Meaning's Secret Identity
In Meaning Centered Education: International Perspectives and Explorations in Higher Education, ed. Patrick Blessinger and Olga Kovbasyuk. New York and London: Routledge, 2013. 125-139.
To think of the word "meaning" as a verb ("to mean") rather than as a noun makes a powerful difference to educational practice. Placing "meaning" as a verb, rather than a noun, at the center of our practice and thinking amounts to putting action at the focus of our curricula rather than material. This chapter attempts to outline the theoretical and practical basis of this way of thinking about language, and then to demonstrate some of the ways in which putting meaning at the center of classroom practice opens up new approaches to learning, especially having to do with how text is used. A text as a repository of meaning is fundamentally inert and unchanging; our perception of it may vary according to our situation, but the text itself is assumed to be passive. Thinking of the ways in which a text is an act of meaning, however, brings creator and reader into an active relationship, and means that texts must always be seen, understood, and used as social actions, with specific writers and readers, in the same way as oral language is. This entails rethinking the way writing is used in educational contexts: it promotes a move from using writing as a method of assessment to using it as a method of conducting discussions; it affords making classroom written language more like the authentic written language by which we conduct science, scholarship, and, indeed, most complex human activities. Most important, it affords learning how to use written language as a tool for further learning.
The word "meaning," most of the time, is a noun. But like many English words, it has a secret identity, and appears once in a while in its guise as a verb ("to mean"). The first time I realized what a powerful difference this might make was when I picked up M. A. K. Halliday's book about the language development of his infant son, and considered its title: Learning How to Mean (1975). As a long-time teacher of literature, I had been conditioned to think of "meaning" as something in a text or piece of discourse, as something you found, or disputed about, not something you did. At best, it was something you "made." The implications of this change in thinking have been playing out for a number of years, both in my practice as a teacher and in my writing and thinking about how language works and how, throughout our lives, we develop our abilities to use its power as a tool for thinking and for engaging with others. Placing "meaning" as a verb, rather than a noun, at the center of my practice and thinking, has amounted to putting action at the focus of my curricula rather than material, and has pulled into focus much of the reading about language and learning that has guided my thinking and research.
I will attempt here to outline the theoretical and practical basis of this way of thinking about language, and then to demonstrate some of the ways in which putting meaning at the center of classroom practice opens up new approaches to learning. One of the most powerful implications of this change in focus has to do with how text is used. A text as a repository of meaning is fundamentally inert and unchanging; our perception of it may vary according to our situation, but the text itself is assumed to be passive. Thinking of the ways in which a text is an act of meaning, however, brings creator and reader into an active relationship, and means that texts must always be seen, understood, and used as social actions, with specific writers and readers, in the same way as oral language is. This entails, I argue, rethinking the way writing is sed in educational contexts: it promotes a move from using iting as a method of assessment to using it as a method of conducting discussions; it affords making classroom written language more like the authentic written language by which we conduct science, scholarship, and, indeed, most complex human activities. Most important, it affords learning how to use written language as a tool for further learning.
The social action of meaning
In the late twentieth century we began to hear a lot about language as a social phenomenon, from people working in a wide variety of disciplines. I was particularly influenced by the work of Kenneth Kaye (1982; Kaye & Charney, 1980) and Jerome Bruner (1983), who were concerned with the very earliest beginnings of mental life in infants, and who helped me see that Vygotsky (1978; see also Wertsch, 1983, 1986) was right when he said, a half century or more ago, that intelligence itself was a social phenomenon, intimately connected with that most social of phenomena, oral language. These ideas were also shaped by work on the development of literacy in young children -- especially, in my case, Frank Smith (1988), Jerome Harste (Harste, Woodward & Burke, 1984) and Judith Newman (1991). From them I learned that written language must be "meaningful" -- that is, as I now understand it, it must be taken, understood, responded to, as a social action -- in order for it to be something children want, and need, and are thus enabled, to learn.
I had been aware for some time that second language theorists like Stephen Krashen (198l) and teachers like Anne Freadman (1988) had shown that the best way to learn a language is to use it in real social contexts, for genuine social purposes. And of course in composition studies, "social process" was the dominant catchphrase of the early nineties. Scholars like Karen Burke LeFevre (1987) and James A. Reither (1985; Reither & Vipond, 1989) made it clear that not only composition and revision, but invention itself is profoundly social. Even in literary theory, a dialogic view based on Bakhtin (1986) became increasingly important.
