Braiding Sweetgrass: A Call for Pedagogical Gratitude

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Milkweed Editions, 2013.

A shift to a posthuman way of thinking requires understanding new ways of inhabiting the world.  Kimmerer calls her offering in this book: “a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship to the world” (x). My first and primary response to Kimmerer’s braid of stories surprised me, a deep visceral and emotional response that I typically do not find in an academic text. I felt richly fed as I moved through Kimmerer’s unique blend of personal essay, scientific description, and indigenous stories. The author creates the braid of these three genres with near seamless weaving. I did not expect to pick up a book written by an academic and feel connected to the earth.

The indigenous stories begin with the creation story “Skywoman Falling” and end with “Defeating Windigo.” Kimmerer’s telling of Skywoman falling to earth invites the reader to form a new relationship with the lifeforms present in the story. Geese rise up to break Skywoman’s fall. A council of water animals elect the giant turtle to carry Skywoman and build an island for her to build her new life. From this small island, Skywoman’s dance and thanksgiving spreads the land through “the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts.” This new earth provides shelter as well as food to all the lives that participated in the rise of the land. This synergy between human, animal, plant, and earth frames every chapter.

In “The Gift of Strawberries,” Kimmerer describes her summers picking wild strawberries for a Father’s Day pie. These gifts, and others, “establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate” (25). The powerful concept of gifts given, received, and reciprocated frame the entire relationship Kimmerer builds between the herself, the reader, and the natural world. Curiously, the vehicle of words in these stories can create a connection between the human and the world we inhabit. At its heart, this book is its own gift, offered to the reader as an act of reciprocity. The scientific elements of the plant and animal kingdom complement these pedagogical metaphors and ask the reader to consider the deep possibilities when viewing the earth as a gift and “to make our relations with the world sacred again” (31).

Relevant to the concept of a posthuman pedagogical practice are the moments when Kimmerer describes her scientific method and her experiences with her students. Her first description of education comes in “Asters and Golderod.” Kimmerer describes her natural inclination in her studies “to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide” (42). However, her scientific education pushes her to see plants as objects and to distance her own experience from her investigations as a botanist. She finds this science “rigorous in separating the observer from the observed, and the observed from the observer” (42). This separation exists in a wealth of fields, not just in the STEM fields. In the humanities, students are trained to remove their emotional, physical, and even spiritual responses to texts. Even more problematic are the ways in which humanities fields are separated from experience and materiality. In many ways, the disciplines of higher education resemble monocultures carved into distinct tidy rows of disciplinary knowledge with little crossover between the demarcated fields. This unfortunate monoculture has led to a lack of reciprocal relationships between ideas, a vast swath of fields with dead soil and empty resources.

Kimmerer does slip into advocacy. She describes the composition of the deadliest lake in the United States—one that has rendered the entire area smelly and uninhabitable. This description carries the urgency necessary to rejuvenate and enliven areas that have previously been tapped beyond their capacity by human hubris. Her antidote, the one that will defeat the Windigo that feeds greedily on resources without ever becoming full, is gratitude and a change of heart. “Gratitude for all the earth has given us,” she prescribes, “lends us courage to turn and face the Windigo that stalks us, to refuse to participate in an economy that destroys beloved earth to line the pockets of the greedy” (377). And while this gratitude is difficult and requires a measure of reflection and hope, Kimmerer’s solution does not pretend to be something that it is not.

As a corollary or metaphor for education, isn’t it possible that to disrupt the monocultures in education we too might find gratitude a possible solution to the laments echoing throughout our pandemic invested world? To find gratitude for the scientist who examines the tiniest particles in search of potential benefits to human and animal life. To find gratitude for those who expend their energies in service to communicating the multi-faceted prism of the human and more than human world. To find the abundance in our rich intellectual resources that can potentially heal and rejuvenate not only the human heart but the pulse of the natural order and the processes that enable all life to continue to exist on earth.

