Critical Expressivism- Theory and Practice in the Composition Classroom, 2014a

Critical Expressivism- Theory and Practice in the Composition Classroom, 2014a

Critical Expressivism- Theory and Practice in the Composition Classroom, 2014a


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Edited by<br />

Tara Roeder<br />

<strong>and</strong> Roseanne Gatto





Series Editor, Susan H. McLeod<br />

The Perspectives on Writ<strong>in</strong>g series addresses writ<strong>in</strong>g studies <strong>in</strong> a broad sense.<br />

Consistent with <strong>the</strong> wide rang<strong>in</strong>g approaches characteristic of teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

scholarship <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g across <strong>the</strong> curriculum, <strong>the</strong> series presents works that take<br />

divergent perspectives on work<strong>in</strong>g as a writer, teach<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g, adm<strong>in</strong>ister<strong>in</strong>g<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g programs, <strong>and</strong> study<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> its various forms.<br />

The WAC Clear<strong>in</strong>ghouse <strong>and</strong> Parlor Press are collaborat<strong>in</strong>g so that <strong>the</strong>se books<br />

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opportunities that new technologies have for fur<strong>the</strong>r democratiz<strong>in</strong>g knowledge.<br />

And we see that to share <strong>the</strong> power of writ<strong>in</strong>g is to share <strong>the</strong> means for all to<br />

articulate <strong>the</strong>ir needs, <strong>in</strong>terest, <strong>and</strong> learn<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> great experiment of literacy.<br />

Recent Books <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Series<br />

Sarah Allen, Beyond Argument: Essay<strong>in</strong>g as a <strong>Practice</strong> of (Ex)Change (2015)<br />

Steven J. Corbett, Beyond Dichotomy: Synergiz<strong>in</strong>g Writ<strong>in</strong>g Center <strong>and</strong> <strong>Classroom</strong><br />

Pedagogies (2015)<br />

Christy I. Wenger, Yoga M<strong>in</strong>ds, Writ<strong>in</strong>g Bodies: Contemplative Writ<strong>in</strong>g Pedagogy<br />

(2015)<br />

Terry Myers Zawacki <strong>and</strong> Michelle Cox, WAC <strong>and</strong> Second-Language Writers:<br />

Research Towards L<strong>in</strong>guistically <strong>and</strong> Culturally Inclusive Programs <strong>and</strong> <strong>Practice</strong>s,<br />

(2014)<br />

Charles Bazerman, A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1 (2013)<br />

Charles Bazerman, A <strong>Theory</strong> of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 2 (2013)<br />

Ka<strong>the</strong>r<strong>in</strong>e V. Wills <strong>and</strong> Rich Rice (Eds.), ePortfolio Performance Support Systems:<br />

Construct<strong>in</strong>g, Present<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> Assess<strong>in</strong>g Portfolios (2013)<br />

Mike Duncan <strong>and</strong> Star Medzerian Vanguri (Eds.), The Centrality of Style (2013)<br />

Chris Thaiss, Gerd Bräuer, Paula Carl<strong>in</strong>o, Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams, <strong>and</strong> Aparna<br />

S<strong>in</strong>ha (Eds.), Writ<strong>in</strong>g Programs Worldwide: Profiles of Academic Writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong><br />

Many Places (2012)<br />

Andy Kirkpatrick <strong>and</strong> Zhichang Xu, Ch<strong>in</strong>ese Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g: An Introduction<br />

for Language Teachers (2012)<br />

Doreen Starke-Meyerr<strong>in</strong>g, Anthony Paré, Natasha Artemeva, Miriam Horne,<br />

<strong>and</strong> Larissa Yousoubova (Eds.), Writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> Knowledge Societies (2011)<br />

Mart<strong>in</strong>e Courant Rife, Shaun Slattery, <strong>and</strong> Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (Eds.),<br />

Copy(write): Intellectual Property <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>Classroom</strong> (2011)




Edited by Tara Roeder <strong>and</strong> Roseanne Gatto<br />

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Parlor Press, 3015 Brackenberry Drive, Anderson, South Carol<strong>in</strong>a 29621<br />

© 2015 by Tara Roeder <strong>and</strong> Roseanne Gatto. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons<br />

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.<br />

ISBN 978-1-64215-057-5 (pdf) | 978-1-64215-058-2 (epub) | 978-1-60235-651-1 (pbk.<br />

DOI 10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575<br />

Produced <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> United States of America<br />

Library of Congress Catalog<strong>in</strong>g-<strong>in</strong>-Publication Data<br />

<strong>Critical</strong> expressivism : <strong>the</strong>ory <strong>and</strong> practice <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> composition classroom / edited by Tara Roeder<br />

<strong>and</strong> Roseanne Gatto. pages cm. -- (Perspectives on writ<strong>in</strong>g)<br />

Includes bibliographical references.<br />

ISBN 978-1-60235-651-1 (pbk. : acid-free paper) -- ISBN 978-1-60235-652-8 (hardcover :<br />

acid-free paper) -- ISBN 978-1-64215-057-5 (pdf) -- ISBN 978-1-64215-058-2 (epub)<br />

1. English language--Rhetoric--Study <strong>and</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g. 2. English language--<strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong><br />

exercises--Study <strong>and</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g 3. <strong>Expressivism</strong> (Ethics) 4. Authorship--Study <strong>and</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g. I.<br />

Roeder, Tara, 1980- editor. II. Gatto, Roseanne, 1975- editor.<br />

PE1404.C748 2015<br />

808’.04207--dc23<br />

2015006807<br />

Copyeditor: Don Donahue<br />

Designer: Tara Reeser<br />

Series Editor: Susan H. McLeod<br />

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In memory of Anthony Petruzzi

Acknowledgments<br />

Many thanks to Mat<strong>the</strong>w T. Bird.<br />

We are tremendously grateful for your time, knowledge, <strong>and</strong> patience.


Preface: Yes, I Know That <strong>Expressivism</strong> Is Out of Vogue, But … ........3<br />

Lizbeth Bryant<br />

Re-Imag<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g <strong>Expressivism</strong>: An Introduction .......................7<br />

Tara Roeder <strong>and</strong> Roseanne Gatto<br />

SECTION ONE: CRITICAL SELF-CONSTRUCTION .....................13<br />

“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problem Terms ............15<br />

Peter Elbow<br />

Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay: A Pragmatic Defense ..............33<br />

Thomas Newkirk<br />

<strong>Critical</strong> Memoir <strong>and</strong> Identity Formation: Be<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

Belong<strong>in</strong>g, Becom<strong>in</strong>g .........................................55<br />

Nancy Mack<br />

<strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong>’s Alchemical Challenge ......................69<br />

Derek Owens<br />

Past-Writ<strong>in</strong>g: Negotiat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> Complexity of Experience<br />

<strong>and</strong> Memory ................................................79<br />

Jean Bessette<br />

Essai—A Metaphor: Writ<strong>in</strong>g to Show Th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g ....................93<br />

Lea Povozhaev<br />


Communication as Social Action: <strong>Critical</strong> Expressivist<br />

Pedagogies <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>Classroom</strong> ...........................107<br />

Patricia Webb Boyd<br />

From <strong>the</strong> Personal to <strong>the</strong> Social ................................123<br />

Daniel F. Coll<strong>in</strong>s<br />

“Is it Possible to Teach Writ<strong>in</strong>g So That People Stop Kill<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Each O<strong>the</strong>r?” Nonviolence, <strong>Composition</strong>, <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong> ........................................131<br />

Scott Wagar

Contents<br />

The (Un)Knowable Self <strong>and</strong> O<strong>the</strong>rs: <strong>Critical</strong> Empathy<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong> ...........................................149<br />

Eric Leake<br />

SECTION 3: HISTORIES ......................................161<br />

John Watson Is to Introspectionism as James Berl<strong>in</strong> Is to<br />

<strong>Expressivism</strong> (And O<strong>the</strong>r Analogies You Won’t F<strong>in</strong>d on <strong>the</strong> SAT) ......163<br />

Maja Wilson<br />

Expressive Pedagogies <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> University of Pittsburgh’s<br />

Alternative Curriculum Program, 1973-1979 .....................189<br />

Chris Warnick<br />

Reread<strong>in</strong>g Romanticism, Reread<strong>in</strong>g <strong>Expressivism</strong>: Revis<strong>in</strong>g<br />

“Voice” through Wordsworth’s Prefaces ..........................201<br />

Hannah J. Rule<br />

Emerson’s Pragmatic Call for <strong>Critical</strong> Conscience:<br />

Double Consciousness, Cognition, <strong>and</strong> Human Nature .............219<br />

Anthony Petruzzi *<br />

SECTION FOUR: PEDAGOGIES .................................247<br />

Place-Based Genre Writ<strong>in</strong>g as <strong>Critical</strong> Expressivist <strong>Practice</strong> ..........249<br />

David Seitz<br />

Multicultural <strong>Critical</strong> Pedagogy <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Community-Based<br />

<strong>Classroom</strong>: A Motivation for Foreground<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> Personal ...........261<br />

Kim M. Davis<br />

The Economy of <strong>Expressivism</strong> <strong>and</strong> Its Legacy of<br />

Low/No-Stakes Writ<strong>in</strong>g ......................................281<br />

Sheri Rysdam<br />

Revisit<strong>in</strong>g Radical Revision ...................................289<br />

Jeff Sommers<br />

Contributors ...............................................305<br />







BUT …<br />

Lizbeth Bryant<br />

Purdue University Calumet<br />

<strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong>: <strong>Theory</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Practice</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>Classroom</strong> offers<br />

those of us with “Yes-But” syndrome a solution. I was rem<strong>in</strong>ded of this syndrome<br />

<strong>in</strong> a web<strong>in</strong>ar <strong>in</strong> which Richard Johnson-Sheehan claims, “I th<strong>in</strong>k Chuck<br />

[Pa<strong>in</strong>e] <strong>and</strong> I are still process people despite some of <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>oretical arguments<br />

for post-process. We still believe we are teach<strong>in</strong>g students a writ<strong>in</strong>g process, <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>in</strong> a sense, genres guide us from <strong>the</strong> beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> process to <strong>the</strong> end.” Johnson-Sheehan<br />

<strong>and</strong> Pa<strong>in</strong>e expla<strong>in</strong> <strong>and</strong> justify <strong>the</strong>ir decision to teach writ<strong>in</strong>g as a<br />

process with a “yes-but” approach: Yes, I know that <strong>in</strong> our growth as a discipl<strong>in</strong>e<br />

we have moved from a focus on writ<strong>in</strong>g as a process to <strong>the</strong> social <strong>and</strong> cultural<br />

factors that impact language <strong>in</strong> our electronic worlds, but I still teach writ<strong>in</strong>g as<br />

a process <strong>and</strong> assist my students with develop<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir processes.<br />

Johnson-Sheehan, a scholar <strong>in</strong> rhetoric <strong>and</strong> composition, admits <strong>in</strong> 2012<br />

that he knows this approach to writ<strong>in</strong>g has been trashed by scholars who have<br />

controlled our meta-narrative, but admits that he sees a need for it. I have faced<br />

<strong>the</strong> same struggle to justify how I teach writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> what I study. Colleagues<br />

have asked, “Liz, how can you still focus on teach<strong>in</strong>g expressivism <strong>and</strong> voice<br />

when <strong>the</strong>re are new <strong>the</strong>ories to study?” That’s simple—I build new <strong>the</strong>ories <strong>and</strong><br />

practices <strong>in</strong>to my meta-narrative of <strong>Composition</strong> Studies. This ei<strong>the</strong>r/or epistemology<br />

doesn’t work.<br />

But, composition scholarship leads us to believe that we “are” one or <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r.<br />

In our scholarship one cannot “be” both/<strong>and</strong> because <strong>the</strong> significant scholars<br />

<strong>in</strong> our field have said that a social epistemic view of writ<strong>in</strong>g precludes an Expressive<br />

<strong>and</strong> Cognitive view of writ<strong>in</strong>g. However, as I work with <strong>the</strong> myriad of writers<br />

<strong>in</strong> my classes from first-year writ<strong>in</strong>g to graduate <strong>the</strong>sis writ<strong>in</strong>g, I experience<br />

writers th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> compos<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> various paradigms. Havier from East Chicago<br />

struggles with translat<strong>in</strong>g his mixture of black dialect <strong>and</strong> Spanglish <strong>in</strong>to<br />

St<strong>and</strong>ard American English. When Paul asks me if he should <strong>in</strong>clude a piece of<br />

research <strong>and</strong> a quote <strong>in</strong> his report, I ask him to see his writ<strong>in</strong>g situation from <strong>the</strong><br />

cognitive paradigm: “Does your audience need this <strong>in</strong>formation to underst<strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>and</strong> be conv<strong>in</strong>ced of your position?” Charma<strong>in</strong>e struggles to write <strong>the</strong> f<strong>in</strong>d<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.1.1<br />


Bryant<br />

from her orig<strong>in</strong>al research <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> f<strong>in</strong>al drafts of her <strong>the</strong>sis. She asks, “Can I really<br />

tell philosophy professors how I th<strong>in</strong>k <strong>the</strong>y should teach writ<strong>in</strong>g?” To assure<br />

her that this is what she is supposed to do, I draw on M. M. Bakht<strong>in</strong>’s idea of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g as a conversation that she can jo<strong>in</strong>, <strong>and</strong> how voice has both expressive as<br />

well as social dimensions.<br />

As a teacher <strong>and</strong> writer, I use various <strong>the</strong>oretical paradigms to give me different<br />

views of <strong>the</strong> phenomena of writ<strong>in</strong>g. Each of <strong>the</strong>se <strong>the</strong>ories is a slice of <strong>the</strong><br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g pie—one aspect of this <strong>in</strong>tricate, analytical, emotional practice we use to<br />

br<strong>in</strong>g thought to language. One of <strong>the</strong>se <strong>the</strong>ories does not expla<strong>in</strong> it all, so we<br />

keep study<strong>in</strong>g writers <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g, try<strong>in</strong>g to figure it out <strong>in</strong> its entirety.<br />

Can we create a new metanarrative, one based <strong>in</strong> build<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>ories of<br />

o<strong>the</strong>rs? Certa<strong>in</strong>ly. We can view this phenomenon of writ<strong>in</strong>g that we teach, study,<br />

<strong>and</strong> practice as composed of <strong>the</strong> many <strong>the</strong>ories <strong>and</strong> practices that have been <strong>and</strong><br />

are be<strong>in</strong>g developed <strong>in</strong> our scholarship. This is <strong>the</strong> mission of <strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong>:<br />

<strong>Theory</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Practice</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>Classroom</strong>. Its writers <strong>and</strong> editors are<br />

build<strong>in</strong>g on Sherrie Grad<strong>in</strong>’s Romanc<strong>in</strong>g Rhetorics: Social Expressivist Perspectives<br />

on <strong>the</strong> Teach<strong>in</strong>g of Writ<strong>in</strong>g from 1995 that <strong>the</strong>orizes a relationship between expressivism<br />

<strong>and</strong> social-constructivism (xviii). The problem with accomplish<strong>in</strong>g<br />

this is that academia has been built on one-upmanship: if my <strong>the</strong>ory is go<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

be given any credit, I have to trash <strong>the</strong> ones before me.<br />

For example, James Berl<strong>in</strong>’s words <strong>in</strong> “Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> Ideology <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Class” set up his classical “trash<strong>in</strong>g” of expressive rhetoric. In clos<strong>in</strong>g his essay<br />

Berl<strong>in</strong> writes, “it should now be apparent that a way of teach<strong>in</strong>g is never <strong>in</strong>nocent.<br />

Every pedagogy is imbricated <strong>in</strong> ideology, is a set of tacit assumptions<br />

about what is real, what is good, what is possible, <strong>and</strong> how power ought to be<br />

distributed.” He <strong>the</strong>n reiterates <strong>the</strong> ideology beh<strong>in</strong>d cognitive <strong>and</strong> expressive<br />

rhetoric, <strong>and</strong> ends with his support of social-epistemic rhetoric <strong>in</strong> which, “social-epistemic<br />

rhetoric attempts to place <strong>the</strong> question of ideology at <strong>the</strong> center<br />

of <strong>the</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g of writ<strong>in</strong>g. It offers both a detailed analysis of dehumaniz<strong>in</strong>g<br />

social experience <strong>and</strong> a self-critical <strong>and</strong> overtly historicized alternative based on<br />

democratic practices <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> economic social, <strong>and</strong> political, <strong>and</strong> cultural spheres.<br />

It is obvious that I f<strong>in</strong>d this alternative <strong>the</strong> most worthy of emulation <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

classroom, all <strong>the</strong> while admitt<strong>in</strong>g that it is <strong>the</strong> least formulaic <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> most<br />

difficult to carry out” (492). In <strong>the</strong> last sentence Berl<strong>in</strong> rem<strong>in</strong>ds every writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

teacher that “a rhetoric cannot escape <strong>the</strong> ideological question, <strong>and</strong> to ignore this<br />

is to fail our responsibilities as teachers <strong>and</strong> as citizens” (493).<br />

Here is <strong>the</strong> subtle yet evident belief that if teachers choose to employ a cognitive<br />

or expressive teach<strong>in</strong>g practice, <strong>the</strong>y have failed. Not want<strong>in</strong>g to be complete<br />

failures, one might employ <strong>the</strong> “yes-but” strategy: “Yes. I know that Berl<strong>in</strong> says<br />

this strategy is not good, but it certa<strong>in</strong>ly works <strong>in</strong> this class right here, right now.”<br />


Preface<br />

James J. Sosnoski labels <strong>the</strong>se spaces for trashed <strong>the</strong>ories as <strong>the</strong>ory junkyards.<br />

We reach back <strong>in</strong>to our <strong>the</strong>oretical junkyards to choose a <strong>the</strong>ory <strong>and</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g<br />

practice that works for us <strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual teach<strong>in</strong>g situations, go<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>the</strong> “hardto-reach<br />

basement shelves, boxes <strong>in</strong> attics, files, that our current word processors<br />

barely recognize” (Sosnoski 25). In my attic, I have blue milk crates of articles on<br />

student conferenc<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> archetypal criticism. My husb<strong>and</strong> asks me each year if<br />

we can get rid of <strong>the</strong> crates because he’s tired of mov<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m; my department<br />

chair, <strong>the</strong> narratologist, tells me that no one does that type of criticism anymore:<br />

“Liz, come on, do you really believe that archetypes are passed down <strong>in</strong> our<br />

unconsciousness?” And I respond, “You know, I’m not sure about that collective<br />

unconscious, but I do know that I can teach The House on Mango Street from <strong>the</strong><br />

perspective of Esparanza’s quest myth.” Here’s ano<strong>the</strong>r yes-but justification for<br />

us<strong>in</strong>g tools that have been discounted <strong>and</strong> trashed.<br />

Literary Criticism is also built on this pattern of trash<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> current <strong>the</strong>ory<br />

to propose <strong>the</strong> new. The New Critics burst onto <strong>the</strong> academic scene <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

1940s with <strong>the</strong>ir criticism of <strong>the</strong> biographical critics. Because <strong>the</strong> New Critics<br />

forbade <strong>the</strong> study of <strong>the</strong> author, <strong>the</strong>y trashed <strong>the</strong> biographical critics. In “The<br />

Intentional Fallacy” W. K. Wimsatt <strong>and</strong> Monroe Beardsley claim that it is a<br />

fallacy to determ<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong> mean<strong>in</strong>g of a poem by look<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tentions of <strong>the</strong><br />

author. Wimsatt <strong>and</strong> Beardsley argued that embedded <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> poem are mean<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

that <strong>the</strong> well-tra<strong>in</strong>ed critic can <strong>in</strong>terpret. Through <strong>the</strong> 1940s, 1950s, <strong>and</strong> 1960s,<br />

<strong>the</strong> New Critics were <strong>in</strong> vogue until <strong>the</strong> Marxists, fem<strong>in</strong>ists, <strong>and</strong> new historians<br />

came along to tell us what was wrong with <strong>the</strong> New Critics <strong>and</strong> why <strong>the</strong>y should<br />

be banished to <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>ory junkyard.<br />

But if we stay with <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>ory junkyard, we trash many <strong>the</strong>ories that expla<strong>in</strong><br />

how, why, when, <strong>and</strong> where writ<strong>in</strong>g happens. Each of <strong>the</strong> expressive, cognitive,<br />

<strong>and</strong> social-epistemic rhetorics, as well as Thomas Kent’s <strong>the</strong>ory of hermeneutic<br />

guess<strong>in</strong>g that moved us <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> post-process movement, expla<strong>in</strong>s just one aspect<br />

of produc<strong>in</strong>g texts. The <strong>the</strong>ories build to give us more <strong>in</strong>sight <strong>in</strong>to what humans<br />

do as <strong>the</strong>y compose <strong>and</strong> what teachers do to build writers. Our <strong>the</strong>ories build;<br />

<strong>the</strong>y are not trash. And each time a <strong>the</strong>ory is added, our pie gets larger <strong>and</strong> larger<br />

with many more slices for everyone when <strong>the</strong>y need it.<br />

The irony is that <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> midst of this supposed trash<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>re is build<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Richard Fulkerson’s study of composition at <strong>the</strong> turn of <strong>the</strong> twenty-first century<br />

reports on “<strong>the</strong> quiet expansion of Expressive approaches to teach<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g”<br />

(654). In 2005 Fulkerson offered his “meta<strong>the</strong>ory” of composition scholarship <strong>in</strong><br />

which he discerns that <strong>Expressivism</strong> is alive <strong>and</strong> well “despite numerous pound<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

by <strong>the</strong> cannons of postmodernism <strong>and</strong> result<strong>in</strong>g eulogies” (655).<br />

<strong>Composition</strong>’s metanarrative is <strong>in</strong> need of a revision that <strong>in</strong>tegrates all that<br />

we have discerned about writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g of writ<strong>in</strong>g: a metavision of<br />


Bryant<br />

our field that encompasses <strong>the</strong> places we have been <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>ories <strong>and</strong> rhetorics<br />

that we have practiced. And this is what <strong>the</strong> editors <strong>and</strong> authors of <strong>Critical</strong><br />

<strong>Expressivism</strong>: <strong>Theory</strong> <strong>and</strong> <strong>Practice</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>Classroom</strong> offer us. Their<br />

classroom stories build a both/<strong>and</strong> metanarrative of composition as <strong>the</strong>y <strong>the</strong>orize<br />

how <strong>the</strong> expressive practices are embedded <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> social practices <strong>and</strong> how <strong>the</strong><br />

social practices are imbedded <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> expressive practices of writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> learn<strong>in</strong>g.<br />


Berl<strong>in</strong>, J. A. (1988). Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> ideology <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g class. College English,<br />

50(5), 477-494.<br />

Fulkerson, R. (2005). <strong>Composition</strong> at <strong>the</strong> turn of <strong>the</strong> twenty-first century. College<br />

<strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong> Communication, 56(4), 654-687.<br />

Grad<strong>in</strong>, S. L. (1995). Romanc<strong>in</strong>g rhetorics: Social expressivist perspectives on <strong>the</strong><br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g of writ<strong>in</strong>g. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.<br />

Johnson-Sheehan, R., & Pa<strong>in</strong>e, C. (2010). Teach<strong>in</strong>g with genre: Cure for <strong>the</strong><br />

common writ<strong>in</strong>g course. Retrieved from Pearson Onl<strong>in</strong>e Professional Development<br />

Web site: http://www.english<strong>in</strong>structorexchange.com/2012/03/15/<br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g-with-genre-cure-for-<strong>the</strong>-common-writ<strong>in</strong>g-course-by-richard-johnson-sheehan-charles-pa<strong>in</strong>e-created-october-2010/<br />

Kent, T. (1989). Paralogic hermeneutics <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> possibilities of rhetoric. Rhetoric<br />

Review, 8(1), 24-42.<br />

Sosnoski, J. J. (2002). The <strong>the</strong>ory junkyard. In J. J. Williams (Ed.), The Institution<br />

of Literature (pp. 25-42). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.<br />

Wimsatt, W. K., Jr., & Beardsley, M. (1946). The <strong>in</strong>tentional fallacy. Sewanee<br />

Review, 54, 468-488.<br />




Tara Roeder <strong>and</strong> Roseanne Gatto<br />

St. John’s University<br />

It’s no secret that <strong>the</strong> term “expressivism” has been a divisive one <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> field<br />

of composition <strong>and</strong> rhetoric. In order to avoid simply rehash<strong>in</strong>g old debates, we<br />

began this project with <strong>the</strong> rejection of an overly simplified “social epistemic”/“-<br />

expressivist” b<strong>in</strong>ary. Our goal here is to beg<strong>in</strong> a new conversation, one <strong>in</strong> which<br />

established <strong>and</strong> emerg<strong>in</strong>g scholars united by a belief that <strong>the</strong> term expressivism<br />

cont<strong>in</strong>ues to have a vitally important function <strong>in</strong> our field can explore <strong>the</strong> shape<br />

of expressivist <strong>the</strong>ory, research, <strong>and</strong> pedagogy <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> twenty-first century.<br />

While our project undertakes <strong>the</strong> question of what it might mean to re-appropriate<br />

<strong>the</strong> term expressivism, an equally important one might be: why bo<strong>the</strong>r?<br />

As Peter Elbow himself writes <strong>in</strong> his contribution to this volume, “As far as I<br />

can tell, <strong>the</strong> term ‘expressivist’ was co<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>and</strong> used only by people who wanted<br />

a word for people <strong>the</strong>y disapproved of <strong>and</strong> wanted to discredit.” As Sherrie L.<br />

Grad<strong>in</strong> po<strong>in</strong>ts out <strong>in</strong> her groundbreak<strong>in</strong>g book Romanc<strong>in</strong>g Rhetorics: Social Expressivist<br />

Perspectives on <strong>the</strong> Teach<strong>in</strong>g of Writ<strong>in</strong>g (a book to which we are greatly<br />

<strong>in</strong>debted, <strong>and</strong> which <strong>in</strong> many ways began <strong>the</strong> conversation we are cont<strong>in</strong>u<strong>in</strong>g<br />

today), “<strong>the</strong> expressivist emphasis on imag<strong>in</strong>ation, creativity, <strong>and</strong> process … has<br />

often resulted <strong>in</strong> a charge of anti-<strong>in</strong>tellectualism” (1995, p. 7).<br />