For me, however, the Bakhtinian view of language was not the one drawn from his literary criticism, but from my reading of the Bakhtin who was a theorist of the ways in which language and languaging are social -- and who might really not have been Bakhtin at all, but Volosinov and the circle of people who collaboratively wrote Marxism and the Philosophy of Language and (especially) the essays collected in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. This "Bakhtin" helped me to understand that it is the utterance, not the phoneme, the word, the sentence or the text, that is what we need to attend to. The utterance is any instance of language in use, bounded by a change of speakers -- one utterance ends, another is a response to it, and still another is a response in turn. The utterance is always created and formed and shaped as a response to a previous utterance or utterances, and it is always created and formed and shaped in anticipation of a responding utterance. Language, the writer formerly known as Bakhtin told me, is an unending dialogic web of cross-connected utterances and responses, each piece of writing or speaking, each utterance, depending on its occasion and context for its very existence, for its comprehensibility (for an illuminating take on this view of the primacy of context, see Wegerif, this volume). "As an utterance," Bakhtin says, "(or part of an utterance) no one sentence, even if it has only one word, can ever be repeated: it is always a new utterance (even if it is a quotation)" ( Speech Genres 108). It is, in other words, an act of meaning. The speaker or writer -- and, of course, the hearer or reader -- are meaning.
Perhaps equally important has been my introduction to speech-act theory, the set of ideas pioneered by J. L. Austin (How to Do Things With Words, 1962) and developed since by many others, for me perhaps most productively by Mary Louise Pratt (1977). The idea that language was not primarily a bundle of facts but a series of intentional acts remains central to my conviction that we should more consistently think of "mean" as a verb.
More recently, my understanding of this process has deepened as I discovered, mostly through the work of Robin Dunbar (1998; see also Leslie, 1987), the extensive literature on what is called in psychology " Theory of Mind." This concept, first introduced in the late seventies by Premack and Woodruff (1978), posits that central to our humanity is our ability to understand the mental states of others around us, to infer their intentions from their actions, and to grasp when they do, and when they don't, share our perceptions of the world. The classic studies which helped us all understand this had to do with discovering that children only developed this ability somewhere around the age of four. They showed that younger children didn't, and older ones did, have the ability to know, for example, that the box they knew to contain not Smarties but pencils, might be thought by someone else to contain Smarties, or to realize that the person who didn't see the object hidden will not know where it is (see, e.g., Gopnik & Astington, 1988). The implications of this for the human ability to mean -- to engage in transactions mediated by meaning -- seem clear; what is also clear is that it is learned, and can develop and deepen over time (and, as has been frequently noted, can fail to develop, as in various autism-spectrum disorders).
What this means for meaning
Once we've accepted that language is at this deep and fundamental level a social process, our notion of what meaning is must change radically. It has been clear for decades that traditional definitions are less than adequate, of course. Michael Reddy (1979), for example, pointed out how, when we use what he termed a "conduit" metaphor for describing language, we are led to think (wrongly) about language as a sluice down which chunks of meaning, like pulp logs, are channeled from sender to receiver, arriving essentially unchanged. Referring to theories of reading, Frank Smith (1985) called this the "information-shunting" model. According to that model, meaning isn't particularly problematic: it is just information that is somehow contained in text. Our recurrent use of phrases such as "meaning making" (cf. Wells, 1986, or Potosky, Spaulding & Juzbasich, this volume) runs the risk of falling into a tacit assumption that meaning is a constructed object. Our job as speakers and writers is to get the information into the conduit; as listeners and readers, to get it out. I don't mean to suggest anyone has ever thought that this was simple: a whole generation of reading researchers, linguists and psychologists of language worked at trying to construct a model of just how that might work. But they didn't consider the question problematic; it was just complicated. For a long time, it was expected it would be solvable in a purely mechanical way.
It's perfectly clear, however, that in at least some cases (were I pushed to the wall, in fact, I would argue that this is virtually always true) the social situation in which a particular syntactic structure is uttered effectively shapes what it means, and does it without much help or interference from the kinds of internal structures that a computer program could apprehend. Information can be shunted from one computer to another, but a computer cannot mean.