I find abundance and gratitude in the squares of my students’ faces on my computer screen. Those who are eager to learn and to contribute to the world. I find abundance and gratitude in my colleagues who tirelessly invent and create and innovate in an effort to improve experience and to train new generations to take on the problems we face in the 21st century. I find abundance and gratitude in the possibilities opened by this novel Coronavirus. It is easy to focus on the destruction, on the darkness, and on the despair. It is much harder to see in the burning of the world an opportunity to partner with and acknowledge the power of the fire. When the world is on fire, the destruction feels so intense as to render us nearly paralyzed.

And yet, after a fire, “when spring returns, the headland becomes a beacon again, shining with the intense green light of new grass. The burnt and blackened soil heats up quickly and urges the shoots upward, fueled by fertilizing ash” (244). The miracle of razing the ground requires an understanding of the elements and an appreciation for the processes that operate all around in a harmony of reciprocity. Embedded in Kimmerer’s braid of stories is an enactment of how to listen to these processes with humility and gratitude and look to a future where education does not privilege the sterilized production of knowledge but rather invites an integral relationship with the multiplicities of being that make, shape, and support human existence.

Posthmanism as Research Methodology

Ulmer, Jasmine B. “Posthumanism as research methodology: inquiry in the Anthropocene,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2017, vol. 30, is. 9, pp. 832-848, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2017.1336806

             

While this article does address education more broadly than rhetoric and composition, the principles of posthuman inquiry in education that Ulmer outlines here are instructive for the writing classroom specifically. She argues that a posthuman research methodology “rejects that humans are the only species capable of producing knowledge” (834). The importance of the why in conducting this kind of research cannot be understated. If humans are not the only species capable of producing knowledge, then limiting research only to humans also limits the scope of our understanding, belief, and experience of the world. Ulmer offers five key aspects of posthumanism as a research methodology and distills the principles of posthumanism into an accessible form.

The first aspect she draws from Harding and Haraway and calls “situated and partial.” This aspect of posthumanism relies heavily on feminist standpoint theories to legitimate marginalized voices. In fact, in some ways Ulmer situates posthumanist frameworks as extension of standpoint theories even as she acknowledges the tension between critical methodologies, which are human centered, and posthuman methodologies, which are more than human. The second aspect comes largely from the work of Karen Barad and Stacy Alaimo as material and embodied. Ulmer also connects these aspects to the global pace of posthuman concerns about the environment (hence her discussion of the Anthropocene). Rosi Braidotti and Jane Bennet inform the third aspect through interconnectedness and vitality across human and nonhuman agencies. This aspect of posthumanism also relies on new materialist readings of the world and on acknowledging the liveliness in all things. The fourth aspect of a posthuman research methodology focuses on the how of an interaction rather than the who. This processual ontology does not define or delimit by definition, rather a process ontology continuously describes and becomes. This fourth aspect leads to the final and most in-depth aspect: affirmative. For Ulmer, creative affirmation is a significant key to posthuman inquiry because “by demonstrating how humans might think with other species, phenomenon, and elements, affirmative scholars hope that humans will begin to think differently about themselves” (838). Creative affirmation takes two forms: non-representational and the animation of lifeworlds. Non-representational affirmation works inside and outside of norms, challenges traditional forms of research and is “at once creative, practical, ethical, and wild” (839). This kind of work can be problematic but Ulmer sees it as a valuable enterprise in helping researchers to think without, think with, and think differently. Animating life worlds is a corollary to this kind of non-representational work. “The animation of lifeworlds,” Ulmer goes on to say, “has occurred in imaginative directions, many of which aim to disrupt previously undisturbed human patterns of thought” (840). By becoming more attuned to ecologies and the complexities that exist across these ecologies, researchers find inspiration and new ways of understanding methodology.

Ulmer concludes with future imaginaries as a way to propel posthuman research methodologies into the uncertain future of our planet. As we experience global environment change, especially this year with the COVID-19 event, drawing on these methodologies becomes an opportunity to envision a new future.

Concept #1: Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity

The framing of this concept is typically human oriented, as the connotations of “social” and “rhetorical” remain human centered. In Naming What We Know, (see this post for an introduction to the book) the contributors tackle this first principle by including several subconcepts. These subconcepts can be viewed through a limited humanist lens, however, I read them with an eye for the posthuman.

