Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Cognition and Diversity"

Introductory Bio

Perhaps best known for his award-winning book, Lives on the Boundary, Mike Rose has taught, researched, and written about the challenges facing diverse non-traditional, often underprepared and disadvantaged students in higher education. He has taught students at almost all levels from kindergarden to university and in almost all places from the intercity to the traditional college campus. Rose, currently Professor of Social Research Methodology in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is also the author of numerous articles on teaching non-traditional writers and underprepared students and literacy. Additionally, he has authored ten books, including Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America; An Open Language: Selected Writing on Literacy, Learning, and Opportunity; and most recently, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. Among his many awards are a Distinguished Lectureship from the American Educational Research Association, Guggenheim Fellowship, Distinguished Teaching Award from UCLA, Grawemeyer Award in Education in 1997, and the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English from the National Council of Teachers of English.

As Rose states in his own blog ( “If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.” Mike invites CCCC members and their students to subscribe and participate.

Blog Entry

First, let me thank Joyce Middleton and the CCCC Committee on Diversity for inviting me to join this series. Like Victor Villanueva, I come late to the blogosphere, and was nudged, grumbling into it about six months ago. Let me also say that I’m honored to be in the company of the other bloggers and hope my entry adds fruitfully to theirs.

The issue I want to discuss – and I think it’s why Joyce and the committee invited me – is intelligence and the broader construct of cognition: attention and perception, conceptualizing, thinking, problem-solving, etc. We tend not to think about this cluster of topics when discussing diversity – unless we’re discussing exceptional children – but beliefs about intelligence are woven throughout beliefs about race, gender, social class, and ability.

I’ll begin with a little personal history.

I’ve been interested in the way we think for a long time. When I was an English major, I found myself drawn to accounts of a writer’s creative process: What was the inspiration for a story or a key defining moment or image that was the germ of the thing? Or what happened to a poem through various revisions; what did we know about why changes were made? Or I was fascinated by those bursts of creativity that seemed to come out nowhere: for example, how you couldn’t have predicted the intricacies of Moby Dick from Melville’s earlier novels.

Then came psychology and reading in perception and cognition, in child development, in cross-cultural studies. All this got me on the road, provided bodies of knowledge and ways to understand and study.

But not without complication.

The history of psychological and social science – and the humanities as well – is laden with research and writing that reflects the biases of the larger culture from which in emerges. So, as in the larger culture, you have claims about the intellectual inferiority of non-white races, or immigrants, or rural folk, or women. You have claims about linguistic inferiority. You have all sorts of claims about the working-class and the work they do.

I won’t weigh the present essay down with the details of how I found my way through all this and simply begin by using the cognitive perspective toward what I hope are egalitarian ends. (Anyone interested in more of that detail can find it in An Open Language, a complimentary copy of which, I’m pretty sure, CCCC members can get from Bedford Books.) But I do want to zero in on two things that I think are central to my own development, and are pertinent to the ongoing discussion.

One is my own background as the child of immigrant working-class parents growing up in a poor neighborhood. I know intimately many of the kinds of people who are the focus of claims about intellectual and linguistic inferiority. And what I heard and read didn’t always match up.

The second is that I started tutoring and teaching at a relatively young age in schools and programs that served poor and working-class people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds – and the settings spanned kindergarten to college. So, again, I saw first-hand the processes of teaching and learning, and I saw what people can do with their minds.

Both of these elements of my personal history certainly contributed to the way I saw myself, my values and dreams, and they contributed as well to an empirical and skeptical bent, useful both to question the ugliness of the discourse that I’d hear on the streets, on the radio, in my own neighborhood and extended family as well as the claims made in some of the academic material I was encountering.

This empirical skepticism, this need to test what I was studying against my own personal and professional experience, enabled me to use cognitively-oriented research to both critique work within the cognitive tradition that diminished human ability as well as critique the many and ongoing claims that rise like crabgrass in our society about the intellectual capabilities of underprepared students, poor folks, people of color, women, manual workers, you name it.