If you listen to any naturally occurring oral conversation for more than two or three minutes, you discover that the meanings of the overwhelming majority of oral utterances are in fact determined not so much by their lexical or semantic properties and syntactic structures, but much more powerfully by a sort of unspoken, continuously renegotiated social contract between the participants in the conversation. Rupert Wegerif (this volume) makes this point very thoroughly.
Casual conversational irony, for example, is enabled entirely by theory of mind: if I don't deploy the social resources necessary to presume that you would know that I know, and know I know it, that there's a blizzard in progress, I would simply think you were wrong to say, "Lovely day out there," as you stagger in, covered in ice, or that you were crazy enough to think that it actually was lovely.
"Tell me about it," I might reply.
We both know that you certainly don't mean that it's lovely, and that I'm not asking you to tell me anything at all. How is it that we mean these things to each other? Although we might not all talk the same way about how we have used those sentences to mean, it's clear that we would all share the theory of mind that allows us to make the right sense out of them (most of the time). But traditional linguistics might argue that they are not normal or typical sentences. For one thing, they're rhetorical figures of some kind -- the first is obviously irony, and probably Aristotle or Puttenham would have a name for the second. Thus, it might be argued, they're not really "standard language," not something we have to account for if we want to explain how language works. Serious language, it might be argued, the kind we want to understand, works more directly than that, isn't so situation-dependent, is more susceptible of analysis, and carries more information. "Tell me about it" doesn't actually convey information, does it? Wouldn't a philosopher of language like Bertrand Russell analyze it right out of existence, showing that it's really not properly language at all?
Yes, he might. But there are two problems with that sort of position. First, the kind of language we're considering is far from unusual. Virtually all naturally occurring oral language is like that. And if you want to account for, and understand, how language works, you can't very well argue that most of what you hear people saying isn't really language at all, and therefore doesn't have to be accounted for. Second, since Halliday's work, it's become increasingly clear that, both developmentally and logically, the information-conveying aspect of language is built on the foundation of these kinds of context-dependent, social-context-driven, linguistic transactions. It's not conducted according to any mechanical model of pure information transfer. When Robin Dunbar says "the principal function of language was (and still is) to enable the exchange of social information ('gossip') in order to facilitate bonding in larger, more dispersed social groups" (1996: 98), he's providing a support for the idea that when information transfer occurs it's based on a pre-existing basis of that kind of social collaborative meaning.
Against the background of this rather elaborate argument, let me see if I can now say what I've come to mean by "mean." I think it has a good deal to do with what sociolinguistics has taught us to think of as "point." Most relevant here is the work of Labov (1972) and Polanyi (1979, 1985) on the way conversational stories allow tellers and listeners to share "points." To state the insight I draw from their work as simply as possible: when I recount an incident in a conversation, if you were to attend to what I say as though it were a series of factual assertions to be remembered, you would almost certainly lose the "point" utterly. I mean, but you don't get it.
A conversational model of literate meaning
There is an extrapolation to be made here, from oral meaning to literate meaning. It is not a truth universally accepted that the kinds of observations of how language works in oral communication (and oral language learning) actually also apply to the more theoretical and distant kind of meaning we make with a pen or keyboard. However, the continuity between oral and written language development is regularly asserted, especially by people working with the development of literacy in young children, and occasionally by others like Bakhtin, who regularly refers to utterances as including everything from a one-word response to a novel, and even occasionally by scholars writing about literature, ranging, for instance, from Pratt (Toward a Speech-Act Theory of Literary Discourse, 1977) to Zunshine (Why we Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, 2006). My own conviction is that to analogize the development and practice of literacy to the development and practice of what Roger Brown (1973) famously called "a first language" is a powerful tool for thinking about literacy learning and practice at a level beyond childhood.
The larger argument I am making, clearly, depends on thinking of a written language event as having, or potentially having, the same pragmatic potential as an oral one to establish, maintain, and deepen the social relations between people, which are what make up a culture.
No one would dispute, of course, that there are fundamental differences between language as it exists in oral exchanges and as it exists in writing. The central issue is the extent to which written language functions pragmatically to serve the sorts of intentional social functions that Dunbar and Halliday (and Austin) identify as central to oral discourse, and, equally important, the extent to which the way individual humans develop and extend their linguistic competence is parallel in the two different situations.
