A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A History of Pedagogy in Complexity: Reality Checks for Writing Studies

Jessica Yood, The City University of New York: Lehman College and The Graduate Center

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/history-of-pedagogy
(Published: November 5, 2013)

If Composition was, in Joseph Harris’ phrase, a “teaching subject” then Writing Studies is a posthuman system. The roots of what is emerging as this new disciplinary identification are found in pioneering studies of self-organizing, enacted, and adaptive networks (Coe; Cooper; Syverson). But recent polemics do more than connect composing to complex systems. They define both writing and Writing Studies as a system. This system embodies what has been named our “moment of complexity.”

The phrase “moment of complexity” is Mark C. Taylor’s and it is becoming as ubiquitous a reference as Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” was just a decade or two ago. There are good reasons for this. Complex systems are products of diverse, globalized networks. Diffuse and interdependent, they operate “with no central control” (Mitchell 13). Such systems are famously observed and explained by scientists like John Holland (with ant nests or computer programs), Stuart Kauffmann (theories of prebiotic evolution), Economist W. Brian Arthur (studies of the stock market), and cultural theorist Ira Livingston (literary language). New forms of technology, as Byron Hawk explains, have recently pushed an ecology of systems to the forefront of philosophies of knowledge and of everyday life (Counter-History 234). Systems, Taylor writes, “are recasting the very social, political, economic and cultural fabric of life” (3).

While no one agenda defines Writing Studies, a key component of the move from Composition to Writing Studies involves thinking beyond human actors, and especially, beyond pedagogy. Sidney I. Dobrin’s recent manifesto Postcomposition argues that a “new intellectual future” for the field depends on understanding “writing-as-system” (161). Understanding "writing-as-system" allows the field to move "beyond the academic work of composition studies in favor of the revolutionary potential of the intellectual work of writing studies" (24). Beyond Postprocess is the first collected volume of diverse compositionists to claim “writing as the network itself” and is, therefore, an important harbinger of things to come (Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola 17). The editors of this collection frame the posthuman, networked condition as cause to disengage with the kind of subjectivity most associated with the field of Composition: pedagogy. Chapters on cities, philosophies, new media, and politics illuminate the role of writing in what Jeff Rice calls “the complexities of space” (130) and flesh out Taylor’s argument that the entire “fabric of life” is transformed by systems. Missing from the editors' examples of complex systems is the work of pedagogy. Pedagogy—“systems that assume ideas, knowledge, information can be transmitted from one agent to another”— “must be set aside” Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola argue, in order to unleash a “theory of the new” (17, 13).

Changes in the fabric of complexity are happening fast, “faster than our ability to comprehend them” argues Taylor (4). Our field has been swift to embrace such changes. But perhaps we’ve been too swift. The moment of complexity encourages posthuman theorizing and invigorates writing research. But it should also engender careful scholarship, close historical and critical scrutiny that can challenge what are becoming unchecked assumptions about Writing Studies and complexity. The equation—writing is a complex system and complexity is postpedagogy—is one such assumption. Before this version of complexity becomes naturalized, we ought to consider what gets lost when pedagogy is selected out of this new evolutionary era.

In this essay, I offer another route for Writing Studies to take in its journey towards complexity, a path taken by the field of Complexity Science itself. Approximately twenty years ago a group of innovators were intent, like many in Writing Studies today, on creating a field that matched a changing world. A diverse collection of scientists and social scientists from the Santa Fe Institute for Complex Systems thought that “the time was right” do something “historic” (Cowan and Pines xv; Cowan 1). The result was a 1992 conference called “Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality”: “the first major conference devoted to the search for integrative themes in complex adaptive systems” (Pines xv). In the late 1980s and early 1990s the young Institute published data on particular systems; immunology was the topic of 1988, computers and DNA in 1989, artificial life and computer models in 1991, for example.1 But in 1992 a core group intended to move from properties of systems to commonalities of a discipline. The “most significant contribution” for the first seven years of the Santa Fe Institute was the creation of a “complexity community” explains renowned Chemist George Cowan, former President of the Institute and conference organizer (2). By 1992, this collection of scientists sought to expand that community into something else, what they hoped would be a “historic renaissance“ (Cowens, Pines, and Meltzer, 1999) in understanding a transforming world.

“Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality” was recorded and published in a seven-hundred-plus page proceeding by the same name, edited by Santa Fe Institute founders George Cowan, David Pines, and David Meltzer.3 These conference proceedings reveal the process scientists took to move from individual research into properties of complex systems to claiming Complexity as a discipline. Organizers called their approach a “workshop” “design” built on certain “components”: “informal discussion,” “works at the blackboard,” lots of “self-organization,” and above all, repetitive testing of ideas through a constant interplay of “small subgroups” with a “committee of the whole” (xvi).2 I will call it pedagogy. In what follows I offer a close reading of the conference proceedings to illustrate how this pedagogy was built into a definition of complexity and Complexity. First I highlight how pedagogy worked as an invention strategy that reframed particular observations as more general epistemology. I then focus on the use of “reality checks” at the conference. This was the term organizers used for assessing emerging complexity theory through group consensus.4

Though the proceedings are widely available, the conference is largely ignored by complexity scholars of all disciplines. In The Moment of Complexity, Taylor points to complexity science in general and the Santa Fe Institute in particular as evidence that the lines “of communication among artists, humanists, and scientists, which have been closed far too long, are finally beginning to open” (13). If this is true, we need to ask why scientists and writing theorists ignore the place of pedagogy, so important at this conference, in making complexity observable and accessible. In asking this, we may also reflect on how Writing Studies can redirect the complexity renaissance towards a future grounded in complex systems as they are theorized and enacted. I conclude by suggesting that recognizing pedagogy in complexity propels writing and Writing Studies as “open” in the sense that systems theorists use the term—in a recursive and self-generative relationship with the environment—and in the sense that compositionists have used it—furthering access.

The Invention of Complexity: The Conference as System

“Where to begin a piece of writing”—or invention—is the question “to which rhetoric and composition has attended most frequently” explains Collin Gifford Brooke in Lingua Fracta (61). Brooke repositions the classical canons of rhetoric by interfacing them with technologies and ecologies of practice. At the 1992 complexity conference, the question of where to begin invites organizers to experiment with alternative approaches to research and theory and helps generates a new canon of Complexity.

Two early decisions by conference organizers set the stage for rethinking “complexity” as something more than specific research on adaptive systems. Organizers first decided to move the definition of complexity out of the privacy of labs and into the forum of open discussion. Then they agreed to publish these discussions as proceedings to make them accessible to a growing, interested readership. The Foreword and Opening Remarks describe the process organizers take in choosing to publish both the pedagogical structure of their conference and the discussions that ensued.

At the opening session, then Santa Fe Institute President George A. Cowan announces the subject of “Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality” as “complex adaptive systems” (CAS). Cowan defines such systems as having “many independent parts which are highly interconnected and interactive” with a large number “of such parts required to reproduce the functions of truly complex, self-organizing, replicating, learning, and adaptive systems” (2). Though he acknowledges the history of this definition in Physics, Biology, Cybernetics and the nascent field of Computer Science, he sees the conference as an attempt to broaden the understanding and reach of accepted work.5 Cowan describes how a few Sante Fe scientists began meeting informally to determine if “these systems share a sufficient number of fundamental properties to support the premise…that research on them defines a large, coherent, and important area of study” (Cowan 2).

The desire to determine if "an area of study" was indeed forming propelled one member of the Santa Fe Institute, Biologist Stuart Kauffman, to suggest a conference. Kauffman has since become famous for popular accounts of his biological research in books like At Home in the Universe(1995) and Reinventing the Sacred (2008). But the foundations of this work can be seen in his attempts to find common ground in the burgeoning research of systems. Kauffman is credited with the idea for a conference that would “search for common features” in complex systems. But once a larger group began debating what was held in common to all, a different sort of structure for the conference emerged, one that allowed workshop participants to realize something very important:

What we were doing was to propose and refine candidate metaphors for the description of complex adaptive systems, and then seeking to identify which metaphors survived when subject to the reality check of experiment, observation, or computer simulations based on models which incorporate essential features of complex adaptive systems. (Cowan and Pines xvi)

In order to subject CAS to the reality check of this conference, a new workshop model with pedagogically choreographed interaction was created.

