In After Pedagogy Paul Lynch asks, “Is teaching still impossible?”—a question that echoes Geoffrey Sirc’s declaration a year earlier that “teaching writing is impossible” (508). This question amplifies a contemporary quandary facing teachers in writing studies: how has the originary and core imperative of writing studies—teaching—come to seem not just difficult but impossible to some of the most exciting thinkers of that very same discipline? Is teaching truly impossible, how did we get here, and how do we begin to move forward? We want to suggest that examining the relationships among postprocess, postpedagogy, and design can offer some answers.
We start from the premise that postpedagogy, at its best, provides a path forward in that it can help teachers avoid deterministic (and therefore brittle and unrealistic) pedagogy and its equally troubling opposite: sheer chaos in the classroom. Because we have come to believe that design studios offer a useful set of tactics for the postpedagogically-inclined writing teacher, we conducted observational studies of four field sites at three universities (outlined in the “Fieldwork” section). At each of these sites, we analyzed similarities and differences, interviewed faculty and students, and digitally documented events and materials. Through our fieldwork, we identified four features of design-oriented pedagogy that enact the strongest aspects of postpedgaogical theory; we have come to think of design-oriented pedagogy as High Impact, Collaborative, DIY, and Ecological. In sharing this work, our aim is to offer concrete, flexible educational design practices that can ground postpedagogical theory in ways that open up new possibilities for coordinating learning experiences in the writing classroom.
Postprocess → Postpedagogy
The recent history of rhetoric and writing is a story of increasing complexity. Thomas Kent’s introduction to Post-Process Theory sets things in motion with his influential three-fold observation: a post-process theory of writing acknowledges the “fundamental idea that no codifiable or generalizable writing process exists or could exist” because “(1) writing is public; (2) writing is interpretive; (3) writing is situated” (1). When understood through these lenses, we can no longer see writing as “something we learn to do—a series of cognitive steps, or a socially constructed set of internalized conventions, or even a relatively simple pragmatic recursive process of drafting, editing, and redrafting” (Beyond Postprocess xvii). There is, in other words, no “set of necessary and sufficient conditions,” which, once met, would mean that “satisfactory communication is more or less assured” (xvi-xvii). And, therefore, we are left to wonder, now without the strategies of “effective communication,” what would we be left to teach in a writing class? These observations in postprocess theory set off a series of aftershocks that we are still grappling with today.
Twelve years after Post-Process Theory was published, Sidney Dobrin, J.A. Rice, and Michael Vastola pushed the question of teaching writing even further in Beyond Postprocess. They write, “But perhaps the most controversial aspect of postprocess’s introduction was its unapologetic resistance to simple pedagogical application” (3). By taking postprocess to its “logical conclusion,” the authors declare “an era of postpedagogy” (3). While the term “postpedagogy” first appeared in Gregory Ulmer’s Applied Grammatology, in this flashpoint moment Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola suggest that postpedagogy is a logical extension of postprocess theory (which was founded on a critique of process-oriented pedagogies) that generates a critique of pedagogy writ large. The authors note, “By postpedagogy, we do not mean writing beyond teaching, but rather a point within composition studies where new ways of thinking about writing fundamentally refuse any codifiable notion of the relationship between the writing subject and the texts it produces, as well as the ‘practical’ scholarship expected to proceed from that relationship” (3-4). According to these scholars, not only is pedagogy itself dependent on ideologies and forms the field has begun to critique, but it is also the case that the field of writing studies holds itself back with its persistent focus on teaching.
Postpedagogy has gained traction more recently through the scholarship of Byron Hawk, Thomas Rickert, Sarah Arroyo, Marc Santos, Megan McIntyre, and others. In part, postpedagogy is a response to the sometimes confrontational approaches of cultural studies pedagogies. Summarizing an argument from Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment, McIntyre explains that Berlinian cultural studies approaches, “despite their good intentions, often lead not to transformational, freeing moments but rather performances of consciousness-raising and increasing cynicism” (“Reflections”). In contrast, postpedagogy promotes play, creativity, innovation, collaboration, inquiry, and discovery.
