Geisler on Mental Models

Here, just some old notes on genre from the plane ride to Albuquerque last
week.  Clearly, they were written at the choppy altitude of 6,000 feet or

Cheryl Geisler’s chapter, "Toward a Sociocognitive Model of
Literacy," presents the study of four writers (two experts and two novices) who
are charged with producing an academic essay on the ethics of paternalism. 
Centrally, Geisler sets out to
complicate overlap of academic discourse and conversational models of literacy; she argues that the expert writers
(who notably are performing in their primary disciplinary area: philosophy) are more adept
than novices at "producing positions" that are better attuned to "specialized
contexts."  Geisler advances her claim after referring to Langer and
introducing the familiar axes of social and cognitive (which are admittedly too
easily split):

"In particular, [the results of my study] suggest that experts
at advanced philosophical argument use acts of reading and writing to construct
and act upon socially configured mental models.  The presence of
such mental models, I will argue, indicates that a purely conversational model
of literacy may be missing the point of why individuals propose and maintain
written interaction in the first place" (171).

Geisler draws on Scribner and Cole’s literacy model and
Heritage’s conversation model to establish the framework for her hybrid model–a
both-and of everyday conversational dynamics and what I will call

cognitive activity.  Geisler explains that "researchers in cognitive
science now generally believe that knowledge representations in the form of
mental models play a central role in defining expertise (Glaser; Johnson-Laird)"
(173).  These models are akin to "’mental maps’ with which we plan
shopping trips and give visitors directions" (173). 

To study the activity of the four writers, she applied three
data-gathering methods: 1. speak-aloud protocols, 2. complete
collections of produced text, and 3. interviews.  Geisler found that the
participants followed relatively similar procedures; their reading and writing
sequences, time-on-task and related activity were similar. Distinctive, however,
were the experts’ attention to authorship.  Both experts engaged the texts
as authored and developed well-positioned critiques thereafter.  The novice
writers, on the other hand, either forwarded a writer-centered perspective on
the idea of paternalism or established two parallel tracks (i.e. "Here’s what I think; Here’s
what they think.").  As a way of explaining what she means with "socially
configured mental models," Geisler discusses the differences between turn-taking
in conversation and reader-writer dialogism in literacy practices; the activity
structure involved in writing includes a different moderation of "reflecting and
organizing" (183).  In an echo of her earlier claim, Geisler concludes
with an offering of the more nuanced hybrid model; she works through a
characterization of expertise "as the construction and manipulation of special
socially configured mental models" (184). 

Two amendments to the hybrid model: 1. "advanced literacy
practices are embedded in different social contexts than those of standard
conversations" (185) and 2. the incorporation of mental models, which "both move away from everyday practice
and remain rooted there" (186).  And there’s discussion of the
configurative force of shared mental models (are they really shared?  how
shared are they?): "These mental models create, in effect, a new plane of
intersubjective knowledge, a third dimension of culturally shared abstractions"

Looser still:  What are mental models, anyway?  Are they more than
Are socially configurative mental models the same as genres?  And where
does consciousness figure in? IOW, must we be conscious of the
configurative force of the mental model (its intrusion on our activity)? 
In the planning of a shopping trip or the giving of directions to a
visitor–take I81 North, exit 23, three rights), the directions and positions
are materially distinctive.  The roads and laws allow only so many
possibilities.  Different for models?   And finally, Bawarshi would have us teach a composition
course attendant to genre awareness; to what degree are socially
configured mental models beneath awareness (i.e. the unconscientization
in everyday activity? sub-limin(al)ography? 
We can perform skillfully without pausing to give conscious attention to the
generic pre-configurations of the texts we write, yes?).


  1. When I feel happier, I’ll delve into my Ayn Rand Lexicon on this one. Philosophy, concept formation, perception, literature and logic – Ms. Rand had these answers 50+ years ago…and I studied them 25 years ago. C R S anymore.

  2. Well, that or I could start posting fewer hack-notes, more careful entries. It’d only be fair of me to start trying to make some sense here once in a while. Nobody understands=sloppy writing. Yeah?

    Or not.

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