A key element in the design of the program was the provision for periods of extended informal discussion following each presentation. We also decided to set aside blocks of time during the meeting in which participants could both assess what we had learned and plan how best to organize the remaining days of the meeting. At times during the meeting the participants split into small subgroups but for the most part we functioned as a committee of the whole. (Cowan and Pines xvi)

Periods of extended informal discussion,” “blocks of time,” “small subgroups,” time to “assess.” These phrases might ring familiar as components of a composition classroom—certainly as described by “process” pedagogues. John Bean’s popular handbook Engaging Ideas canonizes these pedagogical activities created in writing classes as applicable to any learning situation. Kenneth Bruffee called these activities “collaborative learning” while Peter Elbow might name them the picture of ideas at work (“High Stakes and Low Stakes”). Lee Shulman, a key figure in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), sees the often-messy invention techniques of learning as necessary risks--ones that elevate education and make it sustainable for the future (52).

But composition scholars were not the only ones interested in these heuristics. Risk and uncertainty, informal talk, and collaborative group interaction were central to the evolution of complexity as a viable and widely accessible field. Deviating from the original idea for the conference in order to hold a workshop was already something new.6 But what turned this into a codifying moment was the decision to publish this unscripted group work and to name that work an essential property of complex systems and of Complexity Science.

This decision is worth paying attention to in Writing Studies. We are only at the beginning of our codification of complexity. But recent publications in Writing Studies veer towards segregation of pedagogy and complexity rather than complex integration. For example, contributors to the new collection Writing Studies Research in Practice: Methods and Methodologies provide models for updated approaches to traditional research like the case study. The authors in this volume credit literacy scholars, social activism, critical ethnography, and new digital tools with changing research practices (see especially the chapters by Rohan and Selfe and Hawisher). But nowhere here is there discussion of posthuman systems or complex theory that might inform the work of these activist entities. Likewise, more theoretical polemics on complexity, such as Beyond Postprocess, do not name the practical contributions of “subjects”—identity groups like feminist rhetors or complex organizations like the WPA—as part of the features of a complex, networked understanding of writing.

On the contrary, Complexity: Metaphors, Models and Reality collects disparate views on systems and integrates the practicalities of conference organization with theories of complexity. The Foreword and Opening Remarks to the publication of Complexity reveals how subjectivity is integrated into complexity, and complexity is not sustainable without it.

The planning of the workshop was in many ways characteristic of the SFI scientific style, a somewhat chaotic, bottoms-up affair….Like the systems it studies, the SFI scientific community is a complex adaptive system, and the group went through a process best described as self-organization in arriving a surprising degree of consensus on both topics and participants. (Cowen and Pines xvii)

The idea that features of a conference would mirror components of an epistemology is a theme repeated throughout the conference. Indeed participants perceived talk about their field as one significant example, maybe the significant example of the kind of complex adaptive system claimed as proof of a new science. The workshop takes on a central feature of complex adaptive systems offered by neurobiologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and expanded on by cultural theorist Ira Livingston. Complex systems—and the way we talk about them—are, these scholars explain, “autopoietic”—spontaneously self-organizing. Livingston describes autopoietic systems this way: “a self-sustaining pattern, but it does more than merely use what is already present; it actually produces its own components” (79).

The “complexity moment” of this field involves interplay between participant talk (subjectivities) and the posthuman properties of complex adaptive systems. Both are adaptive, self-organizing, and recursive systems, using their own components to regenerate. The Foreword describes the autopoietic properties of the pedagogical practices at this conference. The editors opt to keep all the discussion in the publication, largely unedited. They do so in in order for the reader to "see the SFI community in action, as it attempts to define and refine candidate integrative themes and lists of questions to be addressed, returning again and again to improve upon themes and questions, much in style of Jasper Johns" (Cowan and Pines xvi). Not only were the interruptions and repetitive conversations kept in, they become a central inventive element of the work of the conference. “Much of the redundancy” was “left in” the final publication Cowan and Pines report, as an attempt to “focus group attention on a particular theme or approach” (xvi). Redundancy among researchers is not usually celebrated in a discipline’s description of itself. Yet here effort is exerted to use and reuse a few terms over and over again and to note when they were enacting these repetitions in continued discussions. Repetition becomes the component of regeneration, of invention. The group discussions were what computer scientist John Holland called the field’s “reality checks” (607) and what one of the organizers of the conference, Nobel-Prize winner in Physics Murray Gell-Mann, called a way to “test” the invention of theory into system. Pedagogy pushes viewpoints into observable phenomena.

