The Built Symbolic Environment: Words To Live By

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Dr. Charles Bazerman explains how five thousand years of words have shaped who we are and where we are going as we navigate our way through the symbolic environment which has been shaped by our words.

Airdate: January 19, 2022

Season 1 Episode 25 | 42 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:13.010] – Liz Fraley

Greetings, everyone. Welcome to Room 42. I'm Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions, I'm your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she's our interviewer. And welcome to Dr. Charles Bazerman, today's guest in Room 42.

[00:00:26.070] – Liz Fraley

Charles Bazerman is a distinguished professor in the Department of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a teacher of writing, he started to wonder what writing was and how we learned to do it. One thing leads to another, and he begins investigating what kind of writing people actually need to do in their lives; what writing accomplishes; what forms of writing have made possible the advance of science, technology, and domains of knowledge; how has writing changed society since its invention; how writers develop over their lifespans; and what happens to them as people as they develop into writers?

[00:01:01.950] – Liz Fraley

Such questions lead him to the corners of writing, where he gradually comes to see he's living within a larger architecture of our social arrangements and communicative structure. He is still wondering what writing is, how people learn to do it, and what impact it has on people in society. Among his books are “Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Research Article in Science”, “The Languages of Edison's Light”, and “A Rhetoric of Literate Action”.

[00:01:28.350] – Liz Fraley

Today, we'll examine how reading and writing have transformed who we are and who we are becoming as individuals and communities, and how successful living in the contemporary world has come to depend on our skill in writing ourselves into this built symbolic environment, either directly or indirectly. Welcome.

[00:01:48.990] – Charles Bazerman


[00:01:50.490] – Janice Summers

Welcome, Dr. Bazerman. I am so delighted to be talking to you today. So how are we doing so far with our written communication?

[00:02:02.410] – Charles Bazerman

Well, we're doing what we need to do to have gotten to this point in our history.

[00:02:11.350] – Janice Summers

Because communication is nothing new, but written communication goes back how long?

[00:02:18.020] – Charles Bazerman

About 5000 years, as far as we know. It was invented three–maybe plus one or two–times, and all the other systems have diffused from originally the Middle Eastern, Sumerian, Chinese, and Mesoamerican. Some people say Egypt was independent of the Sumerian. I think it at least was peripherally derivative that they heard over in the neighboring country, in the neighboring jurisdiction that they were doing something with these signs.

[00:03:03.150] – Janice Summers

So they decided to adopt some?

[00:03:05.850] – Charles Bazerman

Yeah, and maybe make up some of their own. 

[00:03:11.010] – Janice Summers

So make up their own symbols to communicate–

[00:03:14.670] – Charles Bazerman

But I really am very hazy about the early history of hieroglyphics, as I think many people are hazy about it.

[00:03:29.210] – Janice Summers

Now, there's a difference between communication before written communication and written communication. Can you talk a little bit about that? Remember when we were talking one time before, you were explaining the difference between how oral histories were one thing, but when we decided to write things down, it took on a whole different level, right?

[00:03:54.030] – Charles Bazerman

Well, texts tend to stabilize things. Although we always read from our new situation, but you have a set of artifacts. So you may have heard about the scholars who, a number of years ago, looked into oral poetry and Homeric traditions. The idea was that it was formulaic enough so that the poets would repeat the stories over time, that they would just reconstruct historically in these easily memorable forms.

[00:04:44.640] – Janice Summers

Right. And then the story would stay the same?

[00:04:47.230] – Charles Bazerman

Yeah, but they don't because you go back 30 years later and you interview the same griots and this story is substantially different. It evolves, it gets retold every time they tell it.

[00:05:10.770] – Charles Bazerman

But when you have a text, it stabilizes it. So you might have varying interpretations and meanings drawn from it, but the actual symbols, the artifact stays the same. And another thing that starts to happen is that these texts can travel great distances. You don't have to go and listen to the same griot again.

[00:05:39.030] – Charles Bazerman

So they travel across distances in time, and you can make multiple copies of it, which we've been getting better and better at making more multiple copies, which then means it can be used to organize larger groups of people who are lying around the same text. Early on, before you get sacred texts, you also seem to get royal texts, and you get legal texts, which then create large jurisdictions.

