to you as I write. You will likely never read this out loud, but you’ll hear my voice when you take in these words.)

To put it in a more global context, here’s a nugget of astounding information from Walter J. Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy to make you think about the prevalence of speech and scarcity of writing in our global community:

“Language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages spoken in the course of human history only around
106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all.” [i]

Societies don’t operate primarily on words as text, we operate on words as sounds communicated in person, where inflection, volume, emphasis, and pauses all work to layer the meaning of the words themselves. With years of indoctrination into literacy, however, our culture seems to give more weight to written text and the process of creating it than they do to conversations. It’s easy to forget that, in writing, we merely immortalize our thoughts, our “internalized version of conversation,” which are similar to the conversations that occur among peer groups in order to socially solidify beliefs and opinions.[ii]

From the other end, according to child development researcher and social constructionist Lev Vygotsky, language is a learned instrument by which we talk through our tasks with others in order to re-externalize the language of internalized conversation.”[iii] We’ve been using speech every day since our earliest years to enter discourse communities and reach consensus on group discussion—it’s our most well honed social method of organizing our thoughts and reaching conclusions and it mirrors the individual thinking process. We speak not only to transmit our ideas to others, but also to make better sense of those ideas to ourselves.

When we get into classrooms and writing centers, then, speaking becomes the most effective tool for teaching writing—whether during development, outlining, or revising. Scholar of rhetoric, composition, and literacy, Stephen M. North, emphasizes that “talk[ing] with excited writers at the height of their engagement with their work [is] the lifeblood of a writing center.”[iv] The ability to organize your thoughts with the clarity and speed necessary to verbally communicate the ideas you plan to put to paper is a trainable skill that works hand-in-hand with writing skills.

For students who struggle with writing, collaborative sessions with peers can help develop verbal communication skills, problem identifying and solving, and thought organization. According to Kenneth A. Bruffee, peer collaborations can be more beneficial than discussions with teachers or tutors, since conversation is more natural with others in your same discourse community. The practice of collaborative learning in classrooms during all stages of the writing process helps students begin to “internalize conversation about writing and carry it away with them so that they continue to be good writers on their own.”[v] By including the topics of writing, thought organization, and writing processes into our everyday discourse community, we integrate the physical writing techniques (brainstorming, outlining, drafting) into our natural thought process, thereby making writing feel like a more natural and organic way of communicating ideas. More like talking. Like other methods of teaching and tutoring writing, collaborative conversations serve to improve both the product and the process, the writing and the writer.

Similar tactics prove beneficial in tutoring sessions as well, as advocated by author and scholar Andrea Lunsford. By embracing social construction theory in writing centers we reconfigure the power balance and create a space for collaboration in tutoring, which “engages the whole student and encourages active learning.”[vi] However, creating negotiating groups who share power and control of a situation in order to further both the process and product is a daunting task—great care must be taken to promote conversation instead of appropriation. One of the many backlashes to interactive tutoring is the fear that involved tutors become the puppeteer of the work and writer. Donald A McAndrew warns readers, in the third chapter of his teaching guide Tutoring Writing, that the tutoring session is not a place for students to hand over control of their work to a more adept writer for a fix-it service.

Tutors must take care, then, that conversations are truly conversational, with equal input from both (or all) participants for the end goal of compelling thought generation, not necessarily for consensus or uniformity of thought, as posited by John Trimbur in “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.”[vii] And even if they do manage to create truly collaborative atmospheres for their students, there’s always the possibility that their work will face negative reactions from readers.

Lunsford gives examples of some common treatment of collaborative work: professors who encourage student collaboration in the classroom are seen as lazy, positions of authority are denied to scholars with a repertoire of collaborative work, and student collaborators are disqualified from poetry prizes. [viii] These examples point to an underlying problem in perceptions of acceptable writing processes that affects the way teachers and tutors choose methods of teaching student writers.

In addition to her research into audience reception of co-authored work, Lunsford’s personal experiences with collaboration (she frequently co-writes with contemporary Lisa Ede), shows that although theories of socially constructed knowledge are rising in popularity, applying those theories in practice are not yet accepted in the academic sphere. Co-authored works, whether at the student or professional level, are generally not considered worthy of the same level of recognition as pieces with only one author.[ix] Somehow, writing together on one topic is equated with cheating, even though these same readers support the idea of socially constructed and contextual knowledge.

Critics of collaboration in classrooms worry that the “autonomy of the individual” faces threat from “group think” molding “peer indoctrination classes.”[x] A group of students may experience a number of power dynamics and social fears that inhibit an exchange of ideas and creative thought construction. Similar to peer revision sessions, students involved may fear rocking the boat, or considering controversial opinions, and aim to reach consensus by conforming to the ideologies most valued by the strongest voices involved.