Testing or “assessment” has a certain valence in Composition. The term and its associative activities (grading, rubrics, evaluations) are most associated with what happens after something has been written or when a writing situation (a class, a workshop) is completed. Assessment, Douglas Hesse explains, is what we do “to address practical, immediate, and local concerns” (143). Though assessment projects are often aimed at objectivity, their instruments betray the role of subjectivity, the very human and fallible acts of interpretation, judgment, and error. Some may see these acts as artifacts from another time. Gell-Mann names them “projects” for the present, and they are folded into the fabric of a new discipline as it is being formed.

Reality Checks: From Theory to Project

The early part of the conference proceedings explain how organizers like Cowan, Pines, and Kauffman propelled an idea but did not produce the system. The workshop took on a life of its own. The human transfer of knowledge—Kauffman’s idea for the conference—comes with the “posthuman,” self-organized properties of the system—the ongoing revision of the conference goal. As the conference progressed, lecturers and participants moved between arguing about their observation of complex systems and revising their observations based on group “reality checks.”

Throughout the proceedings, we see many examples of “reality checks”—pedagogical inquiry of ideas through group interactions. In this section I focus on the talk that followed Murray Gell-Mann's presentation. Gell-Mann’s work is one of only two references to this conference mentioned in any of the literature on complexity directed at humanities scholars.7 Because of his Nobel Prize and the buzz around what was then his forthcoming popular science book, The Quark and The Jaguar (first published in 1994), this discussion held particular import.

Gell-Mann’s presentation, called simply “Complex Adaptive Systems,” was controversial, relying on new research done on the evolution of human language and on general problems linking “human tendencies” with “properties of CAS” (25). The post lecture discussion reveals the discomfort many had with Gell-Mann’s work on language, especially Cowan. Cowan begins the session by asking Gell-Mann to define very specifically the “dynamic and adaptive” properties of human language based on data collected in years past. Gell-Mann balks at this prescriptive question but others offer input. Stuart Kauffmann is the first to make the link between what individuals in the group believe to be “generally” appropriate to CAS and the specifics of human language. He shows how his research on E. coli might connect to Gell-Mann’s schema. Others followed with examples from works in progress. Pines, a physicist, makes the connection among three embodiments of CAS: a general theory (proposed in this lecture by Gell-Mann), an example (human language, offered earlier by Gell-Mann), and an enactment (the conference itself). Pines surmises that as a scientific enterprise, research into human languages "is a good example of a complex adaptive system” (31). Put another way, the process of research in complexity is itself a property of complex systems.

Gell-Mann seems to agree that the "scientific enterprise" is a good example of a "complex system." But he resists Pines' push to test that formulation with specific examples. Scientists who say “these are the theories, and they should be tested by observation” (32) end up closing down options, quips Gell-Mann. The options for complexity that Gell-Mann seeks to open are those calculations generated by integration of ideas, even if they are not yet observed in actual phenomena. Later in the conference, other proposals challenge the observation-theory duality, including the viability of proteins (Physicist Hans Frauendfelder) and immunological research related to HIV (Alan S. Perelson from the Los Alamos National Laboratory). And eventually, at the end of the session, Gell-Mann does address Pines' question about human tendencies in complex systems, describing linguistic evolution in relation to Stuart Kauffman's work on biological evolution. But he does not settle on a single theory of human language. Instead Gell-Mann asks the group to consider a new term for complex systems, one that addresses their constant re-evaluation. This new term is “proposal”:

Proposals are not exactly theories. They are suggestions for how to organize the work, and the test is not whether they’re, so to speak, ‘true’ or not…the test is whether these are useful in organizing our thinking about all the things we’re going to hear about in the general session, and especially in the individual sessions on the individual subjects. (32)

Theories are enabled and tested by an environment of redundancy and revision and returned as new “proposals.” Tests are “a mishmash of overlap, redundancy, different hierarchical levels, contradictions…” that yield, proposals (Gell-Mann 585). Without them, we lose the dynamic participation embedded in theories, in projects, of the new.

It’s worth pausing to consider out how “theory” at this conference on complexity differs from a “theory of the new” as it emerges in Writing Studies. The shift towards complexity requires, as the editors to Beyond Postprocess argue, a “reconfiguration of writing theory away from subjectivity” (Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola 17). But among the complexity thinkers at the 1992 conference, a reconfiguration of subjective insights invents complexity theory. Group interaction and “theory,” observations and models: each is part of this workshop’s feedback loop. “Feedback loop” has a particular meaning in Complexity, drawn first from Darwin’s evolutionary theory and then expanded on by John H. Holland who created models for complex adaptive systems early in the 1980’s. In a feedback loop, one component is necessary for the next component to function—with each part relating to the whole and the whole functioning in relation to the many parts. At the 1992 complexity conference, meaning is derived from the heuristics that propel that feedback loop, by the structures for testing and revision.