[00:06:12.800] – Charles Bazerman

This is all Jack Goody's work. Jack Goody, he's an anthropologist–was an anthropologist… He came to a lot of public attention around the psychological consequences of writing, but he was an anthropologist first and thinking about society. So there's one book he wrote which I think is even more interesting than the psychological books. I'll footnote that in a minute, but it's called “The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society”, which was about how writing changed the economy, governance, belief systems, law, the major systems.

[00:07:15.290] – Charles Bazerman

It wasn't an inevitable path, but it created affordances that allowed a variety of uses which in each of these cases allow much wider extension of things. The reason I was footnoting before is that people like to use accuse, with maybe some merit on the psychological side of the technological determinism of Goody. Certainly, some of his contemporaries were like, “If you become literate, this is what will happen to you.”

[00:07:54.830] – Charles Bazerman

But he certainly wasn't like that and especially on the social side. It was more just a set of affordances which could be exploited in a variety of ways, and there's nothing determinate about it. It was just sets of possibilities, which is, I think, how people have come to see the transformations now that have arisen from literacy.

[00:08:26.250] – Janice Summers

But not what happened societally as we became more literate, right? Because in the beginning, you mentioned the scholarly work and the royal work and then the legal work, all of those things were written. And gradually, it sounds like society became more and more literate and that impacted their societal standings, right?

[00:08:50.560] – Charles Bazerman

Right. Ultimately, we live in a society which we already… Organizations at a distance, large organizations, written regulations, all these are affordances of writing combined with societal development, organizational developments, and various kinds of intellectual innovations. All of these have come to build a world where people like us spend most of our day looking at symbols. And it doesn't mean we're being asocial, but it means that our sociality is carried out and our organization, our connections, our work, are mediated through forms of inscription.

[00:10:00.070] – Charles Bazerman

If you're sitting in your chair and you're reading a book or you're looking at your computer screen, and somebody walks into the room and says “Hi.” You don't hear them. “Huh? Who's that? No, I'm busy here.” You're attending not to the here and now, but to the somewhere else. I'm reading a letter from somebody who is in another country.

[00:10:34.910] – Janice Summers

It was written at a different time.

[00:10:36.730] – Charles Bazerman

It was written at a different time. And in fact, a lot of the things—sometimes you actually associate it with, “Oh, this person is in Buenos Aires right now,” or “This was Buenos Aires a week ago.” Or it may be that you're reading something which, in a sense, is timeless. It's in a cyber world; it's in a world of symbols. And the actual moment of its creation and the moment that other people may be accessing become less important. They become invisible. And what's important is the communicative space that's created. And when we moved to a digital world, we had a lot more concrete metaphors for that.

[00:11:40.530] – Charles Bazerman

When I was young, this was hard to imagine, this virtual space. But now people talk about the virtual space, and in fact, they want to live in the virtual space.

[00:11:53.870] – Janice Summers

Right. A Metaverse.

[00:11:55.620] – Charles Bazerman

Right. We're talking in a Zoom room. And this Zoom room, in fact, it's being recorded and will be viewed at different times by people at different groups, by classes, or by other professionals. And so it will travel. But they will orient towards it in the here and now, and they will chase away the kids who try to disturb them when they're looking into this virtual space.

[00:12:38.590] – Charles Bazerman

That subtext, meaning where you're mentally orienting towards. And actually using our senses, you may be accessing with your earphones and on the screen. The future will have more haptics.

[00:13:01.470] – Janice Summers

You could be listening to it on the podcast, walking, and taking in scenery at the same time. So your contact varies.

[00:13:08.740] – Charles Bazerman

Yes, you can. So obviously, if an asteroid will come down into our room right now, we'd probably pay attention to that. So there's always a mixture, but it's what gets foregrounded. And what's getting foreground is also what's activating our neurological system, what we're orienting towards. And so that's been the big change in our lives, that we've oriented towards these virtual spaces and what gets inscribed in these virtual spaces through which we live our lives or increasing parts of our lives.

[00:13:51.090] – Charles Bazerman

And actually, the relationship between the virtual spaces and our physical spaces is a very interesting problem, and it's a very significant problem. In a way, it's the problem of how does evidence of the material world get into the virtual world?

[00:14:19.750] – Janice Summers

How does it?

[00:14:21.730] – Charles Bazerman

How does it? Well, in a certain level, it almost always gets in because asteroids hit or that things call their attention to us and get inscribed. There was a star scene over the heavens and somebody writes it down when they're doing… Or a scripture claims the world is ending tomorrow and it doesn't end.

