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Using Activity Theory to Inform Class Design

Evelynn Benn

How can Activity Theory be used in Basic Writing Classes?

Designing class plans and activities for Basic Writing courses can be challenging; how can instructors’ best reach students labeled as Basic Writers? Many theories have been presented to help inform educational professionals on how to approach teaching basic writing classes, each explaining how the given theory impacts the students involved. One such pedagogy that should be examined is Activity Theory; this theory offers a unique way of thinking about teaching basic writing classes that moves away from general writing skills instruction (GWSI), allowing for writing to be analyzed, examined, and more importantly, done, with content and context playing important roles.

Activity Theory: History and Background Information

The roots of Activity Theory began in the late 1920s and early 1930s with Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, who was interested in examining the relationship between social development and higher mental functions. While his research did not explicitly focus on literacy, the perspectives developed can be applied to writing and writing instruction. Holbrook Mahn and Vera John-Steiner, in their work “Vygotsky’s Contributions to Literacy Research”, identify four key assumptions found in Vgotsky’s work, which include:

  • Language needs to be viewed in relation to its function.
  • Literacy and language acquisition involve a dynamic interaction between the individual and society.
  • Literacy activities need to be examined within their sociocultural context.
  • The investigation and analysis of literacy needs to be focus on the process of learning and development and not just on the products (79).

Mahn and John-Steiner claim that by incorporating this approach into classroom pedagogy, instructors can “emphasize the importance of meaning, comprehension, culture, and context” within the writing classroom (97). This idea moves educators away from GWSI and more towards Activity Theory.

In his multiple articles on Activity Theory, David Russell makes the connection between Vygotsky’s work and the classroom more concrete and shows how Activity Theory can be used to create a course with does away with GWSI and better educates composition students. Russell explains that Activity Theory “analyzes human behavior and consciousness in terms of activity systems: goal directed, historically situated, cooperative human interactions” (“Activity Theory” 53). Each activity system contains a subject, which can be an individual or a group of individuals, an object(ive), or goal, and the tools that are used to facilitate a connection between the subject(s) and the object(ive). The picture below helps illustrate the relationship between these concepts—each label is dependent on the other, or, the structure of the triangle is not complete without the other parts.

Attach:evelynn1.jpg Δ

Russell identifies five key components of an activity system; “Activity systems are historically developed, mediated by tools, dialectically structured, analyzed as the relations of participants and tools, and changed through zones of proximal development (ZPD)”(“Activity Theory” 54). The importance of these key elements is crucial to understanding the movement within all activity systems; the system, as well as the tool(s), have some sort of cultural history embedded in their use; activity systems are social, therefore, individuals interact with each other within the context of the activity system through the use of tools; activity systems are fluid and are influenced by the forces of borrowing and transformation due to appropriation; the systems can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives, often focusing on what type of “lens” is most functional; and change in terms of the ZPD occurs in “construction zones” where “writing and learning take place as people, using their tools, mutually change themselves and their tools”(56).

Why should educators consider applying Activity Theory to their classes?

Since Basic Writing courses occupy an odd place in academic institutions because of the debates surrounding its existence, many Basic Writing classes are taught through the lens of GWSI, perpetuating the claims that these classes “teach students to write” or “improve students’ general writing skills”. The problem with teaching any composition class, especially Basic Writing classes, as GWSI courses, is that the activity system in which they occupy is ambiguous; the desired outcomes of wanting to teach students to write better and teaching students to write in an academic discourse are too broad and incorporate a multitude of activity systems. Students “do not learn to write” or “do they improve their writing skills in a general way outside of all activity systems and then apply an autonomous skill to them. Rather, one acquires the genres used by some activity” system (“Activity Theory” 56). Therefore, students learn about writing in the context of a given activity system, a context that is always changing depending on the user(s) and the tool(s). In “Rethinking Genre and Society”, Russell further explains that “for newcomers to an activity system—like students learning to write a new genre in a new discipline or profession (to them)—the new ways they use these tools called words are encountered at the level of conscious actions…the process of learning (to write) new genres is part of a process of expanding one’s involvements with activity systems (8). The analysis of genre within activity systems “emphasizes the dynamic functional circulation of texts through intertexts—the shifting mediation of change and power over time,” not only helps students create connections between different activity systems, but also assists their movement between and within them (10). The implications for this occurrence are key, especially in terms of the “writing process”, a term that is used frequently in Basic Writing course. Russell states that from the perspective of Activity Theory, “it means to realize that there are many writing processes, study them, (re)classify them, commodify them, and involve students with (teach) them in a curriculum that is sequences to lead students from the germ cell of insight into writing processes…to a progressively wider understanding of writing processes as they are played out in a range of activity systems in our culture(s)” (“Activity Theory and Process Approaches” 88).

What is the relationship between genre studies, writing spaces, and Activity Theory?