In an email exchange several of us participated <strong>in</strong> while work<strong>in</strong>g on this<br />

project, Peter Elbow raised a concern about <strong>the</strong> value of <strong>the</strong> term expressivism<br />

itself, along with <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>trigu<strong>in</strong>g question: “Could it be an <strong>in</strong>stance of disparaged<br />

people decid<strong>in</strong>g to use <strong>the</strong> term of disparagement out of pride?” That certa<strong>in</strong>ly<br />

resonated with <strong>the</strong> two of us, who have <strong>in</strong>deed heard disparag<strong>in</strong>g criticism from<br />

colleagues who view expressivism as outmoded, elitist, or uncritical. The term<br />

“expressivism” seems qua<strong>in</strong>t, somehow; identify<strong>in</strong>g as “expressivist” naïve. So<br />

while it makes sense to challenge <strong>the</strong> very use of <strong>the</strong> term, it also began to make<br />

sense that reclaim<strong>in</strong>g it (or, claim<strong>in</strong>g it for <strong>the</strong> first time, s<strong>in</strong>ce it was, as Elbow<br />

rem<strong>in</strong>ds us, not “ours” to beg<strong>in</strong> with) might be a gently subversive act. (Or a<br />

perversely ironic one?) Or, as Nancy Mack put it, “build<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> term by attach<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> word ‘critical’ is a rebellious action—<strong>and</strong> not just reactionary. How<br />

terms accrue mean<strong>in</strong>g is Bakht<strong>in</strong>ian. We can only hope to appropriate <strong>the</strong> word<br />

momentarily <strong>and</strong> utter it with our accent.”<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.1.3<br />


Roeder <strong>and</strong> Gatto<br />

So it is with our accent that we offer this exploration of not only how <strong>the</strong><br />

term expressivism came to mean, but also how it might come to mean anew. We<br />

believe that <strong>the</strong> best expressivist practices have always been about complex negotiations<br />

between self <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> dismantl<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> “public”/”private”<br />

b<strong>in</strong>ary that still seems to too often haunt our conversations about writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

pedagogy. But we also want to push our <strong>the</strong>ory <strong>and</strong> practice fur<strong>the</strong>r, conceptualiz<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which our expressivist values <strong>in</strong>form our scholarship <strong>and</strong> our<br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> an <strong>in</strong>creas<strong>in</strong>gly corporatized educational system.<br />

So what exactly do we value? Our contributors have no one, uniform voice or<br />

approach, <strong>and</strong> we th<strong>in</strong>k this is a good th<strong>in</strong>g. We notice that when <strong>the</strong> two of us<br />

talk about teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g, we spend a lot of time question<strong>in</strong>g h<strong>and</strong>books<br />

<strong>and</strong> guides for <strong>the</strong> “novice” writer, where race <strong>and</strong> gender <strong>and</strong> class <strong>and</strong> sexuality<br />

are erased <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> name of an <strong>in</strong>creas<strong>in</strong>gly ludicrous concept of “correctness.” We<br />

know we don’t believe <strong>in</strong> prescriptions or generalities; we believe <strong>in</strong> a localized,<br />

context-specific pedagogy where one size never fits all. And we fiercely value our<br />

students <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> complex embodied knowledge <strong>the</strong>y br<strong>in</strong>g to our classrooms.<br />

We th<strong>in</strong>k that when <strong>the</strong>ir experiences are at <strong>the</strong> forefront of our classrooms,<br />

excit<strong>in</strong>g thoughts, relevant research, <strong>and</strong> mean<strong>in</strong>gful connections can take place<br />

via a variety of platforms, from h<strong>and</strong>bound books to conversations to YouTube<br />

videos.<br />

So what makes this “expressivist”? We are <strong>in</strong>debted to a tradition <strong>in</strong> which<br />

scholars such as Peter Elbow, Sherrie Grad<strong>in</strong>, Nancy Mack, Thomas Newkirk,<br />

Thomas O’Donnell, Michelle Payne, Lad Tob<strong>in</strong>, <strong>and</strong> Robert Yagelski have<br />

demonstrated <strong>the</strong> complex ways <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> “social” <strong>and</strong> “personal” are not<br />

two poles <strong>in</strong> a b<strong>in</strong>ary system. We are also <strong>in</strong>debted to <strong>the</strong> fem<strong>in</strong>ist maxim, “<strong>the</strong><br />

personal is political.” We hope that this will be <strong>the</strong> beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g of a new discussion,<br />

one <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> complex <strong>in</strong>teractions between self <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r are contextualized<br />

<strong>in</strong> a way that values <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual circumstances of our students’ lives<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y make mean<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong>ir experiences <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terrogate<br />

<strong>the</strong> culture <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y live.<br />

Our contributors focus on both how to position expressivism <strong>the</strong>oretically<br />

with<strong>in</strong> twenty-first century composition studies, <strong>and</strong> how specific assignments<br />

<strong>and</strong> pedagogies can facilitate our underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of what expressivist practices<br />

mean to our students <strong>and</strong> ourselves. While many of <strong>the</strong> essays share similar<br />

<strong>the</strong>mes, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>re is some overlap between <strong>the</strong> sections, we identified four major<br />

str<strong>and</strong>s surfac<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> our contributors’ work.<br />

Section One, entitled “<strong>Critical</strong> Self-Construction,” complicates <strong>the</strong> notion<br />

that “personal” writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> “academic” writ<strong>in</strong>g occupy separate categories on<br />

some hierarchy of sophistication. It opens with Peter Elbow, who problematizes<br />

<strong>the</strong> very terms “expressivism” <strong>and</strong> “personal writ<strong>in</strong>g” that have so long been<br />


Re-Imag<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g <strong>Expressivism</strong><br />

connected with his work. He questions what <strong>the</strong> term “personal” means, po<strong>in</strong>t<strong>in</strong>g<br />

out that when we are truly <strong>in</strong>vested <strong>in</strong> “academic” topics, our own feel<strong>in</strong>gs,<br />

histories, experiences, <strong>and</strong> languages will <strong>in</strong>evitably shape our texts: “I may not<br />

be writ<strong>in</strong>g here about my sex life or my feel<strong>in</strong>gs about a sunset, but it’s a personal<br />

story never<strong>the</strong>less.” This <strong>in</strong>sight sheds a mean<strong>in</strong>gful light on <strong>the</strong> collective<br />

project we are undertak<strong>in</strong>g here, one <strong>in</strong> which each contributor was compelled<br />

to become <strong>in</strong>volved because of her or his own beliefs <strong>and</strong> experiences as teachers,<br />

writers, <strong>and</strong> th<strong>in</strong>kers.<br />

Thomas Newkirk analyzes <strong>the</strong> sources of some teachers’ “discomfort” <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

face of “personal” writ<strong>in</strong>g, explor<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> complexity <strong>in</strong>volved <strong>in</strong> respond<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

<strong>the</strong> traumatic <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> moralistic <strong>in</strong> student texts. He also makes a powerful case<br />

aga<strong>in</strong>st dismiss<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> “personal essay” through <strong>the</strong> words of his student Brianna,<br />

who rem<strong>in</strong>ds us that “by turn<strong>in</strong>g a bl<strong>in</strong>d eye to <strong>the</strong>se types of [personal]<br />

essays, we might as well be turn<strong>in</strong>g a bl<strong>in</strong>d eye to literature itself.” Nancy Mack<br />

<strong>and</strong> Derek Owens also challenge <strong>the</strong> idea that writ<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong> self is necessarily<br />

a solipsistic or uncritical act. Mack looks at <strong>the</strong> critical function of memoir, a<br />

genre that allows writers <strong>and</strong> readers to question stability <strong>and</strong> essentialist notions<br />

of identity: “a critical memoir approach asks <strong>the</strong> writer to cont<strong>in</strong>ually reconsider<br />

one’s own master narratives,” rais<strong>in</strong>g questions about how such stories “could<br />

be actively re-<strong>in</strong>terpreted <strong>and</strong> revised to represent a newly constructed, more<br />

ethical truth.” Such an <strong>in</strong>sight is excit<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> face of <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of stereotypical<br />

“progression” Owens sees as characteristic <strong>in</strong> many composition courses: “One<br />

might picture <strong>the</strong> progression like some k<strong>in</strong>d of game board—each student enter<strong>in</strong>g<br />

via <strong>the</strong>ir own unique paths <strong>and</strong> histories, engag<strong>in</strong>g with <strong>the</strong>m along <strong>the</strong><br />

way, but ultimately everyone com<strong>in</strong>g closer <strong>and</strong> closer to a common f<strong>in</strong>ish l<strong>in</strong>e<br />

where it’s not <strong>the</strong>ir ‘expressed’ personal histories that matter but, say, <strong>the</strong> way<br />

<strong>the</strong>y marshal evidence, cite sources, make <strong>in</strong>ferences, assemble claims. Establish<br />

authority.” The fact that personally mean<strong>in</strong>gful work is, at its best, also “critical”<br />

work is evidenced by Owens’ own experience compos<strong>in</strong>g his memoir about his<br />

mo<strong>the</strong>r, a process through which he “became <strong>in</strong>terested <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> strangeness of<br />

memory <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> slipper<strong>in</strong>ess of identity.” Jean Bessette also stresses <strong>the</strong> “dynamic<br />

slipper<strong>in</strong>ess of memory” <strong>in</strong> her contribution to this volume, explor<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which fem<strong>in</strong>ist conceptions of memory as “necessarily social <strong>and</strong><br />

discursive” can contribute to an enriched underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which<br />

ask<strong>in</strong>g students to write <strong>the</strong>mselves is an <strong>in</strong>herently critical act, one <strong>in</strong> which we<br />

need to face head on static <strong>and</strong> limit<strong>in</strong>g notions of what our experiences signify.<br />

Lea Povozhaev also tackles <strong>the</strong> tidy divides between “creative,” “personal,” <strong>and</strong><br />

“academic” writ<strong>in</strong>g, po<strong>in</strong>t<strong>in</strong>g out that <strong>the</strong> diverse work of “children creat<strong>in</strong>g art,<br />

prisoners writ<strong>in</strong>g poems, <strong>and</strong> students writ<strong>in</strong>g” evidences <strong>the</strong> fact that creative<br />

acts can be “pleasurable, <strong>the</strong>rapeutic, <strong>and</strong> educational.” The act of eschew<strong>in</strong>g<br />


Roeder <strong>and</strong> Gatto<br />

rigid generic dist<strong>in</strong>ctions can, our contributors evidence, be both liberatory <strong>and</strong><br />

pedagogically useful.<br />

Section Two, “Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> Social Change,” explores some of <strong>the</strong><br />

multiple ways <strong>in</strong> which expressivist <strong>the</strong>ory <strong>and</strong> practice are connected to larger<br />

political <strong>and</strong> social goals. For Patricia Webb Boyd, <strong>in</strong> a period when “many<br />

may feel unable to control <strong>the</strong>ir own lives, much less effect change <strong>in</strong> larger<br />

society,” <strong>the</strong> question at h<strong>and</strong> becomes: “How can we imag<strong>in</strong>e creative alternatives<br />

where students <strong>and</strong> teachers can … see <strong>the</strong>mselves as active participants <strong>in</strong><br />

public spheres/discourses who can co-create change ra<strong>the</strong>r than be passive consumers?”<br />

Boyd sees <strong>the</strong> role of critical expressivism as one that encourages our<br />

students to feel connected to <strong>the</strong>ir own experiences, <strong>and</strong> thus to larger goals <strong>and</strong><br />

communities. Daniel Coll<strong>in</strong>s, <strong>in</strong> his lyric collage, ma<strong>in</strong>ta<strong>in</strong>s that “expressivist<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ory … upholds <strong>the</strong> idea that to write is to discover oneself amidst an<br />

array of o<strong>the</strong>rs.” It is through our students’ writ<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong>ir lived experience<br />

that <strong>the</strong>y can forge connections to a larger culture, <strong>and</strong> beg<strong>in</strong> to enact change.<br />

Scott Wagar <strong>and</strong> Eric Leake both focus on <strong>the</strong> relationship between expressivist<br />

practice <strong>and</strong> empathy. For Wagar, <strong>the</strong> goals of non-violence <strong>and</strong> recognition of<br />

<strong>in</strong>terdependence can be facilitated through a pedagogy based on <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>sights of<br />

<strong>the</strong>orists such as Mary Rose O’Reilly, who asks “Is it possible to teach English so<br />

that people stop kill<strong>in</strong>g each o<strong>the</strong>r?” A fraught question, but one that is essential<br />

to <strong>the</strong> goals of critical expressivist pedagogy—a pedagogy <strong>in</strong> which we might<br />

“consciously re-frame our work <strong>in</strong> non-violent terms.” This is not to suggest<br />

that we “critical expressivists” have all <strong>the</strong> answers: as Eric Leake rem<strong>in</strong>ds us <strong>in</strong><br />

his nuanced exam<strong>in</strong>ation of <strong>the</strong> role of empathy <strong>in</strong> successful expressivist teach<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

“a critical empathy cont<strong>in</strong>ually rem<strong>in</strong>ds us that empathy is always at best<br />

a careful <strong>and</strong> purposeful approximation of ano<strong>the</strong>r’s experience.” However, by<br />

work<strong>in</strong>g toge<strong>the</strong>r with our students, we may f<strong>in</strong>d <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of ground <strong>in</strong> which<br />

our empathy can be at once nourished <strong>and</strong> exam<strong>in</strong>ed.<br />

Section Three, “Histories,” provides valuable <strong>in</strong>sight <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which<br />

expressivist pedagogies <strong>and</strong> ideas have developed contextually. Maja Wilson <strong>in</strong>structively<br />

teases out <strong>the</strong> l<strong>in</strong>ks between Berl<strong>in</strong>’s “battle with <strong>the</strong> expressivists <strong>and</strong><br />

Watson’s battle with <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>trospectionists.” Her playful <strong>and</strong> salient piece urges us<br />

to locate our <strong>the</strong>ories of composition on solid ethical territory, while provid<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong>sightful, contextualized read<strong>in</strong>gs of Berl<strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong> light of John Watson’s <strong>the</strong>ories<br />

of behaviorism. Chris Warnick’s essay takes up Karen Surnam Paley’s call to “research<br />

actual ‘expressionist’ classroom practice” by delv<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>to materials from<br />

The University of Pittsburgh’s “Alternative Curriculum” of <strong>the</strong> 1970s, exam<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>novative program drew on expressivist philosophies,<br />

practices, <strong>and</strong> assignments. Warnick’s essay leaves us with a valuable call<br />

to cont<strong>in</strong>ue <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of archival research that will better allow us to underst<strong>and</strong><br />


Re-Imag<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g <strong>Expressivism</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> practical results of expressivist pedagogies. Hannah Rule explores <strong>the</strong> rich<br />

historical relationship between Romanticism <strong>and</strong> expressivism, argu<strong>in</strong>g that particular<br />

“pedagogies <strong>and</strong> rhetorics are deemed untenable because <strong>the</strong>y are labeled<br />

romantic or expressivist, or romantic-expressivist.” Rule’s essay complicates <strong>the</strong><br />

neat divides between <strong>the</strong> various composition “camps” through a careful read<strong>in</strong>g<br />

of both <strong>the</strong> Romantics <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> “expressivists.” Anthony Petruzzi similarly looks<br />

to locate expressivist practice with<strong>in</strong> a history of “critical conscience” as def<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

by Emerson, offer<strong>in</strong>g a nuanced read<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> role of pragmatism <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> development<br />

of expressivist philosophy.<br />

Our f<strong>in</strong>al section, “Pedagogies,” explores specific expressivist assignments <strong>and</strong><br />

classroom practices <strong>in</strong> hopes of illum<strong>in</strong>at<strong>in</strong>g what exactly some of us do as critical<br />

expressivists. David Seitz questions <strong>the</strong> value of hav<strong>in</strong>g our students “consume<br />

academic texts … <strong>and</strong> only reproduce <strong>the</strong>ir discourse <strong>and</strong> generic forms.” He<br />

<strong>in</strong>stead offers assignments “supported by pr<strong>in</strong>ciples of place-based education <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong>ories of genre as textual sites of social action,” explor<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which<br />

students can use writ<strong>in</strong>g as a way to mediate between <strong>the</strong> expectations of <strong>the</strong><br />

academy <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir own sense of <strong>the</strong> cultures <strong>and</strong> communities <strong>the</strong>y occupy. Kim<br />

M. Davis urges us to value <strong>the</strong> “<strong>in</strong>tersection of community-based learn<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

critical pedagogy.” Davis’ ethnographic study of her students <strong>in</strong> Detroit perfectly<br />

illustrates <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which “personal writ<strong>in</strong>g became <strong>the</strong> vehicle to help bridge<br />

<strong>the</strong> connection between students’ lived realities regard<strong>in</strong>g race <strong>and</strong> place <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

critical pedagogy goal of multiculturalism.” Sheri Rysdam turns to <strong>the</strong> expressivist<br />

legacy of “low/no stakes writ<strong>in</strong>g” as she exam<strong>in</strong>es <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which low-stakes<br />

assignments have a particularly valuable function for emerg<strong>in</strong>g student writers.<br />

Jeff Sommers re-visits <strong>the</strong> concept of radical revision <strong>in</strong> concrete terms, draw<strong>in</strong>g<br />

on his own students’ positive experiences with acts of mean<strong>in</strong>gfully re-enter<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir texts <strong>and</strong> discover<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> “rich possibilities open to <strong>the</strong>m through revision.”<br />

There’s no doubt that we <strong>and</strong> our students face new challenges as we move<br />

through <strong>the</strong> twenty-first century toge<strong>the</strong>r. We certa<strong>in</strong>ly don’t have all <strong>the</strong> answers<br />

to <strong>the</strong> questions <strong>the</strong> writers <strong>in</strong> our courses will grapple with as <strong>the</strong>y cont<strong>in</strong>ue to<br />

make sense of <strong>the</strong>ir experiences, <strong>the</strong>ir educations, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> culture of violence<br />

<strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y live. But we do hope that we can offer assignments, approaches,<br />

<strong>and</strong> responses that are worthy of <strong>the</strong>m, <strong>and</strong> that enable <strong>the</strong>m to make sense of<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir experiences <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> world around <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong> mean<strong>in</strong>gful, <strong>in</strong>novative, <strong>and</strong><br />

self-directed ways.<br />


Grad<strong>in</strong>, S. (1995). Romanc<strong>in</strong>g rhetorics: Social expressivist perspectives on <strong>the</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g<br />

of writ<strong>in</strong>g. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.<br />







Peter Elbow<br />

University of Massachussetts Amherst<br />

When dispute about someth<strong>in</strong>g goes round <strong>and</strong> round without resolution,<br />

it’s often a sign that <strong>the</strong> key term has too many unexplored mean<strong>in</strong>gs. I aim to<br />

show a k<strong>in</strong>d of hidden ambiguity <strong>in</strong> “Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>,”<br />

<strong>and</strong> show how this leads to confusion <strong>and</strong> bad th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. First, I’ll explore <strong>the</strong><br />

ambiguity <strong>in</strong> “personal writ<strong>in</strong>g.” Then I’ll explore “expressivism.” James Berl<strong>in</strong><br />

said that personal writ<strong>in</strong>g—writ<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong> self—is <strong>the</strong> hallmark of expressivism<br />

<strong>and</strong> named me as a prime expressivist. I’ll try to expla<strong>in</strong> why I <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r<br />

so-called “expressivists” made a prom<strong>in</strong>ent place for personal writ<strong>in</strong>g but didn’t<br />

consider it better or more important than o<strong>the</strong>r k<strong>in</strong>ds of writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />


The term personal writ<strong>in</strong>g has caused needless argument <strong>and</strong> confusion because<br />

<strong>in</strong> fact <strong>the</strong>re is no such th<strong>in</strong>g as “personal writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>in</strong> itself. There are three<br />

different dimensions of <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>y can be present <strong>in</strong> various comb<strong>in</strong>ations<br />

<strong>in</strong> any piece of writ<strong>in</strong>g. The topic can be personal or not; <strong>the</strong> language<br />

can be personal or not; <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g can be personal or not.<br />

Typical personal topics are <strong>the</strong> feel<strong>in</strong>gs or experiences of <strong>the</strong> particular writer.<br />

Typical personal language is everyday spoken, colloquial, vernacular, or<br />

low-register language <strong>and</strong> syntax.<br />

Typical personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g makes use of metaphors, feel<strong>in</strong>gs, associations,<br />

hunches, <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r such processes that are not systematic or discipl<strong>in</strong>ed. 1<br />


A personal topic might be “My Experiences with Revis<strong>in</strong>g” or “My Experiences<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Peace Corps <strong>in</strong> Haiti.” A strik<strong>in</strong>g example is Margaret Bullet-Jonas’<br />

Holy Hunger, a penetrat<strong>in</strong>g account of her struggles with an eat<strong>in</strong>g disorder.<br />

Personal topics contrast with nonpersonal topics like <strong>the</strong>se: “The Revis<strong>in</strong>g <strong>Practice</strong>s<br />

of First-Year Students” or “How <strong>the</strong> Peace Corps Works” or “Conditions<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.01<br />


Elbow<br />

<strong>in</strong> Haiti after <strong>the</strong> Hurricane” or “Cultural Causes of Eat<strong>in</strong>g Disorders.” Essays<br />

on <strong>the</strong>se nonpersonal topics might never treat <strong>the</strong> writer or her experience at all.<br />

Obviously <strong>the</strong>re is a cont<strong>in</strong>uum or spectrum between completely personal<br />

<strong>and</strong> nonpersonal topics. One example is common <strong>in</strong> journalism or magaz<strong>in</strong>e<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> some books: <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g is based on <strong>in</strong>terviews <strong>and</strong> it almost floods<br />

<strong>the</strong> reader with <strong>the</strong> most deeply personal details of someone’s life, often us<strong>in</strong>g<br />

lots of personal language from <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>terviewee. Yet <strong>the</strong> writer rema<strong>in</strong>s completely<br />

hidden <strong>and</strong> uses no personal language <strong>in</strong> his or her own voice. Here’s ano<strong>the</strong>r<br />

marg<strong>in</strong>al case: a writer takes a seem<strong>in</strong>gly personal topic—say his or her own<br />

alcohol use—<strong>and</strong> make it nonpersonal by tak<strong>in</strong>g a wholly detached, medical, or<br />

phenomenological approach. (Sometimes this is not so much a way of mak<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> topic impersonal as us<strong>in</strong>g highly detached impersonal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g or language<br />

for a personal topic.)<br />

There’s a k<strong>in</strong>d of hybrid between personal <strong>and</strong> nonpersonal that has become<br />

a recognizable genre <strong>in</strong> first-year writ<strong>in</strong>g courses: teachers have discovered that<br />

students often do a better job with “academic research”—e.g., eat<strong>in</strong>g habits or<br />

college study habits—if <strong>the</strong> writer also uses <strong>the</strong> paper to explore his or her own<br />

personal experiences <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> area. Of course adults <strong>and</strong> professionals do <strong>the</strong> same<br />

th<strong>in</strong>g. Jane H<strong>in</strong>dman, <strong>in</strong> “Mak<strong>in</strong>g Writ<strong>in</strong>g Matter,” writes of <strong>the</strong> personal topic<br />

of her own dr<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> an essay that’s also about <strong>the</strong> impersonal topic of human<br />

discourse <strong>and</strong> agency. Nancy Sommers, <strong>in</strong> “Between <strong>the</strong> Drafts,” writes of <strong>the</strong><br />

personal topic of her own revis<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> an essay that’s also about revis<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> general.<br />

Keith Gilyard uses alternate chapters to focus on <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> nonpersonal<br />

as a topic <strong>in</strong> Voices of <strong>the</strong> Self.<br />

Though we thus see marg<strong>in</strong>al or mixed topics, <strong>the</strong> ma<strong>in</strong> po<strong>in</strong>t bears repeat<strong>in</strong>g:<br />

<strong>the</strong> topic can be personal or not regardless of whe<strong>the</strong>r <strong>the</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g or language<br />

is personal.<br />


What is personal language? We usually call language personal if it uses slang<br />

or colloquial forms or an <strong>in</strong>formal register. There’s a natural implied metaphor<br />

here of physical closeness <strong>and</strong> presence (a “metaphor we live by”): when someone<br />

gets very close it feels personal. What’s closest <strong>and</strong> most personal is a hug or<br />

embrace. Distance <strong>and</strong> absence feel more impersonal or formal. Colloquial language<br />

sounds like speech, <strong>and</strong> speech gives us more sense of <strong>the</strong> writer’s physical<br />

presence sitt<strong>in</strong>g next to us—more <strong>in</strong>timate <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>refore more personal.<br />

A word like “talky” feels more personal than “colloquial;” “figure out” than<br />

“conclude.” A certa<strong>in</strong> number of teachers <strong>and</strong> academic journals ban contractions:<br />

contractions give <strong>the</strong> sound of speech; non-contractions give a sound less<br />


“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

heard <strong>in</strong> speech. The first person “I” calls attention to <strong>the</strong> presence of <strong>the</strong> writer<br />

<strong>and</strong> presumably this expla<strong>in</strong>s <strong>the</strong> ritual prohibition aga<strong>in</strong>st it <strong>in</strong> many academic<br />

situations—especially <strong>in</strong> science (APA guidel<strong>in</strong>es to <strong>the</strong> contrary notwithst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g).<br />

“We” somewhat dilutes <strong>the</strong> sta<strong>in</strong> of first person. The second person “you”<br />

calls attention to <strong>the</strong> reader as a person, <strong>and</strong> even that seems enough to be regarded<br />

as too personal for some academic writ<strong>in</strong>g. Because most of <strong>the</strong>se features<br />

give a greater sense of presence or of contact between writer <strong>and</strong> reader, Deborah<br />

Tannen <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r l<strong>in</strong>guists call <strong>the</strong>m “<strong>in</strong>volvement” strategies.<br />

The use of a question can make language more personal by imply<strong>in</strong>g conversational<br />

contact between writer <strong>and</strong> reader. Compare <strong>the</strong>se two passages:<br />

There is only a fa<strong>in</strong>t <strong>and</strong> ambiguous correlation between prostate<br />

cancer <strong>and</strong> a high PSA read<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

But how about PSA tests for prostate cancer? How much can<br />

we trust <strong>the</strong>m?<br />

Aga<strong>in</strong> it must be remembered that <strong>the</strong>re’s no black/white divid<strong>in</strong>g l<strong>in</strong>e between<br />

personal <strong>and</strong> nonpersonal language, but ra<strong>the</strong>r a cont<strong>in</strong>uum.<br />