[00:15:00.910] – Charles Bazerman

I guess he was a medical doctor but also of philosophy of science, Ludwik Fleck, in the 1930s said that there are active and passive constraints on communication. He was concerned with thought styles and thought collective, so those were his core concepts. In those thought collectives, with their thought styles, which I would also call largely representational styles, there would be culturally active components. That is the way you would characterize things. That's culturally, arbitrary is the wrong word, but culturally variable.

[00:15:58.030] – Charles Bazerman

So I could say, “I'm going to define hardness by what scratches what.” There's no predetermined reason that that should be the criteria for hardness. But once I've done that, nature passively controls which is going to scratch which, whether the coal or the diamond, which one is going to get scratched. So that's passive. So there's active and passive. And that's always at play. So I may actively say, “The world is going to end tomorrow.” Passively, it turns out it doesn't end tomorrow.

[00:16:48.220] – Janice Summers

So you actively say, “Next Tuesday”.

[00:16:50.860] – Charles Bazerman

Next Tuesday, right. Or we could say we have gotten past COVID. Then, nature comes with another variant that, “Oops, we haven't.”

[00:17:02.550] – Janice Summers

Not quite yet.

[00:17:06.250] – Charles Bazerman

The world can tell a different story. One more thing on this: what characterizes the world of science is that it's a culture that actively seeks passive constraints. It goes out, collects evidence, and tries to prove or tries to see how nature pushes back. [Karl] Popper [a philosopher] would say “disconfirm.” But there are various procedures for collecting evidence, collecting data, turning experiences into inscriptions, which we then calculate over and argue over in our texts, which then form our picture of what the world is like.

[00:18:03.290] – Charles Bazerman

So that's why I like the culture of sciences and other forms of evidence-based scholarship. Not that they get the real facts; they have an active cultural style that attempts to inscribe the world. And different fields inscribe it in different ways and sometimes conflicting ways. But still, they're at work. And over time, one hopes one gets a more complete and accurate picture that allows us to align better with the world we live in. This has something to do with the question we started with, but I've forgotten exactly—

[00:18:44.710] – Janice Summers

No, this is great because one of the things I wanted to say is, so this is what is that symbolic reality.

[00:18:56.470] – Charles Bazerman

That's right. Reality has that form of active culture. Not all social systems, inscriptive systems have that. This is why, again, I'm interested in method and the way students… The more they know about method, the better their research papers are. Learning the method of your field is part of learning to write in your field.

[00:19:25.280] – Janice Summers

And that's true in the practitioners' world, too. The more they understand about methods and the different qualities of different methods and how to apply different methods, it makes their data more empirical and it creates more accuracy. It creates that push and pull that you were pointing to earlier.

[00:19:44.830] – Charles Bazerman

Exactly. And if they're engineers, the bridges won't fall down or are less likely to fall down the more they have good methods to find out what's happening and what's likely to happen.

[00:20:04.530] – Liz Fraley

The writer who's writing for the engineer, they're making sure that they are representing in that cultural symbolic world? Am I getting that?

[00:20:19.410] – Charles Bazerman

That's right. And they seek new methods if they figure, “Oh, we left out this parameter. How could we come to understand this parameter more and inscribe it better so it can enter into our calculations?” 

[00:20:36.140] – Janice Summers

It's also like when we talk about practitioners' list, too. Don't you think it's like how we adopt different architectures? And how we adopt different styles, like minimalism, right?

[00:20:50.090] – Liz Fraley

I'm not sure. Honestly, I'm not sure. I think those are the tools that we use to connect. I'm not sure. Dr. Bazerman?

[00:21:06.670] – Charles Bazerman

I'm not sure exactly what you're pointing out. But one place you might is that… I can't remember who did this paper. This was years ago. But you know about the history of neuroscience, right? And then there are different ways of representing a neuron. And over time, the visual graphic representation changed. Each of those methods highlighted something. I'm trying to get the details right. But there were some like… I'm getting a different example, might be clearer. I might have a more clear memory.

[00:22:01.890] – Charles Bazerman

So when you look at certain late 18th century illustrations of laboratory equipment, they are showing the grain of the wood, things that we would not consider particularly important. They become more schematic over time to reflect what we think is important about that equipment that produced the results of that experiment.

