Monday, January 15, 2024

Reading :: How I Became the Kind of Writer I Became

How I Became the Kind of Writer I Became: An Experiment in Autoethnography

By Charles Bazerman

Charles Bazerman has been a pivotal figure in writing studies for decades: as an author of textbooks, as a methodologist, as a genre scholar, as a foremost thinker on how to understand writing as developing as a cultural practice. Most recently, he has investigated the lifelong development of writing. In this book, which is the first book in the Lifespan Writing Research book series, Bazerman examines his own lifelong trajectory as a writer, and calls for further work in this area. 

The book is a true autoethnography in the sense that Bazerman doesn’t offer a sanitized set of reflections. Rather, he goes back through his extensive personal archives of school-age writing assignments and scholarly drafts to examine how his writing techniques, themes, and concerns changed over time. That is, although reflective, the account is also based in archival evidence.

So how does this book fare? As a reader, I was divided. 

The fact that Bazerman is a central figure in our field (and one whom I personally admire) makes the book interesting to me. We get to see how he took his journey toward writing studies and the choices he made along the way, and he is unflinching in discussing his limitations and mistakes as a writer throughout his life. As he says on p.117, “Writing, of course, is fraught with anxiety, and also open to digression, distraction, or even avoidance,” and Bazerman talks openly about these anxieties and how he has dealt with them throughout his life. This sentiment is apparently common among writers (as I discovered some years ago in a workgroup session Chuck led, in which participating writing researchers arrayed around a table told their literacy narratives, which all seemed centered around anxiety). Nevertheless, Bazerman discusses how these anxieties propelled his development as he shifted from an early interest in physics to literary studies to more pragmatic writing instruction as an inner-city high school teacher. At the same time, a strong allegiance to social justice shaped his path, as did a consistent curiosity and drive to improve himself. 

Bazerman was, of course, raised in the 1960s, and some of the things he describes doing just don’t compute for my Gen X mind. Time and again he describes taking on a job (in the Peace Corps, as a camp counselor, as part of a team developing pedagogical materials) only to decide a couple of weeks later that it wasn’t for him, quitting the job and moving to another pursuit. (In a parallel theme, he also repeatedly “became persona non grata for advocating unpopular programs” (p.221)). He also describes what I can only characterize as “Forrest Gump” moments in which he has brushes with significant history: rooming with a student who would eventually become an architect of the Gulf War, writing early scripts for a TV program that eventually aired as Sesame Street (the scripts were not filmed), and taking a road trip to San Francisco “just in time to see the moon landing televised on the ceiling of the Fillmore West during a Joe Cocker and Country Joe and the Fish concert” (p.116). Counterbalancing this freedom was the ever-present threat of the draft, which pushed Bazerman to continue his college studies and then his graduate studies. 

As we get to Ch.18, Bazerman begins discussing his scholarly work, including his fateful meeting with Carolyn Miller that got him thinking about genre (p.143). This concept dovetailed with his earlier reading on social perspectives and prepared him for later becoming aware of Yrjo Engestrom’s work at a 1992 conference (p.144, footnote 7). In Ch.19, he discusses becoming interested in the sociology of science, and how (in another Forrest Gump moment) a faculty colleague “suggested that I contact Robert Merton, the founder of the field, who was just a subway ride uptown at Columbia University” (p.151). Through that encounter, Bazerman began sitting in on Merton’s graduate seminars, honing his critique and approach to science studies, and laying the foundation for his book Shaping Written Knowledge. Meanwhile, he also participated in an NEH summer seminar at Carnegie-Mellon led by Richard Young, where he was introduced to the classical rhetorical tradition (which he found useful but limited, p.160). He reached an inflection point, one that the field of writing studies itself was approaching: “I recognized that writing studies would benefit from a sociologically oriented research program to supplement the on-going cognitive psychological research program of process studies. I also started to gain the sociological and historical tools to understand how I could support the substantive research along with institutional presence and legitimacy of writing studies” (p.162). 

This inflection point, of course, drew him to the works of Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Voloshinov, and their more recent synthesis in Engestrom. “Over the next few years, I drew on David Russell’s formulations of activity systems (Russell, 1994), and I collaborated with him on a couple of collections that encouraged work in a similar vein (Russell & Bazerman, 1997i; Bazerman & Russell, 2003g)” (pp.199-200; see also pp.212-213; n.b., David R. Russell was my dissertation director).  

As readers will intuit, I found this later part of the book far more interesting than the earlier parts. Although Bazerman’s focus is on how writing changes over the lifespan, I realized that my focus was more on understanding the background of his scholarly works and, through them, that background’s impact on our field. And I think this is the underlying tension in the book: Without the unique positioning of the author as a foremost scholar of writing studies, the early part of the book is hard to find interesting. That is, it probably can’t serve as a model for more general lifespan writing research — if it were a lesser light, would we be interested in their reflections on their grade-school essays? 

In any case, if you are interested in lifespan writing research, in the development of writing studies, or in the background of Bazerman’s impressive scholarship, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Reading :: Visible Language

Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond

Edited by Christopher Woods

I ran into this book a while back and was intrigued: Although I’m hardly an archaeologist, I’m interested in the invention and development of writing, and this collection covers cuneiform, ancient Egyptian writing, early alphabetic writing, and early writing systems in China and Mesoamerica. 

