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Mike Rose - "Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer's Block"

Roses’s central point is that “writing rules? or “planning strategies? “often impede. . . rather than enhance. . . the composing process? (95). He bases this conclusion on the experiences of ten of his undergraduate writing students, five of whom suffered from writer’s block. Rose offers definitions of “rules? and “plans? that are rooted in cognitive psychology, and he notes the difference between two kinds of rules: heuristics and algorithms. Whereas, heuristics are merely “rules of thumb,? algorithms are rules that generate certain results. Rose then notes that “Plans subsume and sequence heuristic and algorithmic rules? and that “plans . . . [unlike rules] include criteria to determine successful goal-attainment and, as well, include ‘feedback’ processes? (97). A plan, in turn, differs from a set “in that set represents a limiting and narrowing of response alternatives with no inherent process to shift alternatives. It is a kind of cognitive habit that can limit perception? (98). Rose then provides examples of his “blocked? students’ comments about their writing processes and notes how those students employ bad advice that often comes from their previous writing instructors. His students, for instance, are overly focused on having a good introduction, on making sure their paper has more than three points, and on developing a detailed outline. This is different from Rose's non-blocked students, who hold to more flexible rules (or who hold inflexibly to rules that prescribe flexibility about other rules, such as: "'If a rule conflicts with what is sensible or with experience, reject it'"(101)). Rose then suggests that "blocked" students often take rules that are meant to be heuristics to be algorithms. Some students are also compelled by the "methodological orientation" (103) of their major to adopt rules that are unhealthy for writers. Also in contrast to their non-blocked peers, "blocked" students seem less concerned with "testing" their writing against the feedback they get from their audiences.

Comments

I wondered as I read this: Should we ask students if they have/"suffer from" writer's block? Does anyone do this?

It seemed to me very likely that we could experience an upsurge in writer's block if these testing-formula procedures in high schools really take root.

Also, I thought this was an interesting statement, and linked to Elbow's "forgetting audience:" "Students who offer the least precise rules and plans have the least trouble composing."

Perhaps editing requires more serious thinking, more serious thought about "rules," but the initial writing process is too much of a guessing game.


Rigid rules, inflexible plans, and stifling of language

In Venezuela there is a “syndrome? called TMT (Todo Menos Tesis). I find that here ABD is an equivalent acronym. However TMT and ABD have really different meanings. For us TMT means that you are emotionally unable to write your dissertation (and not that you have finished all other requirements for your PhD). If you are in a TMT emotional state, you are capable of doing anything (getting sick, abandoning your academic goals, jumping off a bridge) but sitting down and writing your dissertation. That doesn’t seem like TOTE strategy, does it?
On the other hand I am feeling more and more guilty about my performance in my freshman composition class (Language and Communication) especially when considering Rose’s statements such as “Students that offer the least precise rules and plans have the least trouble composing? (p.104)
Actually, Marcia, I have asked some of my students about their writer’s block experiences, but probably my reaction to their answers was to try to help stifling their language with rules and plans.
However, I see a little light at the end of the tunnel when Rose also found that non-blocked writers are Information-Processor oriented and that I can probably learn from my experience here with Spanish and English Writing Centers and encourage this kind of practice in my own university.
Finally I accept the Rose’s suggestion, “rather than get embroiled in a blocker’s misery, the teacher or tutor might interview the student in order to build a writing history and profile? (p.105)

Rose’s prescription for “treatment? echoes what Pamela suggested: having students detail, discuss and contrast their composing processes, including thought patterns and the affective dimension in this discussion. Prompts could include: How did this process evolve (e.g. when did you learn to make an outline)? Look over each step and think about purpose (why do you write the introduction first?). How do you figure out what an instructor wants? Do you ever feel conflict between what you think an instructor wants to see and what you’d like to write? If so, how do you handle it? And so on.

The example of Ruth, who has “an edict with no determiners,? reminds us how necessary a discussion of purpose is. The ultimate “purpose? discussion entails having students consider their beliefs about good writing—what the entire process is aiming for. If students present fairly rigid or narrow definitions of good writing, that’s an opportunity to discuss flexibility, variations according to context, etc. Then it makes more sense to talk about how the steps in the process are similarly flexible, interpreted and applied as befits the writing situation.

