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Since the publication of the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A in 1994, semiotics has become a popular instrument in promoting critical thinking skills in composition classrooms. With such a broad variety of semiotic methodologies to choose from, however, I find it useful from time to time to clarify the precise semiotic approach that is presented and modeled in Signs of Life: hence, the title and topic of this blog.


To begin with, the methodology of Signs of Life reflects a synthesis of some of the most effective elements to be found within the broad history of semiotic theory. To describe that synthesis, I need to briefly sketch out just what history I am referring to. It begins, then, with Roman Jakobson.


Arguably the most commonly known approach to technical semiotics, Jakobson's ADDRESSER – MESSAGE – ADDRESSEE schema has constituted a foundation for generations of semioticians. A fundamentally formalistic approach to communications theory as a whole, Jakobson's model was modified by Stuart Hall, who introduced a political dimension into the equation with his notion of "dominant," "negotiated," and "oppositional" readings of cultural texts (like television programs)—readings that either completely accept, partially accept, or completely challenge the intended message of the addresser. In essence, both Jakobson's and Hall's views are involved in the Signs of Life synthesis.


Before getting to a more precise description of that synthesis, however, I need to describe the role of three other major pioneers of semiotic thinking. The first of these figures is Ferdinand de Saussure, whose description of the constitutional role of difference within semiological systems underlies the fundamental principle in Signs of Life that the "essential approach to interpreting signs of popular culture is to situate signs within systems of related semiotic phenomena with which they can be associated and differentiated" (13; n.b.: the principle of association is not explicit in Saussure, but is implicit in his notion of the conceptual "signified").


The second pioneer is Roland Barthes, whose notion of semiotic mythologies underpins the ideological component of cultural semiotic analysis that Signs of Life explores and teaches.


The third essential figure in the synthesis is C.S. Peirce, whose sense of the historicity of signs, along with his philosophical realism, has provided me with an antidote to the tendency towards ahistorical formalism that the tradition of Saussure has fostered. And it was also Peirce who introduced the principle of abduction (i.e., the search for the most likely interpretation in the course of a semiotic analysis) that is critical to the methodology that is described and modeled in Signs of Life.


I will now introduce into the mix two new terms which, to the best of my knowledge, are my own, and are to be found in the 9th edition of Signs of Life. These are "micro-semiotics" and "macro-semiotics." The first of these terms describes what we do when we set out to decode any given popular cultural phenomenon—like an advertisement or a television program. In this we more or less follow Jakobson, analyzing the addresser's message as it was intended to be decoded. The macro-semiotic dimension, on the other hand, builds on the micro-semiotic reading to take it into the realm of cultural semiotics, where Hall, Saussure, Barthes, and Peirce all come into play, with Hall and Barthes leading the way to oppositional (and even subversive) re-codings of cultural texts, while Saussure and Peirce give us the tools for doing so, as briefly described above in this blog.


Now, if you are unfamiliar with Signs of Life in the U.S.A. all this may sound rather too complicated for a first-year writing textbook, and I can attest to the fact that when its first edition was in development, the folks at what was then simply called Bedford Books were plenty nervous about the whole thing. But while there are a few technical points directly introduced in the book in the interest of clarifying as clearly as possible exactly how a semiotic interpretation is performed, the text is not inaccessible—as the existence of nine editions, to date, demonstrates. The point, for the purpose of this blog, is that the semiotic method, as synthesized in Signs of Life, has a solid and diverse pedigreewhich is something that you could always explain to any student who may wonder where all this stuff came from.


A friend whose daughter is in seventh grade told me recently that her class was known to be very “rowdy” and difficult to control (his daughter is not part of the difficult group!). So, the teacher has instituted a system of punishment: when several students misbehave, the entire class has to write something like “I will never do X again” one hundred times. The whole class. One hundred times. Writing as punishment. Where have we heard this story before?


Research over the last fifty years has repeatedly shown that writing is affected by prior experience—in fact, that’s one of composition’s threshold concepts. My own informal research bears this out: for some twenty years, I asked every group I spoke with to call out their earliest memories of writing. And for twenty years, those early associations were very often about punishment: being made to write “I will never X again” over and over, being made to sit on their left hands if they were left-handed so they’d be forced to write “right,” or being ridiculed for something they had (or had not) written. For others, many people’s first memory of writing is learning to write their names—there’s something about seeing that name—YOU—inscribed on paper or a board or a stone that brings a sense of agency. Yet many of these memories are also marked by feeling that parents or grown-ups laughed (no doubt often kindly but not so to the child at the time) at these early attempts. So for many people, prior experience with writing had been negative, and this attitude and these feelings went with them as they went on in life so that they dreaded writing or felt inadequate when they had to write.


Fortunately, such prior experiences and associations can be mitigated, and that often happens as writers become more confident or encounter more positive experiences with writing, though the early experiences linger on. I believe that many of our students arrive with such negative prior experiences and that it’s in our classrooms that they can begin to move beyond these experiences and to build more positive associations, and hence gain more agency. And I know that many writing teachers talk with students about these issues, drawing them out on their early experiences and systematically helping them construct more successful encounters with writing.


How I wish I could speak with that seventh grade teacher and share the research evidence with her, that I could explain that writing should be used for celebration, for self-expression, and for creating knowledge—not for punishment. But I don’t have an opportunity to do that, and right now what I know is that my friend complained to the teacher about the assignment and especially about making students who were not misbehaving in any way share in the punishment. In response, the teacher said that this was a “tried and true method that works.” Tried for sure. But true? I doubt it. And while it may “work,” it works toward negative ends.


What I can and will do is spend some time with my friend’s seventh grade daughter, which will be a big treat for me. We will do some storytelling and writing together and I’ll do what I can to show her that writing is fun and meaningful, that it’s a way for her to voice her thoughts and share them with others. And I will be grateful for all the writing teachers across the country who are working with students and with other children they know to experience the gifts writing can bring.


Credit: Pixaby Image 2290628 by purpleshorts, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License