Anis Bawarshi discusses at length the relation of using different genres to move within different topoi/activity systems, thus claiming that by looking at First-Year writing, and in our case, Basic Writing courses, in this light, we can more readily validate Basic Writing courses as “complex and dynamic scene[s] of writing, one[s] in which students can not only learn how to write…[but] can also learn what it means to write: what writing does and how it positions writers within systems of activity” (142–43). Bawarshi also pushes for the use of genre studies in the composition classroom. In “The Genre Function”, Bawarshi discusses the use of and role genre plays in literary studies to help explain the “dramatic reconceptualization of genre and its role in the production and interpretation of texts and culture” (335). Using Foucault’s concept of the “author function”, Bawarshi creates the notion of the genre function, “which constitutes all discourses’ and all writers’ modes of existence, circulation, and functioning within a society” (338). With examples taken from literary texts and speeches, the analysis of the role genre plays helps to renew genre’s importance in the composition classroom. Not only does genre, in a literary sense, “constitute how we read certain elements within the discourse, allowing us to assume certain positions…but it also constitutes the roles we assign to the actors and events within the discourse. The actors in the discourse…all assume subject roles within and because of the genre” (343). With writing, “within such activity systems, genres not only constitute particular participant roes and texts, but they also regulate how participants recognize and interact with one another. As such, any typified social activity…is medicated by genres, each of which sets up its own situated identities and actions, including motives and intentions, as well as relations” (352).

The discussion of Activity Theory, activity systems/topoi, and the genre function leads professionals into a new realm—how do we use this pedagogical knowledge to impact Basic Writing courses and writers and what are the characteristics of this reconceptualized writing classrooms? Johnathon Mauk suggests in his article “Location, Location, Location: The ‘Real’ (E)states of Being, Writing, and Thinking in Composition” that educators first must create a space in which discussion of writing takes place, claiming that his “strategy was to create writing space, to construct a material where for students in…composition classes, [prompting] students to write from and about their own material/physical experiences in nonacademic life…” by doing away with traditional classroom activities, readings, and assignments (373). The goal of this conceptual space is to create a classroom with “a pedagogy that begins where students are [and] lead student to where they are not: to academia” (374). The issue with this claim is that it is fundamentally wrong to assume that students can be moved from the personal space to the academic space without some intermediate place between the two that would allow for analysis and discussion. Without an environment in which to discuss the concept of academic space, “instructors might be tempted to blame students—to argue that students need to situate themselves with the appropriate writerly space of the composition enterprise” (379). Mauk suggests that students require “a way to make sense of…academic space that contextualizes their own writing and thinking” (379). This “third space”, as Mauk terms it, provides an area in which students can make connections between personal and academic spaces, requiring students to critically think about and analyze their movement between the different activity systems.

It is important to note that this third space does not just look at genre in terms of rules and conventions, but at the idea of “genre knowledge”. Patrick Dias, in his article “Writing Classrooms as Activity Systems”, states that genre studies theorists “regard genre knowledge as social knowledge, knowledge of social practices, including textual practices, that become regularized through the repeated exigencies that call for those practices…genre knowledge is much more than the knowledge of textual forms and guidelines that allow us to generate typified responses to specific exigencies; rather, it is best to regard genre as a form of social action, a response to our interpretation of a situation with regard to our own and other people’s motives and the role we must adopt as part of that response” (15). The use of Activity Theory allows for this type of work with genres; it is not enough to create a third space or to discuss genres on a basic level, educators must be able to see and use this third space as an activity system, thus bringing the complexities of teaching and learning composition into a space where it can be discussed.

How to Use Activity Theory in Basic Writing Courses

Many different authors have commented on how to best approach using Activity Theory and genre within the college classroom. Two important texts, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’”, written by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, and a chapter from Genre and the Invention of the Writer, titled “Re-Placing Invention in Composition”, written by Anis Bawarshi, offer suggestions as to how to approach composition courses and activity planning.

Downs’ and Wardle’s work addresses a large spectrum of composition, from classroom dynamics to reclassifying First-Year writing (FYW). They purpose that courses on “writing about writing” need to be implemented; “instead of teaching situational skills often incorrectly imagined to be generalizable, [courses should] teach about the ways writing works in the world and how the tool of writing is used to mediate various activities” (558). The course content of these courses would investigate reading and writing through the following questions:

  • How does writing work?
  • How do people use writing
  • What are the problems related to writing and reading and how can they be solved?

Adding to this argument is Bawarshi in “Re-Placing”; the chapter situates the rethinking of composition course within the frame of Activity Theory using genre studies as a means of exploration. Bawarshi states that “by functioning as a kind of rhetorical promontory from which we teach students to read and negotiate the boundaries of various disciplinary and professional contexts, the…course can become the site in which students learn how to access, interrogate, and (re)position themselves as writers within these disciplinary and professional contexts”, a place “within the structure of the university that enables students to reflect critically on and at the same time to write about the university’s disciplinary structures”, where “[g]enres can serves as the ‘passports’ for accessing, analyzing, navigating, and participating in these disciplinary structures” (155).

