Mimetic Learning as Multimodal Cognition: Integrating Experiential Knowledge Work in Programs of Rhetoric, Composition, and Technical Communication

My dissertation (2014) emphasizes a cognitive account of multimodality that explicitly integrates experiential knowledge work into the rhetorical pedagogy that informs so many composition and technical communication programs.

In these disciplines, multimodality is widely conceived in terms of what Gunther Kress calls “social-semiotic” modes of communication shaped primarily by culture. In the cognitive and neurolinguistic theories of Vittorio Gallese and George Lakoff, however, multimodality is described as a key characteristic of our bodies’ sensory-motor systems which link perception to action and action to meaning, grounding all communicative acts in knowledge shaped through body-engaged experience.

I argue that this “situated” account of cognition – which closely approximates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, a major framework for my study – has pedagogical precedence in the mimetic pedagogy that informed ancient Sophistic rhetorical training, and I reveal that training’s multimodal dimensions through a phenomenological exegesis of the concept mimesis. Plato’s denigration of the mimetic tradition and his elevation of conceptual contemplation through reason, out of which developed the Cartesian separation of mind from body, resulted in a general degradation of experiential knowledge in Western education.

With the recent introduction into college classrooms of digital technologies and multimedia communication tools, renewed emphasis is being placed on the “hands-on” nature of inventive and productive praxis, necessitating a revision of methods of instruction and assessment that have traditionally privileged the acquisition of conceptual over experiential knowledge. The model of multimodality I construct from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, ancient Sophistic rhetorical pedagogy, and current neuroscientific accounts of situated cognition insists on recognizing the significant role knowledges we acquire experientially play in our reading and writing, speaking and listening, discerning and designing practices. In concluding my study, I recommend that we seek to balance the more traditional transmission-based, argument-driven, symbol-oriented rhetoric of persuasion with a more reflexive, data-driven, affective rhetoric of influence.