One argument for their fundamental difference arises out of the apparent inertness of written language. Unlike talk, it just sits there. And indeed, there are many occasions when it is virtually impossible to see a particular piece of text as bearing, or having the potential to bear, the kind of social intention that is central to this view of meaning as an act.
A helpful way to think about this is to use the distinction Bakhtin draws between "text" and "utterance." He contrasts the set of words and syntactic structures used by someone in a given situation (the text) with what the people in the situation actually use the text for (the utterance). In the case of the example I used earlier, the four words, "Tell me about it," constitute the text: the utterance is a quite different act of meaning in the situation I presented from what it is when I offer the same string of signifiers as an example in this paragraph -- and, of course, would be quite different again when the four words occur in a new situation. Combining my term and Bakhtin's distinction, it's possible to say that texts which resist being made into utterances -- whether because of the situation, the users, or the string of signifiers themselves -- are what I have called "textoids" (Hunt, 1993).
Examples of language which occur in such circumstances can indeed, I would agree, lack entirely the kind of social meaning I've been describing. One thing that is clearly important about such lack of meaning is that, as I have argued elsewhere (1987, 1989), it makes it much more difficult for us to use to their full potential our powerful language learning abilities and propensities. Just as a child achieves the miraculous learning of language in infancy by using language to participate in the society around her, so older learners can use the same engagement with meaning in the same way. But, ironically, if we are looking for examples of language transactions which are of that peculiar, sterile, meaningless kind, the best possible place to find them is in school and university. I would contend, in fact, that the written language events which occur in educational contexts are virtually all like that.
I should make clear here, by the way, that when I say that such authentically meaning- centered language is hard to find in educational contexts, I am not asserting that education is dominated by empty language exercises, rote learning and memorization, etc. Such educational practices are still extant, of course, but I would argue that even more "enlightened" practices are trapped in this inauthenticity. Particularly distressing examples of this are my own (presumably enlightened) practices as a teacher of English over the first twenty-five years of my career, and what seem to me to represent some of the best and most imaginative and thoughtful strategies among my professional colleagues. When we examine those assignments and those strategies in the light of this notion of meaning as social event, I think that we discover some challenging truths, and further, that some facts about student reading and writing that we've all known and accepted with a good deal of equanimity for years take on a new urgency.
Teaching without Meaning
Let me consider an example from my own teaching, one I have recounted elsewhere (Hunt, 1993). Once upon a time I asked an introductory literature class to read the Ernest Hemingway short story "Hills Like White Elephants" and write their own responses to it. This was late in the course, so they'd had time to learn, if they were ever going to, that this was not a test, and that individual and peculiar responses would be valued -- or at least would not be "marked down." Covertly, I was hoping to find out how many students knew, before we discussed the story in class, that the "operation" that's the implicit subject of the whole elliptical conversation between the two Americans waiting at a railway station in Spain is an abortion. More overtly, I was trying to help the students use their writing to explore and extend their own understanding of the story before we discussed it in class.
The writing they handed in to me was appalling, of course (not more appalling than usual, naturally, but still of a kind that you'd only ever expect to see in an introductory literature class). What I saw at the time were the incomplete and ungrammatical sentences, the complete lack of transitions, the absence of any sense of direction (or, indeed, of the existence of a reader out there beyond the page), and the highly skilled evasion of the story's central issue. Based on those papers -- virtually every one of which amounted to a highly general summary of the discussion between the two characters, and elaborately phrased and entirely abstract value judgments about the artistic merit of the text -- I absolutely could not tell whether any of them had constructed a "meaning" for the story that was even remotely related to mine. My own had to do with the impact of the sudden discovery of pregnancy on this carefree, adolescent, Hemingway-style relationship. (In research since then, by the way, I've discovered, based on samples of similar students, that it is extremely unlikely that, in that situation, more than one or two of them realized that what the characters were dancing around without saying -- what they were meaning, and what Hemingway was meaning -- was an abortion.)
I can no longer find that set of papers among my souvenirs, but virtually any English teacher will be able to supply comparable sets from her own experience (the classic description of this experience, of course, is Mina Shaughnessy's account of the influx of basic writers into her teaching). My conclusion then, and the conclusion most of my colleagues have drawn from similar stacks of papers, was that most of the students couldn't write, and in fact that when you came right down to it they couldn't read either.
