Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Binary Opposites and the Maturing Process: A Few More Thoughts on Haswell's "Gaining Ground in College Writing"

Nature vs. Nurture. On one side of the ring, wearing black shorts: the concept that human development takes place as a result of biologically determined factors. It’s all genetic. On the other side, decked out in the white trunks: the belief that all human development is environmentally determined. We’re all culturally constructed, kiddo, so get used to it! Who will win the age-old debate? And who will die trying?

For years, sociologists, biologists, learning theorists, humanities devotees, and random guys in coffee shops the world over have struggled valiantly trying to win the debate between Nature and Nurture, attempting at all turns to create a sense of truth and permanence from a set of culturally-conceived binary opposites. Good/evil, right/wrong, light/dark, male/female…like it or not, western thought sure does have the handle on the concept of reality as a system of opposites. Which brings us to where we are right now, in front row seats, just inches from the ring. The smell of sweat is heavy in the arena. The crowd is deafening. The opponents are pumped. The beer is warm.

Quite frankly, I don’t see this match ever really getting anywhere.

I’m not the only one. Over the past several decades, people in a variety of different fields have discarded the restricting binary of Nature vs. Nurture, looking instead for a middle ground, a place on the continuum with room for recognition of both biological and cultural influences as determining factors in the (constantly shifting, reevaluating, reforming) development of the individual. This focus on intertextuality and continuous change (as opposed to identity as stagnant end-product) has been an aspect of feminist criticism, queer theories, and socio-cultural critique for a while now, and, as we can see by the theories proposed by Richard Haswell in "Gaining Ground in College Writing," is earning a place within the lore, theory, and methodology of composition instruction.

In "Gaining Ground," Haswell sets up a basic Nature/Nurture scenario in his description of Learning (an environmental and cultural process with no attachment to genetics) and maturation (a genetic and biologically-dictated model with no attachment to environment), then grounds his binary imagery by describing the act of Maturing. “Maturing,” the title Haswell has allocated to the shifting, middle-of-the-continuum process in which biological and cultural/environmental influences are constantly converging, recreating, and reinventing, is defined as “ a social arena where growth may take place with the help of both inner and outer promptings” (Haswell 67).

In the world of composition, Maturing occupies a gray area in which a student writer’s skill and development is evaluated not in terms of measurement against idealized concepts of perfection, but in terms of the student’s own generative changes and improvements as measured against real work by real student writers at various skill and development levels. The student’s writing, rather than being held up against the concept of Perfect Writing (as often happens when one stringently embraces the Learning/Nurture concept), is instead laid out in an interpretive frame of Maturing characterized by the superimposition of two minds, one less and one more experienced. This concept provides, Haswell argues, “a new working definition for a conception of human growth appropriate for writing instruction: maturing is generative change, at once nurturable and natural, towards cultural standards” (Haswell 68).

Nature vs. Nurture. Maturation vs. Learning. By utilizing concepts such as Maturing - and by exploring human development theories not reliant on a system of strict and limited binary opposites - educators, writers, and students have the opportunity to engage the learning process in a generative, structure-building, constantly evolving mode.

In this corner, Nature in the black trunks. In this corner, Nurture in white. The heat is on! Who will win the Battle Royal? Before the audience can blink, Nature comes in with a left-handed blow, but Nurture saw it coming and is one step ahead with a block. Nature recovers just in time to sidestep a swift right jab, and both opponents circle back to opposite sides of the ring. The tension is palpable.

Wait, what’s this!? This match is about to turn into a massacre, kiddos, because here comes Maturing in a surprise entrance! THE GRAY TRUNKS HAVE ENTERED THE RING!

1 comment:

Karol said...

Ha-ha, Erin, great analogy. We ARE fond of black and white thinking in this culture of ours. I agree with you that the extreme ends of this question (among others) are absurd. Isn't it interesting to think that when Haswell proposed this developmental approach to evaluating student writing, that it was revolutionary? Most public school teachers have still not gotten the message, and it's been , what a decade?, since he wrote this. What was that Prof. Stacey said about change in institutions? Glacial. At least we can be glad that HSU comp program has gotten the message.