Homophily Bias

Among the many intriguing ideas offered by Ronald Burt in the chapter draft

"Social Capital of Structural Holes,"
(PDF) from Brokerage and Closure,
homophily bias–or the echo chamber effect–returned me to some questions I was
thinking about at CCCC in San Francisco last week.  We’re reading Burt’s
chapter for CCR711 this week, taking it up alongside a chapter on postmodern
mapping as research methodology from Porter and Sullivan’s Opening Spaces
Earlier this semester, we read about homophily parameters in Duncan Watts’
Six Degrees
; commonly framed as

echo chambers
, the concept circulates in correspondence to
like-mindedness, absolution of dissent, or the kind of diminished, unproductive
parroting bound to stagnate–an abundance of closed-group gestures. 
Homophily bias, then, is the orientation of a particular network structure
toward such a closed-ness. 

And so I find the connection to CCCC in the structuring of Special Interest
Groups or SIGs–the interest-defined clusters that form around a particular
issue, cause, political imperative or specialization.  SIGs meet each year,
and, of course, they make possible a forum for collegiality, perhaps even
solidarity, organizational focus and expert niche.  Variously, they serve
social, political and professional needs; as defined structures (form-alized
with the petition to be listed in the program), they give us one way to imagine
the field–embodied in the annual flagship conference–as a clustered topology. 
Fair to say?

If we apply Burt’s analysis to these clusters, however, we might
begin–productively–to find vocabulary for understanding the rules, roles and
power dynamics enforced in a particular SIG.  The groups have membership
rosters, but what would happen if we started to differentiate the members as
connectors (people who have multiple ties across special interest groups) and
brokers (people who, because of their multiple ties, are able to pitch the
group’s interest to other, perhaps larger, bodies in the organization)? 
Should the SIG accumulate too high a homophily bias, it would stand to
disconnect from the more active channels in the organization.  Through
particularly well-connected agents–active connector-brokers capable of bridging
structural holes in the organization’s topology–might the SIG sustain itself
beyond a kind of isolation and connect meaningfully with the organization
at-large, provided, of course, that such broader persuasions are mutually valued
to the SIG’s members.  For what it’s worth, I’m not thinking about any
particular SIG; instead I’m trying to reconcile Burt’s terms with network
formations related to CCCC.  Furthermore, I’m interested in exploring what
it might mean to convene a heterophily-biased interest group–maybe something
that would have different interest groups co-mingle for fruitful partnerships
and cooperatives.

Cross-posted to

Network(ed) Rhetorics

Corder, 1976, “What I Learned at School”

Jim. "What I Learned at School.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 43-50.

Big Idea
Jim Corder’s essay playfully reconsiders his overeager commitment to write
nine essays in one semester–projects written from the same nine calls issued to
his students.  Corder lays out a few important lessons, and goes on to
explain the antithetical teetering between the openness of invention and the
closed-ness of structure. He acknowledges that much of what he wrote during the
semester-long experiment stemmed from ideas he’d been thinking about for some
time.  To that end, Corder concludes that "a semester affords precious
little time for genuine invention, exploration and discovery" (44), and
students often labor against inadequate inventive time.  Corder’s lessons, however mundane and ordinary, are important, common-sense
reminders about rethinking what we teach and frequently returning to questions
about what we do and why. The
second half of "What I Learned" is a reprint of "Half Thoughts on a Whole
Semester," the ninth and final essay composed by Corder in fulfillment of his
promise to his students.  It’s a self-reflective critique of his
teaching, of his pedagogical emphases (invention and structure), and the
assorted tenets about composition drawn from the experiment (to write one’s own
assignments with students). 

Wondering About
I’ve never tried the Corder experiment (if I might rightly assign the name
of the experiment to him), but I think remember hear such practices mocked as
preposterous.  How wildly adventurous and glutton for punishment would a
teacher be to do all of the assignments with students?  This essay is
forthright and fun; it’s a glimpse inside Corder’s self-consciousness about the
problem of realizing a gap between writing as we stage it for our students and
writing as we engage with it ourselves (habits and purposes rifts, I guess). It’s not exactly clear what Corder would
do differently as a result of the experiment.  It’s illuminating stuff (albeit
striped with functionalism), but I came away from the essay with more questions
than answers about what this means for designing a writing course. 

I can think of a few occasions when, like Corder, I was tempted to backpedal
or scrap plans–the souring of a pre-semester planning buzz.  The flops
were never disastrous; I learned, corrected, made changes for subsequent
semesters.  Teaching is endless experimentation, after all.  Even when
it’s perfect, student dynamics assuredly flip, redouble.  Corder is modest about his
commitment, too; he downplays the significance of following through on his word,
of keeping his end of the agreement rather than changing course, explaining
himself out of it, leaving students with their work. He certainly could have
said, "I take it back."  Some
occasions should allow for flexibility, but I admire that Corder actually wrote
the essays and acknowledged the cumbersome, inherent challenges in so doing.