It will not come as a surprise that I now think rather differently about that situation. I now think that the problem wasn't a matter of the students' capabilities at all, but something quite different. The situation in which the students were acting was one which virtually guaranteed that both their reading and their writing would be of the kind that I have been describing as meaningless -- that is, completely disconnected from any real social occasion or motive, any reason to mean.
First, consider the reading. The students were reading as part of a class assignment. Whatever I might say to them about the assignment (and at the time I didn't say much), they knew that their job with school assignments was to read, decode, store and remember. Most of the texts they had encountered in school, of course, from basal readers to history and science textbooks, were really textoids, that is to say, were treated as such because they were disconnected from any immediate social context. They were not manufactured and created, or distributed, because someone wanted to mean something to a real audience. They were created because certain pieces of information had to be encoded in a language whose rhetorical choices and limitations were determined not by readers and writers, but by readability formulas and the intense scrutiny of banks of editors, consultants, censors and curriculum committees.
But it's also true that even when "real" texts, actively meaning, are encountered in school -- stories written by Hemingways, poems written by Frosts or Collinses, even (very rarely) expositions written by John McPhees or Stephen Jay Goulds -- they are normally encountered in situations where it's extremely difficult to treat them as anything other than textoids. The possibility that the author, like the person across the table telling a story, might be meaning -- might be engaged in sharing values and inviting the reader to construct points -- is obliterated by the fact that the story is, in reality, the possession of, and is being offered to the student by, the textbook and the teacher -- by the educational institution. It is not being offered by its speaker or author. And it's being offered not as an utterance, but, as Anne Freadman (1988:7) said about any instance of French in French class, "an example" of something, a pretext for a test.
Even more powerfully, the students knew (however cleverly I thought I'd concealed it) that they were being tested. Everyone was, after all, reading the same story -- obviously some would understand its "meaning" better than others. Whatever I might say about differences in interpretation being okay had been said to them by many teachers before me -- just as sincerely, and just as deceptively. They knew there was a "right answer," a correct "hidden meaning," and, furthermore, they knew that, as always, the teacher was the person who had it. My illusion that I could change a dozen years' worth of hard-learned lessons with a few weeks' exhortations was not only ill-founded, it was also in an important way dishonest: there was a right answer, and I did have it. It involved abortion.
In the terms of the model of reading I described earlier, what we have is a situation in which the text, for the right reader and in the right situation, clearly would have afforded an engaged, pragmatic, dialogic, "real" reading for meaning. But the situation and the reader powerfully pulled for an empty, asocial search for isolated chunks of information. If I were to try to characterize the process of reading as it occurs in such a situation, I might contrast it with what happens in an oral conversation. If the speaker says something incomprehensible, you hold on to it and look (wait actively) for understanding, on the assumption that the speaker is intending something -- you impute coherent pragmatic intentions to the speaker. In a situation involving what you are treating as a textoid, however, you make no such assumption and so when something incomprehensible or incongruent is encountered you simply pass it over -- or, at best, you try to memorize it for the test.
My first point about that assignment, then, is that -- primarily because of the situation -- the reading that the students did was virtually guaranteed not to have meaning at its center. It is a rare student who in such a situation can read the story as though it might have some purchase on her, as though it were being told to her by someone who had a reason for telling it and to whom it was possible to impute normal human intentions, someone who was meaning. Such a student would be one with a highly developed ability to ignore the real situation in favor of a fictional one, a student with what I've come to call a powerful pragmatic imagination. Another way to describe such a student is to say that she's already a reader. Still another thing one might say about her is that she doesn't need much help from a teacher.
Now, let's think about writing in that situation. My second concern has to do with the potential role meaning might play in the writing the students did on the basis of this reading. What was it possible for them to mean in what they wrote in that situation? With whom could they have been trying to make contact, and what values, structures of knowledge, judgments of importance and patterns of expectation could they have been trying to share? From their point of view, they could hardly expect to have anything to mean -- something that would serve their immediate social purposes -- about the story. Having something to say is not easily distinguishable from having someone to say it to, and in the view of those students -- even after a few months' evidence of ignorance and incompetence on my part -- I already knew everything there was to know about stories. I was, after all, the teacher.