So let me fast-forward now to a few quick summaries of this work.

My study of cognition combined with other areas of study in the humanities and social science led to a series of articles that, collectively, tried to do the following: I wanted to explore the way flawed assumptions about cognition and language have influenced remedial writing curricula; the limiting institutional definitions of remediation and of writing instruction; overgeneralizing explanations as to why some students have difficulty with writing; and the classroom processes by which some students get defined as intellectually and linguistically deficient.

In addition to critique, I advocated a richer, more multifaceted model of cognition and writing and a way to think about curriculum and instruction that honored that richness.

All of this work played itself out in a series of articles that you’ll find in that Open Language collection and, in more narrative form, in Lives on the Boundary.

I can give you a flavor for this writing by doing a pretty unblogospheric thing here and quoting the closing paragraph from one of the articles, “Narrowing the Mind and Page: Remedial Writers and Cognitive Reductionism”:

If I could compress this essay’s investigation down to a single conceptual touchstone, it would be this: Human cognition – even at its most stymied, bungled moments – is rich and varied. It is against this assumption that we should test our theories and research methods and classroom assessments. Do our practices work against classification that encourages single, monolithic explanations of cognitive activity? Do they honor the complexity of interpretive efforts even when those efforts fall short of some desired goal? Do they foster investigation of interaction and protean manifestation rather than investigation of absence? Do they urge reflection on the cultural biases that might be shaping them? We must be vigilant that the systems of intellect we develop or adapt do not ground our students’ difficulties in sweeping, essentially one-dimensional perceptual, neurophysiological, psychological, or linguistic processes, systems that drive broad cognitive wedges between those who do well in our schools and those who don’t.

Though some of this work is of its time (it was written in the 1980s), it unfortunately is pertinent today. Consider the number of basic/remedial/preparatory writing courses that are still built on problematic notions of cognition and language, leading to deadening skills and drills curricula. Or an article that appeared in the June 2008, Atlantic Monthly (that I’m sure is familiar to many readers of this blog) in which a disgruntled community college professor depicts his students as academically dense and marginally literate. Or that old bad penny Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame peddling again in his latest book, "Real" Education, methodologically flawed notions about intelligence and the social order.

O.K., one more fast-forward, this one to The Mind at Work, a recent project in which I continue exploring questions of cognition, intelligence, and achievement. I blend case histories of blue collar and service workers with cognitive and social analysis to challenge longstanding Western distinctions between mental and physical activity, offering, I hope, a more psychologically and educationally productive way to consider what we do with hand and brain.

From Classical Greece on down, we have tended to make sharp and value-laden separations between the mental and physical, between the philosophical, theoretical, and conceptual versus the practical, applied, and concrete – and, more recently, between the academic and the vocational. These distinctions have affected the way we define intelligence, create curriculum, and organize work. But this kind of binary thinking is inadequate to describe what actually occurs as waitresses or welders (or, for that matter, as teachers or surgeons) apply knowledge, solve problems, arrive at decisions, and make aesthetic judgments.

This set of issues seems especially important for those of us who teach students from working-class families and/or who work in programs aimed at providing occupational training.

I think these issues are also important for all of us, for with our educations can come a predisposition to elevate the intellectual content and value of one kind of work over another and make cognitive judgments about people based on the work they do.

Having said that, I feel the need to explain further, and, if you’ll indulge me one more time, I’m going to do the boorish thing of quoting myself again, this time from The Mind at Work:

This is not a call for a simplified egalitarianism. I am not denying the obvious fact that people come to any pursuit with different interests, talents, knacks for things, motivations, capabilities. Nor am I claiming that all bodies of knowledge and expressions of mind are of the same level of cognitive complexity and social importance. All the cultures I’m familiar with make judgments about competence in the domains that matter to them. (Though ours is more obsessed than any I know with developing measures of the mind and schemes to rank them.) No, the distressing thing is that both in our institutional systems and in our informal talk we tend to label entire categories of work and the people associated with them in ways that generalize, erase cognitive variability, and diminish whole traditions of human activity. Attributions of merit and worth flow throughout the process. We order, we rank, we place at steps upon a ladder rather than appreciating an abundant and varied cognitive terrain.