[00:22:46.490] – Charles Bazerman

Our graphic representations reflect our sense of significance. And in this case, significance of the method. What are the actual parts of the experiment that are likely to influence this? So it doesn't matter whether you use this kind of wood or that kind of wood on the machine. It might. If it did, then it would get represented. Like wood density somehow would get represented or grain, if that were relevant.

[00:23:24.510] – Charles Bazerman

But I want to go back. We left an important thing out. But not every culture has this as a prime mechanism. Some ask people to look into their emotional experience. “How are you feeling” becomes the prime form of evidence or the most persuasive thing in that world. Or “what is the word of the gods that has come to you in a vision?” That is what authenticates against what you measure. And it doesn't matter what's happening to you day-to-day because these truths are eternal and they come from somewhere else, or these are your personal truths. There are many other elements that the text could become accountable to and the community could hold you accountable to.

[00:24:28.630] – Liz Fraley

So in those cases, since we're talking about writing and literacy, those are then written or verbally communicated, and then compared?

[00:24:46.050] – Charles Bazerman


[00:24:47.590] – Liz Fraley

So if we talk about the science world, looking for the passive agreement, right? In this other experiential, I don't know how else to say it, feeling world, are we comparing to other written religious text and documented communicated things? I feel like I'm going crazy.

[00:25:15.430] – Charles Bazerman

I'm going to use two examples.

[00:25:17.510] – Liz Fraley

Okay, good.

[00:25:18.160] – Charles Bazerman

One is poetic. Does this poem move you? “Oh, well, it moves a lot of people. Wow. We're a group of fans of that poet. We find that poet deep in expressing something for ourselves. And maybe if we get to run the literature departments, we can make this work canonical.” So that's one kind of emotional. But then you have the scriptural text. But then the bottom line is, is this work really great? Or is it great for this group of people and other people really prefer Donald Duck? And so what makes it the canon?

[00:26:11.910] – Charles Bazerman

But then there's scriptural religions. Now, some deal with this when they're written down. That's the case where they're written down, you have a lot of early texts of that sort. You can either say, “The other one is wrong; just dismiss the other one. This one is the true word.” Or you can say that, “Let's do comparative religions: what's true for all of them? And we'll get the essence.” And this is where—what's his name?—Havelok.

[00:26:51.850] – Charles Bazerman

Eric Havelock did this work. He was a classicist. And he said, “Well, where did philosophy come from?” “Well, they started writing down these various stories from these different parts of the Mediterranean world, Greece, and surroundings.” “Well, this one doesn't match up with that one, and that one doesn't match up with that one.” “Let's try and harmonize this and find out what's truth within them and what are the logical principles.”

[00:27:28.270] – Charles Bazerman

And this is where he says philosophy comes from and logic comes from, that it's the consequence of this comparison of what has now become texts, what used to be oral stories, but now were transcribed so you can actually look at them. This is the psychological side of Goody, that you can actually look at these texts. Havelock and Goody, I think they certainly were contemporaries. I don't know if they knew each other, but they're usually considered in the same breath.

[00:27:59.670] – Liz Fraley

That connects a lot of things for me because way back before we were talking about, in one of the previous conversations, literacy is still a battle that we fight today. That is still an issue in the world. And yet even people who we might consider not as strongly literate as others are still raised in this literacy-bound, written communication world. And it's a weird thing to think about.

[00:28:36.030] – Charles Bazerman

Right. So the various sacred texts have great power even where only a small percentage of the people get to the stage of being given the authority to interpret those texts. It's the preachers or the imams who can interpret them. But nonetheless, in most of the traditions, you're expected to know by memory some or all of those texts and be able to repeat it by heart, even if you don't understand the language that you're memorizing. So people live in the penumbra of these texts as just as people also live in the penumbra of science and they fight over which penumbra they're going to live in.

[00:29:35.530] – Charles Bazerman

One thing I do want to say on this topic is around climate change, where there are very sophisticated methods of inscribing the state of the climate and the trajectories of those things that impact the climate and the computer modeling that predict future climate. But there's a very complex, intricate system. And you have to have high faith in these methods and the people who carry them out to believe them. So the people who are most sophisticated in that inscriptive world are the ones who are most committed to it.

[00:30:25.890] – Charles Bazerman

Other people say, “I only know what I see in front of me,” or “That may be happening, but I'm concerned with my checkbook and my…” things that are very close to my here and now that inscribe things that I directly feel. Or I actually only know, “Well, it's snowing outside.” That's what they know. Or they are part of an alternative. We talked about this the other week. Climate change to them… They're in a world of publicly held corporations where they are accountable to a quarterly balance sheet and their income is tied to their stock prices.