Personal language can be used for nonpersonal topics. The most obvious site<br />

is <strong>in</strong> much note-tak<strong>in</strong>g, freewrit<strong>in</strong>g, rough exploratory writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>formal<br />

letter writ<strong>in</strong>g when <strong>the</strong> topic is wholly nonpersonal <strong>and</strong> perhaps scholarly—for<br />

example even some technical scientific topic. Email has <strong>in</strong>creased <strong>the</strong> amount of<br />

personal language <strong>and</strong> personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g used for nonpersonal topics.<br />

But do we f<strong>in</strong>d personal language <strong>in</strong> published writ<strong>in</strong>g about nonpersonal<br />

topics? If we look back over <strong>the</strong> last fifty years or so at newspapers, magaz<strong>in</strong>es,<br />

<strong>and</strong> nonfiction for a wide audience, we notice a general drift along <strong>the</strong> cont<strong>in</strong>uum<br />

towards more <strong>in</strong>formal, personal registers <strong>in</strong> published writ<strong>in</strong>g. Such<br />

<strong>in</strong>formality of language was often experienced as a violation of “proper st<strong>and</strong>ards<br />

for writ<strong>in</strong>g.” But popular nonfiction has come to use more <strong>and</strong> more personal<br />

registers—even about nonpersonal topics. Literary nonfiction <strong>in</strong> particular (for<br />

example <strong>in</strong> nature writ<strong>in</strong>g) often uses some of <strong>the</strong> more l<strong>in</strong>guistically personal<br />

resources of fiction.<br />

In The New Yorker—a magaz<strong>in</strong>e that’s always been fastidious about language—we<br />

f<strong>in</strong>d a grow<strong>in</strong>g use of <strong>in</strong>formal colloquial language. Look at <strong>the</strong> first<br />

sentence <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> second paragraph below:<br />

There is noth<strong>in</strong>g wrong with cars, TV sets, <strong>and</strong> runn<strong>in</strong>g<br />

shoes. What’s wrong is <strong>the</strong> waste—chemicals, heavy metals,<br />

CO2—that’s produced when we make <strong>the</strong>m, use <strong>the</strong>m, <strong>and</strong>,<br />

eventually, throw <strong>the</strong>m away. Elim<strong>in</strong>ate that waste, <strong>and</strong> you<br />

elim<strong>in</strong>ate <strong>the</strong> problem.<br />


Elbow<br />

18<br />

Right, <strong>and</strong> why not cure cancer while you’re at it? Last time we<br />

checked, waste—l<strong>and</strong>fills, smog, river sludge—was <strong>the</strong> price<br />

we paid for a healthy economy. (Surowiecki, 2002, p. 56)<br />

William Safire often took a conservative l<strong>in</strong>e about language <strong>in</strong> his New York<br />

Times columns, so it’s strik<strong>in</strong>g to see how much personal language he used for<br />

<strong>the</strong> nonpersonal topic of correct <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>correct language. His writ<strong>in</strong>g was often<br />

conversational, casual, first person, sometimes slangy. He celebrated <strong>the</strong> clash of<br />

registers <strong>and</strong> liked sudden swerves <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> personal, especially <strong>in</strong> asides: “In <strong>the</strong><br />

age of multiculturalism <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terdiscipl<strong>in</strong>arianism (<strong>the</strong>re’s a new one), most of<br />

<strong>the</strong> nonscientific uses of <strong>the</strong> term have been pejorative.” In <strong>the</strong> same column,<br />

he started a section with a one-sentence paragraph: “You pay for good l<strong>in</strong>guistic<br />

lawyer<strong>in</strong>g, you get it.” And he ends <strong>the</strong> section with yet a shorter paragraph: “I<br />

spell it tchotchki. Do I need a lawyer?”<br />

Students often use <strong>in</strong>formal language for impersonal topics even if <strong>the</strong>y have<br />

been directed to avoid it. But teachers should note how often good writers <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> world br<strong>in</strong>g to bear personal language <strong>and</strong> personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g on nonpersonal<br />

topics—<strong>and</strong> that most of our students will do virtually all of <strong>the</strong>ir future writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

outside <strong>the</strong> academy. Anne Herr<strong>in</strong>gton writes: “Fail<strong>in</strong>g to recognize <strong>the</strong> presence<br />

of [l<strong>in</strong>guistic] render<strong>in</strong>g [of personal experience] <strong>in</strong> some academic writ<strong>in</strong>g—<strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g with<strong>in</strong> composition studies—contributes to dismiss<strong>in</strong>g its value<br />

<strong>in</strong> undergraduate writ<strong>in</strong>g” (2002, p. 233). A number of bus<strong>in</strong>ess genres, however,<br />

are notable for strenuously resist<strong>in</strong>g personal language.<br />

In published academic writ<strong>in</strong>g we also see a gradual slide toward <strong>in</strong>formal<br />

language over <strong>the</strong> last fifty years. Changes might seem subtle if you are <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

middle of <strong>the</strong>m, but I ga<strong>the</strong>r that scholarly writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>, say, Spa<strong>in</strong> <strong>and</strong> Germany<br />

reta<strong>in</strong>s a formality that has been ab<strong>and</strong>oned here. On <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r h<strong>and</strong>, it’s <strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to note nontrivial movement <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r direction toward a formal<br />

register <strong>in</strong> academic writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> our field. Essays from <strong>the</strong> early days of College<br />

<strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong> Communication tended to use a more personal register than<br />

what we’ve seen s<strong>in</strong>ce <strong>the</strong> field has worked harder at professionalism. Th<strong>in</strong>k<br />

about some of <strong>the</strong> essays by, say, Edward Corbett <strong>and</strong> James Corder—esteemed<br />

scholars who never<strong>the</strong>less pulled <strong>the</strong>ir chair up close to readers <strong>and</strong> talked fairly<br />

personally <strong>and</strong> directly to <strong>the</strong>m. Also, older scholarship <strong>in</strong> English studies<br />

tended to follow a British tradition of scholarly writ<strong>in</strong>g that was slightly talkier<br />

than <strong>the</strong> more formal nonpersonal Germanic tradition <strong>in</strong> scholarship adopted<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> academic world some time <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> twentieth century. (Essays for a student<br />

audience are more likely to use more personal language, yet oddly enough, it<br />

can work <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r way too. When Martha Kolln addresses o<strong>the</strong>r teachers <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

<strong>in</strong>structor’s manual of her Rhetorical Grammar (1991, p. 15), she is will<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

write more personally than she does to students: she talks personally about an

“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

anecdote from her life, but doesn’t permit herself this k<strong>in</strong>d of <strong>in</strong>formality <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

book <strong>in</strong>tended for students.)<br />

When academics publish a talk or speech, <strong>the</strong>y are likely to use more <strong>in</strong>formal<br />

colloquial personal language (though I’ve often been asked by copy editors<br />

to remove such language when I’ve had a talk accepted for publication).<br />

Nonpersonal language can also be used for personal topics. We often don’t<br />

notice impersonal language when <strong>the</strong> topic or content is blatantly self-disclos<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

But most people are far more conservative about language than about ideas<br />

or content, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> language habits of writers are often especially strong. Tra<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong> academic discourse goes deep. Copy editors may weed out locutions <strong>in</strong> a<br />

personal or <strong>in</strong>formal register that rema<strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writer’s f<strong>in</strong>al draft. Consider Jane<br />

H<strong>in</strong>dman’s amaz<strong>in</strong>gly personal essay that also uses an experimental form: three<br />

different type faces for three different voices. It’s deeply confessional about personal<br />

matters that few are will<strong>in</strong>g to address. Yet not much of <strong>the</strong> language itself<br />

is particularly personal; most of it is ei<strong>the</strong>r st<strong>and</strong>ard edited English or even quite<br />

academic. I noticed only three exceptions: three short italicized paragraphs of<br />

<strong>in</strong>ner speech dropped <strong>in</strong> at different po<strong>in</strong>ts that use dist<strong>in</strong>ctly personal writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

For ano<strong>the</strong>r example, Mary Louise Buley-Meissner speaks of a writer’s personal<br />

essay where “The word I appears twenty-n<strong>in</strong>e times <strong>in</strong> thirty-four sentences, yet<br />

<strong>the</strong> self written <strong>in</strong>to her text is voiceless, anonymous” (1990, p. 52).<br />

The most strik<strong>in</strong>g example of nonpersonal language used for personal topics<br />

is illustrated when professionals like psychiatrists, psychologists, or doctors<br />

write professionally about very personal issues like sexuality or divorce—albeit<br />

<strong>the</strong> personal issues of o<strong>the</strong>r people. The topic is a very personal story, but <strong>the</strong><br />

language will usually be <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> rubber-gloved, nonpersonal register of <strong>the</strong>ir discipl<strong>in</strong>e.<br />


What is personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g? The notion might seem counter<strong>in</strong>tuitive <strong>and</strong><br />

a few people might argue that th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g is only th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g if it follows rules of<br />

deductive logic. But <strong>the</strong> word “th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g” is not normally used so narrowly <strong>in</strong><br />

English. Common parlance applies <strong>the</strong> term to a broad range of cognitive processes:<br />

metaphorical th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, tra<strong>in</strong>s of feel<strong>in</strong>gs, story tell<strong>in</strong>g, illustrative examples<br />

or anecdotes, <strong>in</strong>ferences based on association ra<strong>the</strong>r than strict logic, <strong>and</strong><br />

perhaps even mere hunches. Andrea Lunsford speaks of how writ<strong>in</strong>g can make<br />

a space for <strong>in</strong>tuition, emotion, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> body <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> construction<br />

of knowledge—what Kenneth Burke calls <strong>the</strong> paralogical, to go along with <strong>the</strong><br />

logical that has had a stranglehold on <strong>the</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g of writ<strong>in</strong>g (1998, p. 24). And<br />

fem<strong>in</strong>ists have written about how <strong>the</strong> term “th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g” has been too narrowly<br />

def<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>in</strong> ways that represent patriarchy (Falmagne).<br />


Elbow<br />

A particular k<strong>in</strong>d of personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g could be called narrative th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. Jerome<br />

Bruner made his reputation <strong>and</strong> pretty much def<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>the</strong> field of cognitive<br />

psychology by def<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g or cognition as <strong>the</strong> abstract process of form<strong>in</strong>g<br />

abstract categories. But late <strong>in</strong> his career he wrote a notable <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>fluential book,<br />

Actual M<strong>in</strong>ds, argu<strong>in</strong>g that narrative th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g is equally central <strong>in</strong> human th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g<br />

(1986). Anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss showed how myths are examples of vigorous<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g about large nonpersonal issues. M<strong>in</strong>a Shaughnessy praised Richard<br />

Hoggart <strong>and</strong> James Baldw<strong>in</strong> for <strong>the</strong>ir skill <strong>in</strong> us<strong>in</strong>g autobiography to do <strong>in</strong>tellectual<br />

work (Bartholomae, 1980). See also <strong>the</strong> special issue of Pre/Text devoted to personal<br />

<strong>and</strong> expressive writ<strong>in</strong>g do<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> work of academic discourse (Elbow, 1990).<br />

Aga<strong>in</strong>, it’s obvious that <strong>the</strong>re is an extended cont<strong>in</strong>uum between nonpersonal<br />

<strong>and</strong> personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

In addition, personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g is often applied to nonpersonal topics. Montaigne<br />

enacted <strong>and</strong> celebrated what can only be called personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, even<br />

when his topic was nonpersonal (<strong>the</strong> education of children, for example). Because<br />

he actually <strong>in</strong>vented <strong>the</strong> essay <strong>and</strong> named it with a word that means “an<br />

attempt,” many have argued that <strong>the</strong> essay itself is a genre with an <strong>in</strong>herent l<strong>in</strong>k<br />

to <strong>in</strong>formal personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. He associated what is “human” with what is not<br />

“ordered” by a strict (French) “method.” Naturally, much poetry too applies<br />

personal, <strong>in</strong>tuitional, associative th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g to nonpersonal topics (for example,<br />

Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”).<br />

Ken Macrorie made an important contribution to our field with his “I Search<br />

Essay,” show<strong>in</strong>g countless students how to get more <strong>in</strong>vested <strong>in</strong> serious research<br />

by br<strong>in</strong>g<strong>in</strong>g personal <strong>in</strong>tuitive th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g to bear. And <strong>the</strong>re has been an explosion<br />

of <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong> creative nonfiction, a genre that often applies personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

nonpersonal topics. William Safire liked to do policy analysis by pretend<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

get <strong>in</strong>side <strong>the</strong> feel<strong>in</strong>gs of public figures:<br />

20<br />

I am John Kerry, fall<strong>in</strong>g far<strong>the</strong>r beh<strong>in</strong>d <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> polls with only<br />

six weeks to go.<br />

I’ve already shaken up my staff aga<strong>in</strong> …<br />

The “fortunate son” bus<strong>in</strong>ess hasn’t hurt Bush—<strong>and</strong> I wasn’t<br />

exactly born <strong>in</strong> a log cab<strong>in</strong>. (2004)<br />

When Nicholas Baker writes about <strong>the</strong> impersonal topic of punctuation he<br />

conveys lots of history <strong>and</strong> technical <strong>in</strong>formation, but his actual mode of th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g<br />

about it is often strik<strong>in</strong>gly personal. And his language slides toward <strong>the</strong><br />

colloquial <strong>and</strong> personal. Peter Medawar, Nobel prize w<strong>in</strong>ner <strong>in</strong> biology, writes<br />

eloquently about <strong>the</strong> difference between <strong>the</strong> associational <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>tuitive th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g<br />

that scientists use to figure out <strong>the</strong>ir hypo<strong>the</strong>ses, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> nonpersonal discipl<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

form <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y typically present <strong>the</strong>ir f<strong>in</strong>d<strong>in</strong>gs. Nancy Sommers

“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

uses her feel<strong>in</strong>gs to help her th<strong>in</strong>k about <strong>the</strong> nonpersonal topic of revis<strong>in</strong>g. Jane<br />

H<strong>in</strong>dman th<strong>in</strong>ks with her experience—notic<strong>in</strong>g one feel<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>n prob<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> wait<strong>in</strong>g to f<strong>in</strong>d ano<strong>the</strong>r feel<strong>in</strong>g underneath it—<strong>in</strong> order to wrestle with <strong>the</strong><br />

abstract nonpersonal issue of <strong>the</strong> degree to which <strong>the</strong> self is constructed by discourse.<br />

Fonta<strong>in</strong>e <strong>and</strong> Hunter’s Writ<strong>in</strong>g Ourselves <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> Story is one of various<br />

collections of essays that use personal experience for th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g about academic<br />

topics <strong>in</strong> composition.<br />


This is not just an exercise <strong>in</strong> casuistic categoriz<strong>in</strong>g for its own sake (which<br />

might occasionally have been a temptation for Aristotle). I see <strong>the</strong> same practical<br />

consequences for this analysis as I argued <strong>in</strong> my discussion of five species of voice<br />

(1994b) <strong>and</strong> multiple species of academic discourse (1991). When people fail to<br />

notice that a s<strong>in</strong>gle term is hid<strong>in</strong>g multiple mean<strong>in</strong>gs, <strong>the</strong>y often th<strong>in</strong>k carelessly<br />

<strong>and</strong> argue fruitlessly past each o<strong>the</strong>r: <strong>the</strong>y are unconsciously assum<strong>in</strong>g different<br />

def<strong>in</strong>itions of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g, voice, or academic discourse.<br />

For example, readers often assume that a text is personal because it is more<br />

or less dom<strong>in</strong>ated by, say, strongly personal language (what a reader might call<br />

“flagrantly personal”). They fail to consider <strong>the</strong> nonpersonal nature of <strong>the</strong> topic<br />

<strong>and</strong> even <strong>the</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. This k<strong>in</strong>d of misjudgment is particularly harmful when<br />

a teacher tells <strong>the</strong> student, “this is too personal.” The student is liable to try to<br />

push <strong>the</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> focus of <strong>the</strong> topic even fur<strong>the</strong>r towards <strong>the</strong> impersonal—often<br />

mak<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> essay <strong>in</strong>effectively general <strong>and</strong> abstract. How much better<br />

if <strong>the</strong> teacher could have said, “It’s only your language that is too personal for<br />

this context.” It might even be that <strong>the</strong> essay would have been better if <strong>the</strong> student<br />

nudged <strong>the</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> topic focus a bit more <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> personal direction.<br />

By <strong>the</strong> same token, an essay might be almost embarrass<strong>in</strong>gly self-disclos<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong><br />

topic—but not <strong>in</strong> language or th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. (I’d say that Jane Tompk<strong>in</strong>s sometimes<br />

w<strong>and</strong>ers <strong>in</strong> this direction.)<br />

When teachers or o<strong>the</strong>r readers take enough care to notice, for example, <strong>the</strong><br />

differences between personal elements among <strong>the</strong> three dimensions of writ<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

<strong>the</strong>y also have a better chance of attend<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>the</strong>ir own personal reactions <strong>and</strong><br />

engag<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> careful th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g: “This paper really irritates me. I wonder why. Has<br />

it touched on a sore spot for me, or is <strong>the</strong>re <strong>in</strong> fact a feature <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> text that asks<br />

readers to experience someth<strong>in</strong>g challeng<strong>in</strong>g or ‘<strong>in</strong> your face’?”<br />

The k<strong>in</strong>d of differential analysis I’ve been us<strong>in</strong>g here has led me to argue<br />

more generally for rubrics <strong>in</strong> teacher response <strong>and</strong> assessment (<strong>and</strong> sometimes<br />

even peer response). Readers who fail to dist<strong>in</strong>guish among <strong>the</strong> dimensions of a<br />

text (e.g., th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, organization, clarity of sentences, mechanics) often fall <strong>in</strong>to<br />


Elbow<br />

snap holistic judgments. This k<strong>in</strong>d of unth<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>terpretation is particularly<br />

harmful when a paper is full of errors <strong>in</strong> grammar <strong>and</strong> spell<strong>in</strong>g—especially grammar<br />

that a teacher unconsciously associates with “stupid.” Such a teacher fails<br />

to see many genu<strong>in</strong>e strengths <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> paper <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>refore gives mislead<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

actually damag<strong>in</strong>g feedback—or an <strong>in</strong>valid grade. Here’s a sad comment by an<br />

experienced teacher about a piece of writ<strong>in</strong>g by speaker of African-American English:<br />

“Only now can I really address <strong>the</strong> underly<strong>in</strong>g th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

problems—because previously <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g was so atrocious that I couldn’t see<br />

<strong>the</strong>m.” (I took this from a composition listserv.) In a comparable way, an entire<br />

essay can seem to be ta<strong>in</strong>ted for some readers because it embodies political or<br />

religious or cultural views that <strong>the</strong> teacher experiences as toxic.<br />



I wonder whe<strong>the</strong>r you noticed that my own writ<strong>in</strong>g throughout Part One<br />

is almost entirely nonpersonal—<strong>in</strong> topic, th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> language. Perhaps <strong>the</strong><br />

language might be experienced by some readers as slightly personal because I<br />

avoided a “formal” or “high” register—<strong>and</strong> occasionally used “I.” But does that<br />

make it “personal”? I’d say no. Still, <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> next section I want to let my writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

be personal on all three dimensions: personal topic, personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> (fairly)<br />

personal language.<br />

I’m not us<strong>in</strong>g Part Two merely as an illustration of <strong>the</strong> analysis <strong>in</strong> Part One.<br />

No; I’ve written this stylistically schizophrenic essay <strong>in</strong> order to enact my divided<br />

loyalties to personal writ<strong>in</strong>g. For I keep bounc<strong>in</strong>g back <strong>and</strong> forth <strong>in</strong> my feel<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

about personal writ<strong>in</strong>g:<br />

First bounce. I tried to keep anyth<strong>in</strong>g personal out of Part One because I<br />

want you to assess it entirely <strong>in</strong> terms of <strong>the</strong> logic of its analysis. For example,<br />

when I po<strong>in</strong>ted out how many writers mix <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> nonpersonal <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

same essay, I hope it was clear that I wasn’t express<strong>in</strong>g approval—just mak<strong>in</strong>g an<br />

empirical claim <strong>in</strong> order to bolster my ma<strong>in</strong> analytic argument about how <strong>the</strong><br />

different dimensions of <strong>the</strong> personal are separate <strong>and</strong> can be mixed.<br />

Second bounce. But I know it’s impossible to make a purely rational dis<strong>in</strong>terested<br />

argument that works entirely on its own logic. You could even say that it’s<br />

<strong>in</strong>tellectually dishonest to pretend to do so. Any attempt to argue <strong>in</strong> this way will<br />

always be surreptitiously slanted by <strong>the</strong> writer’s position. This pr<strong>in</strong>ciple implies<br />

that we have a duty, as writers, to reveal our personal stake; to acknowledge that<br />

readers can’t assess our argument unless <strong>the</strong>y know someth<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong> position<br />

we write from.<br />

I agree with this view <strong>in</strong> many situations. I get irritated with argumentative<br />


“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g (especially by academics) where <strong>the</strong> writer pretends to be mak<strong>in</strong>g a dis<strong>in</strong>terested<br />

or objective case, yet that case is permeated by surreptitious personal<br />

feel<strong>in</strong>gs: <strong>the</strong> writer is secretly try<strong>in</strong>g to settle a score with a critic, or try<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

defend a pet <strong>the</strong>ory that he himself has a big stake <strong>in</strong>, or try<strong>in</strong>g preen his or her<br />

erudition, or salve a wounded ego. When an academic is good at this game,<br />

only readers “<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> know” will see <strong>the</strong>se backstage hidden agendas. Why do <strong>the</strong><br />

conventions of academic discourse still reflect a pretense of objectivity, when<br />

academics <strong>the</strong>mselves are so busy say<strong>in</strong>g that objectivity is impossible?<br />

Third bounce. Still, I want to push back aga<strong>in</strong>st my argument <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> second<br />

bounce. I’m deeply committed to <strong>the</strong> idea no one has an obligation to reveal<br />

<strong>the</strong>mselves more than <strong>the</strong>y want. One of <strong>the</strong> great glories of writ<strong>in</strong>g is that it<br />

permits us to disguise our voices or hide our feel<strong>in</strong>gs. An argument can be good<br />

or bad apart from who makes it or what <strong>the</strong> personal motivation might be. The<br />

anonymity that is possible through <strong>the</strong> technology of writ<strong>in</strong>g has made it possible<br />

for countless people, especially <strong>in</strong> stigmatized groups, to persuade readers<br />

who would not o<strong>the</strong>rwise have listened to <strong>the</strong>m. Just because perfect objectivity<br />

is not possible, that doesn’t mean that we can’t strive toward it <strong>and</strong> make good<br />

headway.<br />

Fourth bounce. Still, any attempt I might make to hide beh<strong>in</strong>d impersonal<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g was probably wasted on many readers, s<strong>in</strong>ce I have come to be so widely<br />

identified with personal writ<strong>in</strong>g. In <strong>the</strong> early 1980s, Berl<strong>in</strong> def<strong>in</strong>ed me as a prime<br />

expressivist, <strong>and</strong> this characterization was widely accepted. So it’s not really possible<br />

for me to pretend to be dis<strong>in</strong>terested.<br />

So now I want to tell <strong>the</strong> story of my relationship to expressivism <strong>and</strong> personal<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g. I will <strong>in</strong>vite all three personal dimensions <strong>in</strong>to my text. I may not<br />

be writ<strong>in</strong>g here about my sex life or my feel<strong>in</strong>gs about a sunset, but it’s a personal<br />

story never<strong>the</strong>less. The topic is personal: like most of us, I have personal feel<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

about certa<strong>in</strong> “academic” topics. The th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g is personal too: it reflects not just<br />

my th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g but my feel<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>tuitions <strong>and</strong> how my personal position <strong>in</strong>fluences<br />

my take on personal writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> expressivism. And so too, <strong>the</strong> language<br />

is fairly personal: it may not be slangy or “colloquial,” but it’s not far from my<br />

“vernacular”—<strong>the</strong> language that comes most naturally to my white middle class<br />

academic mouth. (Perhaps <strong>the</strong> language <strong>in</strong> Parts One <strong>and</strong> Two is pretty much<br />

<strong>the</strong> same: k<strong>in</strong>d of halfway between personal <strong>and</strong> impersonal.)<br />

*<br />

When Berl<strong>in</strong> called me a poster boy for expressivism <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> 1980s, he must<br />

have been th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g mostly about my Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers, published <strong>in</strong><br />

1973. For his later article <strong>in</strong> 1988, he also looked at Writ<strong>in</strong>g With Power (1985),<br />

but that book is remarkably impersonal compared to <strong>the</strong> 1973 book. So I will<br />


Elbow<br />

be referr<strong>in</strong>g here mostly to Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers <strong>in</strong> try<strong>in</strong>g to figure out why<br />

I was so identified with personal writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Actually, <strong>the</strong>re are two questions that need explor<strong>in</strong>g: Why did Berl<strong>in</strong> <strong>and</strong> so<br />

many readers th<strong>in</strong>k that Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers itself was personal? And why<br />

did Berl<strong>in</strong> <strong>and</strong> so many readers th<strong>in</strong>k my goal <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> book was to advocate or<br />

preach personal writ<strong>in</strong>g?<br />

1. I don’t th<strong>in</strong>k <strong>the</strong> book was very personal, but I underst<strong>and</strong> now why it was<br />

so often felt that way. Let’s look at <strong>the</strong> three dimensions:<br />

Language. Not very personal, I’d say. Here’s a typical example. You’ll see “I”<br />

a number of times, but <strong>the</strong> word is not really very personal; it’s function<strong>in</strong>g as a<br />

generalized claim about people <strong>in</strong> general.<br />

We all tend to believe <strong>in</strong> word-magic: if I th<strong>in</strong>k words, my<br />

m<strong>in</strong>d will be tricked <strong>in</strong>to believ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m; if I speak those<br />

words, I’ll believe <strong>the</strong>m more strongly; <strong>and</strong> if I actually write<br />

<strong>the</strong>m down, I am somehow secretly committed to <strong>the</strong>m <strong>and</strong><br />

my behavior is determ<strong>in</strong>ed by <strong>the</strong>m. It is crucial to learn to<br />

write words <strong>and</strong> not believe <strong>the</strong>m or feel hypnotized at all.<br />

It can even be good practice to write as badly or as foolishly<br />

as you can. If you can’t write anyth<strong>in</strong>g at all, it is probably<br />

because you are too squeamish to let yourself write badly.<br />

(1973/1998, p. 70)<br />

“I” is a called a “personal” pronoun, but it’s pretty clear <strong>in</strong> this passage that<br />

it refers not to me but to o<strong>the</strong>r people who have feel<strong>in</strong>gs different from m<strong>in</strong>e.<br />

