Activity Theory and Composition

David R. Russell
Iowa State University

What are we teaching when we teach “writing”? How to put words together?  Or how to put words together to get things done in the worlds we inhabit as human beings?  Surely the latter.Writing is alive when it is being written, read, remembered, contemplated, followed--when it is part of human activity.  Otherwise it is dead on the page, devoid of meaning, devoid of influence, worthless” (Bazerman & Russell).  Activity theory, developed out of L. S. Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory, has evolved into a major direction in psychology and is used in composition studies to analyze how writing works as a tool to mediate the huge range of human activities where writing helps people get things done. Writing is seen as an immensely plastic tool (technology) that  helps organize (mediate) human life and thought, from the humblest grocery list or diary entry to the grandest treatises of religion and science.

So what are we teaching when we teach “composition”?  If we teach only what is common to all the many human activities that use writing in myriad ways, then we are teaching only grammar, spelling, and punctuation—but writing is dead on the page, devoid of meaning and influence.  But if we teach writing as it mediates the human living worlds we inhabit, then we have some tough choices to make, because writing is used differently (and is different rhetorically) in every human endeavor, every discipline, even every classroom (though there are some useful similarities!).

AT understands learning not as the internalization of discrete information or skills by individuals, but rather as expanding involvement over time, social as well as intellectual, with some other people and the tools available in their culture. These networks of people and their shared tools, acting together for some shared purpose (such as learning to write in a composition class) are called activity systems.

Because the activity systems that give form to (and are formed by) our lives are dynamic, they constantly present opportunities for that kind of change called learning.  Vygotsky called these opportunities "zones of proximal development" (ZPD), which he defined as the difference between what one could do alone and what one could do with assistance. That assistance might come from teachers or peers or co-workers or new tools. In these "construction zones," learning takes place as people using tools mutually change themselves and their tools. People change and learn as they expand their involvement with others in a community and the tools (including writing) that community uses in certain ways.  In this view, learning is first social.. It is, in Engeström's phrase, "learning by expanding" (1987). 

For example, if we are teaching students ‘academic writing’ then what writing mediates in higher education is learning. We are teaching students to use writing to help them learn some discipline(s). How do people in those fields learn through writing? If we are teaching personal writing, we are teaching students to use writing to help them develop their personalities.  How do people do that with writing?  If we are teaching civic writing, we want them to get involved in civic and/or political organizations.  How do people use writing in civic or political organizations? 

The growing significance of activity theory in composition studies lies in its ability to analyze the dynamic social interactions mediated by writing at both the micro level (psychological and interpersonal) and the macro level (sociological or cultural). Writing is seen as one material tool among many through which identity, authority, and power relations are (re)negotiated to change individuals, institutions, and societies.

For composition teachers, activity theory poses some really useful questions and provides a framework for answering them—not for every classroom or discipline, but for each teacher or writing program staff or department interested in thinking through such questions as:

* What are we teaching when we teach “writing”? Is writing a tool (technology) for mediating (organizing, shaping) human activity or is it something else? 

* What are we teaching when we teach “composition”?  Are there things beyond grammar, spelling,and punctuation that are the same in every human activity that uses writing? 

* What systems of human activity are we involving students in, as we teach “writing”?

* How is writing used in those activity systems we want our students to expand into using this tool called writing?

* If we are teaching academic writing, which curricula (disciplines) are our students going into? How do people in those curricula our students are entering learn through writing?

* If we are teaching personal writing, how do people develop their personalities with writing?

* If we are teaching civic writing, how do people use writing in civic or political organizations to organize and shape their activity?



Teaching Composition

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