This heuristic is explained by Cowan in the conference’s Opening Remarks and exhibited by Gell-Mann’s presentation and the ensuing discussion.

We all know that the behavior of complex systems cannot be understood by simply adding up the behavior of their separate parts. However, despite our inability to predict the precise behavior of truly complex systems, we share a hope that we can become better able to use the new tools to predict and perhaps even learn to affect the probabilities of various outcomes. (1)

Computers and the evolving internet are the “new tools” Cowan refers to that eventually help Gell-Mann and others glean new data for expansion. But technology is not enough. There are, as Cindy Selfe and many others in our field have claimed, “multiple ways” to “pay attention” to “motivated efforts to communicate” (642). Examples include proposals and pedagogies, like Jody Shipka’s accounts of classroom encounters with “the interconnectedness of systems and productions” (15) or Jonathan Alexander and Elizabeth Losh’s projects connecting literacy, learning code, and core composition courses. How these proposals are integrated into the definition of complexity for Writing Studies is a task that needs more than polemics; it needs participants.

Involving a diversity of participants in disciplinary change is not easy, often messy, and requires particular pedagogical forums that allow for it. We see the challenging work of pedagogy in Complexity on display in one of the final events at the conference. This panel, the "Search for Consensual Views" has Pines opening up almost every issue covered at the workshop to a large forum. He begins this session by returning to the meaning of the word “adaptation” and then moves quickly to a debate between whether it is possible to create “explanations” or “solutions” for a generalized understanding of this term in complexity sciences. The Biologist John Maynard Smith responds to call for definitions and solutions by claiming “it takes small groups of people to hammer on these points and try to get the semantics right” (579). That suggestion is followed by a request for Maynard Smith to give his understanding of adaptation to the larger group for “hammering.” When that debate gets into specifics, Pines interrupts in order to “discuss the organization question for tomorrow” (584). But a discussion on viruses was already underway. Right in the middle of an explanation of “the advantages of sex in terms of outracing viruses” Pines asks if the next day’s events were planned out. Stuart Kauffman suggests that the group reconvenes to discuss key issues from the day. Cowan revises that idea, insisting that an hour be spent “trying to select three items on a list of twenty” for small group talk (584).

All of this sounds like the circuitous conversation of a first-year writing workshop structured to “empower” students. We know that negotiation does not always yield full access or equality of positions in the classroom or at this conference. However offering “steps” is one way to try and open up options for groups. Thinking about “steps” may remind compositionists of didactic composition textbooks, in which protocols for composing (draft, compose, revise) are prescribed for students. Though they are meant to generate ideas and texts, such steps often, as postprocess theorists have shown, close down realities of composing (Kent 1). Yet there is generative power to pedagogical tools like listing steps, even as we recognize where and how they prove false. In his chapter “The Salon of 2010” from Beyond Postprocess, Geoffrey Sirc calls such practices a “kind of trigger” (207). They may start out as too general, simplistic, and linear. But collective engagement can turn them into complex reality checks that connect subject to object to observer to the network.

Raul Sanchez’s contribution to the Beyond Postprocess collection, “First, A Word” describes pedagogy as having the potential to be in and to help generate systems. From pedagogy, Sanchez writes, one “learns –generally and specifically—how to be part of a larger group” (192). A posthuman, postpedagogy conception of systems can close off this view of learning while the prescribed steps introduced at the end of the complexity conference carried this group, and complexity itself, to a sustainable future. The final chapter of the proceedings is named “What are the Important Questions?” (585). Here conference goers return to their “lists” to defend their questions. Moderated by Cowan, this section of the conference worked like a kind of “read around,” creative-writing style, with scientists reading parts of their lists aloud and then waiting for responses. Gell-Mann used his few minutes in the “question” period to suggest that the Institute convene in another sixty or so years for a conference he called “Project 2050.” This would be an entire workshop “about possible futures” (608) for complexity in varied spaces and places. Cowan immediately objects. He sees this as inviting issues that too far exceed the scope of complex systems—expanding his originating definition into “society” and “other” areas.8 A long conversation about complexity’s relation to everything from Marxism to music to microbes ensues. But no one arrives at a conclusion on the viability of Gell-Mann’s question/proposal about broadening the scope of complexity. Cowan sums up the free-ranging discussion by stating that this is the type of conversation that transforms a conference into a collective. He announces that the field was “moving from the snapshot to the movie” (692).