These articles, while not specifically written with Basic Writing courses and those labeled as Basic Writers in mind, there is much to be said for the (re)envisioning of Basic Writing with such a framework. The best way to perhaps “see” this is to examine different ways to incorporate Activity Theory via system analysis and genre.

As stated earlier, activity systems and their components, subject(s), object(ive), and tool(s), need to be scrutinized. One way of setting this up in the Basic Writing classroom would be to look at different assignments as activity systems, with the students as subjects and the objective being the desired outcome of the assignment. Let us use the example of a text about the students’ personal writhing history as the desired object(ive); students would need to figure out what types of tools (writing/genres) could be used to reach the object(ive). This is not simply a brainstorming session about ways to write a text about writing, it is a discussion about that possible ways of completing the task and the implications, assumptions, and reasons behind using particular tools. Imagine the following drawn on the board in the classroom:

Attach:evelynn2.jpg Δ

After the students came up with a variety of different tools to move between subject(s) and object(ive), each tool would need to be discuss and analyzed on its own:

  • What is this tool and what does it look like?
  • Does it have any common conventions and/or rules?
  • What kinds of assumptions are inherent in its use?
  • What do we know about the history of this tool?
  • What kinds of object(ives) are associated with its use?
  • By using this tool, what message does the reader get?

More broadly, the system itself would need to be discussed by looking at questions such as:

  • How do specific tools interact with other individuals?
  • Which tools seem more appropriate for the obtaining the object(ive) and why?
  • Which tools might not be appropriate for obtaining the object(ive) and why?

Questions such as these help Basic Writers see writing as a fluid occurrence that is influenced by a variety of outside factors, such as social implication associated with different genres/tools and qualities that are socially and culturally associated with different genres/tools.

Once students become more comfortable with this type of base-level analysis, classes can broaden their analytical skills by looking at much larger activity systems, such as the Basic Writing class itself, Composition studies, or even the university/college they attend. Analysis on this level helps students situate themselves within the larger framework of the discourse community systems that they are a part of everyday. Being able to see the larger activity systems that they currently, or will in the future, engage in assists the student in their understanding of genres, the ways genres overlap and are appropriated by other activity systems.

Basic Writers would perhaps benefit most from activity system analysis because of their location with the system of the college/university system; Basic Writers are often viewed as outsiders. This outsider status allows students to analyze activity systems with a more objective eye, whereas writers that have become acclimated to composition studies might not question the functions, objectives, histories, and outcomes of the activity system within which they exist.

The use of Activity Theory can also inform the types of writing assignments/projects instructors can present in their Basic Writing courses. Such areas instructors can work with are:

  • Readings
  • Reflective Assignments
  • Research Assignments

Readings, according to Downs and Wardle, should be “centered on issues with which students have first-hand experience” and be more data-driven than theoretical (560). With Basic Writing classes, choosing readings that follow these ideas serves a dual purpose. First, readings that somehow relate to a writer’s personal experience with writing/reading will allow them to become more connected to the texts, which will help the student see the relationships between them, reading, and writing. Second, discussion of these readings helps situate Basic Writing students into the larger conversations that are happening with the field of composition, thus increasing their understanding of the activity systems in play.

Reflective Assignments
Reflective assignments, such as journal entries and free writes, are great ways to engage Basic Writers in thinking about how they, the subject, use writing as a tool to move between the object(ives) and themselves. Asking prompts that direct students to make connections between the readings and their writing processes help Basic Writers further their understanding of how writing works and how they can navigate different activity system with different forms and understanding of writing.

Research Assignments
Research assignments can sometimes be tricky to incorporate into Basic Writing classrooms; students often associate negative feelings towards research for a variety of reasons, such as previous experiences in high school. The problem with not thinking about research in Basic Writing classes is that it further separates Basic Writing students from traditional composition students; many in the writing field agree that Basic Writing classes should do many of the same things as regular composition classes. Using the lens of Activity Theory, integrating research assignments into Basic Writing classes would be very beneficial. Research assignments in Basic Writing classrooms would embrace traditional forms of research, such as database searches, interviews, and observations, while looking at topics that relate directly to student-situated problems dealing with composition. Topics to research would include:

  • What kinds of writings are associated with different disciplines and why?
  • How do grammar checking programs help/hurt writing students?
  • What techniques/strategies are available to help students with various aspects of writing, such as drafting, revision, and reflection?

Search Terms: activity theory, genre studies, college english, first-year writing program, basic writing, basic writers, college composition, general writing skills instruction.

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Page last modified on April 16, 2008, at 09:44 AM