[00:31:18.970] – Charles Bazerman

“People may be predicting climate change, but that's only going to be a small insurance cost for me. And responding to regulation is going to be a big cost. In fact, it might be cheaper to have a large publicity campaign to undermine that sign so we don't have the regulatory costs.” Now, this gets into real serious ethical issues. But nonetheless, if you're aware that that exists and you still are denying it for temporary profit, that gets pretty evil. But nonetheless, there is a logic to it, the logic of the corporation, because you could say, “We have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders. How can we even think about 50 years from now if it's going to cost our shareholders money today?”

[00:32:21.290] – Janice Summers

Today and over the next 10 to 20 years.

[00:32:23.980] – Charles Bazerman


[00:32:25.880] – Janice Summers

Well, I think it comes down to understanding methodology and research methodology and how that's done. And I don't know that that's as common knowledge.

[00:32:36.110] – Liz Fraley

Well, I think, too. It's something you just said—

[00:32:41.010] – Charles Bazerman

That method is so important, is that what you're saying?

[00:32:42.340] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, understanding method.

[00:32:47.610] – Janice Summers

The scientists who are doing the scientific methodology—and again, it goes back to what you were saying. It's the method of how you do things and achieve conclusions and draw analysis; that scientific methodology, that a lot of people don't understand scientific methodology. So we're talking about a mass of people. So they might not grasp that understanding, but they'll grasp the understanding of denying.

[00:33:20.640] – Charles Bazerman

So that, again, comes up. That can lead to distrust if you don't understand the mutability of science, let's say, the emergence nature of scientific findings or even actually the way science can go off in the wrong way because it's measuring the wrong thing and the mutability of nature that might underlie with the variance, that's a case.

[00:33:47.990] – Charles Bazerman

So people lose trust in that side of methods and the inscriptions that come off of that. And they go to inscriptions they can understand and they trust for different reasons. And they make their calculations in those ways because the news hosts of the media that seem to reflect their reality, seem to them to know them. They understand them, and therefore they are more trustworthy, and their news is the real news.

[00:34:29.420] – Janice Summers

Now, here's an interesting thing, and it might be off-topic, so sorry, but there's an oral history being played out and there's a written history, and the symbolic reality that they're creating conflicts. When you talk about the newscasters saying something, it's not necessarily people saying things, but they don't have the scientific, the written methodology.

[00:35:04.270] – Charles Bazerman

Well, they write. They are scripted. And even if they're talking off the cuff, they've gotten the memo. It's not like they're telling folktales around the fire. They have businesses which are just loaded with documents with everything about how do they broadcast, what is their business model. They are caught up in a very complex world. It's just not one that's held accountable to climate science or medical science. Those are different worlds for them. They could be as much as like the Quran versus the Bible. It's a different world.

[00:35:57.390] – Janice Summers

I like that word, accountability. They have different accountability structures.

[00:36:01.100] – Charles Bazerman

That's a keyword of my universe, accountability structures.

[00:36:07.120] – Liz Fraley

And they're all wrapped in writing and communication. It doesn't seem like that, but when you look really deep, it really is all wrapped up in it.

[00:36:18.890] – Charles Bazerman

That's the story of my last 76 years on the planet, is to come to see that more and more. And the fact that we're moving into new technologies doesn't really change it. I just have to think about it as inscription. And I still think that actually letter inscriptions still play a very central role in that. But they're all composed, we might say, they are composed, transportable, enduring documents, and that's defining our world and not just the stuff in our eyesight near shot.

[00:37:07.110] – Janice Summers

This is very complex. Sorry.

[00:37:10.300] – Liz Fraley

It is. It keeps wrapping around back. It's really funny because when you were describing the climate change part, for me, it flipped right back to your discussion of religious texts and there are a few people who are permitted to be the interpreters. And even if you're required to memorize, you may not understand. There are some people who are in charge of the ones who are communicating the message.

[00:37:44.290] – Liz Fraley

And really, when you're talking about climate change, those are the scientists. They're the ones who have that deep background in order to understand the science and interpret it for the rest of us. It's a very similar pattern and structure, even though it feels very different.

