Cooper, “The Ecology of Writing”

Cooper, Marilyn. “The Ecology of Writing.” College English 48.4 (Apr. 1986): 364-375. (12 pages)

Cooper is confronting the ways that the cognitive process theories of writing “obscure many aspects of writing we have come to see as not peripheral” (365). In particular, she challenges the kind of writer that the cognitive process projects: the solitary writer, isolated from the social world. “The isolation of the solitary author from the social world leads him to see ideas and goals as originating form himself and directed to an unknown and largely hostile other” (366). However, she notes that there has been a movement toward more collaborative pedagogical activities in the classroom as well as social models of thought/knowledge (Fish’s interpretive communities). She cites, for example, Bruffee who also notes that language and writing are social activities, “dependent on social structures and processes not only in their interpretive but also in their constructive phases” (Cooper 366).

Given this movement toward the social, Cooper offers the metaphor of ecology to thread together these social theories of writing into this model of writing. In an ecological model of writing, the fundamental tenet “is that writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (367). She contrasts this model to a model of context: Bitzer and Burke, for example, offer heuristics to interrogate immediate situational aspects/features. The ecological model, on the other hand, enables “one to explain how the situation is casually related to other situations” (368). The central focus, then, is on systems of writing: “the systems reflect the various ways writers connect with one another through writing: through systems of ideas, of purposes, of interpersonal interactions, of cultural norms, of textual forms” (369). In this way, Cooper sees systems are a dynamic set of relations that influence (and are influenced by) writers: “all the characteristics of any individual writer or piece of writing both determine and are determined by the characteristics of all the other writers and writings in the system” (368). These systems, then, are constantly changing (dynamic) as writers make and remake their environments and social connections through writing.

With this model of writing, she also alludes to how this model changes how we might understand form/genre and audience. Textual forms—both repositories of tradition as well as instruments of new forms of action—are often negotiated within systems as new textual forms reverberate across the web. In terms of audience, Cooper de-emphasizes the function of the imagined audience that cognitive process theories of writing often embrace. Rather, while she concedes that writers often invent audiences, writers also (and more significantly) “communicate with and know their audiences” through contact with others via written texts and feedback loops among peers: comments, responses, edits, etc (371). This would be in line with the understanding of the ecological model projecting “an infinitely extended group of people who interact through writing, who are connected by the various systems that constitute the activity of writing” (372). Research in writing pedagogy, then, would not look so much toward the characteristics of individuals that enable poor writing, but toward “the imbalances in social systems that prevent good writing” (373).


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