In Woods’ introduction, he argues that to our knowledge, writing was invented ex nihilo only four times: in Sumer, ancient Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica (p.15). (Previous scholars have assumed that writing traveled from Sumer to Egypt, but new discoveries have pushed back the date of Egyptian writing; p.16.) He adds: “Broadly defined, writing represents speech. One must be able to recover the spoken word, unambiguously, from a system of visible marks in order for those marks to be considered writing. … Those systems that meet this criterion, and so represent true writing, are labeled glottographic, while systems of communication that represent ideas only,without that essential bond to speech and so do not meet our definition of writing — for example,musical and mathematical notation, international road signs and the like — are labeled semasiographic (Sampson 1985, pp. 29–30)” (p.18). And “What systems of communication that eventually develop into full-fledged writing do have, as opposed to their semasiographic counterparts and progenitors, is the germ of phoneticism — the rebus principal is integrated into these systems. That is, the existence of homonyms in the language is exploited in that the sound of one word, most often one with a referent that can be easily drawn, is used to write another word that is pronounced identically or similarly” (p.20). 

In Ch.2, “The Earliest Mesopotamian Writing,” Woods overviews the origins of Mesopotamian writing, which “may very well represent the world’s first writing system” (p.33). Intriguingly, he reports on Mesopotamian legends about the origins of written language (pp.34-35). When discussing precursors to writing, Woods describes the discovery of clay “envelopes” or hollow clay balls containing tokens, with the impressions of those tokens on the exterior of the envelopes. He notes that “The idea that these envelopes represented precursors to writing was first suggested by the French archaeologist Pierre Amiet in the 1960s” (p.46). Where Amiet thought that these token impressions inspired cuneiform, Schmandt-Besserat argued that they directly became cuneiform: “In Schmandt-Besserat’s view, both the numerical and logographic signs of cuneiform evolved directly out of the earlier token system. This theory is based on the visual similarities between the elements of the token and writing systems” (p.47). But Woods says that “many of her identification linking complex tokens to cuneiform signs are sim-ply not plausible” and “the distribution of tokens, if we accept Schmandt-Besserat’s identifications, is at odds with our understanding of early Mesopotamian economy and society” (p.48). 

In Ch.3, “Adaptation of Cuneiform to Write Akkadian,” Andrea Seri examines how the Sumerian cuneiform system was adopted by Akkadian neighbors. The two languages are quite different structurally, 

whereas the Sumerian verbal root was monosyllabic and could not be internally altered, Akkadian needed an essentially phonetic syllabic system in order to convey the semantically important structural characteristics of the language.The transition from logograms to syllabograms,therefore, played an important role in the adaptation of cuneiform to write Akkadian (pp.89-90)

In Ch.5, “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System,” Elise V. MacArthur reviews writing precursors: rock drawings, pot marks, pottery, seals, tomb tags, incised pottery, and funerary stelae (p.116). And in Ch.6, “The Earliest Egyptian Writing,” AndrĂ©as Stauder addresses the question of why Sumerians and Egyptians appear to have invented writing almost simultaneously: 

The close proximity in time and the relative proximity in space of the southern Mesopotamian and Egyptian inventions of writing remains remarkable, but is explained by taking into account the broader context. The development of the earliest Egyptian writing is contemporaneous with, and di-rectly related to, the emergence of regional political entities and associated elites. This in turn is part of a set of complexly interrelated phenomena that simultaneously affected various parts of the ancientNear East in the later fourth millennium, partly in relation to the development of, and attempts to control, supra-regional trade networks. In the con-text of major political and social changes affecting both southern Mesopotamia and Upper Egypt, the roughly simultaneous emergence of writing in the two regions is no coincidence. (p.142)

Skipping ahead, in Ch.12, “The Invention and Development of the Alphabet,” Joseph Lam notes that

The functional advantage of the alphabet over other writing systems lies in its economy. In contrast to logographic systems, in which a given symbol denotes a word, or to syllabic writing, in which sign represents a full syllable of sound, alphabetic writing is characterized by the graphic representation of phonemes, that is, the shortest contrastive units of sound in a language (consonants or vowels), thereby greatly decreasing the number of signs. (p.189)

In Ch.14, “The Beginnings of Writing in China,” Edward L. Shaughnessy points out that although many Chinese characters would be recognized as pictographic 3000 years ago, currently “99 percent or more of current Chinese characters … depict primarily the sound of the word” (p.215). He overviews what we know about the development of this writing system. Similarly, in Ch.15, “The Development of Maya Writing,” Joel W. Palka overviews Mesoamerican script history.

Overall, I found this book to be fascinating, although (paradoxically) I also ended up skimming a lot. On one hand, I learned a lot about writing systems around the world, including how they originated and changed over time. On the other hand, this book requires some antecedent knowledge and I didn’t always have it. Still, if you’re interested in writing as an ingenious, inventive set of human practices, definitely pick this book up.