[00:38:02.290] – Charles Bazerman

Right. I'm just going to footnote this, but I want to pass it by to get to that. Of course, there are different communicative structures within different communities. So there are some practices and traditions which are much more lateral. Everybody reads it and we just talk it through together. And to a certain extent, that is actually built into the scientific community, but you have to be qualified to have a voice in that. Then, you have to be evaluated and appreciated to gain more voice and get more cited. Citing is a way of repeating the work of the people.

[00:38:45.050] – Charles Bazerman

In the early period of social studies of knowledge, you might associate with the “science wars.” I know they heard about those back in the 80s. We had a bunch of relativist sociologists who are saying, “Look, these scientists, they just write texts. It's not real. It's just smudges on papers.” And that was viewed as, by other people, “Oh, my God. No, you're saying science isn't real?” I'd say science is about reality. Well, I think it's much more complex in between. But they were making the comparisons like a hierarchical religion. And certainly, they were making a point that not every decision can be made as a technical one.

[00:39:48.010] – Charles Bazerman

And that there are all kinds of other social values, political values that enter into our calculation. So you can't hand over the government just to a bunch of technocrats, which some people were arguing. So that was, I think, what they were really out after, but they overspoke it.

[00:40:18.530] – Charles Bazerman

Where was I going with this? Yes, but there are some people who are more qualified to carry certain kinds of messages and interpret them for us. And that's why on the TV shows you have fairly knowledgeable newscasters, but nonetheless, who interview the Dr. Fauci's of the world because they can be much more authoritative. They know more of the literature and they can evaluate the methods used by the various participants, and they themselves may have been carrying out that very research and been those theorists that come up with those accounts.

[00:41:02.050] – Charles Bazerman

And I would rather hear people like that, people actually know something, even though they may be wrong, even though they're partial. But I would calculate that into my interpretation of who they are and what they're pitching. But nonetheless, I want to hear what they know rather than the third circle outwards from them.

[00:41:28.030] – Janice Summers

Right, because you're getting it from the source, the research work that they've done, because nobody has the time to go deep in all of these things. 

[00:41:37.750] – Liz Fraley

You can't. It's impossible.

[00:41:39.930] – Janice Summers

This is why we love talking to you, Dr. Bazerman, because you go deep into things that we don't have the time or other people don't have the time for. So it's important for us to listen and understand because that influences how we perceive, how we carry forward, and how we think about our symbolic universe. And as professional and technical communicators, how we communicate, why we communicate, and what we're communicating is influenced by that. 

[00:42:14.610] – Charles Bazerman

That's my hope. Otherwise, if you left the world to people like me, you get very little done. You actually do the work of making things happen. But I hope that I'm helping you do that with a little more clarity.

[00:42:34.750] – Janice Summers

Well, it's interesting because we're talking about the history of 5000 years, looking back and thinking how all of this stuff did shape the culture and continues to shape the culture because some of the arguments that were then are now as well, right?

[00:42:51.460] – Charles Bazerman

Yeah, and 5000 years is not so long ago.

[00:42:55.920] – Janice Summers

It really isn't.

[00:42:58.810] – Charles Bazerman

Remember what Burl Ives—

[00:43:04.010] – Janice Summers

Yes, I remember Burl Ives.

[00:43:04.010] – Charles Bazerman

No, Milton Berle [comedian]. Milton Berle lived to about 100 years, right?

[00:43:05.120] – Liz Fraley


[00:43:05.120] – Charles Bazerman

So what I tell my students is… Well, it doesn't make any sense to them anymore because they don't know who Milton Berle is.

[00:43:14.460] – Janice Summers

No, they have to go Google it. They can Google it.

[00:43:16.740] – Charles Bazerman

Yeah. About 50 Milton Berles ago.

[00:43:23.540] – Janice Summers

Wow. It isn't that long. You know the interesting thing, because we're talking about the symbolism and the writing and the literacy and everything else, and the one consistent, I was thinking about it this morning as I was making my coffee and I knew we were going to come talk to you, is one constant is humans and human nature. Has that changed that much?

[00:43:54.210] – Charles Bazerman

The biological humans have not changed that much. But humans are very flexible in some respects, a very flexible biology, particularly our neurological system. And they're learning more and more about how flexible, not just flexible in the course of our lives, but moment by moment, how we reorganize, and we're constantly building and pruning and shaping our neurological systems.

[00:44:29.730] – Janice Summers

And how important it is that we continue to build and shape and learn and evolve. You don't stop.

