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

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).


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Vidali, Amy. Disabling Writing Program Administration. WPA, Sept. 2015. Posted 10/28/2015.

Vidali, Amy. “Disabling Writing Program Administration.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 38.2 (2015): 32-55. Print.

Amy Vidali examines the narratives of writing program administrators (WPAs) from the standpoint of disability studies. She argues that the way in which these narratives frame the WPA experience excludes instructive considerations of the intersections between WPA work and disability even though disability functions metaphorically in these texts. Her analysis explores the degree to which “these narratives establish normative expectations of who WPAs are and can be” (33).

Drawing on disability scholars Jay Dolmage and Carrie Sandahl (48n3, 49n4), Vidali proposes “disabling writing program work” (33; emphasis original). Similar to “crip[ping]” an institution or activity, disabling brings to the fore “able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects” (Sandahl, qtd. in Vidali 49n4) and tackles the disabling/enabling binary (49). Vidali’s examination of the WPA literature addresses its tendency to privilege ableist notions of success, to exclude access to disabled individuals, and to ignore the insights offered by the lens of disability.

In Vidali’s view, the WPA accounts she extracts from many sources focus on disabilities like depression and anxiety, generally positing that WPA work causes such disabilities and that they are an inevitable part of the WPA landscape that must be managed or “escaped” (37, 39). She uses her own experience with depression to discuss how identifying the mental and physical manifestations of depression solely with the stresses of WPA work impoverishes the field’s understanding of “how anxiety might be produced in the interaction of bodies and environments” (40) which occurs in any complex group configuration; recognition of this interaction removes the responsibility for the disability and its effects from “particular problem bodies” and locates it in the larger set of relationships, including inequities, among people and institutions (42). In other words, for Vidali, acknowledging the existence of disabilities outside of and prior to WPA work and their embodied influence within that work can allow scholars to “reframe WPA narratives in more productive ways” (41).

Vidali writes that the failure to recognize disability as an embodied human state interacting with the WPA environment is exacerbated by the lack of data on the number of WPAs with disabilities and on the kinds of disabilities they bring to the task. Vidali examines surveys in which researchers shied away from asking questions about disability for fear respondents might not feel comfortable answering, especially since revealing disability can lead to discrimination (44, 47).

Particularly damaging, she argues, are narratives often critiqued within the disability-studies community, for example, accounts of “overcoming” the burdens of disability, hero-narratives, and equations between “health” and “success.” Drawing on Paul Longmore and Simi Linton, Vidali writes that narratives of overcoming demand that individuals deal with the difficulties created by their interaction with environments in an effort to accommodate themselves to normal expectations, but these narratives refuse to acknowledge “the power differential” involved and increase the pressure to make do with non-inclusive situations rather than advocate for change (42).

Similarly, in Vidali’s view, hero narratives suggest that only the “hyper-able” are qualified to be WPAs; images of the WPA as miraculous and unflappable problem-solver deny the possibility that people “who may work at different paces and in different manners” can be equally effective (43). Such narratives risk “reifying unreasonable job expectations” that may further exclude disabled individuals as well as reinforcing the assumption that candidates for WPA work “all enter WPA positions with the same abilities, tools, and goals” (43). Vidali argues that such views of the ideal WPA coincide with a model in which health is a necessity for success and ultimately “only the fittest survive as WPAs” (40).

Vidali proposes alternatives to extant WPA narratives that open the door to more “interdependent” interaction that permits individuals to care for themselves and each other (40-41). Changes to the expectations WPAs have for themselves and each other can value such qualities as “productive designation of tasks to support teams” and acceptance of a wider range of communication options (43). Moving away from the WPA as hyper-able hero can also permit reflection on failure and an effective response to its inevitability (42). Vidali notes how her own depression served as a catalyst for increased attention to inclusiveness and access in her program and how its intersection with her WPA work alerted her to the ways that disability as metaphor for something that must be disguised rather than an embodied reality experienced by many limits WPAs’ options. She stresses her view that

disabling writing program administration isn’t only about disabled WPAs telling their stories: It’s about creating inclusive environments for all WPAs, not only at the time they are hired, but in ways that account for the embodied realities that come with time. (47)