How can we as instructors assist students in the introductory stage, when certain features of the problem “must become or be made salient and attended to in certain ways? if the problem is to be solved (130)? What features do students need to be aware of, and how should they attend to them? Purpose, audience, tone …

Rose says that students “can be trained to select, to ‘know which rules are appropriate for which problems’? (134). We might include consideration of this in our assignments; our brainstorming sessions might include a discussion of how to proceed, which strategies to employ. (This is a good way to remind students to draw on their past writing, too.) As another strategy for facilitating the writing process, I like to hold “writing communities,? times for students to get together and write, brainstorm, etc. This was inspired by the lively, spontaneous collaboration I saw in the GC writing center, and how preferable this seemed to my own lonely, wee-hours writing.

There might be a shift, related to cognitive development and the nature of tasks being undertaken, from when strict rules actually ease the process—you pound out a paper according to a formula—and when they become problematic. (Rose mentions that Flower and Hayes’ students may “need more rules and plans? (131).) It might not be a single shift, either; we may work under strict rules (voluntarily or not) in certain situations and not others. Though it can be useful to draw on past experience, we also encounter difficulty when we apply old rules to new situations—strict high school rules for essay-writing may hinder us in some college writing situations, or the rules of one discipline may not hold in another. This, of course, is an argument for flexible rules, as Rose points out.

Maru: Thank you for diagnosing my problem; I have TMT! This explains why I am capable of performing daily activities but am completely incapable of making any progress on my dissertation. See, I should have read your comment before reading the Elbow piece.

Seriously, though, Rose's argument seems so logical on the surface--that the rules governing academic writing are so numerous, or ambiguous, or difficult to remember that they stifle student writing. So what is the practical solution? To provide more time for drafting and pre-writing? To place the emphasis on revising rather than drafting? To offer comments (as instructors or reviewers) that ignore mechanics and conventions and focus only on content or voice?

To interview students to determine their inflexible writing blockers again seems so logical on the surface, but the solution is too ideal for me—and altogether too time consuming and impractical for a semester-length class. What, should we do as instructors who only get these students—and sometimes 30 of them at a time—for only one semester?

So, block can be triggered by writing to others' rules (Marcia's reference to standardized tests), overwhelming writing tasks (Maru's TMT), and, I would imagine, by spending too much reflection time articulating one's play by play writing process as it begins to emerge and by spending too long in the initial stages of a writing task. Sheesh, what to do? Thea, I certainly hope you're planning to dig us out of this mess!

Victoria Nelson, in a book called, I think, "On Writer's Block," writes that writer's block (and its little cousin, Procrastination, can be seen as reasonable reactions to unreasonable expectations. I like this a lot---it helps me to recognize that my role can be to take some of the pressure off students whose expectations are running wild.

Rose is asking us to help students to find that point between the clutch and gas...the point where students don't drag irrelevant rules into the game, and let themselves off the hook when they find that they've painted themselves into corners. A reminder that writing is all about choices and balances. We need to provide enough structure and scope to a project that students won't be blinded by the arbitrary-ness, and we need to allow them enough room to make choices that really mean something to them. AND, as Rose notes, we need to provide reasonable response to what they've written.

No, I haven't asked my students whether or not they block, but I do give them Nelson's definition of procrastination.

I'm a big fan of Victoria Nelson's book, and in the past it really helped me understand some of my own issues with writer's block. I hadn't thought about that book for a long time but it's definitely worth another look in light of this discussion.

Call me insensitive, but to be honest, I've never really considered what writer's block has to do with my students until I read this essay. I think that probably has to do with my own narrow notions of writer's block being the exclusive province of “serious? writers, along with falling into the trap of thinking of writer's block as nothing more than laziness (something that Nelson talks about, as I recall). But I do wonder whether, in my teaching, I might be contributing to the problem by not providing enough room, as Pamela puts it. Rose says that “non-blockers operate with fluid, easily modified, even easily discarded rules and plans…? (102). I wonder if assignments that try to be too helpful (giving lots of options/questions for brainstorming, etc.) can have the opposite effect - students see too many options, perhaps, feeling that they have to try to do it all. I guess the question is, how to create those fluid rules or guidelines that provide “openings? while also serving the goals of a particular assignment? Maybe what I'm getting at is working towards a “less is more? approach - when my tendency is to go overboard.