I could tell them -- I probably did tell them -- to write not as though to me but as though to a general reader; I might even have specified a general reader who had already read the story (to avoid long, pointless summaries). But the ability to engage such a mythical rhetorical reader in the active process of composition is a rare one. It requires the writer to use that imaginary figure to decide, for instance, in specific instances -- moments where, to use James Britton's phrase (Britton et al., 1975), the language is being shaped at the point of utterance -- precisely how much reference to the events of the story is necessary for that reader, and what inferences that reader can be called upon to make. It calls on her to decide which ideas can be backgrounded, or treated as "given," and which need to be foregrounded and treated as "new," (as Clark and Haviland, 1977, described the necessary components of an authentic social exchange).
To synthesize such an audience requires the kind of powerful pragmatic imagination that a very few students -- the readers and the writers -- have managed miraculously to attain. Very few of my students -- then or now -- have it. It's hard to imagine where they might have acquired it, other than in the sort of uncommon home where -- as Gordon Wells (1986) demonstrated so clearly -- attitudes toward books and language create writers and readers.
A resource which a skilled writer often turns to in such a situation is her knowledge of how writing of the kind she's trying to produce sounds, or looks. Rather than using the real situation to generate purposes and readers, she uses as a model the strategies by which this of audience have, to use Ede and Lunsford's (1984) useful term, been "invoked" by other, similar texts. But my students had never in their lives read anything like what I was asking them to write -- like, that is, the sort of thing teachers had increasingly been asking them to write throughout their school careers. No wonder they didn't produce such great texts -- and no wonder they didn't learn very much that was of use to them from the exercise. Everything about the situation virtually forced them to treat the text they were reading as a textoid, and to produce textoids in response to my assignment. For them, an occasion to mean, in the sense of to engage socially, or to share structures of evaluation and understanding, or "point," was just about entirely absent from the situation. They didn't read to see what someone meant, or write to mean. Nor, not at all incidentally, did I read what they wrote as though I thought they were meaning: I read it to assess what they knew and their ability to write -- a completely different matter.
It is not, of course, true that written language is usually divorced from this kind of immediate pragmatic meaning. It is, I contend, the peculiar situation of language in the school situation that divorces it from meaning and renders it a simulation of meaning, an example of English. In the last few years, in fact, students encounter many examples of written language which are not divorced from immediate pragmatic situations. Forms like text messages, email, Facebook postings and tweets, have given students experience with written language that has the possibility to mean, immediately, to another human being.
Even at the time, however, we could see how dramatic the absence of meaning, motive, and social context from this sort of literacy event was when we contrasted it to the kinds of events described by Lee Odell and others who were studying writing in the workplace (1985; Odell & Goswami, 1982). When Odell asked insurance executives to explain the rhetorical choices they'd made in business letters and memos, he discovered an astonishing (astonishing to many of us academics, anyway) metarhetorical awareness and an equally surprising ability to articulate reasons for subtle choices. Why? It seems clear: because there were real motives and real readers, and real consequences. The executives were meaning. Just as Vygotsky's (1978) infant learns what a gesture means by having it taken as a gesture, so Odell's businessmen (I infer) had learned what the impact of certain kinds of phrases and organizational patterns were because they'd seen them have that impact. They were used to dealing with written texts as though -- in the terms I've been using here -- they were written and read to mean.
If it is true that there are profound and fundamental differences between the processes of reading and writing when conducted as empty simulation exercises and when conducted for meaning (as I am defining it), then it seems to me that much of the adventurous and exciting theoretical and practical work in composition and in the teaching of literature, and the use of writing in other disciplines, may be pretty much beside the point. Separated from the act of meaning, language itself tends to become an empty, pointless exercise.
Why is this a problem? After all, surviving university does demand that one develop the skill of processing and retaining information from text, and there have been scores of studies aimed at finding ways of helping students get even better at this. What's wrong with it?
I've spent much of my career looking at this problem, watching students failing, for example, to understand the ironic stances in many of the writers I ask them to read in my literature classes and wondering why it was that when Jonathan Swift's earnest accountant proposes using roast baby to address Ireland's famine and overpopulation problems, or when Robert Browning's Duke explains how, well, unsatisfactory his last Duchess was, students rarely find the irony delightful. More commonly, they're shocked at the idea of roast yearling child served up at a christening, or want to know where Ferrara is, whether Klaus of Innsbruck actually existed, and whether this is going to be on the exam.