Conclusion: Complexity, Sustainability and a Project for the Future

What might a big picture, a “Project 2050,” look like in Writing Studies? Sociologist and systems theorist Niklas Luhmann argues that the origin of any system happens by making a “cut” or a “distinction” in our observations: “every system can actualize its own superiority in complexity, its own modes of reductions in relation to the other and thus make its own complexity available to the other (217). Comparing the actualization of complexity in our field today to Complexity Science circa 1992 provides another way to imagine Writing Studies as it evolves. But it also suggests another understanding of complexity, one where pedagogy is not pre or post subject but embedded in inventive systems. Physicist Hans Frauenfelder summed up the “findings” of “Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality” with the claim that the “complex adaptive system” most visible turned out to be “the workshop itself” (607). Though the phrasing echoes the call for our field to focus not on subjects but on “writing itself” (Dobrin 58), complexity theorists opted for integration over the lure of specialized systems. Posthuman theory may help move the field away from conservative, “normative” boundaries that teaching and administrative environments can inflict on scholarship (Dobrin 22). But complex projects involve the transaction and interaction of human subjects and systems. They involve pedagogy.

Afterword: The Scholarship of Pedagogy in Complexity

Pedagogy performed at this Complexity conference exposes two lessons for Writing Studies: first, invention is interaction and second, “reality checks” or assessment of systems happens through dynamic encounters of groups and ideas and propels proposals that offer theories of the new. In this final section, I discuss a third lesson, not just for writing but for writing scholarship. If Writing Studies is to expand its reach beyond traditional subjects of Composition, it might do well to see how pedagogy contributes to an ecologically oriented view of scholarship. We need these projects now, more than ever, to take “complex situatedness into account” as we codify “posthuman model of networks” into our discipline (Hawk Counter-History 158). This is scholarship that contributes to the cultural studies of science and to posthuman composition. Bruno Latour, N. Katherine Hayles, Joseph Rouse and others describe this work as “investigations of the practices through which scientific knowledge is articulated and maintained in specific cultural contexts, and translated and extended into new contexts” (Rouse 57). Compositionists like Jody Shipka acknowledge this work as exploring the “dynamic, emergent, distributed, historical and technologically mediated” reality of composing processes (14).

Writing Studies lacks a full picture of complex adaptive systems. This is because we rely on sanctioned accounts or theories of complexity found in books like Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity, important for introducing an idea but not always for seeing the dynamics of its composition.9 Our field is not alone in its attachment to theory at the expense of the enactment of complexity. Complexity connected to philosophical sources (Deleuze and Guattari, Latour and Taylor) and “big name” books by scientists give a partial view of the potential of this phenomenon. These histories ignore the pedagogy of theory’s invention as a system, tested in action, and evidenced in the often messy talk and writing of “informal” knowledge making. Physicist M. Mitchell Waldrop, who was present at this 1992 conference, later produced one of the more popular books on complexity, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Waldrop tries to capture the interactions among Santa Fe scientists in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, but also maintains a distance from detailing how these groups met, wrote, researched, or debated together. His history seems to argue that by simply existing in the small space of the original Institute in Santa Fe, ideas “happened.” This sentiment is echoed by a former President of the Institute, Geoff West, who waxes nostalgic about “those early ears at SFI—the cottage-industry, working-out-of-garage phase” (Waldrop 375).

Like many other chroniclers of complexity, including writing theorists, Waldrop mythologizes place and space (the garage, the office, the New Mexican mountains, digital media) over the talk and revision of ideas that happened in those places. The recent praise for “complex” collaboration in best-selling books by Stephen Johnson and Malcolm Gladwell forgoes details about the structure of innovation via groups.10 But Conference proceedings are one example that does provide a window into this structure. A conference’s proceedings, unlike a theoretical manifesto, show the means of intellectual attainment, not just its ends.

“Because writing is nomadic and paralogic, the ability to teach or learn it dissolves…demanding instead a greater focus on theorizing writing qua writing sans subject,” the editors of the Beyond Postprocess claim (17). Calls for postpedagogy can never erase the transaction of ideas among people. But it can segregate them as practices outside emerging intellectual ecologies, outside an emerging canon of complexity. At this critical moment in the history of our field, the time may be right to consider how a devotion to systems without subjects contributes to a history of ideas qua ideas, “sans” the human groups and posthuman connections that make them.