Corder mentions his work with the TUTO rhythmic method.  Any idea what
this is?  I Googled around for the method, but didn’t come up with
anything.  Has anybody heard of this?  My hunch is that it involves
invention, pre-writing and generative heuristics, but that’s a long shot. 
I can’t find anything on the TUTO acronym, period (TUTOrial?).

We won’t win Braddocks for it, but I like the idea of formally writing
through our lessons learned following a term of teaching.  I suppose many comp
programs encourage this sort of self-reflection for their TAs and other folks
who take seriously improvement in their teaching.  But lots of part-timers
(and perhaps too many long-term full-timers) stop working through their teaching
questions.  Could be a matter of not recognizing the rough spots, not
having the time/energy to devote to self-reflection, or resigning to the
inevitability of grand performances sometimes sailing and other times sinking
because of variability. And so I’ll sneak in a plug for blogs as teaching registers.
Constantly thinking about how much information to reveal here keeps its
exigency, but post-term reflections about assignments, pace, successes and
would-do-differentlies are blogable, I think, and, as such, reflective blogs can
be done responsibly and in ways that build toward an improved teaching manner. 
Of course, private teaching notes can serve this purpose, too (and probably ought to if a blog isn’t part of the mix).

Here are a few more pieces from Corder.  His short essay is worth a read,
especially if you’ve ever entertained the idea of doing assignments with
students or if you’re interested in the pull between invention and structure.

His lessons:

1. I learned that writing out one’s own assignments is a marvelous corrective
to any tendency one might have for using merely habitual assignments or for
witlessly making thoughtless or stupid assignments.

2. With some of the arguments and assumptions that undergird freshman
composition I am familiar.  I know that "the ability to write a literate
essay is the hallmark of the educated person." I know that "a competent student
out to be able to produce a decent piece of writing on call."

3. I learned that I often did precisely what I urged my students not to do: I
hurried; I waited until the last moment, because that was the only moment there
was; I accepted available subjects that came easily to mind; I wrote some "nice"
essays and some "acceptable" essays; once or twice I turned in rough drafts as
if they were finished papers.  Perhaps I should add that I did usually get
semicolons in the right place.

4. I need to say more about items 2 and 3 in order to tell what I really
learned, to tell why writing nine essays is a task very nearly not doable. 
Perhaps what I really learned is that I have not learned enough.  Or
perhaps what I really learned is that part of what I know about writing (though
right enough in its way) is not germane or immediate or companionable when one
is doing the writing.

One more quotation

"I was sitting there looking at the assignment when another dark thought
came: ‘I know how to write this thing,’ I remember saying to myself, ‘but
why in hell would anybody want to?’" (45).

Corder’s Laws of Composition (thinned version)
Ninth law of composition: Everything comes from somewhere and goes some
Eleventh law of composition: Some things precede other things. Invention
precedes structure. Thinking and feeling and being precede writing.
Eighteenth law of composition: You are always standing somewhere when you say
Twenty-fifth law of composition: Invention is an invitation to openness.
Twenty-sixth law of composition:  But structure is a closure.  You
can’t organize an essay or a sonata unless you have ruled out other
Twenty-seventh law of composition: Invention and structure, then, represent a
way of being in the world.
Thirty-second law of composition: What follows feeds, enlarges, and enriches
what precedes.

Witte, 1984, “Topical Structure and Revision”

Stephen. "Topical Structure and Revision: An Exploratory Study.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 132-155.

Big Idea
Stephen Witte’s 1983 article reports on the quantifiable patterns of topical
structure in a sample of written revisions of a common text.  Through
comparative readings of revised texts and a common seminal text (from which the
revisers set out), Witte’s study surmises that the reviser’s treatment of
sentence topics correlates to the writer/reviser’s understanding of the text’s
discourse topic.  The relationship between a discourse topic and sentence
topic figures significantly into Witte’s work; he adopts a vocabulary of
specialized terms such as "topicalization," "theme/rheme,"
"macroproposition," and "hypertheme" in his elaboration of
methods.  According to Witte, sentence topics may or may not house
discourse topics, but the writer/reviser’s prior knowledge and readerly understanding
of the seminal text’s discourse topic guides the choices applied
throughout revision.  Witte acknowledges his methods are suited to
informational texts, collaboratively revised. Notably, he delivers some
eighteen-plus name references in the first three or four pages of the article (a
cluster of comp/rhet folks as well as several {unfamiliar-to-me} structural
linguists from the Prague

Wondering About
With all due respect, big chunks of this essay were a muddle; lesser chunks
were interesting in a structuralism-amuck, 1983-snapshot kind of way. 
Witte’s theoretical lead-in to the more empirical study sparked a few
interesting issues.  Without explicitly discussing sentence topics in terms
of links and relationships, Witte is centrally concerned with
syntactic cues, their systematic connections, and the role of the writer/reviser
in reshaping those cues toward a more coherent, unified discourse topic. We
could bend this analysis to rhythm or pulse–the discourse topic’s
dependence on the coordination of smaller units.   As provocative as
this is, the structuralist drawback impends: the study builds from a kind of
de-natured, de-cultured "writer’s hand(s)" (not unlike de Saussure’s
featureless talking heads).  The situation is absent: topoi sans kairos.  