(I fear I’ve always had a weakness for overus<strong>in</strong>g “I” <strong>and</strong> “we” <strong>in</strong> ways that are<br />

<strong>the</strong>oretically suspect—betray<strong>in</strong>g a tendency to assume “we’re all alike.”) But despite<br />

all <strong>the</strong> “I”s <strong>in</strong> that passage, I’m struck with how seldom I used <strong>the</strong> word<br />

throughout <strong>the</strong> book.<br />

Perhaps <strong>in</strong> 1973, my language might have struck academic readers as personal<br />

or speech-like, but I was try<strong>in</strong>g to talk to a popular audience. When I wrote<br />

<strong>the</strong> book, I didn’t foresee that so many academics would read it. I had taught for<br />

almost twenty years, but had never been <strong>in</strong> an English department nor identified<br />

with <strong>the</strong> field of composition. It’s ironic that this least academic of all my books<br />

would be read more often than any of <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs <strong>in</strong> graduate sem<strong>in</strong>ars.<br />

Th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. The th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers was <strong>in</strong>deed very personal,<br />

<strong>and</strong> I th<strong>in</strong>k that’s <strong>the</strong> biggest reason why so many readers experienced<br />

<strong>the</strong> book as personal. What <strong>in</strong>terested me most, <strong>and</strong> still does, is th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. (I’m<br />

hop<strong>in</strong>g that my tombstone will read, “He loved th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g.”) I wanted to show<br />

that our th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g doesn’t have to be formal <strong>and</strong> impersonal or strictly logical<br />

when we work on nonpersonal or academic topics.<br />


“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

I was try<strong>in</strong>g to describe <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g process as a personal process—<strong>and</strong> make<br />

my description <strong>in</strong>formal too. I used lots of homely details from everyday life. At<br />

<strong>the</strong> conceptual center of <strong>the</strong> book were two homely metaphors: “cook<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong><br />

“grow<strong>in</strong>g”—idiosyncratic <strong>and</strong> personal. (My Oxford editor advised me to drop<br />

those metaphors.) At one po<strong>in</strong>t I used a kooky childish analogy for <strong>the</strong> mystery<br />

of <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g process: I asked readers to imag<strong>in</strong>e a l<strong>and</strong> where people couldn’t<br />

underst<strong>and</strong> how to touch <strong>the</strong> floor with <strong>the</strong>ir f<strong>in</strong>gers because <strong>the</strong> traditional<br />

belief was that one did it by reach<strong>in</strong>g upwards. Thus <strong>the</strong>ir traditional process<br />

for floor-touch<strong>in</strong>g never worked. Yet <strong>the</strong>re were a few people who had actually<br />

learned to touch <strong>the</strong> floor—by <strong>in</strong>st<strong>in</strong>ct or trial <strong>and</strong> error—but <strong>the</strong>y couldn’t expla<strong>in</strong><br />

how <strong>the</strong>y did it because <strong>the</strong>ir whole conceptual system was confused about<br />

up <strong>and</strong> down (1973/1998, p. 13).<br />

After this book came out <strong>in</strong> 1973 I began to get a trickle of letters from<br />

strangers address<strong>in</strong>g me quite personally, as though <strong>the</strong>y felt <strong>the</strong>y knew me. I<br />

didn’t m<strong>in</strong>d; <strong>in</strong>deed I felt k<strong>in</strong>d of touched, but it’s always seemed a little curious.<br />

For I hadn’t revealed much about me <strong>in</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers. Yes, I<br />

acknowledged—quite briefly—that my <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>and</strong> relationship to writ<strong>in</strong>g grew<br />

out of my own difficulties <strong>and</strong> struggle <strong>and</strong> even failure. But I told almost noth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

of what actually happened—which was <strong>in</strong> fact a very personal story. Nor did<br />

I tell virtually anyth<strong>in</strong>g about my life.<br />

But though I didn’t let my life or my “self” show, I let my m<strong>in</strong>d show. It<br />

was because my th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g was so personal that some readers felt <strong>the</strong>y knew me.<br />

And why not? It turns out that when someone gives an accurate picture of <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g processes—with all its idiosyncratic twists <strong>and</strong> turns ra<strong>the</strong>r than <strong>the</strong><br />

neatened picture of th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g that writers often publish, especially academic<br />

writers—readers often feel <strong>the</strong>y know <strong>the</strong> writer. (My wife once quipped that<br />

<strong>the</strong> book <strong>in</strong>vited <strong>the</strong> reader <strong>in</strong>to bed with me. But this had to be based only on<br />

my th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. A fun idea: th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g as sex appeal?)<br />

Topic. In Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers, I let my m<strong>in</strong>d show, but my m<strong>in</strong>d was<br />

not at all <strong>the</strong> topic of <strong>the</strong> book—nor my self nor my feel<strong>in</strong>gs. The topic of Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Without Teachers was squarely nonpersonal: <strong>the</strong> process of writ<strong>in</strong>g. I used <strong>the</strong><br />

book to tell people—obsessively—what <strong>the</strong>y should do to make <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g go<br />

better. I may have started by acknowledg<strong>in</strong>g that I was mak<strong>in</strong>g generalizations<br />

based on a sample of one, but even to <strong>the</strong> small degree that my experience shows,<br />

it was always a means to a nonpersonal end—generalizations of wider import.<br />

It wasn’t till 1998, when I wrote “Illiteracy at Oxford <strong>and</strong> Harvard” <strong>and</strong> also <strong>the</strong><br />

Preface to 2 nd edition of Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers, that I told my personal story<br />

of fail<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>n gradually figur<strong>in</strong>g out a way of writ<strong>in</strong>g. Of course it was easier<br />

<strong>in</strong> 1973 to qualify as a flam<strong>in</strong>g show off than it is now—especially <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> light<br />

of <strong>the</strong> all <strong>the</strong> recent self-disclosure by academics.<br />


Elbow<br />

In short it was not at all a “me me me book.” (Berl<strong>in</strong> wrote <strong>in</strong> 1982 that “expressionistic<br />

rhetoric” <strong>in</strong>volves <strong>the</strong> “placement of <strong>the</strong> self at <strong>the</strong> center of communication”<br />

[p. 772.]) It was, however, a k<strong>in</strong>d of “you you you” book. I couldn’t<br />

stop talk<strong>in</strong>g about what “you” should learn to do to make <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g process<br />

more successful <strong>and</strong> satisfy<strong>in</strong>g. Maybe this gave a k<strong>in</strong>d of personal feel<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>the</strong><br />

topic. Of course I didn’t know anyth<strong>in</strong>g at all about my readers, but maybe my<br />

strategy led <strong>the</strong>m to th<strong>in</strong>k a lot about <strong>the</strong>mselves. I guess by say<strong>in</strong>g “you you<br />

you,” I was us<strong>in</strong>g an “<strong>in</strong>volvement strategy.”<br />

So was Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers a piece of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g? The question has<br />

no answer. It illustrates why we need <strong>the</strong> analysis I gave <strong>in</strong> Part One. The book<br />

was notably personal <strong>in</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, but not personal <strong>in</strong> language, <strong>and</strong> mostly not<br />

<strong>in</strong> topic. The reception of <strong>the</strong> book as personal by so many readers confirms<br />

my hypo<strong>the</strong>sis at <strong>the</strong> end of Part One: readers are sometimes tempted to ignore<br />

nonpersonal dimensions when one dimension seems strik<strong>in</strong>gly personal.<br />

2. Why did so many readers th<strong>in</strong>k my goal <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> book was to advocate or<br />

preach personal writ<strong>in</strong>g? Why did Berl<strong>in</strong> consider me an archetypal expressivist—someone<br />

committed to writ<strong>in</strong>g about me, me, self, self, feel<strong>in</strong>gs, feel<strong>in</strong>gs—<br />

only what is <strong>in</strong>ternal? And why does he name me as <strong>the</strong> central figure of expressivism<br />

(1988)—a school he said is based on this premise: “Truth is conceived as<br />

<strong>the</strong> result of a private vision” (1982)?<br />

In his later essay (“Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> Ideology”) he quotes my 1985 Writ<strong>in</strong>g With<br />

Power to argue that I “consistently” preach personal writ<strong>in</strong>g. But to make his<br />

case, he purposely misquotes me to pretend that my words champion personal,<br />

expressive, self-oriented writ<strong>in</strong>g when <strong>the</strong>y are actually say<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> opposite.<br />

Berl<strong>in</strong> writes:<br />

26<br />

This power [that Elbow advocates] is consistently def<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

<strong>in</strong> personal terms: “power comes from <strong>the</strong> words somehow<br />

fitt<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> writer (not necessarily <strong>the</strong> reader) … power comes<br />

from <strong>the</strong> words somehow fitt<strong>in</strong>g what <strong>the</strong>y are about. [Berl<strong>in</strong>’s<br />

ellipses] (1988, p. 485)<br />

Look at <strong>the</strong> words I actually wrote—by way of <strong>in</strong>troduc<strong>in</strong>g two chapters<br />

about power com<strong>in</strong>g from nonself:<br />

... I th<strong>in</strong>k true power <strong>in</strong> words is a mystery.... In [<strong>the</strong> previous]<br />

Chapters 25 <strong>and</strong> 26 about voice, I suggest that power<br />

comes from <strong>the</strong> words someow fitt<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> writer (not necessarily<br />

<strong>the</strong> reader).... In [<strong>the</strong> follow<strong>in</strong>g] Chapters 27 <strong>and</strong> 28<br />

about breath<strong>in</strong>g experience <strong>in</strong>to writ<strong>in</strong>g, I suggest that power<br />

comes from <strong>the</strong> words somehow fitt<strong>in</strong>g what <strong>the</strong>y are about.<br />

The words so well embody what <strong>the</strong>y express that when read-

“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

ers encounter <strong>the</strong> words <strong>the</strong>y feel <strong>the</strong>y are encounter<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

objects or ideas <strong>the</strong>mselves.... (280)<br />

And if he had read <strong>the</strong> chapters <strong>the</strong>se words were <strong>in</strong>troduc<strong>in</strong>g, he would have<br />

found passages like <strong>the</strong>se. First <strong>the</strong> epigraph by Basho:<br />

Go to <strong>the</strong> p<strong>in</strong>e if you want to learn about <strong>the</strong> p<strong>in</strong>e, or to <strong>the</strong><br />

bamboo if you want to learn about <strong>the</strong> bamboo. And <strong>in</strong> do<strong>in</strong>g<br />

so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself.<br />

O<strong>the</strong>rwise you impose yourself on <strong>the</strong> object <strong>and</strong> do not<br />

learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

object have become one.<br />

And <strong>the</strong>n this passage <strong>in</strong> a subsection titled “A Warn<strong>in</strong>g about Feel<strong>in</strong>gs:”<br />

But strong feel<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>mselves, don’t help you brea<strong>the</strong><br />

experience <strong>in</strong>to words. In fact some of <strong>the</strong> worst writ<strong>in</strong>g fails<br />

precisely because it comes too much out of feel<strong>in</strong>gs ra<strong>the</strong>r<br />

than out of <strong>the</strong> event or scene itself—out of <strong>the</strong> bamboo.<br />

(1988, p. 334)<br />

How can someone pretend to be a scholar <strong>and</strong> use manipulative ellipses to<br />

pretend that a passage fits his ideological <strong>the</strong>sis when it actually contradicts it?<br />

I was angry <strong>and</strong> even hurt to see such an unscholarly distortion of my work.<br />

I’ve never recognized myself <strong>in</strong> his picture—nor <strong>the</strong> stereotypical pictures of <strong>the</strong><br />

o<strong>the</strong>r ma<strong>in</strong> expressivists like Macrorie, Britton, <strong>and</strong> Murray. Indeed, I’d say that<br />

Berl<strong>in</strong>’s characterization of expressionism was harmful for <strong>the</strong> field. I considered<br />

try<strong>in</strong>g to write back <strong>and</strong> argue aga<strong>in</strong>st his read<strong>in</strong>g, but whenever I’ve seen people<br />

do that, <strong>the</strong>y always sound like wounded <strong>in</strong>effectual wh<strong>in</strong>ers. One friend told<br />

me that I looked arrogant not to argue aga<strong>in</strong>st Berl<strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong> pr<strong>in</strong>t—as though I<br />

didn’t deign to enter <strong>the</strong> fray—but I ended up feel<strong>in</strong>g that it would have been<br />

futile; that <strong>the</strong> only constructive th<strong>in</strong>g I could do was to carry on with my own<br />

work <strong>and</strong> not be deflected or thrown off course.<br />

It’s <strong>in</strong>trigu<strong>in</strong>g that his picture of me <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> field persuaded so many people<br />

<strong>in</strong> composition studies. His division of <strong>the</strong> field <strong>in</strong>to one right school <strong>and</strong> three<br />

wrong ones somehow took deep root <strong>and</strong> f<strong>in</strong>ally became an almost universally<br />

unexam<strong>in</strong>ed assumption. (See, for example, Victor Villanueva’s “The Personal,”<br />

(2001, p. 52), <strong>and</strong> Greg Myers (1986, p. 64).)<br />

But as I put away my anger at his wrong-headed picture of my work—<strong>and</strong><br />

his rhetorical brilliance <strong>in</strong> mak<strong>in</strong>g everyone accept his picture of <strong>the</strong> field—perhaps<br />

I can see how it happened.<br />

In truth I was preach<strong>in</strong>g personal writ<strong>in</strong>g—<strong>in</strong> a sense. That is, I was preach<strong>in</strong>g<br />

freewrit<strong>in</strong>g (among o<strong>the</strong>r th<strong>in</strong>gs), <strong>and</strong> that seems like mostly personal writ-<br />


Elbow<br />

<strong>in</strong>g. Freewrit<strong>in</strong>g gives you no time to plan, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong> its default exercise form <strong>the</strong>re<br />

is no specified topic. In those conditions, people tend to freewrite personally.<br />

I guess he was hypnotized by what seems like <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>herently personal nature<br />

of freewrit<strong>in</strong>g (it seemed much more controversial <strong>and</strong> dangerous than it does<br />

now).<br />

But <strong>in</strong> preach<strong>in</strong>g freewrit<strong>in</strong>g, I was preach<strong>in</strong>g a process—a process designed<br />

to lead to any k<strong>in</strong>d of product, not personal writ<strong>in</strong>g. Freewrit<strong>in</strong>g is a means to an<br />

end—to help you learn to write more fluently <strong>and</strong> easily <strong>and</strong> to f<strong>in</strong>d more words<br />

<strong>and</strong> thoughts. The process has no bias at all toward personal writ<strong>in</strong>g. In fact,<br />

freewrit<strong>in</strong>g as a process is not <strong>in</strong>herently personal. Many people use freewrit<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to explore completely nonpersonal topics. I’d guess that most of <strong>the</strong> freewrit<strong>in</strong>g<br />

I’ve done <strong>in</strong> my life (exclud<strong>in</strong>g journal writ<strong>in</strong>g) is nonpersonal <strong>in</strong> content<br />

(though us<strong>in</strong>g personal language).<br />

Berl<strong>in</strong> quotes words from <strong>the</strong> open<strong>in</strong>g of Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers about my<br />

goal <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> book: “to help students become ‘less helpless both personally <strong>and</strong> politically’<br />

by enabl<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m to get ‘control over words’”(1973/1998, p. 485). He<br />

pretends this means that <strong>the</strong> goal is personal writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> can’t see how that goal<br />

(as with freewrit<strong>in</strong>g) perta<strong>in</strong>s to all k<strong>in</strong>ds of writ<strong>in</strong>g, not just personal writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

In fact, as I look back at Writ<strong>in</strong>g Without Teachers, I’m amused to notice how<br />

narrow <strong>and</strong> bookish were <strong>the</strong> examples of writ<strong>in</strong>g tasks that I tended to use. I<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k I spoke about an essay on <strong>the</strong> causes of <strong>the</strong> French Revolution. My editor<br />

at <strong>the</strong> time joked that even though <strong>the</strong> book pretended to be about writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

without teachers, really I hadn’t yet learned to escape <strong>the</strong> classroom. I remember<br />

<strong>in</strong>sert<strong>in</strong>g, late, some examples of fiction, poetry, <strong>and</strong> memoir, but <strong>the</strong>y were<br />

token examples. I knew noth<strong>in</strong>g about that k<strong>in</strong>d of writ<strong>in</strong>g; school writ<strong>in</strong>g was<br />

all I knew.<br />

Of course freewrit<strong>in</strong>g often does lead to personal writ<strong>in</strong>g. But I’d say that my<br />

ma<strong>in</strong> goal <strong>in</strong> mak<strong>in</strong>g lots of space for personal writ<strong>in</strong>g was to help <strong>in</strong>experienced<br />

or timid writers take more authority over <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g: not to feel so <strong>in</strong>timidated<br />

by it <strong>and</strong> not to write so much tangled or un<strong>in</strong>vested prose or mechanical<br />

or empty th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. The various dimensions of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g seemed to me<br />

<strong>the</strong>n, <strong>and</strong> still seem, <strong>the</strong> most powerful tools for gett<strong>in</strong>g authority over writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> general. When we <strong>in</strong>vite personal topics, we <strong>in</strong>vite people to<br />

write about events or experiences that <strong>the</strong>y know better than any reader—even<br />

<strong>the</strong> teacher reader. Thus <strong>the</strong>y have more authority about <strong>the</strong> topic. 2 And when<br />

we <strong>in</strong>vite personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, we <strong>in</strong>vite people to develop ideas by follow<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

own personal <strong>and</strong> idiosyncratic thought processes—us<strong>in</strong>g hunches, metaphors,<br />

associations, <strong>and</strong> emotional th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. Most people can produce richer <strong>and</strong> more<br />

<strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g ideas this way than by try<strong>in</strong>g to conform to discipl<strong>in</strong>ed th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g<br />

unta<strong>in</strong>ted by personal biases <strong>and</strong> emotions. Of course discipl<strong>in</strong>ed th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g is<br />


“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

also necessary, but as I argued, it needs to come afterwards <strong>in</strong> a writ<strong>in</strong>g process<br />

that consciously separates noncritical generat<strong>in</strong>g from detached critical judg<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

*<br />

When we <strong>in</strong>vite personal language, we <strong>in</strong>vite people to write by us<strong>in</strong>g whatever<br />

words come most comfortably to tongue—<strong>in</strong>stead of always paus<strong>in</strong>g, eras<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

chang<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> worry<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong>y’ve probably used <strong>the</strong> wrong word. Of<br />

course I made it clear that one eventually had to turn around <strong>and</strong> criticize <strong>and</strong><br />

edit many of one’s freely written words (“tak<strong>in</strong>g a razor to one’s own flesh” was<br />

one way I put it <strong>in</strong> ano<strong>the</strong>r metaphor of personal th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g), but that critical<br />

process didn’t need to <strong>in</strong>terfere with a happy <strong>and</strong> self-confident process of generat<strong>in</strong>g<br />

words <strong>and</strong> ideas.<br />

I was also preach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> teacherless writ<strong>in</strong>g class. Like freewrit<strong>in</strong>g, it was<br />

designed to help people do all k<strong>in</strong>ds of writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> it carried no bias toward personal<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g. But like freewrit<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>the</strong> process itself must have seemed flagrantly<br />

personal: no teacher; no one with sanctioned expertise; people (often personal<br />

friends) sit around talk<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong> feel<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>and</strong> thoughts that come <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

m<strong>in</strong>ds as <strong>the</strong>y hear or read each o<strong>the</strong>rs’ texts. Joe Harris compla<strong>in</strong>ed that “<strong>the</strong><br />

students <strong>in</strong> [a teacherless class] … do not seem to be held answerable to each<br />

o<strong>the</strong>r as <strong>in</strong>tellectuals” (1997, p. 31). In this age of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>ternet <strong>and</strong> Wikipedia<br />

we can forget how unusual it was to propose a teacherless writ<strong>in</strong>g class <strong>in</strong> 1973.<br />

Perhaps it was ask<strong>in</strong>g too much of Berl<strong>in</strong> even <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> 1980s to read carefully<br />

enough to see <strong>the</strong> that <strong>the</strong> teacherless peer process I laid out was quite discipl<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

<strong>and</strong> methodical—<strong>and</strong> not especially personal. For example, if a responder<br />

<strong>in</strong> a teacherless class talks about her feel<strong>in</strong>gs that occur as she reads a writer’s text,<br />

her topic is not her feel<strong>in</strong>gs; her topic is <strong>the</strong> writer’s text <strong>and</strong> what those feel<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

reveal about it.<br />

*<br />

In this second half of <strong>the</strong> essay, <strong>the</strong>n, my po<strong>in</strong>t is that “expressivism” is a<br />

seriously mislead<strong>in</strong>g word. It has led countless people to skewed <strong>and</strong> oversimplified<br />

assumptions about a period <strong>and</strong> a group of people—for I th<strong>in</strong>k that what<br />

I’m say<strong>in</strong>g here goes for Macrorie, Britton, <strong>and</strong> Murray too. I’d say that all of us<br />

defended <strong>and</strong> even celebrated personal writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> a school context where it had<br />

been neglected or even banned. But we didn’t call personal writ<strong>in</strong>g any better<br />

than nonpersonal writ<strong>in</strong>g. Unfortunately, <strong>the</strong> term expressivism has been sold<br />

<strong>and</strong> widely bought as a label for <strong>the</strong> essence of my work—<strong>and</strong> that of a whole<br />

school of o<strong>the</strong>rs—allegedly preach<strong>in</strong>g that students should always use personal<br />

language <strong>and</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> take <strong>the</strong> self as <strong>the</strong> topic of <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g—<strong>and</strong> not<br />

consult any st<strong>and</strong>ard of truth but what <strong>the</strong>y f<strong>in</strong>d <strong>in</strong>side.<br />


Elbow<br />

I can’t remember that I (or Macrorie, Britton, or Murray) ever used <strong>the</strong> word<br />

“expressive” for our goal or approach <strong>in</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g. Of course Britton<br />

po<strong>in</strong>ted out that “expressive language” shouldn’t be neglected <strong>in</strong> school over<br />

“transactional” <strong>and</strong> “poetic” language; K<strong>in</strong>neavey spoke of “expressive discourse”<br />

as one of four k<strong>in</strong>ds. But nei<strong>the</strong>r of <strong>the</strong>m or any of <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs, as far as I know,<br />

ever used <strong>the</strong> term as a label for people. They wouldn’t have spoken of a teacher<br />

or method as “expressive” or “expressivist.” As far as I can tell, <strong>the</strong> term “expressivist”<br />

was co<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>and</strong> used only by people who wanted a word for people <strong>the</strong>y<br />

disapproved of <strong>and</strong> wanted to discredit.<br />

Summ<strong>in</strong>g up <strong>the</strong> two parts of this essay, I see <strong>the</strong> two terms, “personal writ<strong>in</strong>g”<br />

<strong>and</strong> “expressivism,” suffer<strong>in</strong>g from different problems. “Personal writ<strong>in</strong>g,”<br />

as a s<strong>in</strong>gle term, tempts one to assume that <strong>the</strong>re’s a s<strong>in</strong>gle k<strong>in</strong>d of writ<strong>in</strong>g that<br />

can be so described—<strong>in</strong>stead of recogniz<strong>in</strong>g how <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> nonpersonal<br />

are often mixed across three dimensions.<br />

I’m afraid that “expressivism” is hopelessly <strong>in</strong>fected by narrow <strong>and</strong> usually<br />

pejorative connotations. I don’t see any way to use <strong>the</strong> term validly. Historians<br />

of composition need to f<strong>in</strong>d more accurate ways of describ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> views of <strong>the</strong><br />

people it was p<strong>in</strong>ned on. I’m not a historian, but I don’t see what’s wrong with<br />

<strong>the</strong> term “process.” We were all newly preoccupied with explor<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> complex<br />

th<strong>in</strong>gs that go on when people write <strong>and</strong> eager to help people become more<br />

consciously strategic <strong>in</strong> manag<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g process. I th<strong>in</strong>k we all had a new<br />

<strong>and</strong> heightened <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>vention, particularly <strong>in</strong> help<strong>in</strong>g people take more<br />

authority over <strong>the</strong>mselves as writers by writ<strong>in</strong>g more from <strong>the</strong> self—but not<br />

necessarily about <strong>the</strong> self. 3<br />

NOTES<br />

1. My analysis could be called Aristotelian. Aristotle loved to <strong>in</strong>crease clarity <strong>and</strong><br />

precision by divid<strong>in</strong>g entities <strong>in</strong>to sorts or parts or species. In past essays, I’ve found<br />

this strategy helpful for clarify<strong>in</strong>g controversies about voice <strong>and</strong> academic discourse.<br />

I tried to reduce confusion <strong>and</strong> dispute about <strong>the</strong> concept of voice <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g by<br />

show<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong>re are actually five k<strong>in</strong>ds of voice that can exist <strong>in</strong> a text: audible<br />

voice or <strong>in</strong>tonation—<strong>the</strong> sounds <strong>in</strong> a text; dramatic voice or <strong>the</strong> sense of a person or<br />

character or implied author; recognizable or dist<strong>in</strong>ctive voice—a voice characteristic<br />

of a particular writer; voice with authority—“hav<strong>in</strong>g a voice”; <strong>and</strong> resonant voice<br />

or presence. I applied <strong>the</strong> same strategy to academic discourse, argu<strong>in</strong>g that we can<br />

reduce confusion <strong>and</strong> needless dispute if we notice differences between different<br />

species of academic discourse <strong>and</strong> always specify which k<strong>in</strong>d we are talk<strong>in</strong>g about.<br />

For example, different discipl<strong>in</strong>es use significantly different conventions <strong>and</strong> k<strong>in</strong>ds<br />

of language (i.e., k<strong>in</strong>ds of organization, reason<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> what counts as evidence).<br />

Look even at <strong>the</strong> s<strong>in</strong>gle discipl<strong>in</strong>e of English where <strong>the</strong>re are significant differences<br />


“Personal Writ<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>Expressivism</strong>” as Problematic Terms<br />

among <strong>the</strong> conventions used <strong>in</strong> textual criticism, biographical criticism, psychoanalytic<br />

criticism, reader response criticism, phenomenological, <strong>and</strong> postmodern<br />

criticism. (Here’s an amus<strong>in</strong>g but nontrivial difference: most literature teachers will<br />

consider a student hopelessly naive about academic discourse if he or she refers to<br />

