what if wolves and elephants were writing students?

Despite the title, this isn’t really about animal rhetoric, instead a video and a recent article about evolution. The video below explains how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park not only altered the ecosystem but the physical geography. (Spoiler: wolves chased the deer out of certain areas of the park, allowing for trees and other fauna to thrive, which not only created habitats for other animals but strengthened the river banks such that the rivers flowed differently through the park.)

And the elephants? This recent article in Science reports on the familiar statistic that when polled on whether or not they agree with the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” only 49% of Americans agree. However when humans are replaced with elephants then 75% agree, which is basically the level of agreement one finds in Europe. The article suggests this difference represents a religious belief in the divine creation of humans.

If you can watch the wolf video and generally agree with its explanation of what has happened at Yellowstone, then you can understand the ecological emergence of agency. The trees, birds, beavers, bears, and so on who come to occupy new spaces in the park gain new capacities for life in relation to the activity of the wolves. The face of the earth is rewritten.

In teaching writing, however, we tend to be more like that 25% of Americans who don’t agree with the idea of human evolution but are otherwise willing to accept that other critters evolve. If we thought of human rhetorical agency as not being ontologically exceptional, then we would see it more the way we see Yellowstone Park or elephant evolution, as an emergent, ecological process in which humans participate. Using the park as an analogy, it doesn’t really matter if you think of the human author as the wolf, the deer, the tree, or even the river. The video may lionize the wolf (if you can excuse the animal mash-up), but the wolf isn’t really the author of this transformation either. The point is that compositional processes are networked, ecological, relational, etc. In some quarters, this ecocompositional, media-ecological, new materialist view of writing is accepted. I’ve certainly written about it many times here, and I think the view has gained popularity within rhetoric over the last decade or so. However, it is a minority view, and I think even among that minority it is hard to imagine how its insights might inform pedagogy.

Perhaps the point is to ask, metaphorically (probably), how does one release wolves into the composition classroom ecology?

In the case of the wolves and the park, we would tend to tell the story as the “rebalancing” of the ecology, as a return to a natural state, that was interrupted by human intervention into the wolf population. Though the outcome for the park certainly strikes me as desirable, I am reluctant to assert the teleological values that would allow me to say that the park has returned to its “natural” state or what it is supposed to be like. Such valuations would be even harder in a composition classroom. However, one might observe Latour’s discussion of instauration here. Basically this means that in composing we have agency as writers–we are “made to act.” The writer is one of many actors and through her aesthetic-rhetorical-compositional acts something is instaurated, constructed. Is it good? bad? well-made? poorly-made? Who knows? We find that out later. We might learn from our compositions that we need to act differently in the future, and/or we might learn that by altering the media ecology in which we operate that we might gain new capacities, be “made to act” (faire faire as the French idiom goes) in new ways. In other words, we might decide to release the wolves.

But to make such decisions we have to recognize our role as composers in a media ecology as being analogous to the role of wolves (or another actors) in a biological ecology.