The portions of the essay that scale the revisions from high-score to
low-score based on the sentence topic patterns (matches, deviations, etc.) were
hard to read.  It’s filled with statistical references, and it’s never easy
to connect the high/low assessments to specific texts (only a few of which are
sampled).  Witte notes that one of the setbacks in his study is the problem
of "no average text."  In fact, the whole piece is responsibly
self-conscious; he incorporates lots of reminders that this is "an
exploratory study," and it’s simply a frame for writing researchers to
consider.  But how should we use this? What other applications might
Witte’s work hold?  I don’t have a lot of ideas about this, but as I read,
I started to think that much of this analysis could be applied electronically
(especially the clause-length stuff).  In other words, when I want to see
revision (separated from the document), I simply use Word to compare
texts.  The changes are highlighted, easy to view.  I’ve never
considered the quality of a revision in terms of altered topic patterns;
instead, I simply have a glance at the depth of revision, the way the writer
responded to specific in-text suggestions or questions, and any oversights,
omissions, or clear decisions not to make changes.  And while I’m
not in favor of computers as stand-alone readers, I continue to wonder how
technologies can assist our reading by helping us see patterns in texts (not to
kick out sloppily composed standardized exams).  Witte’s approach, I think,
could be rendered into a software application–an application that might be
useful if we use it to see texts differently rather than measuring those texts
as successes or failures. 

Witte’s approach to measuring sophistication of revisions based on topic
patterns doesn’t acknowledge rhetorical strategies, deliberate re-arrangement,
topical abstraction or exemplification.  All of these forces ought to
figure into revision–even in classifiably informative texts, and studies of
topic structure alone might not reveal such developments.  It also sets up
knowledge of audience and revision in fairly narrow terms.  Revision isn’t
always (ever!) a sealed-off, exclusive, after-writing stage; knowledge of
audience, however carefully ascertained, is imperfect, incomplete. 
Similarly, while the sentence topics can be identified and tagged, discourse
topics spill, morph, shift–endlessly.  By this, I mean the sentence enjoys
punctuated boundaries; a discourse topic flows and is not frozen in time. 

"Although making inferences about composing processes from written
products is somewhat risky, the method I have outlined and applied to controlled
revisions of college writers appears to be a promising one for studying the
textual causes and effects of revision.  It is a method which may allow
researchers and teachers alike to study the decision-making processes writers
use during revision" (153).

"Whether the findings hold for other kinds of texts collected under
different circumstances and evaluated by different kinds of raters remains an
open question" (153). 

"In this regard, topical structure analysis–unlike the analytic methods
designed to examine the effects of the revision–enables the researcher to
explore the relationship between the textual causes of revision, the text
features to which the writer as reader responds, and the effects those changes
have on the revised text" (153).

"Thus in revising the original text, the high-score writers chose to
reduce the number of sentence topics and to develop more fully those retained,
whereas the writers of the low-score texts chose to increase the number of
sentence topics and to develop each of them less fully" (153). 

~muddle~ "Differences between the two sets of revisions can also be
attributed to differences in the mean number of t-units per sentence
topic.  The low-score revisions averaged 1.89 t-units per sentence topic, while
the high-score revisions averaged 2.59, about 27% more than the low-score
ones" (150). ~muddle~

"The two groups’ differing constructions of the gist of the
original governed their choices of sentence topics.  These different
sentence topics, in turn, led to different decisions about content which could
be deleted from the original" (149).

"But on what basis did the two groups decide which elements of the
original text to delete? I suspect that they based such decisions on their
constructions of a discourse topic or a gist for the original
text, because those constructions seem to differ in important ways" (147).

"When what is said (by the principal verbs in the text) about the
discourse topic is combined with the discourse topic, the product is the ‘macroproposition,’
‘gist,’ or ‘point’ of the text" (140).

"As I have explained it, topical structure analysis would seem to be a
useful tool for studying the textual cues which may prompt revision and for
studying the effects of revision on text structure, primarily because it
accounts for and illuminates the interaction of reading and writing during the
revision process. Topical structure analysis should enable researchers to chart
more efficiently the actual decisions writers make as they revise texts"

"Such a view of the relationship of subtopics (i.e., sentence
topics) to the discourse topic surmounts the problem of using the
orthographic boundaries of sentences and paragraphs as the principal semantic or
meaning markers in extended discourse. (Sentence boundaries can vary
independently of meaning when writers choose to produce compound or
compound-complex sentences, and I can find no evidence that writers segment
texts into paragraphs in consistent ways.)" (137).