In addition to encouraging exploratory and reflective pedagogical practices, postpedagogy emphasizes the importance of cultivating learning environments. For instance, Santos and McIntyre extend their description of postpedagogy by riffing on Byron Hawk’s call to create contexts, not students (249). Further, summarizing a point from Santos and Leahy’s “Postpedagogy and Web Writing,” Santos and McIntyre characterize postpedagogy this way: “rather than thinking of ourselves as chefs training apprentices, we might think of ourselves as architects designing kitchens; it isn’t our job to teach as much as it is our job to design environments (and assignments) in which students can learn.” Postpedagogical thinkers understand teaching as the assemblage of learning environments rather than the linear transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. These learning environments are ecologies of spaces, bodies, objects, technologies, problems, and questions.
The Problem of Postpedagogy
On a theoretical level, postpedagogy seems to offer a way out of pedagogical models that now seem reductive and over-invested in the role of the teacher. However, practically speaking, postpedagogy can present an abstract and confusing framework for teaching. Indeed, Lynch argues postpedagogy itself makes teaching impossible. Postpedagogy understands writing and therefore teaching writing to be “[S]o complex that no process or system can predict outcomes. Classroom ecologies will be too particular for replication; the best we can do [in this way of thinking] is fashion a method of making ourselves susceptible to that particularity” (58). Stated differently, Lynch views postpedagogy as a kind of “oblique pedagogy” in which we can only design learning environments rather than craft learning experiences for our students (37). There is not a deliberative path forward from this morass because, as Lynch puts it, “How do we—can we—talk about teaching without talking about pedagogy?” (31). Ultimately, Lynch characterizes postpedagogy as lacking any grounds upon which to sustain itself because it relies too much on kairotically embracing the accidental and unpredictable moment. To counteract postpedagogy’s pedagogical impossibility, Lynch offers a philosophical grounding—a Deweyan account of experience—for the postpedagogical moment.
While we appreciate Lynch’s turn to a philosophy of experience, it is worth lingering for a moment on his characterization of the “classroom ecology” (58). Because writing is not codifiable, as postprocess theorists contend, Lynch states that we now understand the classroom ecology to be so complex we cannot draw conclusions—even tentative ones—about how to teach without veering into the kind of codifiable process narratives that the entire postpedagogical enterprise is attempting to avoid. But, it seems to us, this conclusion does not fully account for the nature of complexity. In The Wealth of Reality, an early application of complexity theory to acts of writing and teaching, Margaret Syverson notes that complex systems, including each and every one of our classrooms, are “dynamic, [and therefore] more unpredictable, spontaneous, and disorderly than a machine, [but] more structured, coherent, and purposeful than utter chaos” (4). According to Syverson, then, while classrooms (as complex systems) certainly involve unpredictability and disorder, that does not mean that they are hopelessly chaotic or exhibit no patterns or regularities.
With Syverson’s description of complexity in mind, we want to argue that the strongest version of postpedagogy forwards a complex account of learning rather than a disorderly one. Even if postpedagogical theorists sometimes use language that implies chaos (“accident,” for example), postpedagogy relies upon a notion of learning as a form of coordination in a complex, but not chaotic, system. Syverson quotes Edwin Hutchins and Brian Hazelhurst, who write, “Biological evolution, individual learning, and cultural evolution can all be seen as ways to discover and save solutions to frequently encountered problems; that is, they are processes that generate conditions of coordination between internal and external structure” (6). Because we understand learning as a form of coordination that emerges from various agents in complex relations enacted over time, we believe that postpedagogy allows for the design of learning experiences that can foster—without guarantee, of course—the kinds of coordination (i.e. learning) we seek.
To understand how postpedagogy can promote learning as a form of coordination, Lynch’s emphasis on experience is key. Lynch notes, “Dewey’s notion of experience suggests that what we learn enters into an ecology that immediately re-shapes and grants significance to that experience” (xxi). But what is the nature of the experience that might encourage the design of certain kinds of learning experiences? Lynch explains that for Dewey “experience includes both the raw data of everyday living as well as the reflection on the experience that shapes our understanding of the future and (re)shapes our understanding of the past…education is the art of intentionally creating situations with an eye toward students’ growth. Education is in fact ‘occasion design’” (75; 82). This idea returns us to one of the core tenets of postpedagogy—crafting encounters for students—but as Lynch points out, it is essential to consider how experience figures into this kind of occasion design.