In the first contribution by Kevin Roozen, he includes a paragraph focused on the way that the social nature of writing “goes beyond the people writers draw upon and think about” (18). This paragraph references various artifacts, tools, technologies and places that writers “act with” as part of the writing activity. Roozen concludes the paragraph with the statement that “all of these available means of persuasion we take up when we write have been shaped by and through the use of many others who have left their traces on and inform our uses of those tools, even if we are not aware of it” (18). This attention to the stuff of the world marks a distinctly posthuman approach to the concept that writing is a social and rhetorical activity.

Other contributors include knowledge-making and the expression of meaning in this definition of writing. To approach writing as a social and rhetorical activity is to acknowledge the invaluable purpose of writing as a communicative tool but also as a commitment to engaging in the process of understanding the world and those who reside in it. Those who study writing also study the hermeneutic potential of meaning-making through placing words in context with other words. Dylan Dryer draws on Saussure’s structuralist framework to argue that words are also social; they are always in the company of other words. To consider this element from a posthuman perspective emphasizes the material nature of words, the entangled and complex relations of words to other words. Dryer articulates this relationship through the gathering of words to form sentences that are then gathered within a context or situation: “The relations that imbue a sentence with particular meanings come not just from nearby words but also from the social contexts in which the sentence is used” (24). I have found in teaching freshman composition classes that students often miss this key in the way that language functions. They view words as isolated, static components that serve the writer to convey the things they want to say, neglecting the powerful entanglements that shape the responses of the audiences and the material consequences of such language.

Andrea Lunsford’s contribution to this concept reflects on the digital shifts that have reshaped the onto-epistemological relationship between writer/audience/context. If “writing is both relational and responsive,” as she contends, then the meditation of these relations and responses by technology require study and understanding. “The advent of digital and online literacies,” she goes on to say, “has blurred the boundaries between writer and audience significantly” (21). Audiences can no longer be assumed to be those we intend when we write because we often invoke them in the act of writing. Connected to this invocation of audience is Collin Brooke and Jeffrey Grabill’s discussion of writing as a technology focuses on the material interaction of the kinds of digital writing that we are constantly immersed in in the 21st century. The technology available in the form of screens, waves, and pixels enable us to use writing to “make material some version of the thoughts and ideas of its composer” (33). Subsequently, “the audience for such writing must similarly devote material resources to understanding it” (33). The cascade of intra-actions that emanate from such mate(real)ities influence those mate(real)ities.

Threshold Concepts and Naming What we Know

This book came to me through a bit of serendipity. In my 1302 classes for Spring 2020, I assigned an article called “The Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies in the Writing Methods Course” by Kristine Johnson (see Bibliography). My students and I studied the five threshold concepts that Johnson describes as useful for her practice of training preservice writing instructors. The article met with varying degrees of success among the students, some students responded well to the structure and potential value of the threshold concepts. Others had to read quickly and with little pause to try to complete the assignment in a short period of time. As the instructor, I found the article both useful and enlightening as I was not aware of this method of using concepts to draw connections between theory and practice. I passed the “Free Books” bookshelf one day I found the book Naming What We Know sitting there. This book, I knew, was the resource Johnson used for her article and her study involving her students.

Thus, my initial response to the threshold concepts of writing studies stemmed from my experience as a new faculty member at a new institution and as a junior scholar. Ah, I thought, this book will give me a lay of the land from this particular angle. I like books that give the lay of the land. Books like Byron Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition and Ryan Skinnell’s Conceding Composition make me feel as though I understand something about the discipline I have attached myself to professionally (and ontologically if I’m honest). Naming What We Know offers an overview of the field, and what we know about the study of writing, or as Adler-Kassner and Wardle call it “the study of composed knowledge” (1).