In the absence of pragmatic context and intention, reading tends to become a passive act of decoding and storage, and interpretation and response tend to wander into an endless maze of free association and unfettered fantasy. "Analysis of literature" in English classes is often this sort of exercise. More pervasively, the creation of term and research papers becomes, especially since students are awash in online text, at best what Rebecca Moore Howard (1999) has called "patchwriting," in which students assemble (with or without attribution) pre-existing chunks of text.
When students read, and write, in the unmeaning ways afforded by the situation they're in, the ideas and arguments are not attached to each other in strings of socially embedded acts of meaning: they are isolated gobbets of data, infochunks to be warehoused as carefully as possible -- and which rarely survive the date of the examination, because they're attached to nothing else in the warehouse.
Another situation in which the consequences of this absence of social meaning are manifest is explored in wonderful and scary depth in a series of studies done over seven years at McGill and Carleton Universities, and published more than a decade ago in a book called Worlds Apart (Dias et al., 1999). In that study, the researchers discovered over and over that students graduating from professional programs found themselves unable to write appropriately in the workplace for which the program had been ostensibly preparing them, and that the primary reason was that the writing in university had never had to function in any way other than to demonstrate that the student knew, or could do, something. New Bank of Canada employees, for example, regularly found themselves participating in an ecology of documents in which texts were passed among many hands to be edited, reshaped, rethought, touched up, repurposed. The ex-students found themselves applying irrelevant and rigid notions of correctness and formal conformity when they wrote and commented, and reading the comments of others the way we all read the marginal red-ink comments of that English teacher we all learned to fear -- as final verdict, as acceptance or rejection, as a rationale for a mark, rather than repurposings or attempts at assistance -- and certainly not as responses to meaning.
Unless meaning is at the center, none of the conventional language-based activities is likely to provide much opportunity for learning how to handle language when meaning is at the center. Even more seriously, I think, the predominance of these kinds of activities in educational institutions tends to inculcate one lesson very powerfully: written language, especially in academic settings (which should, I think, be seen as the peculiar case, rather than Odell's writing "in nonacademic settings"), does not mean.
Indeed, it seems obvious that in other circumstances, involving engaged social actors with active intentions, and who have active, flexible, theories about the minds of others, written language affords being used as a tool with which to mean. We can, and regularly do, mean in writing as we mean in speaking.
The obvious question to be raised at this point is whether there are any genuine, practical alternatives to the present situation. Are there ways, within the limits set by the institutional contexts teachers work in, to create situations in which student reading and writing is, in these terms, meaningful? If there is no alternative, what I'm arguing might be a theoretically interesting viewpoint, but would in practice amount to little more than a depressing and self-indulgent orgy of woe-crying and nay-saying.
Having said all that, I don't imagine it will be a surprise to discover that I believe there are alternatives. The ones I know most about are the ones occurring among some of my colleagues at St. Thomas, and it may be helpful here to describe a couple of specific examples of alternative ways of structuring learning, ways that hold, I think, real promise for addressing some of the problems I've been describing, for putting meaning, as a verb, at the center of the learning process.
The basic strategy entails creating situations in which student writing is read not by an approving or disapproving authority, but by someone who needs to know what the writer has to say, is open to being persuaded, enlightened, informed or amused by the writer's meaning, and whom the writer knows to be open to these effects.
One context which affords such writing and reading we call "Collaborative Investigation." In general, it entails creating a situation in which the class organize themselves into teams to cooperatively investigate some specific topic, using writing as the fundamental tool for that organizing, that investigating, and that cooperation. Here is one example of how that works in practice. I'm going to describe it as concretely as I can in the hope that specifying some of the ways in which the reading and writing is done in a situation which makes them rather different from more conventional models will suggest other alternatives in different disciplinary contexts.