I also found Rose's “treatment? ideas interesting (building a writing history, including information on composing processes - something an intake assignment should do, maybe?) I'm also interested in how much impact individual conferencing can have - something I do quite a bit of, and so perhaps I'm doing more to help with writer's block than I realize, even if the student (or me) hasn't necessarily made that diagnosis.


I find Rose somewhat problematic in that he seems to be presenting the writing process as something of an unresolvable tautology. How can a student learn to write when she is stifled by rules dictating certain aspects of her writing, while needing the same rules to follow the rhetorical necessities of the various academic disciplines? My own approach to this problem, when I have taught composition, has always been to be honest with my students and tell them that we will focus on different aspects of their writing at different times. I try to do everthing I can to help the students relax as they are writing and create many small,low stakes assignments on which I can comment. I also give them opportunities to write informally, especially by journaling. I think that this also helps the students get used to putting their thoughts on paper in a non-judgemental format.

My other problem with this article is that I think it could work with some students, but certainly not all. There are students who are accustomed to living and working with rules. I have an idea that too much freedom would cause them to freeze. A way to manage this in a large class may be to ask students to try different methods of composition through in class activities. But when the rubber hits the road, treat these methods like suggestions and be sure to give the students feedback on how the process they are developing works for them.

It's funny what Gary says...that he thought of writer's block being in the domain of serious writers/writing. Although I believe that many, many serious writers--many of the best writers--suffer from block, I don't, so....

So I largely dismissed the idea and associated block with beginning writers. So my assumption was opposite Gary's: If you're serious about what you're doing, if you care about it, you'll never have block.

Same result--I didn't really think about whether my students might have problems with it.

I find my students have very romanticized notions of writer's block -- these notions come from movies, I believe, where they see montages of artists/writers crumpling up dozens of sheets of paper. Then there's the scene where "something happens" and "magically" the words come pouring out! A few seconds later (in "movie time") the book is done and the Pulitzer is won!

So I have been seeing my students waiting for the magic, without any concept of writing being work. These are the students who ask me, "Do you think _____ will be too broad a topic?" without having ever checked the library. The next week, they ask me about a different topic, the following week, another different topic. But they never do any research! They won't start until they have the perfect topic -- the one that "will be easy" to write about, the one that will magically pour out onto the page.

In Rose's argument, that would be a blocked student with an inflexible rule (I must have the perfect topic before I start). Perhaps it is, or perhaps it's laziness. How do I tell?

I think Thea has definitely hit on something that I've experienced -- good old "just tell me what you want by picking my topic for me" v. sincere confusion and anxiety about what to do. How to tell the difference? Also, getting back to the whole notion of writers' block, perhaps a little anxiety is a good thing, if we really want our students to "feel" like writers -- romantic notions and all. But at what point does "healthy" anxiety, which might promote more critical thinking/writing, turn into paralysis that turns them off to the whole process?

I, too, like Rose's notion of turning rigid rules into guidelines. Many of my students in freshman comp (mainly those who attended high school here in the States) come to class thinking that all of their papers must have three main points, etc. I think that, for the most part, it does free them up when they realize that those ideas need not function as hard and fast rules.

At the same time, though, I completely agree with Edward's caveat. Some students, I think, really have no idea how to operate without those rules. Maybe our role as writing instructors should be to help those students overcome their dependence on rigid rules. But, as Lisa pointed out with regard to some of Rose's other suggestions, most of us only have one semester with our students - and I'm not sure how realistic it is to think that we can bring students to a feeling of safety and comfort when it comes to writing by throwing some of their long-ingrained "rules" out the window.

I agree about the perspective on writer's block. How could I, as an amatuer writer possibly have writer's block? Why do we feel that it is reserved for the people that are fortunate enough to write for a living? What about we teachers that write and teach writing every day?

I also concur with Anne's ideas about allowing more time for drafting and revising. I know that the summers I spent in the Minnesota Writing Project, I spent enormous amounts of time editing and revising. My group time was invaluable. They helped me with many aspects of my writing. In one piece, the word choice alternatives that my group would propose were far beyond what I could do by myself.

Lastly, I agree with Elbow in that writing rules can impede a writer's progress. If you get "stuck" in any way on any one aspect of the writing process, you have a roadblock to your own success as a writer- whether you are a student or a teacher.

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