Gallagher, Chris W. “What Writers Do: Behaviors, Behaviorism, and Writing Studies.” College Composition and Communication 68.2 (2016): 238-65. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
Chris W. Gallagher provides a history of composition’s relationship with behaviorism, arguing that this relationship is more complex than commonly supposed and that writing scholars can use the connections to respond to current pressures imposed by reformist models.
Gallagher notes the efforts of many writing program administrators (WPAs) to articulate professionally informed writing outcomes to audiences in other university venues, such as general-education committees (238-39). He reports that such discussions often move quickly from compositionists’ focus on what helps students “writ[e] well” to an abstract and universal ideal of “good writing” (239).
This shift, in Gallagher’s view, encourages writing professionals to get caught up in “the work texts do” in contrast to the more important focus on “the work writers do” (239; emphasis original). He maintains that “the work writers do” is in fact an issue of behaviors writers exhibit and practice, and that the resistance to “behaviorism” that characterizes the field encourages scholars to lose sight of the fact that the field is “in the behavior business; we are, and should be, centrally concerned with what writers do” (240; emphasis original).
He suggests that “John Watson’s behavioral ‘manifesto’—his 1913 paper, ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’” (241) captures what Gallagher sees as the “general consensus” of the time and a defining motivation for behaviorism: a shift away from “fuzzy-headed . . . introspective analysis” to the more productive process of “study[ing] observable behaviors” (241). Gallagher characterizes many different types of behaviorism, ranging from those designed to actually control behavior to those hoping to understand “inner states” through their observable manifestations (242).
One such productive model of behaviorism, in Gallagher’s view, is that of B. F. Skinner in the 1960s and 1970s. Gallagher argues that Skinner emphasized not “reflex behaviors” like those associated with Pavlov but rather “operant behaviors,” which Gallagher, citing psychologist John Staddon, characterizes as concerned with “the ways in which human (and other animal) behavior operates in its environment and is guided by its consequences” (242).
Gallagher contends that composition’s resistance to work like Skinner’s was influenced by views like that of James A. Berlin, for whom behaviorism was aligned with “current-traditional rhetoric” because it was deemed an “objective rhetoric” that assumed that writing was merely the process of conveying an external reality (243). The “epistemic” focus and “social turn” that emerged in the 1980s, Gallagher writes, generated resistance to “individualism and empiricism” in general, leading to numerous critiques of what were seen as behaviorist impulses.
Gallagher attributes much tension over behaviorism in composition to the influx of government funding in the 1960s designed to “promote social efficiency through strategic planning and accountability” (248). At the same time that this funding rewarded technocratic expertise, composition focused on “burgeoning liberation movements”; in Gallagher’s view, behaviorism erred by falling on the “wrong” or “science side” of this divide (244). Gallagher chronicles efforts by the National Council of Teachers of English and various scholars to arrive at a “détente” that could embrace forms of accountability fueled by behaviorism, such as “behavioral objectives” (248), while allowing the field to “hold on to its humanist core” (249).
In Gallagher’s view, scholars who struggled to address behaviorism such as Lynn Z. and Martin Bloom moved beyond mechanistic models of learning to advocate many features of effective teaching recognized today, such as a resistance to error-oriented pedagogy, attention to process, purposes, and audiences, and provision of “regular, timely feedback” (245-46). Negative depictions of behaviorism, Gallagher argues, in fact neglect the degree to which, in such scholarship, behaviorism becomes “a social-process pedagogy” (244; emphasis original).
In particular, Gallagher argues that “the most controversial behaviorist figure in composition history,” Robert Zoellner (246), has been underappreciated. According to Gallagher, Zoellner’s “talk-write” pedagogy was a corrective for “think-write” models that assumed that writing merely conveyed thought, ignoring the possibility that writing and thinking could inform each other (246). Zoellner rejected reflex-driven behaviorism that predetermined stimulus-response patterns, opting instead for an operant model in which objectives followed from rather than controlled students’ behaviors, which should be “feely emitted” (Zoellner, qtd. in Gallagher 250) and should emerge from “transactional” relationships among teachers and students in a “collaborative,” lab-like setting in which teachers interacted with students and modeled writing processes (247).
The goal, according to Gallagher, was consistently to “help students develop robust repertoires of writing behaviors to help them adapt to the different writing situations in which they would find themselves” (247). Gallagher contends that Zoellner advocated teaching environments in which
[behavioral objectives] are not codified before the pedagogical interaction; . . . are rooted in the transactional relationship between teachers and students; . . . are not required to be quantifiably measurable; and . . . operate in a humanist idiom. (251).
Rejected in what Martin Nystrand denoted “the social 1980s” (qtd. in Gallagher 251), as funding for accountability initiatives withered (249), behaviorism did attract the attention of Mike Rose. His chapter in Why Writers Can’t Write and that of psychology professor Robert Boice attended to the ways in which writers relied on specific behaviors to overcome writer’s block; in Gallagher’s view, Rose’s understanding of the short-comings of overzealous behaviorism did not prevent him from taking “writers’ behaviors qua behaviors extremely seriously” (253).
The 1990s, Gallagher reports, witnessed a moderate revival of interest in Zoellner, who became one of the “unheard voices” featured in new histories of the field (254). Writers of these histories, however, struggled to dodge behaviorism itself, hoping to develop an empiricism that would not insist on “universal laws and objective truth claims” (255). After these efforts, however, Gallagher reports that the term faded from view, re-emerging only recently in Maja Joiwind Wilson’s 2013 dissertation as a “repressive” methodology exercised as a form of power (255).
In contrast to these views, Gallagher argues that “behavior should become a key term in our field” (257). Current pressures to articulate ways of understanding learning that will resonate with reformers and those who want to impose rigid measurements, he contends, require a vocabulary that foregrounds what writers actually do and frames the role of teachers as “help[ing] students expand their behavioral repertoires” (258; emphasis original). This vocabulary should emphasize the social aspects of all behaviors, thereby foregrounding the fluid, dynamic nature of learning.
In his view, such a vocabulary would move scholars beyond insisting that writing and learning “operate on a higher plane than that of mere behaviors”; instead, it would generate “better ways of thinking and talking about writing and learning behaviors” (257; emphasis original). He recommends, for example, creating “learning goals” instead of “outcomes” because such a shift discourages efforts to reduce complex activities to pre-determined, reflex-driven steps toward a static result (256). Scholars accustomed to a vocabulary of “processes, practices, and activities” can benefit from learning as well to discuss “specific, embodied, scribal behaviors” and the environments necessary if the benefits accruing to these behaviors are to be realized (258).