February 22, 2006

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.