Experiential learning and materiality

kolbOne of the more interesting questions to come out of my recent teaching experiences with DIY publications like zines is how teachers measure rhetorical success of their students’ public texts, whether they take the familiar forms of civic writing, multimodal embodied forms of protest, or through more ephemeral social media. More specifically, I’ve been asking and speculating about the role rhetorical circulation plays in that question, and what it might mean to differentiate between learning about the concept (i.e as a subset of critical reading skills) and experiencing it (i.e. producing texts that actually circulate). In short, what does it mean to really experience circulation — and by extension what does it mean to experience rhetoric?

Lately I’ve been looking in a few disparate places to answer that question. Thinking about it literally has led me to experiential learning theory (ELT) — originally conceived by John Dewey, developed in various ways throughout the 20th century (by folks like Vygotsky, Piaget, Lewin, Jung, and Freire), and more recently theorized and applied by David Kolb. Although he developed his theory in the early 70s, Kolb’s book, Experiential Learning: Experience As the Source Of Learning and Development (1984), is widely influential, having been cited more than 20,000 times (including a few times in the pages of CCC). In a more recent text from 2005, Kolb and Kolb define experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience (Kolb, 1984: 41)” (194). This grasping was initially characterized via two pairs of dialectically opposed modes: Concrete Experience (CE) v Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE). As the authors put it:

Experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’ — experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting — in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. (194; emphasis mine)

This creative tension is created by asking learners to scuttle between acting and observing, analyzing and experimenting, consuming and producing. Yet because human experience is the basis for this model, such tensions cannot occur in just a classroom. Central to ELT is Lewin’s notion that transactional learning occurs via the interdependency of individuals and their environments. Kolb and Kolb use this to create what they call learning spaces, which emphasize learning as “a map of learning territories, a frame of reference within which many different ways of learning can flourish and interrelate. It is a holistic framework that orients the many different ways of learning to one another” (200).

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)
Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

As I re-read Anne Wysocki’s intro to Writing New Media (2004) this week, I was struck with the similarities between the ways both ELT and new media attempt to highlight this interdependency between agency (individual) and structure (environment). More specifically for Wysocki, a materialist definition of new media allows students to “see a possible self — a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world — in that object” (21). Aside from Wysocki’s decision to reject traditional definitions of new media as inherently digital, I love this piece for how it pushes teachers of writing to consider not so much “technology” as monolith as much as the tools and materials with which we ask students to write. Interestingly, many of the lessons in the Activity portion of her chapter ask students to occupy various positions within ELT’s learning space. In one exercise, students take two hours out of their weekend to observe and jot down any and all visual texts. When they come to class, Wysocki asks them a number of reflective questions about how and why they chose those texts, how they shape action and ways of thinking, etc.  As she argues at the end of this section, she’s “not trying to lead the class to definitive conclusions about sight,” but “to see how much visual attentions are called upon in our day-to-day actions” (25). There is more to this lesson, which is connected to other lessons, but I point out this sliver to note how some of tensions articulated by ELT are working in this example. Students are asked to use concrete experience (CE) — writing down what they see — as a occasion for reflective observation (RO) —  via large-group discussion — which is put into tension with abstract conceptualization (AC) when they are ultimately asked to conceptualize the role visual rhetoric plays in our moment-to-moment material experience.

I realize I risk bastardizing ELT with such an application, so I’m not totally committing to this analysis, but for now I am interested in ELT enough to see how it might help me start to approach a question like “how do students experience rhetoric or rhetorical circulation?”

Next up is to look back at Michael McGee’s “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric” to think about what he means when he drops a knowledge bomb like this one:

…the whole of rhetoric is “material” by measure of humans experiencing of it, not by virtue of our ability to continue touching it after it is gone. Rhetoric is “object” because of its pragmatic presence, our inability safely to ignore it at the moment of its impact … From the material perspective “speech” is an integral part of a “speaker/speech/audience/ occasion/change” phenomenon, peculiar as an element of rhetoric because it survives and records the moment of experience. (23; emphasis in original)