I regularly require my introductory literature class to attend plays on campus or at the local professional theater during the year. One year not long after I'd started trying to develop ways to center my courses on meaning, I suggested (after we'd conducted for our own information a couple of collaborative investigations of productions we were going to see) that we prepare what we wound up calling a "Playgoer's Guide" to an upcoming professional production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. We began by getting hold of copies of the play and reading it. We didn't order 29 copies of a text; we shared library copies. We even shared the reading -- by having groups read (and describe to each other) different parts of the play. We then generated questions about the play, Hellman, and the production. In this case, we did this by asking everyone to write down as many questions as they could in fifteen or twenty minutes; the class then formed into groups to read each other's questions and select a few to write on the blackboard. Then we edited and selected among those, and set up ad hoc groups to go to the library and find out what they could about particular questions -- regarding, for instance, Hellman's life, the composition of the play, its historical background, its previous productions, and so forth. (Today, of course, much of this activity is conducted on line.)
Each group prepared a short, concrete report (sometimes these took the form of a set of separate, individual reports; in other cases they were researched and written in collaboration). Each of these reports was photocopied and in class the next week each of a new set of groups received a sheaf of documents which included a copy of each of those first reports. They read and discussed them, and generated a new set of questions. Again these were written on the board, edited and discussed, and assigned to groups, which took the relevant reports, with their lists of references, and went back to the library to prepare further additional or elaborative reports.
The second round of reports were also distributed and read. We spent part of a class session arriving at a consensus as to what should go in the final handbook, and set up groups to combine various reports into sections of the handbook. These sections were finally edited by other groups, and then given to a secretary (me, as it happened) to be keyed into a computer file, laid out, and printed. The final handbooks were distributed in multiple copies to the class and left around the university a day or so before the play opened -- they were, I might add, snatched up more rapidly than I could photocopy them, and a number of my students reported instances of being thanked for their work by people they hardly knew, who'd picked up copies somewhere. Since that time I often negotiate with companies to have the documents distributed with their own programs.
It may be important to point out that I was not the first or only or final reader of any piece of writing produced in this process; I did not mark, comment on or edit any piece of writing (except that because I was secretary I copyedited and ran a spell checker on the final copy). There were no papers which were essays on, or interpretations or analyses of, the play. And it is certainly important to make clear that the document that was finally produced was far from wonderful -- it's scrappy, sometimes superficial and in at least one case erroneous. But -- like the texts produced on the way to it -- it is clearly an authentically meaningful piece of written text, one which served an actual social function. And it was obvious to everyone involved that without the social interaction structured by all those intermediate texts, it would have been impossible to accomplish the final task or learn what we learned about Hellman and her play. Perhaps more important, in every case rhetorical decisions were made, at the point of utterance, in the light of obvious, real demands: the writers knew, or learned as they went, who would be reading this, and how much they knew -- and even, to some extent, how they felt about it.
There are a variety of other ways in which the reading and writing that students do in connection with their learning can be made more obviously and practically functional, more clearly something written and read in order to mean rather than in order to demonstrate competence or exercise rhetorical skills. I have described a range of them elsewhere (e.g., Hunt, 1996, 2001). In my senior literature courses, for example, preliminary exploration of the eighteenth century is conducted by means of individual research reports on readings (e.g. of various literary histories) to establish commonly held values or interpretations, to establish lists of primary writers and texts. Explorations of individual writers are conducted by small groups, who publish their findings on line; decisions about which writers and ideas we should explore further are made on the basis of those research reports.
In my second year "The Page and the Stage" course, small groups do research on plays to be performed in the area, and create a collaborative wiki site for the rest of the class; a second group edits that Web site into a four-page (one folded sheet) handout (a "Playgoer's Companion"), which is distributed to audiences by the theatre company, with their own programs. In that course, students read the scripts for upcoming productions and participate in online discussion forum about their reading, and then about the experience of having attended the production.
One of the unmixed advantages of the advent of the age of the internet is that sharing student writing, and affording authentic responses to it, is far more convenient than in the days of photocopying and printing, though obviously there remain situations in which publication of hard copy works in a way that electronic media cannot.
What is most important is that such strategies are not difficult to come up with, once one has embraced the basic notion -- that the way to create a context in which students are writing and reading for meaning is to put the writing and reading into situations where they serve purposes which the students can see as real and which they can adopt as their own. Where they can mean. The danger, of course, is that once you've embraced that notion, there isn't any going back: the changes and the discoveries acquire their own momentum. You get hooked.
In the age of the internet, of course, there are no more phone booths
in which superheroes can change from their secret identity. Perhaps it's
time for meaning to come out of the closet altogether.
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