Mimetic Learning as Multimodal Cognition: Integrating Experiential Knowledge Work in Programs of Rhetoric, Composition, and Technical Communication

My dissertation (2014) emphasizes a cognitive account of multimodality that explicitly integrates experiential knowledge work into the rhetorical pedagogy that informs so many composition and technical communication programs.

The curricula of these programs traditionally conceive multimodality in terms of what the landmark theorist Gunther Kress calls “social-semiotic” modes of communication shaped primarily by culture. In the cognitive and neurolinguistic theories of Vittorio Gallese and George Lakoff, however, multimodality is described as a key characteristic of our bodies’ sensory-motor systems which link perception to action and action to meaning, grounding all communicative acts in knowledge shaped through body-engaged experience.

I argue that this “embodied” account of cognition – which closely approximates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, a major framework for my study – has pedagogical precedence in the mimetic pedagogy that informed ancient Sophistic rhetorical training, and I reveal that training’s multimodal dimensions through a phenomenological exegesis of the concept mimesis. Plato’s denigration of the mimetic tradition and his elevation of conceptual contemplation through reason, out of which developed the Cartesian separation of mind from body, resulted in a degradation of experiential knowledge in Western education.

With the introduction into Western classrooms of digital technologies and multimedia communication tools, renewed emphasis is being placed on the “hands-on” nature of inventive and productive praxis. For writing and technical communication programs, this transitioning of knowledge work necessitates a revision of traditional instructional and assessment methods that have privileged the acquisition of conceptual over experiential knowledge. The model of multimodality I construct from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, ancient Sophistic rhetorical pedagogy, and current neuroscientific accounts of embodied cognition insists on recognizing the significant role knowledges we acquire experientially play in our reading and writing, speaking and listening, discerning and designing practices.

My research aligns with a subfield of rhetoric/composition/technical communication that is informed by theories of embodiment. Key scholars I draw from include Debra Hawhee, Thomas Rickert, Kristie Fleckenstein, Jay Dolmage, Christina Haas and Stephen P. Witte, and Marilyn Cooper (my dissertation advisor).  My research method was a modified version of Grounded Theory in which my coded data was drawn not from interaction with human subjects but from engagement with a wide variety of peer-reviewed texts across multiple fields. I seek to balance the transmission-based, argument-driven, symbol-oriented rhetoric of persuasion — the dominant rhetorical model that informs so many student-facing programs — with a more reflexive, data-attuned, affective rhetoric that I call influence.