Hem<strong>in</strong>gway as “Ernest.” Yet if it’s a paper <strong>in</strong> biographical criticism, <strong>the</strong> usage can be<br />

perfectly appropriate.)<br />

2. Bartholomae is <strong>in</strong>terested <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> dilemma of student authority over writ<strong>in</strong>g: <strong>the</strong><br />

“central problem of academic writ<strong>in</strong>g, where students must assume <strong>the</strong> right of<br />

speak<strong>in</strong>g to someone who knows more about baseball or ‘To His Coy Mistress’ than<br />

<strong>the</strong> student does” (1985, p. 140). He can’t seem to imag<strong>in</strong>e that a student could<br />

know more about baseball than he—or if not baseball, <strong>the</strong>n perhaps her fa<strong>the</strong>r’s<br />

experience <strong>in</strong> Vietnam or her bro<strong>the</strong>r’s way of negotiat<strong>in</strong>g Asperger’s. He can’t seem<br />

to accept <strong>the</strong> possibility of <strong>in</strong>vit<strong>in</strong>g students to enter a rhetorical space where <strong>the</strong>y<br />

have more authority than he.<br />

3. But Tom Newkirk has hope for <strong>the</strong> word: “The term ‘expressionist’ may eventually<br />

serve us well. Maybe it has <strong>the</strong> same fate as “impressionism”—which was co<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

as a satiric term by <strong>the</strong> journalist Louis Leroy <strong>in</strong> reference to a pa<strong>in</strong>t<strong>in</strong>g by Monet”<br />

(personal communication, 2012).<br />


Bartholomae, D. (1985). Invent<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> university. In M. Rose (Ed.). When a<br />

writer can’t write (pp. 134-165). New York: Guilford Press.<br />

Bartholomae, D. (1980). The study of error. College <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong> Communication,<br />

31, 253-269.<br />

Berl<strong>in</strong>, J. (1982). Contemporary composition: The major pedagogical <strong>the</strong>ories.<br />

College English, 44, 765-777.<br />

Berl<strong>in</strong>, J. (1988). Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> ideology <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g class. College English,<br />

50(5), 477-494.<br />

Booth, W. (1974). Modern dogma <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> rhetoric of assent. Chicago: University<br />

of Chicago Press.<br />

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual m<strong>in</strong>ds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard<br />

University Press.<br />

Buley-Meissner, M. L. (1990). Rhetorics of <strong>the</strong> self. Journal of Education, 172,<br />

47-64.<br />

Elbow, P. (1994a). Introduction. In L<strong>and</strong>mark essays on voice <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g (pp.<br />

xi-xlvii). Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras Press/Erlbaum.<br />

Elbow, P. (1994b). Introduction: Voice <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g. Voice <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g (pp. xi-xlvii).<br />

Mahway, NJ: Hermagoras Press.<br />

Elbow, P. (1990). Foreword: About personal expressive academic writ<strong>in</strong>g. Pre/<br />


Elbow<br />

Text: An Interdiscipl<strong>in</strong>ary Journal of Rhetoric, 11(1-2, 7-20).<br />

Elbow, P. (Ed.). (1990). Pre/Text: An Interdiscipl<strong>in</strong>ary Journal of Rhetoric, 11(1-2).<br />

Elbow, P. (1991). Reflections on academic discourse: How it relates to freshmen<br />

<strong>and</strong> colleagues. College English, 53(2), 135-55.<br />

Falmagne, R. J., Isel<strong>in</strong>, M-G., Todorova, I. G., & Jen Arner, J. Reason<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

personal epistemology: A critical reconstruction. Unpublished manuscript.<br />

Harris, J. (1997). A teach<strong>in</strong>g subject: <strong>Composition</strong> s<strong>in</strong>ce 1966. Upper Saddle River,<br />

NJ: Prentice-Hall.<br />

Herr<strong>in</strong>gton, A. (2002). Gone fish<strong>in</strong>’: Render<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> uses of personal experience<br />

<strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g. In P. Belanoff, M. Dickson, S. I. Fonta<strong>in</strong>e, & C. Moran<br />

(Eds.), Writ<strong>in</strong>g with Elbow (pp. 223-238). Utah State University Press.<br />

H<strong>in</strong>dman, J. (2001). Mak<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g matter: Us<strong>in</strong>g “<strong>the</strong> personal” to recover[y]<br />

an essential[ist] tension <strong>in</strong> academic discourse. College English, 64(1), 88-108.<br />

K<strong>in</strong>neavey, J. L. (1971). A <strong>the</strong>ory of discourse. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-<br />

Hall.<br />

Kolln, M. (1991). Rhetorical grammar: Grammatical choices, rhetorical effects. Instructor’s<br />

manual. New York: Macmillan.<br />

Lunsford, A. A. (1998). Toward a mestiza rhetoric: Gloria Anzaldua on composition<br />

<strong>and</strong> postcoloniality. Journal of Advanced <strong>Composition</strong>, 18(1), 1-27.<br />

Medawar, P. (1982). Pluto’s republic. New York: Oxford University Press.<br />

Myers, G. (1986). Reality, consensus, <strong>and</strong> reform <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> rhetoric of composition<br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g. College English, 48(2), 154-171.<br />

Safire, W. (1999, February 21). On language: Need not to know. New York<br />

Times Magaz<strong>in</strong>e, pp. 18-19.<br />

Safire, W. (2004, September 21). Inside Kerry’s battle plans. Fairbanks Daily<br />

News-M<strong>in</strong>er, 7.<br />

Said, E. W. (1999). Out of lace: A Memoir. New York: Knopf: Distributed by<br />

R<strong>and</strong>om House.<br />

Sommers, N. (1992). Between <strong>the</strong> drafts. College <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong> Communication,<br />

43, 23-31.<br />

Surowiecki, J. (2002, May 6). Waste away. The New Yorker, p. 56.<br />

Tannen, D. (1982). Oral <strong>and</strong> literate strategies <strong>in</strong> spoken <strong>and</strong> written narratives.<br />

Language, 58, 1-21.<br />

Tob<strong>in</strong>, L. (1993). Writ<strong>in</strong>g relationships: What really happens <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> composition<br />

class. Portsmouth NH, Boynton/Cook He<strong>in</strong>emann.<br />

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IL: NCTE.<br />

Villanueva, V. (2001). The personal. College English, 64(1), 41-62.<br />




Thomas Newkirk<br />

University of New Hampshire<br />

There are many plausible reasons to dislike <strong>the</strong> personal autobiographical essay—<strong>and</strong><br />

to refuse to teach it <strong>in</strong> a writ<strong>in</strong>g course. There is <strong>the</strong> sameness of <strong>the</strong><br />

topics: eat<strong>in</strong>g disorders, deaths <strong>and</strong> traumas, challenges <strong>and</strong> successes. There is <strong>the</strong><br />

predictable moraliz<strong>in</strong>g, what David Bartholomae has termed “sentimental realism,”<br />

with culturally accepted commonplaces employed as learn<strong>in</strong>g lessons. There<br />

is <strong>the</strong> mismatch between <strong>the</strong> personal essay <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>ds of writ<strong>in</strong>g expected <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> university, where <strong>the</strong>re is a limited tolerance for autobiographical narratives.<br />

Any program that stresses this genre risks <strong>the</strong> disda<strong>in</strong> of colleagues <strong>in</strong> more established<br />

discipl<strong>in</strong>es. With composition already perceived as a fem<strong>in</strong>ized “soft” discipl<strong>in</strong>e,<br />

it can become doubly fem<strong>in</strong>ized (<strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>tellectually vulnerable) by any ta<strong>in</strong>t<br />

of sentimentality, a term with a long historical association with women’s writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> read<strong>in</strong>g. There is <strong>the</strong> underst<strong>and</strong>able reluctance of teachers to take on any<br />

role that resembles psycho<strong>the</strong>rapy <strong>and</strong> draws <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong>to relationships that <strong>the</strong>y<br />

feel unqualified to susta<strong>in</strong>. As Richard Miller has argued, <strong>the</strong>re is a physiological<br />

unease <strong>in</strong>volved <strong>in</strong> respond<strong>in</strong>g to writ<strong>in</strong>g (or speak<strong>in</strong>g) that deals with trauma:<br />

The bodily discomfort arises, I believe, because it is unclear,<br />

exactly what is be<strong>in</strong>g asked of those who are with<strong>in</strong> reach of<br />

<strong>the</strong> speaker’s words: beyond say<strong>in</strong>g, “I can hear you. I can see<br />

you,” beyond authoriz<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> speaker’s version of events, what<br />

can listeners do? What role can <strong>the</strong>y play? (1996, p. 277)<br />

And even Montaigne himself had doubts about <strong>the</strong> value of his essays for<br />

readers—what, after all, did <strong>the</strong> reflections of an unknown, retired lawyer matter?<br />

These reservations are shared by a wide swath of composition teachers, <strong>and</strong><br />

I respect <strong>the</strong>se concerns <strong>and</strong> would never endorse a program that imposed this<br />

genre upon <strong>the</strong>m.<br />

My focus <strong>in</strong> this essay is on a more profound philosophical challenge to<br />

<strong>the</strong> personal essay that was part of <strong>the</strong> “social turn” <strong>in</strong> composition studies <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> 1990s, particularly <strong>the</strong> critiques of Lester Faigley, James Berl<strong>in</strong>, <strong>and</strong> David<br />

Bartholomae. I will focus on <strong>the</strong> detailed attention that Faigley gives to <strong>the</strong> personal<br />

essay <strong>in</strong> his book, Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Subject<br />

of <strong>Composition</strong>. Faigley exam<strong>in</strong>es a set of exemplary student essays (with teacher<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.02<br />


Newkirk<br />

commentary) published <strong>in</strong> William Coles <strong>and</strong> James Vopat’s What Makes Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Good. A majority of <strong>the</strong>se essays seemed to embody values of an ideology<br />

that Berl<strong>in</strong> would call expressionism (often later altered to expressivism). The<br />

writers of <strong>the</strong>se personal essays seem to be free agents, operat<strong>in</strong>g outside of culture,<br />

or systems of power, or genres; writ<strong>in</strong>g orig<strong>in</strong>ates from a “self,” a uniform<br />

consciousness. The measure of “au<strong>the</strong>nticity” was how honestly <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g represented<br />

or portrayed that self. And as Emerson claimed, <strong>the</strong> more truthful <strong>the</strong><br />

writer is <strong>in</strong> represent<strong>in</strong>g this <strong>in</strong>ner thought <strong>and</strong> experience, <strong>the</strong> more <strong>the</strong> expression<br />

speaks for o<strong>the</strong>rs, <strong>the</strong> more universal it is.<br />

The term “au<strong>the</strong>ntic,” accord<strong>in</strong>g to Faigley, is fraught with problems. How,<br />

after all does a teacher determ<strong>in</strong>e if a piece of writ<strong>in</strong>g is “au<strong>the</strong>ntic;” how does<br />

<strong>the</strong> process of au<strong>the</strong>ntication work—are we speak<strong>in</strong>g of accuracy of memory<br />

(which, as psychologists have shown, is altered with retell<strong>in</strong>gs)? Is it <strong>the</strong> expression<br />

of emotion? Is it a personal voice? Is it a stylistic preference of teachers?<br />

What is <strong>the</strong> touchstone, <strong>the</strong> stable pre-discursive self, that is <strong>the</strong> measure of<br />

au<strong>the</strong>nticity? The term itself (like <strong>the</strong> term “natural”) disguises its own ideological<br />

<strong>and</strong> historical roots, <strong>the</strong> “unstated assumptions about subjectivity,” which<br />

Faigley tried to make explicit:<br />

Modern American notions of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual self derive <strong>in</strong><br />

part from n<strong>in</strong>eteenth-century liberalism <strong>and</strong> utilitarianism,<br />

which <strong>in</strong> turn drew on Thomas Hobbes’ <strong>the</strong>ory of <strong>the</strong> atomic,<br />

self-<strong>in</strong>terested self. The blend of economics <strong>and</strong> psychology <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong>se notions of self rema<strong>in</strong>s evident <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g pedagogy ….<br />

two notions of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual are often conflated—<strong>the</strong> selfaware<br />

Cartesian subject possess<strong>in</strong>g a unified consciousness<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> “freely” choos<strong>in</strong>g competitive <strong>in</strong>dividual of capitalism.<br />

(1992, p. 128)<br />

Faigley suggests a criticism that James Berl<strong>in</strong> makes far more bluntly: that <strong>the</strong><br />

expressivist pedagogies which promote <strong>the</strong> “free choices” <strong>in</strong>volved <strong>in</strong> personal<br />

essay are complicit with capitalism which also promotes <strong>the</strong> free choices of <strong>the</strong><br />

consumer.<br />

From a practical st<strong>and</strong>po<strong>in</strong>t, <strong>the</strong> personal essay presents students with a complex<br />

task—to speak about <strong>the</strong>ir experiences without <strong>the</strong> critical tools that would<br />

help <strong>the</strong>m exam<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong> discourse <strong>the</strong>y are us<strong>in</strong>g. Consequently Faigley <strong>and</strong> Bartholomae<br />

claim that <strong>the</strong>y ventriloquise, <strong>and</strong> echo <strong>the</strong> moral language of parents<br />

<strong>and</strong> coaches:<br />

To ask students to write au<strong>the</strong>ntically about <strong>the</strong> self assumes<br />

that a unified consciousness can be laid out on <strong>the</strong> page. That<br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

<strong>the</strong> self is constructed <strong>in</strong> socially <strong>and</strong> historically specific discursive<br />

practices is denied. It is no wonder, <strong>the</strong>n, that <strong>the</strong> selves<br />

many students try to appropriate <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g are voices of<br />

moral authority, <strong>and</strong> when <strong>the</strong>y exhaust <strong>the</strong>ir resources of analysis,<br />

<strong>the</strong>y revert to moral lesson-adopt<strong>in</strong>g, as Bartholomae has<br />

noted, a parental voice mak<strong>in</strong>g clichéd pronouncements where<br />

we expect ideas to be extended. (1992, pp. 127-128)<br />

To critics like Faigley <strong>and</strong> Bartholomae, noth<strong>in</strong>g could be more <strong>in</strong>au<strong>the</strong>ntic<br />

(<strong>and</strong> one senses, irritat<strong>in</strong>g) than <strong>the</strong> moralisms that close down th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> end<br />

many personal essays.<br />

F<strong>in</strong>ally, draw<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> work of Foucault, <strong>the</strong>re is <strong>the</strong> question of <strong>in</strong>trusive<br />

<strong>in</strong>stitutional power—<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which practitioners of <strong>the</strong> personal essay,<br />

while claim<strong>in</strong>g to grant freedom to <strong>the</strong> writer, are impos<strong>in</strong>g a set of values <strong>and</strong><br />

expect<strong>in</strong>g students to reveal <strong>in</strong>securities, traumas, family difficulties, health issues,<br />

<strong>and</strong> personal details of <strong>the</strong>ir lives. No trauma, no good grade. The personal<br />

essay becomes a form of confession, with <strong>the</strong> archetypal confession be<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

omnipresent “Shoot<strong>in</strong>g an Elephant.” In effect, Faigley wants to call <strong>the</strong> bluff of<br />

expressivist teachers: <strong>the</strong>y claim to give “ownership” to <strong>the</strong> student, to give up<br />

authority to <strong>the</strong> student, yet by pass<strong>in</strong>g judgment on <strong>the</strong> au<strong>the</strong>nticity of <strong>the</strong>se<br />

personal accounts, <strong>the</strong>y assume a power of surveillance that can be more <strong>in</strong>vasive<br />

than <strong>the</strong> traditional pedagogies <strong>the</strong>y orig<strong>in</strong>ally opposed.<br />

Faigley’s challenge, <strong>the</strong>n, is a profound one. Proponents of <strong>the</strong> personal essay<br />

are revealed as naïve, as bl<strong>in</strong>d to <strong>the</strong> situated, social, ideological nature of language<br />

use. There is <strong>the</strong> troubled quest for an essential, pre-social “self,” for a language<br />

that is “free,” for a “voice” that is unique—even for writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> absence<br />

of any sense of audience. This free space just doesn’t exist. Faigley <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs<br />

argue that <strong>the</strong> “self” of expressivist pedagogy is a social construction, constituted<br />

by language <strong>and</strong> culture, located <strong>in</strong> history—<strong>and</strong> as Anis Bawarshi has argued<br />

<strong>in</strong> his brilliant book, Genre <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Invention of <strong>the</strong> Writer, even our desires are<br />

shaped by social genres (which also fulfill those desires).<br />

The persistence of expressivist key terms like “voice” <strong>and</strong> “au<strong>the</strong>nticity” represent,<br />

<strong>in</strong> Faigley’s views, a discipl<strong>in</strong>ary problem <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> field of composition<br />

studies—<strong>the</strong> failure to engage with <strong>the</strong> more satisfactory, generative, <strong>and</strong> defensible<br />

descriptions of writ<strong>in</strong>g as <strong>in</strong>formed by postmodern <strong>the</strong>ory. Hence <strong>the</strong><br />

tendency to write <strong>the</strong> narrative of composition studies as a progress narrative,<br />

<strong>and</strong> to treat <strong>the</strong> “social turn” as a paradigm shift, a rejection of deeply flawed<br />

views of compos<strong>in</strong>g that could now be treated as a k<strong>in</strong>d of historical artifact. The<br />

term “post-process” is emblematic of this view—a rhetorical move that casts expressivism<br />

as a discredited tradition, that must give way to a fuller, richer, more<br />


Newkirk<br />

defensible view of writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>struction. In fact, <strong>the</strong> critique is profoundly ethical:<br />

<strong>the</strong> charge is that those who teach <strong>the</strong> personal essay engage <strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>appropriate <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>in</strong>trusive relationships with <strong>the</strong>ir students—<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>y promote an <strong>in</strong>dividualistic<br />

view of authorship that is naïve <strong>and</strong> ultimately disempower<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

In this essay I will attempt a defense of <strong>the</strong> personal autobiographical essay,<br />

draw<strong>in</strong>g on a powerful l<strong>in</strong>e of psychological research, led by Mart<strong>in</strong> Seligman<br />

<strong>and</strong> Stephen Maier, <strong>and</strong> more recently extended by Carol Dweck. This body of<br />

work exam<strong>in</strong>es <strong>the</strong> explanatory styles <strong>and</strong> attitudes of resilient, “healthy” <strong>in</strong>dividuals—<strong>and</strong>,<br />

I will argue, helps expla<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> endur<strong>in</strong>g appeal (<strong>and</strong> psychological<br />

utility) of <strong>the</strong> type of essay writ<strong>in</strong>g that Faigley <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs criticize—that which<br />

stresses <strong>in</strong>dividual agency.<br />

We can beg<strong>in</strong> with what I consider one of <strong>the</strong> weaker parts of this challenge<br />

to expressivism <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> personal essay: <strong>the</strong> charge that it is easily appropriated by<br />

<strong>the</strong> powers of consumerism, s<strong>in</strong>ce both associate identity with personal choice.<br />

This is, <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> end, an argument from similarity, s<strong>in</strong>ce it would be difficult to<br />

establish any solid cause-effect relationship. One might just as easily argue that<br />

<strong>the</strong> sophisticated awareness of <strong>the</strong> social construction of needs could also be<br />

co-opted by advertisers <strong>and</strong> marketers (<strong>the</strong> similarity is <strong>the</strong>re too). In fact, it is<br />

very hard to predict how ideas will be taken up <strong>and</strong> used <strong>in</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r situations. To<br />

my knowledge <strong>the</strong>re is no empirical evidence of a connection between expressivism<br />

<strong>and</strong> capitalism—it is sheer speculation. The only major study I know of<br />

that even attempts to trace <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which literacy practices contributes to<br />

career development is Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of <strong>the</strong> British Work<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Class, which among o<strong>the</strong>r th<strong>in</strong>gs traces <strong>the</strong> read<strong>in</strong>g histories of many militant<br />

leaders of <strong>the</strong> labor movement. These leaders were radicalized not by <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>doctr<strong>in</strong>ation<br />

of Marxists (whom many found rigid <strong>and</strong> un<strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g) but from<br />

read<strong>in</strong>g classic authors, particularly Charles Dickens, whose belief <strong>in</strong> personal<br />

altruism would seem at odds with <strong>the</strong> collective movement <strong>the</strong>y would help<br />

build. George Orwell, <strong>in</strong> his magnificent essay on Dickens, describes a similarly<br />

complex act of appropriation <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>fluence. There is no neat, clean, determ<strong>in</strong>ist,<br />

ideological l<strong>in</strong>e that can be drawn.<br />

The claim of “surveillance” is similarly weak, <strong>and</strong> rests primarily on <strong>the</strong> rhetorical<br />

power of <strong>the</strong> term itself, evok<strong>in</strong>g Foucault <strong>and</strong> Bentham’s panopticon.<br />

The problem has to do with <strong>the</strong> virtually unbounded way <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> term<br />

can—<strong>and</strong> has been—used. Is <strong>the</strong>re any act of teach<strong>in</strong>g or assessment that is not,<br />

<strong>in</strong> some form, an act of surveillance? Were my conferences with my children’s<br />

teachers not an act of surveillance? Monitor<strong>in</strong>g is occurr<strong>in</strong>g no matter <strong>the</strong> genre<br />

of writ<strong>in</strong>g we assign: as teachers we ask for accounts of <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g process, we<br />

read drafts, we monitor <strong>the</strong> thought processes of our students. It is impossible<br />

to imag<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong> work of education (or participation <strong>in</strong> any social unit) without<br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

<strong>the</strong>se forms of attention <strong>and</strong> assessment. So <strong>the</strong> fact of surveillance is a given<br />

(which I th<strong>in</strong>k is Foucault’s po<strong>in</strong>t). It is <strong>in</strong>escapable. The ethical question is <strong>the</strong><br />

manner <strong>and</strong> purpose of <strong>the</strong> surveillance, <strong>and</strong> here <strong>the</strong> case needs to be made that<br />

a student writ<strong>in</strong>g about significant events <strong>in</strong> an essay, read <strong>and</strong> evaluated by <strong>the</strong><br />

teacher, is likely to be personally harmful. I won’t deny that this is a possibility,<br />

though I would add that teachers can be <strong>in</strong>sensitive work<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> any genre. Obviously,<br />

any teacher who feels uncomfortable respond<strong>in</strong>g to papers like <strong>the</strong> ones<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Vopat <strong>and</strong> Coles collection should not be assign<strong>in</strong>g that k<strong>in</strong>d of writ<strong>in</strong>g. I<br />

am not at all argu<strong>in</strong>g that it should be a universal requirement. But on <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r<br />

h<strong>and</strong> I have seen generations of teachers at my own university h<strong>and</strong>le such writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

with tact <strong>and</strong> sensitivity. I have read thous<strong>and</strong>s of evaluations <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> issue<br />

of surveillance is virtually non-existent <strong>in</strong> student accounts. It is raised almost<br />

exclusively by academicians criticiz<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> genre.<br />

It is also tempt<strong>in</strong>g to respond to Faigley by challeng<strong>in</strong>g his l<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong><br />

personal essay <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> “unified consciousness.” One could easily argue <strong>the</strong> reverse:<br />

associate <strong>the</strong> essay <strong>in</strong>stead with <strong>the</strong> “fragmentation,” <strong>the</strong> deconstructive<br />

impulse of postmodernism. The essay is a perfectly f<strong>in</strong>e vehicle for explor<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> multiplicity, fragmentation, <strong>and</strong> constructedness of <strong>the</strong> “self.” The essay, as<br />

Montaigne deployed it, celebrated <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>stability <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>herent irrationality of<br />

<strong>the</strong> self; human claims to be rational, were, <strong>in</strong> his view, a form of presumption<br />

<strong>and</strong> vanity. Human be<strong>in</strong>gs are too temperamentally volatile <strong>and</strong> self-<strong>in</strong>terested,<br />

<strong>and</strong> language too imprecise, to claim steady rationality. In his long essay<br />

“An Apology for Raymond Seybond,” he has long satiric passages where he rebuts<br />

claims about human reason by cit<strong>in</strong>g evidence (much of it fabricated by<br />

Plutarch) about identical abilities <strong>in</strong> animals. Men praise <strong>the</strong>ir analytic ability<br />

to dist<strong>in</strong>guish plant types; well, goats can do that too. And despite his claim <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> famous address to his readers, that he would prefer to portray himself naked—as<br />

if self-presentation was a matter of disrob<strong>in</strong>g—his project was clearly a<br />

complex act of discursive construction, one that he commented on frequently <strong>in</strong><br />

his many additions to <strong>the</strong> orig<strong>in</strong>al essays. In one addition he commented on his<br />

tendency to make additions:<br />

My first edition dates from fifteen hundred <strong>and</strong> eighty: I<br />

have long s<strong>in</strong>ce grown old but not one <strong>in</strong>ch wiser. “I” now<br />

<strong>and</strong> “I” <strong>the</strong>n are certa<strong>in</strong>ly twa<strong>in</strong>, but which I was better?<br />

I know noth<strong>in</strong>g about that. If we were always progress<strong>in</strong>g<br />

toward improvement, to be old would be a beautiful th<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

But it is a drunkard’s progress, formless, stagger<strong>in</strong>g, like reeds<br />

which <strong>the</strong> w<strong>in</strong>d shakes as it fancies, haphazardly. (Montaigne,<br />

1595/1987, p. 1091)<br />


Newkirk<br />

Montaigne resembles Laurence Stern <strong>in</strong> that he seems to push to <strong>the</strong> limits,<br />

even underm<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong> genre he is <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> process of creat<strong>in</strong>g. There has been<br />

no more strenuous critic of “unified consciousness” than Montaigne, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

personal essay, with its open<strong>in</strong>gs for amendments <strong>and</strong> cycl<strong>in</strong>g back, became <strong>the</strong><br />

vehicle for mak<strong>in</strong>g this challenge.<br />

Such a defense, though, would sidestep <strong>the</strong> objection many compositionists<br />

have concern<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> personal essay. Simply put, <strong>the</strong> deep, <strong>and</strong> often amus<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

skepticism of Montaigne’s essays bears little resemblance to <strong>the</strong> efforts of students.<br />

In <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>troduction to his collection, The Art of <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay, Phillip<br />

Lopate argues that <strong>the</strong> most successful essayists are ei<strong>the</strong>r older, or like Joan Didion<br />

