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Rule, Hannah J. Embodied Simulation as a Teaching Tool. CS, Spring 2017. Posted 05/30/2017.

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Rule, Hannah J. “Sensing the Sentence: An Embodied Simulation Approach to Rhetorical Grammar.” Composition Studies 45.1 (2017): 19-38. Web. 21 May 2017.

In order to help students understand and act on their rhetorical choices in constructing sentences, Hannah J. Rule argues for “embodied simulation,” a methodology that she argues recognizes the role of sensory and kinesthetic experience in the creation of meaning. Acknowledging that teaching writing at the sentence level is “practically verboten in our pedagogies,” in part because of its kinship with the grammar drill of the abandoned current-traditional paradigm, Rule cites “efforts . . . to reanimate the sentence as a central site of writing instruction,” such as those by advocates of rhetorical grammar like Martha Kolln (21).

Rule supports her contention that more rhetorical sophistication with sentences will benefit students with an anecdote about a student who was struggling with the concept of “flow” in a paper. After trying a number of approaches, including discussion of the known-new contract, Rule found that the student lacked the technical vocabulary to arrive at the abstract concepts Rule was hoping to teach. Only when Rule began acting out the scenes and actions depicted in the student’s sentences did the student make connections among the varied meanings the paper was intended to convey (19-20).

Rule believes that this anecdote illustrates the role of embodied simulation as a component of language use. According to researchers in neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive psychology, “Meaning is a creative process in which people construct virtual experiences—embodied simulations—in their mind’s eye” (Benjamin K. Bergen, qtd. in Rule 22). Rule writes that “reading or expressing language entails imagistic, bodily, associational, and sensory action” (22; emphasis original). In this view, readers and writers perceive sentences as expressing scenes, feelings, events, and actions, and it is in the process of experiencing these elements that people derive meaning from the language.

Rule notes attention in composition studies to the embodied nature of writing, yet cites Jay Dolmage to contend that “[o]ur everyday classroom practices with texts . . . continue to be implicitly disconnected from embodied experience” (23). Some students’ difficulty in written expression, she suggests, may lie in their failure to connect the abstracted words on a page to their own physical existence in the world (24). Teaching with embodied simulation, in which students are encouraged to see sentences as expressions of sensation and action, may bridge this cognitive disconnect.

She points to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By as a text familiar to compositionists that explores how language relates to bodily experience. She also addresses criticism that such evocation of a universal bodily experience can erase individual difference, especially if the visual is overemphasized (24-25). Rule presents Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s concept of “multimodal imagery” to capture the range of bodily experiences, including, in Fleckenstein’s formulation, “sound, sight, and touch,” that simulation theory posits as the ground of language (26). Such an approach proposes a widely diverse set of sensations that play into language practice.

Similarly, Patricia Dunn’s “multiple channels strategy” incorporates many bodily actions, such as “sketching, three-dimensional modeling, or moving,” into writing instruction, thus, in Rule’s view, freeing students to bring their own favored actions into their learning experience (28). Such openness to different kinds of imaging, Rule states, “enact[s] the inclusivity and access” central to effective, ethical application of the theory (28).

Theoretical work reported by Rule stresses that language and bodily action are not separate categories but rather that language depends on bodily existence: “Amassing simulation research suggests that we do not really choose to link imagery and words; rather, this link is the precise way in which meaning becomes possible at all” (26; emphasis original). Researchers use quantitative measurement to discover ways that “reading about actions is akin to doing them” (27); for example, people who read about turning a key in the ignition “find it easier to turn their hand clockwise than counterclockwise,” as opposed to people who read about screwing something off, who favor moving their hands counterclockwise (Ernest Davis, qtd. in Rule 27).

In order to provide examples of how teachers might incorporate embodied simulation into their own practice, Rule recounts her experience teaching a course in rhetorical grammar to English majors in a large Midwestern university. Course texts were Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar and The Writer’s Options, by Donald A. Daiker, Andrew Kerek, and Max Morenberg (29). Rule applauds the ways in which understanding grammar as rhetorical frees it from a focus on correctness, foregrounding rather the ways that small choices in sentence structure affect readers’ responses. At the same time, Rule contrasts the “traditional strategy of naming and defining” used by the texts with the kind of “intuited” understandings of grammatical function enabled by embodied simulation (30; emphasis original).

Rule’s students worked through to a sense of grammar as the “director” of a mental movie, coining the term “grammera” for “grammar camera” (31). She provides examples to illustrate how thinking of a sentence in terms of the bodily actions it conveys opened students to understanding subjects and objects, including recognizing the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs as in “building a sandcastle” versus “feeling hurt” (30-31). Rule argues that students responded to the physical embodiment of this difference in ways they could not to abstract technical definitions (31). They similarly were able to grasp the effects of absolute phrases and to make sense of the multitude of “sentence-style directives” that handbooks ask them to follow (31-32. 34). For example, “see[ing]” sentences allowed them to discern the difference between active and passive constructions (33-34).

Rule contends that embodied simulation addresses a longstanding issue in writing instruction: the gap between conscious and unconscious knowledge. In her view, the efficacy of embodied simulation as a pedagogical tool suggests that “knowing about grammar,” as opposed to “knowing how to do grammar,” may not be necessary (34-35). In her experience, students exposed to the ways in which subtle grammatical choices impact the ways readers interpret and react to sentences find themselves with a rich, intuitive awareness of the possibilities inherent in grammar without having to memorize and follow rules (35):

[I]nstead of starting with identifying the subject, instead of thinking in terms of noun or participial phrases, instead of perceiving sentences as a set of separate elements we can label—we can simply ask students to dive in and sense the sentence. (33)

Such a formulation of grammar instruction, Rule argues, accords with theoretical awareness that “we make meaning by imagining ‘being there’” (33).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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