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Welsh Rhetoric and the Plectics of Research

Okay. Don't blame me if this wasn't worth the wait.

I'm subbed to the ACRLog, and this came across the other day, a piece by "StevenB" about Why Students Want Simplicity And Why It Fails Them When It Comes To Research. The question of how to move students from "I'll just Google it" to a more nuanced, complex understanding both of research and of how to go about doing research is a topic near and dear to my heart. So I read with interest.

Two tangents. First, in the piece itself focuses on simplicity and complexity when it comes to research:

A defining quality of a complex problem is that right answers are not easily obtainable. Excepting those students who are passionate about the study matter and research project, most students would prefer to simplify their research as much as possible. The problem, as a new article points out, is that applying simple problem solving approaches to complex problems is a contextual error that will lead to failure.

For a long time, as I was working on my book manuscript, I had in mind something that I called my secret 6th chapter, the first 5 being revisions of the classical canons of rhetoric (and all beginning with the letter P, but that's even more tangential). The 6th chapter was going to be an exploration of another P word: plectics. I mistakenly believed that the word was mine all mine. Yeah, not so much. But anyhow, I'd planned on talking about how plectics might give us a spectrum along which to locate texts without recourse to the print/screen distinction. I've always been a fan of Deleuze's The Fold, and I'd never been happy with the assumption that even the most intricate and complicated print texts were simply linear compared with digital texts.

But alas, such a chapter was not to be. And that's the end of the first tangent.

Tangent #2 is a little shorter, and the reference in my title. StevenB draws on something called "Cynefin," which according to Wikipedia is a concept from Welsh:

The name Cynefin is a Welsh word which is commonly translated into English as 'habitat' or 'place', although that fails to convey the full meaning. A fuller translation would be that it convey the sense that we all have multiple pasts of which we are only partly aware: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal etc. The multiple elements of this definition and the inherent uncertainty implied were the reasons for the selection of the name.

The name seeks to remind us that all human interactions are strongly influenced and frequently determined by our experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience, and through collective experience, such as stories or music.

What's really interesting to me here is the parallel between Cynefin and ethos, specifically as it's defined as "haunt" as both a location and something that affects us. It reminds me a little of Diane's writing--here's a little taste of "Finitude’s Clamor; Or, Notes toward a Communitarian Literacy" from CCC, for example:

You (writing-being) are a limit-cruiser, so even when you’re alone, you are not alone. You are (already) heavily populated with encounters, with others whom you have welcomed and who continue to work you over—to live on in you, haunting you and making demands of you—even in your solitude.

Someone with more experience than I in Wales will have to decide how many times removed cynefin is from ethos, but they sure sound related.

What's uninteresting to me about cynefin is its appropriation for the system that apparently bears its name. Maybe I need to do some background reading, but I have a tough time understanding how the term itself translates into a "decision-making framework" other than to serve as a reminder that not everything can be reduced to conscious decision-making frameworks. But oh well.

Back (finally!) to the entry itself. StevenB restricts himself in his discussion to 2 of the 5 "domains," simplicity and complexity, which runs the danger, it seems to me, of inscribing a binary between them. One of the things that I think we try to get at with the notion of inquiry is the habit of allowing "simple" to become "complex" through what this framework calls "emergent practices" (and perhaps even complicated). The ability to take complex questions and to simplify them is (to my mind) the difference that turns research into research writing.

But neither of these moves, simple->complex or complex->simple, is (a) easy, (b) frictionless, or (c) naturally acquired through osmosis. StevenB's suggestion is

that we add “identify and understand the context of the research problem and choose a decision-making style that matches that context? to that long list of information literacy skills that many of us list in some planning document.

And that's all well and good. But I guess I feel like that just identifies what is for many of us (and I presume, our students) the black box of academic research. I can come up with 407 examples of good writers (and designers) taking complicated questions, issues, and ideas, and helping to return them to simplicity (which is one effect of much writing that is good), but examples of moving in the other direction are few, in part because we tend to box up that part of things ourselves. And part of that is because, in academic prose, making the complex simple is one of the few near-universal justifications for the work that we do. Figuring out and articulating how we arrive at those complex problems is one of the things that a course focused on research writing could usefully accomplish.

That's all.


Nice get on the pletics.

I wonder if our "simplification" is really a problem of scale or scope. Simple on the scale we discuss. Complex when one considers other scales.

Hmm... but isn't one of the chief tasks of academic inquiry also the reverse? That is, taking what may be commonly thought simple and revealing its complexity?

Which is not, of course, a justification of the horribly convoluted and obfuscated "prose" that is accepted -- still! -- as academic writing in some circles.

I'm left with an image from Hawking's Brief History of Time in my mind: the expanding-contracting-expanding etc. universe model seems fitting somehow to an endeavor that either takes disordered or misordered complexity and simplifies it into greater coherence and understanding, or takes seeming simplicity, reveals its true complexities, then simplifies it into greater coherence and understanding. There is, of course no end to this practice (just as Hawking argued that there is no beginning or end to the universe's fluctuations), because any new simplicity you or I may reach can, of course, be argued later to be merely another mistaken over-simplication that hides disordered or misordered complexity. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I'm not sure if thinking about academic work this way is making me happy or not.

I don't think you can really equate Cynefin with ethos. The ethos of a community would be linked to its multiple origins (cynefin) but its not the same thing. As to the model, well that a is a way to understand that different ontologies require different approaches to decision making. Complex environments (I get the sense that you are using the word complex in its ordinary english language sense rather than as a complex adaptive system) are unknowable in terms of history of possible future outcomes, but they are subject to multiple influences. For that reason Cynefin is a good name to give it. I think you may need to read more! The Cognitive-Edge web site has articles on the use of the model. Also the cover article of the HBR for November last year, explains the model.

Thanks for the clarification, Dave. I will read up on it.

I'm probably somewhere in between the ordinary usage of complex and the more specialized use--I have read a fair bit on complex adaptive systems, but it's not as fresh in my head as it could be.

I'm not sure about the lack of connection, though. My take on ethos may be a little unconventional, but I tend to think of it less in terms of character or a single quality of an individual or community and more in terms of the multiple influences you're talking about.

Maybe I'll hit your site and blog a little more about it once I've read more...


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