Saturday, July 22, 2006

James W. Pennebaker and Thinking Across Contexts

Jack Park sent me a link this morning to James W. Pennebaker's site. I've heard of Pennebaker as an influential pyschologist and researcher but had not got around to reading his work.

Among other things, Pennebaker explores the meeting points among language, identity, perception, and the world outside our heads. Jack would call these "entailments" or underlying assumptions and connections with which any statement (or what Jack would call "ontological committment") is burdened. I think of them similarly but used in my classroom the language of theater and convention.

The implications of Pennebaker's work reinforce the need I've been banging on about for excellent writing teachers. As a developmental tool, writing not only allows others to know what we think and whether or not we're persuasive (in business or elsewhere) but allows us to see whether we're bluffing or not (both in the context of our own argument and in others' responses).

Writing forces us to think across contexts because in each instance we tell stories (see Jack's augmented storytelling). In that sense, the story determines the character that tells it, and the effective writer can move emotionally, intellectually, and empathically -- sometimes in a fashion that seems automatic. By breaking down these characters, the conventions to which they are attached, and what they leave out, it's possible to reveal the arguments upon which every situation relies for credibility.

Writing offers a context in which we can innovate as much when we write as when we read. Furthermore, excellent writing is the result of developing innovative skills --of identifying our own curiosity, credibility, creativity, and the ability to persuade. If you can do it for multiple audiences and causes in writing, you can do it anywhere. Some people can talk a good line in every day language and not be able to put it down on paper. It's rarely the other way.

Last, Pennebaker begins to offer tools that seem credible to those who find value in measuring things for business and academic contexts. It takes writing out of the realm of the woo woo and creativity as a singular quality and clarifies the importance of rigorous analysis.

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