<strong>and</strong> James Baldw<strong>in</strong>, <strong>the</strong>y assume, early on, an older persona—<strong>the</strong>y have outgrown<br />

or ab<strong>and</strong>oned beliefs <strong>in</strong> human perfectibility <strong>and</strong> distanced <strong>the</strong>mselves<br />

from <strong>the</strong> assurances of true believers, heroes, <strong>and</strong> reformers. Yet <strong>in</strong> student essays<br />

it is precisely this belief <strong>in</strong> perfectibility, personal agency—this optimism—that<br />

regularly animates <strong>the</strong>ir essays (<strong>and</strong> often embarrasses <strong>the</strong>ir teachers). Every difficulty<br />

is a learn<strong>in</strong>g experience; every death a rem<strong>in</strong>der of <strong>the</strong> preciousness of life.<br />

The “self” that is portrayed is not exactly a “unified self” but a progressive one,<br />

part of a constructed coherent narrative of self-development (<strong>the</strong> very k<strong>in</strong>d of<br />

narrative Montaigne refused to write). Any defense of <strong>the</strong> personal essay needs<br />

to address this sensibility, this propensity for belief <strong>and</strong> affirmation that animates<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g. To defend <strong>the</strong> personal essay—as young students write <strong>the</strong>m—entails<br />

defend<strong>in</strong>g this bias toward affirmation.<br />


Normal human thought is dist<strong>in</strong>guished by a robust positive bias.<br />

—Shelley Taylor<br />

In 1896 William James published his great essay, “The Will to Believe” (which<br />

he later regretted titl<strong>in</strong>g, preferr<strong>in</strong>g “The Right to Believe.”) In it he debunks a<br />

view prevalent <strong>in</strong> his time: that beliefs should be <strong>the</strong> product of an objective <strong>and</strong><br />

dispassionate review of <strong>the</strong> facts. To accept unsupported op<strong>in</strong>ion is to be duped<br />

<strong>and</strong> we are to “guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which<br />

may shortly master our body <strong>the</strong>n spread to <strong>the</strong> rest of <strong>the</strong> town” (James, 1997,<br />

p. 74). Intelligence, accord<strong>in</strong>g to this viewpo<strong>in</strong>t, was strongly associated with<br />

skepticism, doubt, coolness, withhold<strong>in</strong>g affiliation. James turns <strong>the</strong> argument<br />

on its head claim<strong>in</strong>g that even this position represented a form of belief—<strong>and</strong><br />

that passion, commitment, <strong>and</strong> belief are essential <strong>in</strong> mak<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> pragmatic tests<br />

of truth. The scientist’s passionate belief <strong>in</strong> an ordered, expla<strong>in</strong>able universe is a<br />

crucial tool <strong>in</strong> help<strong>in</strong>g him or her to extend that explanation. And if beliefs lead<br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

to mistakes, <strong>the</strong>n “our errors are surely not such awfully solemn th<strong>in</strong>gs”(1997,<br />

p. 19 ).<br />

One of <strong>the</strong> glories of James’ career was his openness to <strong>the</strong> psychological utility<br />

of a vast range of religious beliefs, from mesmerism to Buddhism to evangelism—<br />

all of which he treated with elaborate respect. In <strong>the</strong> early 1970s, Peter Elbow<br />

reactivated this argument <strong>in</strong> his essay on <strong>the</strong> believ<strong>in</strong>g game, argu<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong><br />

academic culture held a bias aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong> functionality of belief, <strong>and</strong> a bias <strong>in</strong> favor<br />

of skepticism <strong>and</strong> critique which are often seen as <strong>the</strong> mark of perceptive thought<br />

<strong>and</strong> real academic work. By contrast, assertions of belief, whe<strong>the</strong>r based on a religious<br />

faith or a personal code, are often viewed with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> academic culture as<br />

dogmatic, unsophisticated, simplistic; <strong>the</strong>y are evidence that <strong>the</strong> student is “written”<br />

by his or her culture <strong>and</strong> helpless to push back aga<strong>in</strong>st it. Students are victims<br />

of what James would call “dupery.” David Bartholomae, <strong>in</strong> particular, would claim<br />

that <strong>the</strong>se assertions are usually noth<strong>in</strong>g more than moral commonplaces that are<br />

passively absorbed by students, <strong>and</strong> h<strong>and</strong>y for “wrapp<strong>in</strong>g up” <strong>the</strong>ir personal essays.<br />

The capacity to self-monitor <strong>in</strong> matters of taste—to identify <strong>and</strong> resist <strong>the</strong><br />

appeals of sentimentality—is part of <strong>the</strong> identity equipment of academics, particularly<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> humanities (Newkirk, 2002). It is a form of cultural capital,<br />

an <strong>in</strong>gra<strong>in</strong>ed preference for <strong>the</strong> ironic, distanced, critical, <strong>and</strong> complex that, as<br />

Bourdieu demonstrated, serves to establish class dist<strong>in</strong>ctions. Even <strong>the</strong> poorly<br />

paid adjunct, teach<strong>in</strong>g a literature survey, has <strong>the</strong> satisfaction that she can avoid<br />

dupery, that she is alert to <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tellectual softness of sentimental appeals with<br />

<strong>the</strong> attendant clichés <strong>and</strong> commonplaces. As Suzanne Clark writes, few criticisms<br />

are as damag<strong>in</strong>g as <strong>the</strong> use of <strong>the</strong> epi<strong>the</strong>t “sentimental”:<br />

The author’s rationality is <strong>in</strong> question, <strong>and</strong> so is <strong>the</strong> credibility<br />

of <strong>the</strong> argument. If you are <strong>the</strong> victim of a “sentimental”<br />

epi<strong>the</strong>t, you have been excluded from <strong>the</strong> magic circle. It is as<br />

if your readers are too tough for you, <strong>and</strong> you are too much of<br />

a sissy for <strong>the</strong>m …. (1994, p. 101)<br />

Richard Miller has argued that <strong>the</strong>se judgments <strong>and</strong> preferences are not<br />

purely <strong>in</strong>tellectual; <strong>the</strong>y are experienced bodily as forms of discomfort, even<br />

revulsion. There are a range of terms (<strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g “taste” itself) which register<br />

this physical reaction, many deal<strong>in</strong>g with oversweetness (“syrupy,” “sappy,” “sacchar<strong>in</strong>e”).<br />

A more dated term, “schmaltzy,” has <strong>the</strong> root mean<strong>in</strong>g of rendered<br />

chicken fat, what one might imag<strong>in</strong>e at <strong>the</strong> base of <strong>the</strong> stomach. Miller’s po<strong>in</strong>t<br />

is that our reactions to emotional autobiographical writ<strong>in</strong>g is often <strong>in</strong>stant <strong>and</strong><br />

visceral, experienced <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> gut; our sense of taste is embodied, <strong>in</strong>st<strong>in</strong>ctive, <strong>and</strong><br />

employed without disengag<strong>in</strong>g from our own perspective (as our own <strong>the</strong>ories<br />

of social construction would require of us).<br />


Newkirk<br />

The issue may not be whe<strong>the</strong>r a writer uses commonplaces, for all discourse<br />

communities rely on claims <strong>and</strong> commonly agreed upon warrants; this essay is<br />

littered with <strong>the</strong>m. The issue is that personal essays of young students often employ<br />

a type of commonplace that jars or irritates (or nauseates) a type of reader.<br />

They run aga<strong>in</strong>st an aes<strong>the</strong>tic; <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir wholehearted affirmation, <strong>the</strong>y position<br />

<strong>the</strong> writer <strong>in</strong> (<strong>and</strong> ask <strong>the</strong> reader to endorse) a discourse community of motivation<br />

<strong>and</strong> self-help, a place of coaches <strong>and</strong> graduation speeches that represents<br />

everyth<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> academic reader habitually def<strong>in</strong>es himself or herself aga<strong>in</strong>st. It is<br />

not genu<strong>in</strong>e thought but ventriloquism—<strong>the</strong> student be<strong>in</strong>g written by culture.<br />

This discourse of self-efficacy <strong>and</strong> optimism simply has no cultural capital for<br />

<strong>the</strong>se readers.<br />

Yet paradoxically, <strong>the</strong>re is now abundant evidence of <strong>the</strong> psychological utility,<br />

even necessity, of <strong>the</strong> very narrative patterns—of uplift, <strong>and</strong> overcom<strong>in</strong>g<br />

obstacles—that many writ<strong>in</strong>g teachers f<strong>in</strong>d so annoy<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> unth<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. In her<br />

book Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Healthy M<strong>in</strong>d, psychologist<br />

Shelley Taylor summarizes a range of studies to argue that an “unrealistic,”<br />

even “self-aggr<strong>and</strong>iz<strong>in</strong>g” view of <strong>the</strong> self has major positive benefits for personal<br />

happ<strong>in</strong>ess. This exaggerated sense of personal agency emerges so powerfully <strong>and</strong><br />

quickly <strong>in</strong> early childhood that it is very likely “natural [<strong>and</strong>] <strong>in</strong>tr<strong>in</strong>sic to <strong>the</strong><br />

cognitive system” (Taylor, 1989, p. 44). Like <strong>the</strong> evolution of organs or immune<br />

systems, it may be hardwired to support <strong>the</strong> perpetuation of <strong>the</strong> species—as<br />

anthropologist Lionel Tiger has argued, “optimism is a biological phenomenon”<br />

(Taylor, 1989, p. 40). The key beneficial illusion is a heightened sense of be<strong>in</strong>g<br />

able to master one’s environment:<br />

40<br />

The illusion of control, a vital part of people’s beliefs about<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir attributes, is a personal statement about how positive<br />

outcomes will be achieved, not merely by wish<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> hop<strong>in</strong>g<br />

that <strong>the</strong>y will happen, but by mak<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m happen through<br />

one’s own capabilities. (Taylor, 1989, p. 41)<br />

Of course, events are not <strong>in</strong> our control, <strong>and</strong> humans face trauma <strong>and</strong> tragedy.<br />

But even victims of terrible illness <strong>and</strong> loss are often able to derive mean<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> benefit from <strong>the</strong>ir situation, perhaps work<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>in</strong>form or help o<strong>the</strong>rs <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong>ir same situation. Or to f<strong>in</strong>d that <strong>the</strong>ir tragedy br<strong>in</strong>gs an existential clarity to<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir lives. Taylor quotes a 61-year-old cancer patient:<br />

You can take a picture of what someone has done, but when<br />

you frame it, it becomes significant. I feel as if I were, for<br />

<strong>the</strong> first time, really conscious. My life is framed <strong>in</strong> a certa<strong>in</strong><br />

amount of time. I always knew it, but I can see it, <strong>and</strong> it’s<br />

made better by <strong>the</strong> knowledge. (1989, p. 195)

Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

A commonplace, perhaps, but a profoundly functional one.<br />

Taylor’s argument is supported by a l<strong>in</strong>e of research on “explanatory style”<br />

conducted by Mart<strong>in</strong> Seligman <strong>and</strong> his colleagues. Explanatory style refers to<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which <strong>in</strong>dividuals account for <strong>the</strong> difficulties <strong>the</strong>y face; for example<br />

whe<strong>the</strong>r <strong>the</strong>y see <strong>the</strong>mselves as victims or agents, whe<strong>the</strong>r <strong>the</strong>y posit <strong>the</strong> cause as<br />

a pervasive personality flaw, <strong>and</strong> what k<strong>in</strong>d of flaw. In effect, Seligman is look<strong>in</strong>g<br />

at narrative patterns which have relevance for <strong>the</strong> ways students write about<br />

trauma <strong>and</strong> difficulty. He identifies three crucial dimensions of explanatory style:<br />

Stability. Causes can be accounted for as stable <strong>in</strong> time (<strong>and</strong><br />

thus likely to reoccur <strong>in</strong>def<strong>in</strong>itely) or <strong>the</strong>y may be temporary<br />

<strong>and</strong> remediable.<br />

Range. Causes may be perceived as a global trait of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

(“I’m stupid,” “I’m not a people person.”). Or <strong>the</strong>y<br />

may relate to a specific, local, <strong>and</strong> limited k<strong>in</strong>d of problem or<br />

situation.<br />

Locus. Causes can be seen as <strong>in</strong>ternal or external—as aris<strong>in</strong>g<br />

from purely <strong>in</strong>dividual failures or flaws <strong>in</strong> judgment or<br />

personal weakness, or as aris<strong>in</strong>g, at least partially, from outside<br />

circumstances.<br />

Accord<strong>in</strong>g to Seligman a great deal rides on <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of explanatory style an<br />

<strong>in</strong>dividual comes to adopt. The condition he has called “learned helplessness” is<br />

characterized by a particular pattern where people “expla<strong>in</strong> bad events by <strong>in</strong>ternal,<br />

stable, <strong>and</strong> global causes <strong>and</strong> expla<strong>in</strong> good events as external, <strong>in</strong>stable, <strong>and</strong><br />

local” (Seligman, 1988, p. 92). Success is <strong>the</strong> unstable result of luck; failure is<br />

<strong>the</strong> product of character. Marv<strong>in</strong> M<strong>in</strong>sky captured <strong>the</strong> spirit of this argument<br />

as follows:<br />

Th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g is a process, <strong>and</strong> if your th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g does someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

you don’t want it to you should be able to say someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

microscopic <strong>and</strong> analytic about it, <strong>and</strong> not someth<strong>in</strong>g envelop<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> evaluat<strong>in</strong>g about yourself as a learner. The important<br />

th<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> ref<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g your thought is to try to depersonalize<br />

your <strong>in</strong>terior; it may be all right to deal with o<strong>the</strong>r people <strong>in</strong><br />

a vague global way, but it is devastat<strong>in</strong>g if this is <strong>the</strong> way you<br />

deal with yourself. (as quoted <strong>in</strong> Bernste<strong>in</strong>, 1981, p. 122)<br />

Seligman’s research identifies <strong>the</strong> devastation M<strong>in</strong>sky refers to, <strong>the</strong> profound<br />

consequences—for physical <strong>and</strong> mental health—of <strong>the</strong> explanatory style associated<br />

with learned helplessness. In addition to a longst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g association with<br />


Newkirk<br />

depression, researchers now believe that this explanatory style is an <strong>in</strong>effective<br />

way of deal<strong>in</strong>g with stress that compromises <strong>the</strong> immune system, leav<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual susceptible to a range of <strong>in</strong>fectious diseases. Not surpris<strong>in</strong>gly, a<br />

“healthy” explanatory style is associated with <strong>in</strong>creased motivation, persistence,<br />

<strong>and</strong> educational achievement.<br />

All of which suggests a fundamental dilemma for academic readers. It is<br />

hardly surpris<strong>in</strong>g that young writers employ commonplaces of effort, overcom<strong>in</strong>g<br />

obstacles, learn<strong>in</strong>g from difficulties, nam<strong>in</strong>g heroes <strong>and</strong> sa<strong>in</strong>ts <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir lives—<br />

that <strong>the</strong>y construct <strong>the</strong>ir narratives as a form of heroic progression. There is<br />

now a huge body of research to document <strong>the</strong> benefits—even <strong>the</strong> evolutionary<br />

necessity—of such formulations. And as William James <strong>and</strong> Peter Elbow argue,<br />

this positive bias can be self-verify<strong>in</strong>g. If a student believes that an obstacle like a<br />

fail<strong>in</strong>g a test is a learn<strong>in</strong>g opportunity (clichéd as that view is), she is likely to be<br />

more successful <strong>in</strong> ga<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g a benefit from it than someone who treats that failure<br />

as one more sign she is not good at <strong>the</strong> subject (a global reaction). Yet aes<strong>the</strong>tically<br />

<strong>the</strong>se formulations <strong>in</strong> personal essays, as I have noted, frequently fail to satisfy,<br />

<strong>and</strong> even repulse, <strong>the</strong> academic reader who is gratified by an entirely different,<br />

more nuanced, ambivalent, ironic sensibility.<br />


To illustrate this dilemma I will quote extensively from a paper of one of<br />

my own students written early <strong>in</strong> a first-year course. The assignment which I<br />

call <strong>the</strong> “Right to Speak” paper requires <strong>the</strong>m to pick a public issue on which<br />

<strong>the</strong>y have personal experience that has caused <strong>the</strong>m to have some viewpo<strong>in</strong>t; <strong>the</strong><br />

goal of <strong>the</strong> paper is to show how this viewpo<strong>in</strong>t arises out of <strong>the</strong> experience. In<br />

preparation we read Sallie Tisdale’s “A Weight Women Carry” <strong>and</strong> “Grade A:<br />

The Market for a Yale Woman’s Eggs,” an award-w<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g essay by Jessica Cohen.<br />

I also read aloud an essay on euthanasia <strong>in</strong> which I recount <strong>the</strong> last days of my<br />

mo<strong>the</strong>r’s life when she refused food <strong>and</strong> water for twelve days. I suggested additional<br />

topics, rem<strong>in</strong>d<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m that <strong>the</strong>y are all experts on <strong>the</strong>ir own education,<br />

<strong>and</strong> have a right to comment on it. One student, Brianna, chose to write about<br />

<strong>the</strong> cruelty <strong>and</strong> shunn<strong>in</strong>g she endured <strong>in</strong> middle school. The paper beg<strong>in</strong>s with<br />

a description of <strong>the</strong> bodily experience of depression she felt each day as she got<br />

ready for school:<br />

The pa<strong>in</strong> I went through those four years is nearly <strong>in</strong>describable.<br />

Every morn<strong>in</strong>g I would wake up with a heavy chest. It<br />

literally weighed me down. My heart <strong>in</strong> particular would feel<br />

heavy <strong>and</strong> burdened. I could feel it struggle with every pulse.<br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

It was like my heart was forced to beat aga<strong>in</strong>st its will. I could<br />

feel <strong>the</strong> disda<strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong> its pound<strong>in</strong>g, its unwill<strong>in</strong>gness to keep<br />

go<strong>in</strong>g. In response to this weight my shoulders would slump<br />

forward, pull<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> rest of my upper body down with it. My<br />

head hung low. My eyes drooped. It never ceased to astonish<br />

me how my emotional pa<strong>in</strong> managed to manifest itself <strong>in</strong>to<br />

physical mannerisms.<br />

The ma<strong>in</strong> body of <strong>the</strong> paper is a description of a set of humiliat<strong>in</strong>g encounters<br />

<strong>in</strong> school.<br />

I seemed to be <strong>the</strong> bearer of silence. I would go over to a<br />

group of kids who were laugh<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> giggl<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> order to play<br />

with <strong>the</strong>m, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> giggl<strong>in</strong>g would immediately stop. I would<br />

ask some people to play someth<strong>in</strong>g with me, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>y would<br />

always have someth<strong>in</strong>g to do. Recess time was <strong>the</strong> worst. I<br />

always seemed to try to jo<strong>in</strong> a game of four-square just a little<br />

too late, as <strong>the</strong>re was never any room for ano<strong>the</strong>r person ….<br />

And I especially was never able to penetrate <strong>the</strong> wall of backs<br />

<strong>and</strong> shoulders of <strong>the</strong> kids st<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g around <strong>in</strong> a circle talk<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to one ano<strong>the</strong>r. This left me st<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g alone aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong><br />

school’s wall observ<strong>in</strong>g all <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r kids at play, desperately<br />

wish<strong>in</strong>g I could be <strong>the</strong>m.<br />

One particularly pa<strong>in</strong>ful scene, so vivid <strong>in</strong> her m<strong>in</strong>d that she had to <strong>in</strong>terrupt<br />

her writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> cry when she was compos<strong>in</strong>g it, <strong>in</strong>volved her not be<strong>in</strong>g chosen<br />

to help <strong>in</strong> a cook<strong>in</strong>g project:<br />

I remember one day dur<strong>in</strong>g home base, a time dur<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

day where each specific section gets toge<strong>the</strong>r to talk about<br />

r<strong>and</strong>om nonsense, a girl named Susanna from ano<strong>the</strong>r home<br />

base came <strong>in</strong> to announce she was bak<strong>in</strong>g cookies. Her home<br />

base teacher had told her that she could pick one friend to<br />

bake cookies with her. She asked all of us who wanted to be<br />

that lucky person. Of course, everyone raised <strong>the</strong>ir h<strong>and</strong>s <strong>and</strong><br />

eagerly began plead<strong>in</strong>g to pick <strong>the</strong>m. She ended up pick<strong>in</strong>g<br />

a girl named Megan, who immediately hopped out of<br />

her seat <strong>and</strong> ran to Susanna’s side. I sadly lowered my h<strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>and</strong> gave Susanna a look of grief. She smiled at me <strong>and</strong> said<br />

“Hmmm, well maybe you can bake with me too, Brianna”.<br />

Before I could allow any sort of happ<strong>in</strong>ess ease my hurt body,<br />

Megan immediately straightened up, flung her eyes open,<br />


Newkirk<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>voluntarily hushed “No! No!” <strong>in</strong> Susanna’s ear. She<br />

caught herself <strong>and</strong> slowly turned to look at me <strong>and</strong> gave me a<br />

nervous giggle.<br />

My stomach sank so low it might as well have fallen to my<br />

feet. I had to try so hard to not cry <strong>in</strong> that moment. An <strong>in</strong>tense,<br />

sharp pa<strong>in</strong> stabbed <strong>in</strong>to my heart <strong>and</strong> stomach. It hurt<br />

so much that I felt like puk<strong>in</strong>g for a split second. That was <strong>the</strong><br />

first moment I realized how alone <strong>and</strong> unwanted I truly was.<br />

It had manifested before my eyes. I had never actually seen or<br />

heard anyone display <strong>the</strong>ir disapproval of me before. To this<br />

day, I still cannot look Megan <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> eyes without th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g<br />

about <strong>the</strong> cookie <strong>in</strong>cident. To this day, I feel <strong>the</strong> same stab <strong>in</strong><br />

my heart <strong>and</strong> stomach when I th<strong>in</strong>k about it.<br />

The rest of sixth grade <strong>and</strong> seventh grade cont<strong>in</strong>ued on very<br />

much <strong>the</strong> same way. There were endless displays of “No! No!”<br />

detonat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> my face every day. Whe<strong>the</strong>r it was a hushed giggle<br />

accompanied by a f<strong>in</strong>ger po<strong>in</strong>t<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> my direction amongst<br />

a couple of girls, <strong>the</strong> rumors about how I was a compulsive<br />

liar <strong>and</strong> ate lard for breakfast, or even <strong>the</strong> obese, ugly cartoon<br />

draw<strong>in</strong>gs of me that were left <strong>in</strong> my locker, it was made clear<br />

to me that my lonel<strong>in</strong>ess <strong>and</strong> pa<strong>in</strong> would last for a long time.<br />

She completely closed herself off from <strong>the</strong> rest of <strong>the</strong> world. “I was a bottle of<br />

thoroughly shaken soda pop just wait<strong>in</strong>g to explode.” And <strong>in</strong> fact, near <strong>the</strong> end<br />

of <strong>the</strong> paper she describes cutt<strong>in</strong>g herself:<br />

I took my razor from <strong>the</strong> shower <strong>and</strong> slashed my wrist with<br />

it three times. It felt good. The release of pa<strong>in</strong> was extraord<strong>in</strong>ary.<br />

I wanted to cut more. I wanted to go all up <strong>and</strong> down<br />

my arm, but I knew I would get caught cutt<strong>in</strong>g myself if I<br />

did that, so I stopped after three cuts. I carefully put my razor<br />

back <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> shower, turned <strong>the</strong> water on, <strong>and</strong> washed away all<br />

<strong>the</strong> blood, snot, <strong>and</strong> tears, cleans<strong>in</strong>g myself once more.<br />

At this po<strong>in</strong>t her paper shifts abruptly to <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>sight or underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g she<br />

wants <strong>the</strong> narrative to convey:<br />

While I never acquired scars from my razor-<strong>in</strong>cident, I’ve<br />

never fully recovered from those four years. My body is still<br />

an open wound that I don’t th<strong>in</strong>k will ever be healed. And<br />

as much as I wish I had a happy <strong>and</strong> normal adolescence, I<br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

wouldn’t change <strong>the</strong> past even if I had <strong>the</strong> power to. While I<br />

will never fully recover from my trauma, I have taken away<br />

someth<strong>in</strong>g so positive that it far outweighs all <strong>the</strong> negatives of<br />

my middle school experience: k<strong>in</strong>dness <strong>and</strong> compassion. My<br />

agony has molded me <strong>in</strong>to a far better person than I could<br />

have ever been had I not been so scorned <strong>and</strong> neglected.<br />

Dur<strong>in</strong>g my four years of misery, I would th<strong>in</strong>k to myself if<br />

only <strong>the</strong>y knew. If only <strong>the</strong>y knew how I feel right now. If<br />

only <strong>the</strong>y knew what happened beh<strong>in</strong>d closed doors, maybe<br />

<strong>the</strong>y wouldn’t be so mean <strong>and</strong> cruel. I th<strong>in</strong>k about this every<br />

time I <strong>in</strong>teract with a person. I don’t know <strong>the</strong>ir back-story.<br />

I don’t know <strong>the</strong> emotional baggage <strong>the</strong>y carry around with<br />

<strong>the</strong>m. All I know is that I need to be sensitive towards <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

feel<strong>in</strong>gs.<br />

I th<strong>in</strong>k about <strong>the</strong> how complicated <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>tense my pa<strong>in</strong> <strong>and</strong><br />

emotional grief was, <strong>and</strong> all because people weren’t nice to<br />

me. It’s such a simple th<strong>in</strong>g, really. Just be a good, k<strong>in</strong>d person.<br />

Someth<strong>in</strong>g as simple as a smile or a “hello” can brighten<br />

up someone’s day. And who knows, maybe that person really<br />

needs it. Because of my past, I am now able to possibly better<br />

someone’s future—a fair trade-off for my pa<strong>in</strong>, I th<strong>in</strong>k.<br />

In this f<strong>in</strong>al section we can see Brianna’s attempt to take agency <strong>and</strong> assert<br />

that she has made constructive use of this experience, while acknowledg<strong>in</strong>g that<br />

she still lives with <strong>the</strong> trauma of those years. One of her fears <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

paper was that it would elicit “pity,” that it would receive an undeserved high<br />

grade “out of pity or awkwardness.” By claim<strong>in</strong>g a positive outcome she f<strong>in</strong>ally<br />

becomes an agent <strong>in</strong> her own story; it is <strong>the</strong> pattern of explanation that Seligman<br />

<strong>and</strong> Taylor associate with a healthy resilient reaction to difficulty.<br />