Furthermore, while collaborative learning helps writers organize their thoughts and validate their opinions in a social context, it does not necessarily guarantee easier transformation onto the page. For many passionate thinkers with unpolished writing processes, conversations about the ideas driving written work are easy. The problem arises when faced with a blank Word document. In these instances, alternate methods that focus on empowering a student to give their words the same weight in sound as on paper help break the writer’s block.

Some students may need to write themselves around to their point with frequent free writes at the start of their writing process—which translates the brainstorming conversation from thinking and speaking, to writing. For most writers free writes offer more creativity and stream of consciousness without the often inhibiting effects of self-editing. My personal writing process involves starting an internal conversation and letting my fingers capture the words onscreen as they echo in my head. I start with my introduction and after a few pages of compelling and well-written exposition, I finally arrive at a condensed and complex thesis. From there, I can go read what I have and pick out any usable lines or ideas—usually there are none, but the point is to spark an internal discussion that aids in thesis-building and organization.

This approach does not work for all writers who struggle with bringing their conversation to the page. In these instances, tutors can spark conversation with their tutees and record the session for future playback or have the student dictate to them. As mentioned in my previous reflection on tutoring sessions, dictation can be very useful, especially when sessions have a close deadline. These techniques keep sessions wholly student-centered in terms of idea creation, as the tutee does nearly all the talking except for brief interruptions by the tutor/dictatee for clarification. If we, as teachers and tutors of writing, often have the task of helping students find their writing voice, then why not encourage them to hear their real voices during the writing process? Conversation only helps bridge the gap between ideas and verbal language; for many students, a gap remains between verbal language and written language. As concisely stated by The Writing Wizard on cambridgecoaching.com, “once your writing voice and your speaking voice start to merge, your writing will improve,” and if the emphasis is truly on better writers, not better writing, dictation and voice recording should become just as integral to the tutoring and teaching sphere as collaborative discussion.

The ideas of social construction don’t stop with group discourse, they extend into all arenas where conversation takes place. Free writes: written conversation with self. Voice recording: verbal conversation with self. Online forums: written conversation with others. Peer response groups: verbal communication with others. Dictation: written recording of re-externalized internal conversation involving others. Each exercise should be explored with student writers in order to broaden their understanding of the criteria for acceptable writing processes and help them find their personal practice of writing, and their voice.

Works Cited:

[i] Ong, Walter J. “The orality of language.” Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 1988. 7.

[ii] Bruffee, Kenneth. “Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge.” College English. 48.8 (1986). 777.

[iii] 785.

[iv] North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English. 46.5 (1984): 443.

[v] Bruffee, Kenneth. “Writing and Collaboration.” Collaborative Learning. 2nd Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 58.

[vi] 3.

[vii] Trimbur, John. “Concensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. 51:6 (1989), 608.

[viii] Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 16 (1991): 2.

[ix] 4.

[x] Trimbur, John. “Concensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English. 51:6 (1989), 602.

Research Paper Abstract

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.

The Elusive Collaborative Student Writing

In Collaboration Is Not Collaboration Is Not Collaboration: Writing Center Tutorials vs. Peer Response Groups, essayist Murial Harris raises a point that seems so obvious I can’t believe I haven’t been aware of it before: we talk about knowledge being socially constructed and therefore all our work and writing is a sort of collaboration between peer groups, but I can’t think of any experience I’ve had where that theory is applied. Certainly not in the sphere of academic writing. The peer review groups that high school teachers and sometimes college professors seem so fond of often fall into the category of “editorial work” focusing on lower order concerns that I’ve been railing against in previous posts (Harris 372).

My mission then became a search for natural practical application of collaborative writing at the university level. I knew for sure that I wouldn’t find it my GE courses or the English department, these are places where the author is still seen as the isolated genius sitting at a desk whipping words into perfection. (Or their places where indifferent students slap sentences onto the page for a mediocre grade.) So I turned to the creative writing circles, primarily those that I’m familiar with: writing rooms at the film school. Collaborations between directors and writers, or producers and directors, or producers and writers are fairly common during the development stage of thesis films–or, they’re supposed to be. Luckily, I’m a producer living with one of the screenwriters who involves herself in the production department.

I endeavored to sit in on one of her writer-director script workshops to see just how collaborative the process was…will the director construct the storyline and leave the physical act of writing to the screenwriter? How much say will she have in the plot structure? How involved with the director be in word-crafting? I fully expect these writing workshops to be different depending on the participants, but, having never been present for one myself, I want to see the collaborative magic happen before my eyes. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally catch a glimpse of true collaborative writing face-to-face.

 

Stayed tuned for the results.