[00:44:36.450] – Charles Bazerman

And it's also highly socially responsive. So that means we change as our cultures change in some ways. In other ways, not so much. If humans vanish and we are left with the other creatures on this planet—

[00:45:04.370] – Janice Summers

They'll be fine.

[00:45:05.830] – Charles Bazerman

They'll be fine, but they won't have the science. They won't have these changing cultures as much as we do. There are some primate cultures, there are some dolphin cultures. But the transmission from generation to generation is fairly small. They're much more stable in who they are and how they live their lives and what passes through their neural systems.

[00:45:40.870] – Janice Summers

There's that word again, that “stable” word. And when you first started talking with us, you talked about the importance of the written communication stabilized, the stabilizing effect of written communication.

[00:45:57.830] – Charles Bazerman

But it stabilizes our social groups, but it also allows them to proliferate difference over time because the social groups become more complex. So the messages get stabilized. Every dolphin is a new system, every salamander, every roach is a new system. But they live in fairly repetitive worlds and they don't learn a lot over their lifetimes. So the roaches now are very much like roaches many generations ago.

[00:46:53.190] – Janice Summers

We've changed a little.

[00:46:55.130] – Charles Bazerman

Yeah, we have changed. We have changed a lot. And we work for corporations, we work for NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. We get our psychological—our relationship advice from psychologists. We no longer have local tribal leaders, or they don't have the same effect as they did. We live in relationship to global structures and national structures and we read newspapers. So we live lives very different, much more different than the generations of roaches live, although their stability might help them. And that's the problem. Humans change so much and their cultures and societies change so much. It's a grand experiment. And it's an experiment that may fail.

[00:47:50.170] – Janice Summers

Well, it'll be interesting in another Milton Berle—

[00:47:54.310] – Charles Bazerman

That's right.

[00:47:55.250] – Janice Summers

—when they replay this, what they're going to say about our conversation. I got to tell you, Dr. Bazerman, it has just been such a delight talking to you. I'm sorry, but our time is up. We're over time. I keep getting this message that I need to wrap it up, but it has been an absolute delight.

[00:48:16.690] – Liz Fraley


[00:48:18.610] – Charles Bazerman

Thank you. It's been fun for me, too.

[00:48:20.770] – Janice Summers

I'm looking forward to your next book.

[00:48:26.030] – Charles Bazerman

The one that's just finishing?

[00:48:28.440] – Janice Summers

That one too.

[00:48:30.940] – Charles Bazerman

There's another one which I don't know whether I'll get there, but it's the one which covers this big picture in a more popular way than some of the other things. Although I'm going to give a pitch for my book on “The Languages of Edison's Light” which does, I think, speak to your world in a fairly accessible way.

[00:49:00.470] – Janice Summers


[00:49:03.410] – Liz Fraley

Thank you for coming.

[00:49:05.200] – Janice Summers

Thank you so much. And thanks, everybody. Until next time. Take care. Bye.

In this episode

Charles Bazerman is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara. As a teacher of writing he started to wonder what writing was and how they learned to do it. One thing led to another and he began investigating what kind of writing people actually needed to do in their lives; what their writing accomplishes; what forms of writing have made possible the advance of science, technology and domains of knowledge; how writing has changed society since its invention; how writers develop over their lifespans; and what happens to them as people as they develop as writers. Such questions led him into many corners of writing which he gradually came to see within a larger architecture of our social arrangements and communicative infrastructure, but still wondering what writing is, how people learn to do it, and what impact it has on people and society. Among his books are Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Research Article in Science; The Languages of Edison’s Light; and A Rhetoric of Literate Action.

He has concluded that we live and navigate our way in a built symbolic environment. This built symbolic environment has become more extensive, enduring, and dense in the last five thousand years since the invention of literacy. Since then, reading and writing have transformed who we are and are becoming, as individuals and communities. Further, successful living in the contemporary world has come to depend on our skill in writing ourselves into the built symbolic environment, either directly or indirectly. This resource of skill in writing, however, is not equitably distributed, reinforcing disparities in being able to assert interests and power within the communicative infrastructure of society. It is, therefore, imperative that all are given the opportunity to become more knowledgeable, skilled, and intentional about the literate world so as to be able to make successful rhetorical choices and participate more fully within the built symbolic environment.

This conversation will range in unpredictable ways across such questions drawing on his textual historical, quantitative, qualitative and theoretical inquiries.


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