We are convinced that postpedagogy remains deeply productive—as long as we understand it as neither promoting absolute chaos nor deterministic success. What we offer in this webtext is a design-centric approach to teaching that accounts for and is based in experience. We see great value in the notion of designing contexts for students, but also recognize the importance of experience as an integral part of pedagogical work. Half jokingly, Lynch calls for “elaborate and immense volumes of pedagogical case studies” (134). Such an approach would capture the specificity of each teaching situation while also providing instructors with a range of concrete knowledge. Our project takes Lynch’s suggestion seriously. Thus, throughout this webtext we highlight the patterns and practices that emerged in our observations of four distinct classroom contexts in design-related fields. Both postpedagogy and design, as we find them in practice, refuse to reduce the world’s irreducible complexity. Furthermore, education-related design studios and methods are precisely where one might go to observe time-tested methods for shaping student experience in ways likely to result in the kinds of coordination we call learning. The postpedagogical case studies we will present, though perhaps not as elaborate or immense as Lynch imagined, provide examples of postpedagogical approaches without succumbing to a prescriptive or limiting model for designing learning experiences. Perhaps most crucially, this project offers concrete practices for taking a design approach in the classroom while simultaneously modeling what it means to put postpedagogical theory into action. Our hope is that teachers of writing and rhetoric will adopt the flexible design frameworks we offer to suit their own unique pedagogical agendas.
Designing Learning Experiences
Design and design thinking are gaining momentum in academia and industry thanks to IDEO, Stanford’s d.school, and a small but growing number of scholars across the country. Loosely characterized by an interest in user-experience, rapid iteration and prototyping, and embracing productive failure, design seems to promise a new way to work. Yet, while “design” as a buzzword is approaching fever pitch in higher education, it has not been significantly integrated into theories of learning in many fields, particularly the humanities (Miller). As scholars of rhetoric and composition, one of the few disciplines that places real value on pedagogical research, we are interested in exploring how design might transform our ideas about and practices of teaching and learning, and how it might help to ground in experience the abstract terrain of postpedagogical thinking.
Rhetoric and composition scholars have a long history of considering design in its theoretical relation to writing and teaching. For example, David Fleming explores “design talk,” or, “the mundane, day-to-day activity that occurs during actual design projects—activity irreducible to planning or form-giving” (41). Richard Marback also pushes for a fuller engagement with design in composition studies, specifically in terms of using wicked problems to help students focus “on the ethical dimensions of document designing” (400). Similarly, Marilyn M. Cooper declares that current understandings of writing “[mean] taking a design approach to creating texts and encouraging students to do so” (27 “Being Linked”), while Kristin Prins argues for a move from understanding writing as “design” to writing as “craft,” or “as a particular set of actions and relationships between people and between people and things” (145).
More recently, efforts to study and engage with design thinking and practices have only intensified in rhetoric and composition. James Purdy examines the various invocations of “design” in our field, naming a number of the scholars we rely on throughout this webtext. Carrie Leverenz suggests that integrating design thinking into the writing classroom can help students bridge the gap between writing in classrooms and writing outside of school. Following the principles of the New London Group, Kristin Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl Ball’s Writer/Designer offers a practical guidebook for helping students design multimodal projects. David Sheridan and Anne Shivers-McNair have both published scholarship about makerspaces, which share some approaches with design thinking but which also often maintain distinct differences, including location, purpose, and politics. And Scott Wible maintains that “design thinking pedagogy and practice helps us to understand one way that knowledge can be mobilized to foster co-generation of solutions that fit within a community’s worldviews and everyday practices.” While not exhaustive, this summary provides a sense of the variety and significance of design approaches in the field.
Our project builds upon and enriches this work by bringing postpedagogy into conversation with the material and social practices of design-related fields. We argue that design practices forward a nuanced set of tactics useful for teaching and learning in the postpedagogical classroom. We do not simply present design studio pedagogy as a one-size-fits all model, which is the reason process theory was critiqued in the first place. Rather, we amplify how the dynamic, malleable teaching practices of design studios can help teachers of writing and rhetoric learn to craft experiences for students, even as they offer a framework for the evaluation of student work that relies on expert, public figures engaged with but untethered to the classroom/studio space. Most significantly, none of these teaching practices are written in stone. One of the virtues of design-oriented teaching is that its particular assemblages need to be reinvented continually. What holds the potential to remain constant, we contend, is that design practices promote learning experiences that rely on materiality, public writing, and process without locking teachers into a limiting pedagogical model or formula.