The scope of this collection traverses a wide territory designed not only as a description of the content of such a discipline as the study of composed knowledge but also as an “articulation of shared beliefs providing multiple ways of helping us name what we know and how we can use what we know in the service of writing” (xix). To try to encompass this vast territory, the editors took a collaborative approach to articulating the shared beliefs of the field. They started a Wiki and invited the community of scholars studying writing to contribute. The end result was twenty-nine contributors who worked together to agree upon and revise their shared beliefs to come up with five primary threshold concepts and thirty-seven sub-concepts as descriptors of some of what we know as writing scholars. The collaborative approach to this project means that each concept occupies a short space, most are 1000 words or less, but this short space distills the key pieces of “what we know” into digestible and memorable chunks.

My goal in tackling this book was to identify the ways that the contributors to this volume also included posthuman praxis as part of their definition and concept. What posthumanism brings to the field of rhetoric often circulates below the surface of our articulation of what we know about composed knowledge. I wanted to see if the elements of posthumanism existed in this territory of what we know as scholars of rhetoric and composition (I prefer writing studies) and if those scholars included the terminology, theory, or practice of posthumanism in their short responses. So, for the purposes of bridging theory and practice I take each of the five concepts and the contributions that contained, to my view, posthuman praxis or incorporated some elements of posthumanism into their response to the coordinating concept. This post is one of a series designed to connect “what we know” with the elements of posthumanism that most enlighten the kind of pedagogy we advocate for in this project.

Casey Boyle’s Posthuman Practice

Boyle, Casey. “Writing and Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice.” College English, vol. 78, is, 6, July 2016.

This article offers a connected definition of posthumanism and writing as practice in an earlier condensed version of his recently published book Rhetoric as Posthuman Practice. Boyle’s extended critique of reflection as a counterpoint to what he calls posthuman practice resists the human-centered practices of metacognition and reflection. He defines practice in terms of “seriality” and emphasizes the “repetitive production of difference” inherent in the practice of practice (547). Boyle composes the article in this way, in short staccato bursts that gathers various source material without reflecting on itself. He both defines and demonstrates this serial practice as “the adoption of a style of engagement, an ethic in developing capacities for becoming affected by others as much as affecting others” (548). From a rhetorical point of view, this engagement challenges traditional models of rhetoric that privilege human agency, human discourse, and human responses. The final section, “Practice Makes Persuasion,” contains a compelling explanation of how to understand “writing ethics as a continuous cultivation of habits” (549). In continuing to cultivate habits rather than solidifying them, Boyle makes the case that writing pedagogy should develop “an ethic for composing habits, dispositions, and orientations at least as much as the ability to consciously reflect on and account for causes and effects” (549). Boyle’s resistance to reflection and metacognition does not dismiss them. He seeks to reframe them within a posthuman practice that exercises “the humble, open-ended claim that we do not yet know what a (writing) body can do; after which, we attempt to find out, repeatedly” (552).

Several components of this article are key in developing a Posthumanist Pedagogy. First, Boyle works against the distance that reflection creates between the writer and the material. He situates his posthuman practice within a rhetorical ecology that includes a plethora of theorists, rhetoricians, and compositionists. Of note is the section drawing on Robert Yagelski’s Writing as a Way of Being and his attention to Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life. Yagelski’s formulation of writing as an ontological act prefaces the distinction Sloterdijk makes between the archivist and the letter writer. The singular letter writer, or the epistle as a product of that writer, reveals a consolidated whole—a subject that is distinct and in control of their world. This letter writer does not necessarily engage in an ontological act. They write the world from the standpoint of the duality of being rather than the unity. I disagree a bit here as I see life writing as an ontological act that engages multiple agencies and ecologies. But I also think the emphasis on the archivist (or in pohupraxis terms the curator) concerns invention, collection, and becoming in ways that the letter writer does not. Finally, the tenets of posthuman practice also transfer to posthumanist pedagogy. Boyle positions the “chief tenet for a posthuman practice” as “any individual (be it human or nonhuman) is not an essential subject or object compelled to adapt to external factors, but that individuals emerge from and with and as practice” (541). Under this definition, the instructor in a course emerges from, with, and as practice alongside the students. Posthumanist Pedagogy reframes the instructor from the letter writer to the curator (a point SShelton so eloquently makes in her diss).