When, with her permission, I shared <strong>the</strong> paper with a group of teachers,<br />

one reaction was doubt about her claim that she wouldn’t “change <strong>the</strong> past” if<br />

she could because of what she had ga<strong>in</strong>ed. I had kept touch with Brianna <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

year s<strong>in</strong>ce she was <strong>in</strong> my class, <strong>and</strong> know<strong>in</strong>g her <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>trospection <strong>and</strong><br />

psychology, I <strong>in</strong>vited her to respond to this concern about her paper. She wrote:<br />

I suppose I would have preferred to avoid all that pa<strong>in</strong>. Who<br />

wouldn’t? But I truly believe I would not be <strong>the</strong> person I am<br />

today had I not endured what I did. I firmly believe that every<br />

evil is accompanied with a good, <strong>and</strong> vice-versa. With all that<br />

pa<strong>in</strong> came an <strong>in</strong>credible sense of sympathy <strong>and</strong> car<strong>in</strong>g towards<br />


Newkirk<br />

o<strong>the</strong>rs. Yes, I am still hurt<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> not fully recovered (<strong>and</strong><br />

may never be) be from my experience. I have been greatly<br />

impacted psychologically <strong>and</strong> it’s go<strong>in</strong>g to take a lot of hard<br />

work to be able to function as I would like to be able to. But<br />

this is balanced with a gift of compassion that I th<strong>in</strong>k more<br />

people <strong>in</strong> this world need. If that pa<strong>in</strong> was what I needed to<br />

go through <strong>in</strong> order to atta<strong>in</strong> this gift, <strong>the</strong>n so be it, because<br />

that makes me one more person who will treat o<strong>the</strong>rs <strong>the</strong> way<br />

<strong>the</strong>y deserve to be treated <strong>and</strong> hopefully I can spare <strong>the</strong>m<br />

some of <strong>the</strong> pa<strong>in</strong> I endured.<br />

In her commentary on this paper, she said that <strong>the</strong> process of writ<strong>in</strong>g was<br />

an “emotional rollercoaster,” <strong>and</strong> not one that brought her <strong>the</strong> sense of catharsis<br />

that she had hoped for. So I wanted to get her reaction to <strong>the</strong> question of whe<strong>the</strong>r<br />

this k<strong>in</strong>d of writ<strong>in</strong>g should have a place <strong>in</strong> a writ<strong>in</strong>g course:<br />

I completely underst<strong>and</strong> where <strong>the</strong>se concerns come from, <strong>and</strong><br />

I can certa<strong>in</strong>ly appreciate <strong>the</strong>m. But I th<strong>in</strong>k <strong>the</strong> purpose of<br />

(good) literature is to br<strong>in</strong>g up <strong>the</strong>se sorts of issues <strong>and</strong> topics;<br />

topics which are uncomfortable, topics that are important <strong>and</strong><br />

relevant to many people, <strong>and</strong> topics which evoke strong emotions<br />

so that we may recognize <strong>and</strong> discuss <strong>the</strong>m. The great<br />

th<strong>in</strong>g about personal essays is that if some topic is true for<br />

one person, <strong>the</strong>re is more than likely at least one o<strong>the</strong>r person<br />

out <strong>the</strong>re who can relate <strong>and</strong> identify with that person, <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong>refore <strong>the</strong> topic is worth shar<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> discuss<strong>in</strong>g. By turn<strong>in</strong>g<br />

a bl<strong>in</strong>d eye to <strong>the</strong>se types of essays, we might as well be turn<strong>in</strong>g<br />

a bl<strong>in</strong>d eye to literature itself. Now obviously if a student or<br />

teacher is truly uncomfortable with this sort of th<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>the</strong>n<br />

guidel<strong>in</strong>es or alternate assignments can be made. But I don’t<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k <strong>the</strong> personal essay should be dismissed from classrooms.<br />

As a f<strong>in</strong>al question, I asked her if she saw any relationship between personal<br />

essay writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r writ<strong>in</strong>g that she had done <strong>in</strong> academic courses.<br />

I absolutely believe <strong>the</strong>re is a connection between this type of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>in</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r courses. This k<strong>in</strong>d of writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

is very personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>refore may evoke strong feel<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>and</strong><br />

emotions. One of <strong>the</strong> hardest th<strong>in</strong>gs to do <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g, which<br />

is one of <strong>the</strong> challenges a personal essay presents, is write a<br />

well-written paper about a topic you are passionate about.<br />

In most cases when someone is passionate about a certa<strong>in</strong><br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

subject, <strong>the</strong>y have so much to say that it’s difficult to discipl<strong>in</strong>e<br />

<strong>the</strong>mselves <strong>in</strong>to writ<strong>in</strong>g a paper that is coherent. This is<br />

a very critical skill to be able to achieve: to be able to release<br />

your emotions <strong>and</strong> take a step back to look at a subject from<br />

a discipl<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>and</strong> impartial po<strong>in</strong>t of view. This is a skill that<br />

is required <strong>in</strong> many, if not most, types of writ<strong>in</strong>g, such as<br />

persuasive essays or debates, or even analytical <strong>and</strong> critical papers.<br />

I would argue that this skill is one of <strong>the</strong> most basic <strong>and</strong><br />

important skills to have <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g. The personal essay without<br />

a doubt exercises this skill, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>refore is very relevant to<br />

o<strong>the</strong>r types of writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

This response situates Brianna <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> complex debate concern<strong>in</strong>g “transfer”<br />

from a first-year writ<strong>in</strong>g course. Her position seems to align with those who<br />

argue for <strong>the</strong> possibility of “far transfer” (Wardle, 2007): <strong>the</strong> capacity of learners<br />

to develop a meta-awareness of writ<strong>in</strong>g processes—<strong>in</strong> this case her sense of manag<strong>in</strong>g<br />

complex emotional material—that can be of use <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g assignments<br />

which do not closely resemble <strong>the</strong> personal essay.<br />


But to return to “<strong>the</strong> nervous system.” This student paper can create a discomfort<br />

for writ<strong>in</strong>g teachers, <strong>and</strong> it is important to speculate about <strong>the</strong> source<br />

of that discomfort. I would argue that it does not arise from <strong>the</strong> personal material—which<br />

for <strong>the</strong> most part is h<strong>and</strong>led with narrative skill, particularly as she<br />

describes <strong>the</strong> bodily sensation of her depression <strong>and</strong> exclusion. Her occasional<br />

use of metaphor is also compell<strong>in</strong>g (“I seemed to be <strong>the</strong> bearer of silence;” “I was<br />

a bottle of thoroughly shaken soda pop just wait<strong>in</strong>g to explode”). The reader’s<br />

discomfort does not arise from a concern about act<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>rapist—<strong>the</strong> paper<br />

is clearly not ask<strong>in</strong>g for this. No, <strong>the</strong> discomfort most likely comes from statements<br />

like this:<br />

Or this:<br />

If <strong>the</strong>re’s one positive th<strong>in</strong>g I took from middle school, it’s<br />

that you should be a k<strong>in</strong>d person.<br />

While I will never fully recover from my trauma, I have taken<br />

away someth<strong>in</strong>g so positive that it far outweighs all <strong>the</strong> negatives<br />

of my middle school experience: k<strong>in</strong>dness <strong>and</strong> compassion.<br />

My agony has molded me <strong>in</strong>to a far better person than<br />

I could have ever been had not been so scorned <strong>and</strong> neglected.<br />


Newkirk<br />

At moments like <strong>the</strong>se, <strong>the</strong> writer locates <strong>the</strong> paper with<strong>in</strong> a form of moral,<br />

even moraliz<strong>in</strong>g discourse that academic readers are often deeply suspicious<br />

of—<strong>and</strong> embarrassed by (“what would <strong>the</strong> comp director th<strong>in</strong>k of this?) This<br />

is <strong>the</strong> language of self-help, or <strong>the</strong>rapy, or guidance counselors, or graduation<br />

speeches. Brianna clearly locates herself <strong>in</strong> this discourse at <strong>the</strong> end of <strong>the</strong> paper,<br />

where she quotes what she wrote <strong>in</strong> her senior yearbook four years after <strong>the</strong>se<br />

events took place:<br />

My life’s philosophy is a simple one, but extremely important.<br />

In my high school senior yearbook I leave with one very<br />

important message to all. I like to th<strong>in</strong>k of it as a summary of<br />

my entire grade school experience. Under my picture you will<br />

see <strong>the</strong> quote “Be nice to people—<strong>the</strong>y outnumber you 6.6<br />

billion to one.” True, no?<br />

The academic reader is deflated by words like “simple,” “nice,” <strong>and</strong> “very<br />

important message.” Our mission, after all, is to disrupt <strong>the</strong> view that any life<br />

philosophy can be simple, or that morality can be reduced to such truisms. One<br />

reader of Brianna’s paper suggested that with more time <strong>and</strong> read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> a writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

course, she would develop more “distance” on <strong>the</strong> topic. Yet she is writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

from <strong>the</strong> perspective of five years, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong> her comments a year after <strong>the</strong> paper<br />

was written, <strong>the</strong> moral core of her essay is consistent. It may be that it is <strong>the</strong><br />

readers of this essay that want “distance”—because <strong>the</strong> essay puts <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong> too<br />

close proximity to a form of moral assertion that makes <strong>the</strong>m uncomfortable,<br />

as if <strong>the</strong>y have w<strong>and</strong>ered <strong>in</strong>to a meet<strong>in</strong>g where <strong>the</strong>y had hoped to listen to Joan<br />

Didion <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>y get Dr. Phil.<br />

One way to respond to an essay like this one is to employ a hermeneutics of<br />

distrust, to treat <strong>the</strong> moral assertions of <strong>the</strong> paper as mere clichés <strong>and</strong> copouts;<br />

this is what David Bartholomae seems to do when he calls <strong>the</strong>m “commonplaces.”<br />

In some of <strong>the</strong> earlier versions of a critical studies approach, as <strong>the</strong>se commonplaces<br />

were viewed a form of “false consciousness,” a passive acceptance of<br />

cultural truisms that served dom<strong>in</strong>ant <strong>in</strong>terests—a manifestation of James’ “dupery.”<br />

The task of <strong>in</strong>struction was to help students play <strong>the</strong> “doubt<strong>in</strong>g game”—to<br />

deconstruct or problematize <strong>the</strong>se beliefs, to show <strong>the</strong>ir arbitrary constructed<br />

nature, <strong>and</strong> expose <strong>the</strong> political <strong>in</strong>terests <strong>the</strong>y serve. As should be clear by now,<br />

I am argu<strong>in</strong>g that this approach would be counterproductive <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> case of this<br />

essay; it would be to challenge its core, its very reason for be<strong>in</strong>g—<strong>and</strong> to dismiss<br />

<strong>the</strong> profound functionality of this “simple” belief system for <strong>the</strong> writer. It would<br />

be a form of violence <strong>and</strong> disrespect, a failure of imag<strong>in</strong>ation <strong>and</strong> empathy, an<br />

ethnographic t<strong>in</strong> ear. It would also be a failure to use <strong>the</strong> self-critical tools of<br />

cultural criticism that would ask readers to <strong>in</strong>terrogate <strong>the</strong>ir own discomfort.<br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

But this greater openness to <strong>the</strong>se moral commonplaces does not mean that<br />

all <strong>the</strong> reader can do is say, “I can see you, I can hear you.” Like any discourse,<br />

“sentimental realism” can be performed well, <strong>and</strong> it can be performed poorly.<br />

Not all writers can write “<strong>in</strong> your face” scenes as Brianna has, or be as attuned<br />

to bodily response. The effect of her paper rests on this ability, as she says near<br />

<strong>the</strong> end, to reveal to readers <strong>the</strong> depth of distress that <strong>the</strong>se too-typical middle<br />

school behaviors can create. At <strong>the</strong> same time <strong>the</strong>re are perspectives miss<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> paper: one teacher who read <strong>the</strong> paper asked why parents <strong>and</strong> teachers didn’t<br />

<strong>in</strong>tervene (th<strong>in</strong>k of <strong>the</strong> clumsy move of Susannah publicly choos<strong>in</strong>g a peer to<br />

do <strong>the</strong> cook<strong>in</strong>g). Surely <strong>the</strong>y bear some responsibility. I wished I had posed this<br />

question to her dur<strong>in</strong>g our conference on <strong>the</strong> paper, so I asked her this question<br />

a year later <strong>in</strong> our email exchange. She acknowledged that her parents could have<br />

stepped <strong>in</strong> earlier, but she understood why her teachers didn’t:<br />

I put on a really terrific front at school … <strong>the</strong>y were<br />

SHOCKED when my mom told <strong>the</strong>m that I was miserable <strong>in</strong><br />

middle school. Even to this day, when I talk to <strong>the</strong>m about it<br />

<strong>the</strong>y are completely dumb-founded. They say th<strong>in</strong>gs like “You<br />

were always so happy <strong>and</strong> bubbly all <strong>the</strong> time. I just can’t believe<br />

that you hated middle school so much.” So to be fair, my<br />

teachers didn’t have anyth<strong>in</strong>g to pick up on <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>tervene <strong>in</strong>.<br />

But <strong>the</strong> bottom l<strong>in</strong>e is that people are responsible for <strong>the</strong>ir own<br />

actions. Besides, anyone who has experienced <strong>the</strong> public school<br />

system underst<strong>and</strong>s that it’s almost like its own separate society.<br />

You’re expected to deal with th<strong>in</strong>gs on your own. Allow<strong>in</strong>g for<br />

an adult to step <strong>in</strong> is like cheat<strong>in</strong>g or break<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> rules, <strong>and</strong><br />

you are immediately co<strong>in</strong>ed as a target for bully<strong>in</strong>g. While I<br />

would agree that adults should have stepped up, I would also<br />

argue that <strong>the</strong>re shouldn’t have been <strong>the</strong> need to do so.<br />

I regret that we didn’t explore this “front” <strong>in</strong> our conference because her<br />

descriptions of it might have heightened <strong>the</strong> pathos of her situation. In addition<br />

to endur<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> shunn<strong>in</strong>g, she had to ma<strong>in</strong>ta<strong>in</strong> a front that would keep <strong>the</strong><br />

adults around her from guess<strong>in</strong>g her distress. But she rejects as a digression <strong>the</strong><br />

suggestion that she explore <strong>the</strong> responsibility of adults <strong>in</strong> this situation because<br />

it was <strong>the</strong> behavior of <strong>the</strong> girls, her peers, that is criticized. There should have<br />

been no need for adults to <strong>in</strong>tervene. The more “mature” or sociological move<br />

to view <strong>the</strong> situation <strong>in</strong> a systematic way, spread<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> blame to adults, would<br />

blunt her moral criticism.<br />

I realize that papers of this k<strong>in</strong>d raise anxieties among teachers, particularly<br />

those new to <strong>the</strong> profession, about cross<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> l<strong>in</strong>e <strong>in</strong>to be<strong>in</strong>g a <strong>the</strong>rapist<br />


Newkirk<br />

(although as Lad Tob<strong>in</strong> has written, we fool ourselves if we th<strong>in</strong>k this is a clear<br />

l<strong>in</strong>e). I don’t want to m<strong>in</strong>imize this concern, but <strong>in</strong> my experience it need not<br />

be an obstacle. To beg<strong>in</strong> with, students who choose write about traumatic issues<br />

are, almost without exception, not ask<strong>in</strong>g us to be <strong>the</strong>rapists. They want us to be<br />

sensitive <strong>and</strong> curious readers who help <strong>the</strong>m elaborate <strong>and</strong> explore topics <strong>the</strong>y<br />

have chosen to write about. I will often beg<strong>in</strong> my questions about <strong>the</strong>ir papers<br />

by say<strong>in</strong>g that I respect <strong>the</strong>m for tak<strong>in</strong>g on a difficult <strong>and</strong> emotional topic <strong>and</strong><br />

that if any of my questions make <strong>the</strong>m uncomfortable not to answer <strong>the</strong>m—but<br />

almost <strong>in</strong>variably students welcome <strong>the</strong> questions. Michelle Payne comments <strong>in</strong><br />

her study, Bodily Discourses, that allow<strong>in</strong>g this k<strong>in</strong>d of writ<strong>in</strong>g to be done <strong>in</strong> a<br />

course has <strong>the</strong> effect of normaliz<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> subject matter—it is not shameful, unspeakable.<br />

It can be <strong>the</strong> subject of a paper; writ<strong>in</strong>g is <strong>the</strong>rapeutic by not be<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>rapy, but normal school work. She writes: “It is especially important, I th<strong>in</strong>k,<br />

for women who have suffered bodily violence to believe a ‘unified, normal’ self is<br />

possible through writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> an academic context” (Payne, 1997, p. 206).<br />

It is also important to remember that this essay is part of a sequence that led,<br />

as it does <strong>in</strong> many first year classes, to assignments that dealt with respond<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> to research. An essay like this one can help a teacher <strong>in</strong> direct<strong>in</strong>g<br />

students to topics that can comb<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> academic, build<strong>in</strong>g on what<br />

Michael Smith <strong>and</strong> Jeffrey Wilhelm call “identity markers.” In Brianna’s case, this<br />

paper clued me <strong>in</strong> to her <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> psychology of distress, her fasc<strong>in</strong>ation with<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which social stress is experienced bodily. In ano<strong>the</strong>r paper she describes<br />

play<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> role of Nurse Ratched <strong>in</strong> One Flew Over <strong>the</strong> Cuckoo’s Nest <strong>and</strong> f<strong>in</strong>d<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> way of walk<strong>in</strong>g to convey her emotional stiffness. When she chose later <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

semester to research panic attacks, which she also has experienced, I knew from<br />

her previous writ<strong>in</strong>g that this was a good topic for her (<strong>and</strong> it was a very successful<br />

paper). As Marcia Curtis <strong>and</strong> Anne Herr<strong>in</strong>gton argue <strong>in</strong> Persons <strong>in</strong> Process, <strong>the</strong><br />

most engaged <strong>and</strong> committed undergraduate writers are those who have a personal<br />

stake <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir academic subject; <strong>the</strong>y are <strong>the</strong> ones who dismantle <strong>the</strong> personal/<br />

academic b<strong>in</strong>ary. And for me this essay was a key to help<strong>in</strong>g Brianna do that.<br />

*<br />

F<strong>in</strong>ally to <strong>the</strong> issue of power. One charge aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong> personal essay is that it<br />

can become solipsistic, so self-preoccupied <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividualistic that <strong>the</strong> writer is<br />

powerless to appreciate or challenge systematic social evils. One th<strong>in</strong>g academic<br />

language provides is a more powerful capacity to critique <strong>and</strong> challenge <strong>in</strong>justice.<br />

I would not deny this is sometimes <strong>the</strong> case (virtually every “travel” paper I have<br />

received fails <strong>in</strong> this way). But this argument can be turned on its head—that<br />

much of <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> “academy” <strong>in</strong>sulates practitioners from <strong>the</strong> way rhetorical<br />

power actually operates <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> wider culture. There would not be a need<br />


Selfhood <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Personal Essay<br />

to argue for “public <strong>in</strong>tellectuals” if most of us were good at public discourse. A<br />

dismissal of “sentimental realism” can alienate academics from <strong>the</strong> way writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

(<strong>and</strong> narrative) functions <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> wider culture—to commemorate, provide solace,<br />

enterta<strong>in</strong>, persuade, <strong>in</strong>form. One can easily imag<strong>in</strong>e a public function for<br />

Brianna’s essay—to help teachers be alert to <strong>the</strong> excluded child, or to make middle<br />

school girls aware of <strong>the</strong> pa<strong>in</strong> that <strong>the</strong> ostracized girl can feel. While essays<br />

like Brianna’s may be <strong>the</strong>rapeutic, <strong>the</strong>y are also forms of public moral writ<strong>in</strong>g, as<br />

witnessed by <strong>the</strong> considerable popularity of “This I Believe” series on National<br />

Public Radio. To <strong>the</strong> extent that composition studies has embraced <strong>the</strong> public,<br />

non-academic uses of language, it should pay serious attention to <strong>the</strong> power of<br />

moral discourse like hers.<br />

I personally experienced this removal from public discourse several years ago<br />

at an annual NCTE conference. Somehow I was on <strong>the</strong> “research str<strong>and</strong>,” which<br />

as anyone familiar with <strong>the</strong> conference knows is <strong>the</strong> kiss of death, a k<strong>in</strong>d of consumer<br />

warn<strong>in</strong>g. A group of us were scheduled to present <strong>in</strong> a huge ballroom, <strong>and</strong><br />

as <strong>the</strong> scheduled time approached it became clear that <strong>the</strong> panel outnumbered<br />

<strong>the</strong> audience—so we pulled toge<strong>the</strong>r a few chairs <strong>in</strong> a pa<strong>the</strong>tic huddle to make<br />

<strong>the</strong> session feel more <strong>in</strong>timate. In <strong>the</strong> session I was criticized by a prom<strong>in</strong>ent researcher<br />

for promot<strong>in</strong>g narrative <strong>and</strong> descriptive writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> not <strong>the</strong> more powerful<br />

“language of <strong>the</strong> academy.” I was, <strong>in</strong> effect, disempower<strong>in</strong>g my students.<br />

I remember th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g at <strong>the</strong> time, “If we <strong>and</strong> our language is so powerful,<br />

why isn’t anyone here?” For I knew <strong>in</strong> some o<strong>the</strong>r ballroom, my colleague Donald<br />

Graves would be speak<strong>in</strong>g to an audience of over a thous<strong>and</strong>, which would<br />

respond enthusiastically to his humor, his stories of children <strong>in</strong> his study, his<br />

descriptions of <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> his ability to mimic conversations with <strong>the</strong>se<br />

children. At times <strong>the</strong>se stories had <strong>the</strong> weight of parables, exemplary stories. He<br />

would alternate from humor to pathos to <strong>in</strong>dignation without any notes, <strong>and</strong><br />

never los<strong>in</strong>g his audience. And he changed <strong>the</strong> face of elementary education.<br />

Who, I was th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, really has a h<strong>and</strong>le on <strong>the</strong> “language of power”?<br />


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(pp. 69-92). New York: V<strong>in</strong>tage.<br />

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Nancy Mack<br />

Wright State University<br />

Critique can function as more than a scholarly pursuit; it can become a<br />

valued skill for surviv<strong>in</strong>g as an outsider with<strong>in</strong> an academic context. Because<br />

universities are complex, largely reproductive systems, be<strong>in</strong>g a hard worker <strong>and</strong><br />

follow<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> rules does not necessarily lead to reward or even much notice.<br />

Increas<strong>in</strong>g dem<strong>and</strong>s <strong>and</strong> multiple layers of political mach<strong>in</strong>ations foster disillusionment<br />

<strong>and</strong> alienation. Participat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> programs, grants, <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r <strong>in</strong>itiatives<br />

only <strong>in</strong>creases <strong>the</strong> perils, not to mention runn<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> gauntlet of publish<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> tenure. As egotistical as I may be, it is best to remember that <strong>the</strong> academic<br />

universe is not <strong>the</strong> only place fraught with crush<strong>in</strong>g hegemonic pressures. Be<strong>in</strong>g<br />

a parent, teenager, or restaurant server all necessitate <strong>the</strong> ability to analyze<br />

<strong>the</strong> forces that impose limitations <strong>and</strong> subvert one’s agency to author ethical,<br />

answerable acts. Fortunately, critique has long been expressed through many<br />

productive means such as music, cartoons, jokes, parodies, post<strong>in</strong>gs on social<br />

media, clo<strong>the</strong>s, hair styles, body art, gestures, <strong>and</strong> of course, various types of<br />

compos<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

This chapter forwards memoir as a writ<strong>in</strong>g assignment that can be <strong>in</strong>formed<br />

by a critical notion of subject formation. The heuristic activities that I describe<br />

were developed for courses on different levels: first year composition, English<br />

education writ<strong>in</strong>g pedagogy, <strong>and</strong> several graduate sem<strong>in</strong>ars. Recently, I <strong>in</strong>corporated<br />

a few of <strong>the</strong>se generative strategies <strong>in</strong>to an onl<strong>in</strong>e graduate course about<br />

critical memoir. After comment<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> constra<strong>in</strong>ts of <strong>the</strong>oretical taxonomies,<br />

a series of heuristic strategies are outl<strong>in</strong>ed to <strong>in</strong>crease awareness of identity as a<br />

conflicted representation that is always open to revision through writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />


Regretfully, labels re<strong>in</strong>force power relations beh<strong>in</strong>d reified categories. Never<strong>the</strong>less,<br />

taxonomies may come <strong>in</strong> h<strong>and</strong>y when try<strong>in</strong>g to wrap one’s head around<br />

a huge amount of <strong>in</strong>formation dur<strong>in</strong>g an <strong>in</strong>troductory course about composition<br />

<strong>the</strong>ory (Mack, 2009). A disclaimer always needs to be fronted when us<strong>in</strong>g such<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.0<br />


Mack<br />

devices that taxonomies are cultural generalizations that <strong>in</strong> most cases rewrite history<br />

to benefit <strong>the</strong> reign<strong>in</strong>g group. Fulkerson’s (1979, 1990, 2005) serial glosses<br />

relate an overly dramatic, progress-narrative of <strong>the</strong> field. A people’s oral history<br />

always varies from <strong>the</strong> official, pr<strong>in</strong>ted versions, with some of <strong>the</strong> old timers<br />

choos<strong>in</strong>g silence ra<strong>the</strong>r than <strong>the</strong> futility of construct<strong>in</strong>g an alternative narrative.<br />

I merely wish to trouble <strong>the</strong> master narrative for <strong>the</strong> field by po<strong>in</strong>t<strong>in</strong>g out that<br />

<strong>the</strong> names commonly represent<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>ory camps <strong>in</strong> what is called Rhetoric<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>Composition</strong> should be contested. Bruce Horner <strong>and</strong> M<strong>in</strong>-Zhan Lu (2010)<br />

astutely argue that <strong>the</strong>se two words that represent <strong>the</strong> field itself deserve critique.<br />

We might question which term should come first <strong>and</strong> whe<strong>the</strong>r <strong>the</strong> “<strong>and</strong>” implies<br />

equality or mere addition. The names for <strong>in</strong>dividual <strong>the</strong>ory groups did not<br />

precede <strong>the</strong> development of a particular perspective, nor did <strong>the</strong>se labels emerge<br />

from <strong>in</strong>dividual scholars meet<strong>in</strong>g as a group, vot<strong>in</strong>g on an identifier, <strong>and</strong> donn<strong>in</strong>g<br />

