In her article, “The Ecology of Writing,” Marilyn M. Cooper proposes an ecological model of writing communities, a model that builds upon social-epistemic rhetoric and reacts against cognitive process theory. Cooper bases her ecological model on a number of other theories, including speech-act theory, and defines writing within her model as “an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (367). She does not cite explicitly any speech-act theorists, but does articulate a socially-centered model of writing that hinges upon the acts that writers make in relation to their readers and communities. She concludes her article with the following statement about the action-centered nature of her model: “Writing is one of the activities by which we locate ourselves in the enmeshed systems that make up the social world. It is not simply a way of thinking but more fundamentally a way of acting” (373, emphasis mine).
Cooper spends the first few pages of the article opposing the cognitive model which envisions writing as a mental process free from the influence of social interaction. She particularly opposes the way that cognitive models have influenced classroom practices, instructing the student as a “solitary writer” to imagine their audience and their purpose for writing mentally rather than learning concretely about their readers and goals through social practice (365-66). She argues that new pedagogical techniques are needed to combat the dominant view that writing is an internal, mental practice (367). While her ecological model builds upon contextual, social conceptions of writing, Cooper distinguishes her model from contextual models such as Kenneth Burke’s by underlining the “inherently dynamic” character of the ecological system (367-68). Further, she argues that “in contrast, an ecology of writing encompasses much more than the individual writer and her immediate context. An ecologist explores how writers interact to form systems” (368).
In terms of speech-act theory, Cooper continually underscores the way that writing is an action within a social system. The very systems that Cooper imagines are “made and remade by writers in the act of writing. It is in this sense that writing changes social reality” (368). Additionally, “the systems are concrete. … they are not postulated mental entities” (369). The very ideas, purposes, and goals for writing are not created by a solitary writer. Instead, writers generate ideas from “contact” and thus “ideas are also always continuations, as they arise within and modify particular fields of discourse” (369). In this way, we can envision the intentions and actions of speech-act theory within a constantly redefined and reconstituted system of social interaction among writers and readers. Without explicitly citing speech-act theorists, Cooper builds upon their conclusions to establish her ecological model of writing. She argues, “Textual forms, like language forms in general, are … revolutionary, instruments of new forms of action” (371).
In terms of pedagogy, Cooper confronts problems of audience, arguing for classroom practices that encourage students to confront their “readers as real social beings” because in “real” discourse communities writers “know their readers through real social encounters,” i.e. in academic discourse communities (372). Cooper suggests that writing teachers ought to structure their classrooms in such a way that student writers can practice the acts of social interaction that lead to the formulation of purpose in writing. She encourages students to interact with one another, and in this way teachers can “enable our students to see each other as real readers, not as stand-ins for a general audience” (372). As a result, students will learn how writing is an act within a web of social interactions.
Cooper acknowledges a major criticism of her model, namely that “the image the ecological model projects is again an ideal one.” The ecological model does not make the social forces and interactions among writers and readers any more evident and available for objective consideration than earlier social/contextual models of writing. Although Cooper’s model is limited in the same sense that other social models of rhetoric are limited, her suggestions for classrooms practices are promising. By encouraging students to interact with one another and thus communicate with “real” readers, Cooper’s model helps students see how writing is a purposeful, social act that constitutes the discourse communities in which students participate. Cooper’s ecological model of writing thus constructs an interactive, socially conscious view of writing that builds upon the more basic conceptions of utterance and intention in speech-act theory.
Marilyn M. Cooper, “The Ecology of Writing,” College English 48.4 (April 1986): 364-75.