There are high stakes to paying all of our attention to “the system.” One is that we miss the way “low-stakes” pedagogical activities are embedded into complex, adaptive networks. The other is that we create a canon of complexity with a closed epistemology and an intellectual network that is the domain of the few. But there are other options for writing, complexity, and pedagogy. Our field has a long tradition of resisting monolithic canons by opening up scholarly research to include previously ignored texts, systems, and subjects—“basic” writers, feminist and non-Western rhetors, community literacy initiatives. We can now add conferences, communication of inventions, and informal ontological practices to sweeping claims of complexity’s evolution and revolution. In doing so, we promote the very thing I’ve gained from reading and writing about “the effort made by participants from disparate fields to communicate with one another and to work together to build something new” (Cowan and Pines xviii). That is, access.


1 The Santa Fe Institute website catalogues publications connected to the Institute. Proceedings from the early 1980s to the present can be found here: http://www.santafe.edu/research/publications/sfi-bibliography/

2 All quotations from Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality are from the first edition published (Proceedings XIX) published in 1994. The volume was reissued in 1999.

3 The Proceedings of the Santa Fe Institute are available from the first volume published, “Emerging Syntheses in Science” to 2006 from the Oxford University Press, which now publishes the Institute’s books. Though all of the popular accounts in the history of Complexity mention the meetings that took place at the Institute from the first conference (1984, proceedings published in 1987) to the late 1990’s, they blur these workshops together. Waldrop’s well-known Complexity relies on his own presence at many meetings and interviews with key figures at the Institute for data, and does not quote directly from the proceedings. A few individual conferences are cited but the 1992 workshop is not specifically mentioned (see 350-354). Melanie Mitchell’s important Complexity: A Guided Tour offers more details about particular approaches to complexity but also paints the Santa Fe Institute with broad strokes, not differentiating from what are called “the important” gatherings held there.

4 The organization of the volume is as follows: a Foreword, written after the conference, the Conference Opening Remarks (from the first session of workshop), three categories of prepared lectures, each followed by recorded informal discussions, and then a “General Discussion” and “Afterword.” The three sections are “Fundamental Concepts,” “Examples of Complex Adaptive Systems, Scaling, Self-Similarity, and Measures of Complexity” and all lecturers are affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute and are drawn from a variety of science and social science disciplines.

5 For a longer history of the evolution of this definition see Gershenson, Mitchell, and, for the role of Cybernetics, Hayles.

6 The Proceedings of many, not all, meetings of the Santa Fe Institute are now published through Oxford University Press. The extensive discussion of the history of this conference and of the workshop nature is a feature only of this 1992 conference.

7 Chapter Seven in Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity offers one endnote about Ben Martin’s presentation (n.16, 288) but none of the informal discussions are mentioned in the book, nor is the unusual format of this event.

8 Though beyond the scope of this essay, the discussions under “Summary Remarks,” which come at the end of this 717 page volume illustrate what would emerge as a central controversy of complexity—how much it needs “numerical” models and how much “curiosity” should propel projects (673-675). Maynard Smith’s long discussion on Marx and Engels follows this controversy and reveals some of the disagreement with Gell-Mann, Kauffman, and others who sought “general principles” for complexity.

9 Both Dobrin and Byron Hawk in A Counter-History of Composition rely heavily on Mark C. Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity, which as the 2004 special issue of JAC confirms, has become a go-to text for complexity theory. But though Dobrin acknowledges a need to move beyond Taylor, he consistently returns to him. Taylor himself acknowledges many key players at the Santa Fe Institute and recognizes papers presented at its conferences, but the “historic event” of this conference only warrants a footnote, and only in reference to one participant’s study of schemata and schematization (288).

10 Complexity theory enthusiasts like Stephen Johnson and Malcolm Gladwell have devoted entire studies to the relationship between the thinking of groups and innovative ideas. Johnson’s most recent book Future Perfect credits the most important innovations of our day to “peer” work. Productive group endeavors provide hope for what Johnson names “peer progressive politics”—an alternative to traditional forms of governing. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Tina Rosenberg’s book Join The Club gives wide-ranging examples of positive “peer pressure” as does professor and journalist Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody and his blog at http://www.shirky.com/weblog/.

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