In closing, let me offer a cautionary tale that illustrates how easily overgeneralized and ungenerous judgments about other people’s thinking can come to us.

For the last dozen or so years I’ve been working a lot with graduate students. A while back, one came to see me with a sketch of a dissertation proposal. It had taken this person a fairly long time to get to this place, having begun then abandoned a previous research topic. And the sketch I was looking at was also the result of many months of deliberation. Along the way another faculty member had commented to me that this person was a “weak” student.

I read the new sketch, and it wasn’t good at all. It was general in some places. In others, one claim didn’t line up with the next. Some sentences were difficult to understand. It was hard to know exactly what the research project was. The comment from my colleague flipped into my mind like a pop-up ad. And so did a sense that’s hard to describe, but was kind of a half-thought/half-feeling that this student might not have the ability to complete a dissertation.

We met and caught up a little, stuff about family and work. Then we turned to the proposal. I decided to avoid its problems and asked the student to talk to me about the project, not in dissertation lingo, but in everyday speech.

What followed was clear, elaborated, interesting. A solid, engaging project. We talked a while longer, getting some notes down on paper. I then turned to the piece I’d read and pointed out a few places where I had had trouble. And the student explained – frustration seeping out – that what I read was an attempt to reconcile conflicting advice from another faculty member, several peers, and an activist in the community to be studied.

This student’s dilemma is familiar to all of us, I’m sure – the way conceptual (and interpersonal) conflicts can negatively affect our writing. But look at what went on in my head when I first read the proposal sketch. Without realizing it, I had absorbed the informal norms of graduate study: that, for example, time-to-degree is a measure of ability or that flawed writing equaled flawed thinking. Mr. Lives-on-the-Boundary had drunk the cognitive Kool Aid.

As I write in that paragraph from The Mind at Work, I’m not trying to ignore the fact that we, all of us, do have different talents, interests, etc. It is possible that the student was, for all sorts of reasons, not ready or equipped to write a dissertation. And, after all, as educators we’re obliged to make judgments about performance and respond accordingly. What is troubling in the anecdote, however, is the ease with which a one-dimensional judgment about intellectual ability came to me.

But the anecdote also points to some ways out of this mess. (And what I’m going to say, I think, resonates with the other blogs.) It reminds us that we live tangled in systems of bias, and that we will always blunder, and, therefore, we need in our teaching some methods to keep us aware, some tools of mindfulness: asking different questions, shifting languages, listening closely. We need certain habits of mind, for example, a testing of our own judgments, a willingness to have them disconfirmed. We need to be alert to the social contexts we inhabit – this was the root of my error – and the norms and beliefs we absorb in them. We need to publicly question the vocabulary and assumptions that constitute these settings. (This blog is a tiny gesture in that direction.) We also need to be creative in fashioning other kinds of spaces within those worlds we inhabit.

These are the kinds of issues and questions we – I – need to keep raising. They keep in sight the ease with which we reduce each other. They contribute to a richer pedagogical imagination. Ant they can help fashion a more humane institutional and civic life.


Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Rose, thank you for your story regarding your graduate student and his/her thesis sketch. I am also a graduate student in the midst of exams and thinking about my thesis, and it was helpful to hear a faculty's perspective in this particular situation. I have to say that this whole process of exams has been both a source of frustration and anxiety due to some of the reasons you pointed out in your blog: multiple suggestions given by multiple sources. I realize that part of being a scholar is sorting through all of these suggestions and advice to find my own conviction and voice. In fact, it is exactly what I tell my own students. But I've been thinking about this word, "scholar" and what it means to me, or to anybody for that matter. Being and becoming a scholar are two very different things, and I realize that I have been resisting this identity for quite some time now. I'm still working through why this is the case, but I do know that I am still uncomfortable with what being a scholar means to my own identity, and an identity that is tied to writing. I don't necessarily think that being a scholar is opposed to who I am at any given moment, but being a scholar does mean believing in my writing and the work I do. And, ultimately, this is a terrifying thing. Regardless of all the support from my own wonderful program, the wider context of academia is, more often than not, cut-throat, and, more often than not, demanding of conformity. To me being a successful scholar means that I have to begin to believe in the thinking, writing, and work that are sanctioned by the institution-- otherwise, I wouldn't be able to write. But my dilemma is that I don't want to believe, because believing also necessitates changing. I'm not one to oppose change, but I question whether I ought to for the sake of academic success. And in talking to others in my position, we all feel-- being marginal, minorities, diverse, or whatever we are called--we still have to wear a mask and pretend that we are part of a culture that, more often than not, does not value us as the norm. We still wear a mask, because don't believe we will succeed otherwise. My question to you and others: how does one take ownership of an identity-- scholar-- when that identity neccessitates changing oneself and one's writing to acheive academic success?

Mike Rose said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your comment. I certainly sympathize with the dilemma that you posed. I don't have any easy answers, because as you point out, it's a tough issue. But reflecting on my own career, I can say two things.

First, I have found, sometimes to my surprise, that there are a lot of valuable things in traditional scholarly writing that I could appropriate or adapt. So try looking at the traditional stuff with that perspective.

Second, and I know this isn't easy, but there can be ways to blend all sorts of other writing styles and genres into traditional academic work. Some of the bloggers in this series have done that.

This business of trying to shape an identity within traditions and constraints is something that just about every writer, artist, crafts person faces, from poets to woodworkers, so you are not alone in this struggle. Perhaps it is one of the key developmental struggles that folks like us go through. I don't want to keep pushing An Open Language, but graduate students and new professors have told me that they find my own account of learning to do this work helpful. You can get a complimentary copy from Bedford Books, and just read the introductory and prefatory sections -- that's where I talk about doing the work. Good luck to you, and thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

John said...

The expansion of the idea of diversity, such as Mike Rose discusses, I think, touches upon the heart of the matter. The idea of diversity should certainly encompass a wider range of dissimilar values and their manifestations. And I think that means metrics of all sorts: informal and personal ones as well as formal or institutional or cultural. In the academic arena, particularly, where we invite students to test and form their own values, the idea of non-substitution of our personal values for those different from our own, even if based upon cultural or linguistic communities, needs to be extended. It needs also to inform conversation about all kinds of assessment or “sizing-up” in this day’s assessment climate—one too often benchmarked by standardization and uniformity of mind and spirit, even if de facto and face to face with the person sitting next to or across from us at school.

John Stovall
National-Louis University

Anonymous said...

Thank you Professor Rose and the other bloggers for your illustrative comments. I work with Spanish speakers (first generation immigrants) at a technical college in both GED Spanish communication and basic (bilingual) English. Over the years working with this population, I have become increasingly interested in the formation and impact of an "immigrant Identity." My question is how or to what extent the students' first language and culture needs to (or should be) acknowledged, developed, or taken into account before, during, and after, learning English and US culture? I realize that my particular situation does not apply to college communication or many other teaching situations; however, I believe that many of these adult immigrants face a high standard to meet and, usually, negative labeling. Their most common response is isolation and self-defeating prophecies. It is not a matter of whether or not these immigrants should learn English, it is a matter of reconciling two identities. I have been a teacher for ten years and my struggle is still as strong as when I first started. By the way, I am also an immigrant, Spanish speaker, and English learner of twenty years. Thank you again for your comments and ideas that respond to my concerns.

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