T-shirts with slogans to represent <strong>the</strong>ir mutual ideology. At <strong>the</strong> time that some<br />

of <strong>the</strong>se camps supposedly came <strong>in</strong>to be<strong>in</strong>g, I would have bet on totally different<br />

names as ga<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g popularity. For example, I would have suggested “transformative<br />

pedagogies” ra<strong>the</strong>r than <strong>the</strong> cumbersome “social epistemic rhetoric,” but<br />

James Berl<strong>in</strong> never requested my advice.<br />

History is far more complex than any taxonomy can represent. Most scholars<br />

have careers that span decades with <strong>the</strong>ir positions develop<strong>in</strong>g if not tak<strong>in</strong>g<br />

twists <strong>and</strong> turns related to forces that may not be fully revealed. Proffer<strong>in</strong>g a new<br />

position will always come with great political risk <strong>and</strong> may <strong>in</strong>deed necessitate <strong>the</strong><br />

Foucauldian moment of label<strong>in</strong>g o<strong>the</strong>rs to create a somewhat undeserved dist<strong>in</strong>ction.<br />

Maybe <strong>the</strong> academic desire to co<strong>in</strong> a new concept leads to <strong>the</strong> emphasis<br />

on difference so we can offer a new <strong>and</strong> improved concept. Yet such stress on difference<br />

also may lead to categories that imply b<strong>in</strong>aries <strong>and</strong> warr<strong>in</strong>g factions, even<br />

when <strong>the</strong>y may not exist. Raul Sanchez comments on <strong>the</strong> need for a progressive<br />

cause <strong>and</strong> effect claim when forward<strong>in</strong>g a new <strong>the</strong>ory:<br />

We might even say that process <strong>the</strong>ory was <strong>in</strong>vented by<br />

postprocess <strong>the</strong>ory <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> same way that, accord<strong>in</strong>g to Susan<br />

Miller, current-traditional <strong>the</strong>ory was <strong>in</strong>vented by process<br />

<strong>the</strong>ory …. In a sense <strong>the</strong>n, to participate <strong>in</strong> a discussion about<br />

<strong>the</strong> relative merits of process <strong>and</strong> postprocess <strong>the</strong>ories is to<br />

use <strong>the</strong> apparatus, to perform <strong>the</strong> same act of piety. More<br />

importantly, it is also to forego <strong>the</strong> opportunity to redef<strong>in</strong>e<br />

<strong>the</strong> historical <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>oretical terms by which writ<strong>in</strong>g will be<br />

studied. (2011, p. 187)<br />

Even claims of members’ alienation or affiliation may be political projections.<br />

These fossilized monikers are hardly accepted team names that rally<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> Memoir <strong>and</strong> Identity Formation<br />

scholars under <strong>the</strong>ir banners to battle <strong>the</strong> opposition <strong>in</strong> discipl<strong>in</strong>ary skirmishes.<br />

Taxonomies of <strong>the</strong>ory groups are misrepresentations at best <strong>and</strong> divisive propag<strong>and</strong>a<br />

at worst. Our critiques should historicize such labels to make <strong>the</strong>se<br />

groups more dynamic <strong>and</strong> even revisable.<br />

Richard Weaver (1953) warns aga<strong>in</strong>st an over-emphasis on <strong>the</strong>ory godterms.<br />

These potent terms are vague <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>refore discount <strong>the</strong> complexities of<br />

<strong>the</strong> daily classroom experience. Patricia Hark<strong>in</strong> (1991) has forwarded a more<br />

grounded notion of teacher lore as employ<strong>in</strong>g multiple <strong>the</strong>oretical approaches<br />

<strong>in</strong> service of <strong>the</strong> teacher’s many responsibilities. Thus, a <strong>the</strong>oretically <strong>in</strong>formed<br />

teacher might devise a writ<strong>in</strong>g course that draws from multiple approaches: traditional<br />

skills, process procedures, expressive needs, cognitive development, academic<br />

<strong>in</strong>itiation, critical concerns, rhetorical dem<strong>and</strong>s, logical argumentation,<br />

genre practices, civic responsibilities, discipl<strong>in</strong>ary knowledge, local imperatives,<br />

postmodern alienation, <strong>and</strong> real-world communicative activities. To make such<br />

determ<strong>in</strong>ations <strong>in</strong> curriculum design is not eclectic but ra<strong>the</strong>r dynamic <strong>in</strong> which<br />

multiple <strong>the</strong>ories must <strong>in</strong>terplay <strong>in</strong> a chang<strong>in</strong>g, local context. As someone who<br />

might be labeled as a practitioner, I am advocat<strong>in</strong>g for more <strong>the</strong>ory to complicate<br />

our practices, ra<strong>the</strong>r than pitt<strong>in</strong>g one mythologized <strong>the</strong>ory group aga<strong>in</strong>st<br />

<strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r.<br />


I am somewhat surprised that <strong>the</strong> personal narrative survives as a writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

assignment. Although students favor it, <strong>the</strong> personal narrative has been critiqued<br />

for promot<strong>in</strong>g a naive notion of a s<strong>in</strong>gular, static, au<strong>the</strong>ntic self. Ab<strong>and</strong>on<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

personal narrative <strong>in</strong> favor of <strong>the</strong> combative, polariz<strong>in</strong>g argument assignment<br />

seems to be <strong>in</strong> fashion <strong>in</strong> first-year college writ<strong>in</strong>g courses <strong>and</strong> has trickled down<br />

<strong>in</strong>to high school assignment <strong>in</strong>itiatives <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> Common Core st<strong>and</strong>ards. Some<br />

teachers will even say that <strong>the</strong> personal narrative is too easy for students to write<br />

because it is organized chronologically while o<strong>the</strong>rs would counter that us<strong>in</strong>g a<br />

familiar structure makes it possible to focus on o<strong>the</strong>r more important skills. The<br />

personal narrative has been condemned as everyth<strong>in</strong>g from too emotive to too<br />

culturally scripted. While exam<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g her teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> a personal essay course,<br />

Amy Robillard reveals her discipl<strong>in</strong>ary guilt:<br />

Personal essay assignments become subject to <strong>the</strong> same by now<br />

well-honed critiques of personal narrative assignments. The<br />

personal narrative is too easy, uncritical. We shouldn’t assign<br />

personal narratives because we’re only <strong>in</strong>vit<strong>in</strong>g students to<br />

confess <strong>the</strong>ir most embarrass<strong>in</strong>g experiences to us. We’re not<br />

<strong>the</strong>rapists, after all. (Sharp-Hosk<strong>in</strong>s & Robillard, 2012, p. 324)<br />


Mack<br />

I respect Robillard’s dist<strong>in</strong>ction between <strong>the</strong> personal narrative <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> personal<br />

essay as a revision that comes from a more critical underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of subject<br />

formation, <strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g her own narrative of herself as <strong>the</strong> “good” teacher. From<br />

this article, both Sharp-Hosk<strong>in</strong>s <strong>and</strong> Robillard model <strong>the</strong>ir critical reflection<br />

process: “We argue, <strong>the</strong>n, that it is only by recogniz<strong>in</strong>g our own implication, our<br />

own attachments, <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> economies of emotion that circumscribe us that we can<br />

beg<strong>in</strong> to challenge <strong>the</strong> master narratives of <strong>the</strong> ‘good teacher”’ (2012, p. 333).<br />

Discipl<strong>in</strong>ary critiques should motivate teacher scholars to <strong>in</strong>terrogate <strong>and</strong> revise<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir assignments <strong>in</strong> an ongo<strong>in</strong>g dialectic between <strong>the</strong>ory <strong>and</strong> practice.<br />

My revision of <strong>the</strong> personal narrative assignment derives from an eclectic<br />

mix of Russian cognitive psychology <strong>and</strong> critical <strong>the</strong>ory. As a first generation<br />

college student, I cannot avoid th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g about students’ motives for enroll<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong><br />

college courses. Most enroll <strong>in</strong> degree programs to make a change <strong>in</strong> identity, be<br />

it from local high school student to a more cosmopolitan college student, from<br />

one career to ano<strong>the</strong>r, or more hopefully from one economic stratum to ano<strong>the</strong>r.<br />

In his textbook about educational psychology for teachers, Vygotsky’s last subhead<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> last chapter is entitled “Life as Creation”(1997). Vygotsky argues<br />

for a type of subject formation that is a social process throughout one’s lifetime<br />

that requires active participation it its creation. Thus, it is no surprise that for<br />

Vygotsky, self-regulation is about <strong>the</strong> development of metacognitive th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g<br />

versus controll<strong>in</strong>g discrete behaviors. Self-regulation is about self-formation <strong>and</strong><br />

becom<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> person one wants to be with<strong>in</strong> a given social milieu. Certa<strong>in</strong>ly,<br />

enroll<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> college can be an act of agency to change one’s circumstances that<br />

implicates identity formation as a context for <strong>in</strong>quiry, reflection, <strong>and</strong> revision<br />

through writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

To create what might be an artificial difference from <strong>the</strong> personal narrative, I<br />

have chosen to label this type of writ<strong>in</strong>g assignment a critical memoir. I started<br />

with Lucy Calk<strong>in</strong>s’ (1986) del<strong>in</strong>eation of narrative as what happened, autobiography<br />

as when it happened, <strong>and</strong> memoir as who it happened to <strong>and</strong> how that<br />

experience represents an important <strong>the</strong>me <strong>in</strong> that person’s life. As I became more<br />

versed <strong>in</strong> postmodern subjectivity, I started to th<strong>in</strong>k of memoir as constructed<br />

from multiple subject positions:<br />

• The naive self who was present at <strong>the</strong> time of <strong>the</strong> experience.<br />

• The subjective self who <strong>in</strong>terprets <strong>the</strong> experience as <strong>the</strong> culture would<br />

suggest.<br />

• The future self who imag<strong>in</strong>es <strong>the</strong> person that <strong>the</strong> author wishes to<br />

become.<br />

• The author self who negotiates among <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r selves <strong>and</strong> constructs<br />

mean<strong>in</strong>g (Mack, 2007).<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> Memoir <strong>and</strong> Identity Formation<br />

Memoir encourages selectivity of experience, multiple <strong>in</strong>terpretations, future<br />

orientation, <strong>and</strong> agency <strong>in</strong> representation. To push <strong>the</strong> memoir genre to become<br />

more critical, identity formation should be complicated fur<strong>the</strong>r. Thus, writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

activities should promote reflection about identity as be<strong>in</strong>g (Mack 2006)<br />

• multiple <strong>in</strong> various cultural roles,<br />

• conflicted by acts of accommodation, resistance, <strong>and</strong> opposition,<br />

• temporal with<strong>in</strong> larger historical <strong>and</strong> economic forces,<br />

• materially situated <strong>in</strong> a local, dynamic space,<br />

• embodied <strong>in</strong> emotionally-laden, lived experience,<br />

• <strong>in</strong>terpreted <strong>and</strong> co-created by society,<br />

• mediated through language that is culturally ideological,<br />

• developmental through cont<strong>in</strong>ual maturation <strong>and</strong> education,<br />

• revised by <strong>in</strong>tentional <strong>and</strong> willful agency, <strong>and</strong><br />

• connected to literacies that are larger than <strong>the</strong> classroom.<br />

This is <strong>in</strong>deed a tall order. In some regards a critical memoir approach asks<br />

<strong>the</strong> writer to cont<strong>in</strong>ually reconsider one’s own master narratives, question<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> who, what, when, where, <strong>and</strong> why of <strong>the</strong> potential ways that <strong>the</strong> stories<br />

could be told. More than question<strong>in</strong>g whe<strong>the</strong>r <strong>the</strong> story is true are <strong>the</strong> questions<br />

about how <strong>the</strong> story functions <strong>and</strong> how it could be actively re-<strong>in</strong>terpreted<br />

<strong>and</strong> revised to represent a newly constructed, more ethical truth. The emphasis<br />

on reflection <strong>in</strong> composition studies <strong>in</strong>forms my desire to <strong>in</strong>clude critical <strong>in</strong>terpretation<br />

<strong>in</strong> all aspects of memoir writ<strong>in</strong>g. Kathleen Yancey (1998) <strong>and</strong> Donna<br />

Qualley (1997) are both scholars who have emphasized reflection as primary to<br />

<strong>the</strong> compos<strong>in</strong>g process.<br />


The ten-week graduate course <strong>in</strong> critical memoir was structured around read<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> reflection <strong>in</strong> three units: be<strong>in</strong>g, belong<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> becom<strong>in</strong>g. The<br />

name for <strong>the</strong> be<strong>in</strong>g section of <strong>the</strong> course was <strong>in</strong>fluenced by Mikhail Bakht<strong>in</strong>’s<br />

concept of “be<strong>in</strong>g-as-event” that describes <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual’s existence as an activity.<br />

In one of my favorite quotes about subjectivity Bakht<strong>in</strong> makes <strong>the</strong> analogy to<br />

a rough draft <strong>in</strong> need of an ethically answerable deed to escape endless drafts <strong>in</strong><br />

order to “rewrite one’s life once <strong>and</strong> for all <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> form of a fair copy” (Bakht<strong>in</strong>,<br />

1993, p. 44). Writ<strong>in</strong>g critical memoir has <strong>the</strong> potential to be part of a Bakht<strong>in</strong>ian<br />

answerable deed as <strong>the</strong> writer decides what <strong>the</strong> memory means by select<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

exam<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g, reflect<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> f<strong>in</strong>ally assign<strong>in</strong>g mean<strong>in</strong>g to it.<br />

To return to Vygotsky’s notion of ontological development of life as a creation,<br />

adults often have moments when <strong>the</strong>y dredge up <strong>the</strong> past <strong>in</strong> order to make<br />


Mack<br />

sense of it. Perhaps <strong>the</strong> very moments when we do this are moments of identity<br />

crisis when we feel <strong>the</strong> need to revise our selves. Some may do this with a <strong>the</strong>rapist<br />

who generally provides <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>terpretation while o<strong>the</strong>rs will merely have an<br />

uncritical moment of nostalgia. For a memoir writ<strong>in</strong>g course, assign<strong>in</strong>g mean<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to memory can engage students <strong>in</strong> critical reflection. Although <strong>the</strong> teacher plays<br />

a powerful role <strong>in</strong> this reflection, we should not assume <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>rapist’s role of<br />

primary <strong>in</strong>terpreter. Consequently, I did not micromanage students’ <strong>in</strong>sights<br />

by comment<strong>in</strong>g extensively on drafts or <strong>in</strong> lengthy <strong>in</strong>dividual conferences or<br />

emails. These strategies, although potentially effective, were not realistic for my<br />

<strong>in</strong>tent or workload. My <strong>in</strong>fluence was primarily through <strong>the</strong> selection of <strong>the</strong><br />

read<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> creation of a series of heuristics. These careful curricular decisions<br />

were my means for foster<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> students’ reflections. My role as a reader<br />

was more one of prais<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir <strong>in</strong>sights ra<strong>the</strong>r than forward<strong>in</strong>g my reflections on<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir experiences.<br />

The critical reflection required for a re-<strong>in</strong>terpretation of experience benefits<br />

from a stance of <strong>in</strong>quiry similar to ethnographic research <strong>in</strong> which patterns<br />

emerge from a process that is rich <strong>in</strong> phenomenological details <strong>and</strong> data. This<br />

ongo<strong>in</strong>g hermeneutic <strong>in</strong>quiry should ideally happen before, dur<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> after<br />

each memoir writ<strong>in</strong>g experience. One student expla<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>quiry <strong>in</strong>to memoir<br />

this way:<br />

As a writer, memoirs feel deeply personal, almost as if someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

that could exist without a reader. My underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of<br />

<strong>the</strong> memoir has been challenged <strong>and</strong> exp<strong>and</strong>ed. Not only do I<br />

fur<strong>the</strong>r appreciate <strong>the</strong> genre, but <strong>the</strong> process that must occur<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g process. Unlike <strong>the</strong> academic writ<strong>in</strong>g process,<br />

<strong>the</strong> memoir writ<strong>in</strong>g process is much more an <strong>in</strong>ner experience,<br />

requir<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> writer to travel through remembrances,<br />

try<strong>in</strong>g to f<strong>in</strong>d that which real memory is. Victor Villanueva<br />

first made me aware of <strong>the</strong> dist<strong>in</strong>ction between memory<br />

<strong>and</strong> remembrances. Memory requires more of a person,<br />

<strong>and</strong> is a process driven activity. It is not until more details<br />

<strong>and</strong> dialogue have surfaced from mus<strong>in</strong>g on a remembrance<br />

that a memory really beg<strong>in</strong>s to shape. Memories are <strong>the</strong><br />

remembrances that we actually relive, nearly re-creat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

experience. True memoir writ<strong>in</strong>g comes when that memory<br />

is recreated for <strong>the</strong> reader. I am still work<strong>in</strong>g to develop my<br />

memoir writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>to reader-based prose. It can be emotionally<br />

exhaust<strong>in</strong>g to relive remembrances enough to actually meet<br />

real memory.<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> Memoir <strong>and</strong> Identity Formation<br />

Activities not <strong>in</strong>cluded here also focused on writ<strong>in</strong>g crafts such as details,<br />

characters, dialogue, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>ner thoughts.<br />

The “be<strong>in</strong>g” unit encompassed a wider notion of literacy. Students <strong>in</strong>itially<br />

journaled <strong>in</strong> response to literacy memoirs with a work<strong>in</strong>g class focus by Laurel<br />

Johnson Black (1995) <strong>and</strong> L<strong>in</strong>da Brodkey (1994). Any selection of read<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

comes with a political agenda. I chose several read<strong>in</strong>gs that had a social class<br />

<strong>the</strong>me because class is a major issue for my students; however, I made it clear<br />

that students were not required to write about class issues. Also, I wanted read<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

that did not present tidy, simplistic literacy narratives like those that Jane<br />

Greer refers to as “conversion narratives” (2012) or Ishmael Reed critiques as<br />

“redemption” narratives (2012). In particular, Black presents a complex underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

of literacy through her value of work<strong>in</strong>g class language <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> disconnect<br />

that her education has caused with her sister. As Patrick Berry proposes, <strong>the</strong><br />

use of literacy narratives should “move beyond a s<strong>in</strong>gular focus on ei<strong>the</strong>r hope or<br />

critique <strong>in</strong> order to identify <strong>the</strong> transformative potential of literacy <strong>in</strong> particular<br />

circumstances” (2012, iii). So, <strong>the</strong> question for <strong>the</strong> writer becomes how should<br />

<strong>the</strong> literacy narrative function with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual’s unique identity formation.<br />

I assigned a series of bra<strong>in</strong>storm<strong>in</strong>g prompts that first required students to<br />

itemize a wide range of literacy experiences throughout <strong>the</strong>ir lives both <strong>in</strong>side<br />

<strong>and</strong> outside of school. The prompts cont<strong>in</strong>ued with questions about more complex<br />

functions of literacy for purposes of escape, friendship, enterta<strong>in</strong>ment,<br />

peace-mak<strong>in</strong>g, status, curiosity, <strong>and</strong> rebellion aga<strong>in</strong>st authority. Students were<br />

to note <strong>the</strong>mes <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir development as well as how literacy functioned for <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

families, friends, <strong>and</strong> multiple identity groups. F<strong>in</strong>ally, students considered conflicts<br />

related to <strong>the</strong>ir literacy, <strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g occasions when <strong>the</strong>y were <strong>in</strong>tentionally<br />

silent, refused to communicate, or chose not to become literate about someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

for a strong reason. Students also responded to o<strong>the</strong>r work<strong>in</strong>g-class academic<br />

memoirs from Dews <strong>and</strong> Law’s This F<strong>in</strong>e Place So Far From Home (1995). From<br />

<strong>the</strong> prompts <strong>and</strong> journal<strong>in</strong>g students developed two ideas, drafted, <strong>and</strong> revised<br />

a literacy memoir about experiences that varied from childhood through adulthood.<br />

One student’s powerful memoir related <strong>the</strong> experience of be<strong>in</strong>g betrayed<br />

by a hate-filled, adolescent diary entry when it was discovered by an abusive<br />

stepfa<strong>the</strong>r.<br />

The “belong<strong>in</strong>g” unit was named from an article by psychologist Barbara<br />

Jensen (2012) <strong>in</strong> which she characterizes <strong>the</strong> difference between work<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

middle classes as “belong<strong>in</strong>g” versus “becom<strong>in</strong>g.” Jensen characterizes <strong>the</strong> work<strong>in</strong>g<br />

class sense of self as develop<strong>in</strong>g from childhood <strong>in</strong> close relation to o<strong>the</strong>rs, as<br />

<strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g or affiliat<strong>in</strong>g o<strong>the</strong>rs whereas <strong>the</strong> middle class self emerges as separation<br />

from o<strong>the</strong>rs, as negotiat<strong>in</strong>g or compet<strong>in</strong>g with o<strong>the</strong>rs. Although I wanted students<br />

to consider class conflicts, I opened <strong>the</strong> heuristics to o<strong>the</strong>r types of identity<br />


Mack<br />

groups.<br />

This unit took longer to implement <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>volved many more heuristics than <strong>the</strong><br />

previous unit. Multiple def<strong>in</strong>itions of memoir, culled from several scholars, were<br />

presented. In addition to more read<strong>in</strong>gs from This F<strong>in</strong>e Place So Far From Home<br />

(Dews & Law, 1995), students read selections from Z<strong>and</strong>y’s Liberat<strong>in</strong>g Memory<br />

(1995) <strong>and</strong> from Rick Bragg (1997) <strong>and</strong> Paule Marshall (1983). After model<strong>in</strong>g<br />

my own overlapp<strong>in</strong>g identity circles related to gender, class, family, relationships,<br />

education, location, generation, health, <strong>in</strong>terests, responsibilities, <strong>and</strong> career, students<br />

made <strong>the</strong>ir own webs. Ano<strong>the</strong>r series of prompts <strong>in</strong>vited students to record<br />

experiences with language <strong>and</strong> identity, such as feel<strong>in</strong>g like an <strong>in</strong>sider or outsider,<br />

tak<strong>in</strong>g a st<strong>and</strong> or mak<strong>in</strong>g peace, be<strong>in</strong>g offended or offensive, <strong>and</strong> defend<strong>in</strong>g or <strong>in</strong>spir<strong>in</strong>g<br />

o<strong>the</strong>rs. Students answered a lengthy questionnaire that identified work<strong>in</strong>g<br />

class markers related to food, cloth<strong>in</strong>g, purchases, childhood, home, work, <strong>and</strong><br />

school; <strong>and</strong> viewed a hidden class rules chart (Payne, 1996). Students placed life<br />

experiences on a graphic organizer, rank<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m as accommodat<strong>in</strong>g, resist<strong>in</strong>g, or<br />

oppos<strong>in</strong>g cultural norms. Dur<strong>in</strong>g revision students also read bell hooks (2012),<br />

Frank Dobson (2002), <strong>and</strong> Victor Villanueva (2004). Students had no problems<br />

with select<strong>in</strong>g topics from diverse identity groups <strong>and</strong> consequently wrote memoirs<br />

about race, music, alcoholism, religion, gender, <strong>and</strong> disability with only one<br />

student select<strong>in</strong>g social class. These memoirs were more complex than earlier ones.<br />

Accord<strong>in</strong>gly, <strong>the</strong> previously mentioned student observed that social class is “a complex<br />

system with many layers <strong>and</strong> much ambiguity.”<br />

The third unit about “becom<strong>in</strong>g” spr<strong>in</strong>gs from Freire’s use of “becom<strong>in</strong>g” as<br />

a trope <strong>in</strong> Pedagogy of <strong>the</strong> Oppressed (1973) for creat<strong>in</strong>g a critically conscious, future-oriented,<br />

literate identity. In a previous critical pedagogy sem<strong>in</strong>ar, I created<br />

an activity based on Friere’s concept of limit situation that guided students to<br />

trace moments of frustration to <strong>the</strong> larger social forces of oppression. Students<br />

frequently connected <strong>the</strong>ir procrast<strong>in</strong>ation <strong>in</strong> complet<strong>in</strong>g assignments with forces<br />

<strong>in</strong>herent to graduate education.<br />

A positive <strong>and</strong> negative graph activity (Rief, 1992) assigned students to<br />

draw <strong>and</strong> annotate a time l<strong>in</strong>e of experiences <strong>in</strong> order to analyze critical patterns<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir lives. Read<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>in</strong>cluded Jacquel<strong>in</strong>e Jones Royster (1996), Janet Bean<br />

(2003), <strong>and</strong> one of my articles (2007). An exp<strong>and</strong>ed limit situation heuristic<br />

engaged students <strong>in</strong> list<strong>in</strong>g personal, professional, <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g goals. Students<br />

<strong>the</strong>n selected one goal from each category <strong>and</strong> critically analyzed <strong>the</strong> forces that<br />

thwarted <strong>the</strong>ir progress. Limit situations were described as “physical needs, time<br />

constra<strong>in</strong>ts, f<strong>in</strong>ancial problems, power obstacles (permission), social pressures<br />

(o<strong>the</strong>r people), <strong>in</strong>stitutional constra<strong>in</strong>ts (rules), historical patterns, <strong>and</strong> cultural<br />

biases.” Next, students imag<strong>in</strong>ed impractical <strong>and</strong> practical solutions for each<br />

goal <strong>and</strong> one small, immediate step that could be taken. The next activity, “Emo-<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> Memoir <strong>and</strong> Identity Formation<br />

tional Indicators of Stress,” requested that students th<strong>in</strong>k about social systems<br />

<strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y had been unrewarded, ignored, given extra duties, trivialized, un<strong>in</strong>formed,<br />

left beh<strong>in</strong>d, rated poorly, given mislead<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>formation, or told lies.<br />

After some explanation of who benefits from this type of cultural hegemony,<br />

students tracked <strong>the</strong>ir recent negative emotions (rage, anger, passive-aggressive<br />

desires, frustration, silence, procrast<strong>in</strong>ation, fear, guilt, self-loath<strong>in</strong>g, or despair)<br />

as a barometer for subtle forms of oppression. Next, a comparison was made<br />

to circumstances that elicit <strong>the</strong> opposite emotions. F<strong>in</strong>ally, students proposed<br />

th<strong>in</strong>gs that could be changed or that <strong>the</strong>y did have power or control over such<br />

as <strong>the</strong>ir own reactions. This activity was <strong>in</strong>fluenced by my <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong> economies<br />

of emotion, particularly <strong>the</strong> scholarship of Lynn Worsham (1998), Julie L<strong>in</strong>dquist<br />

(2004), Donna LeCourt (2004), Laura Micciche (2007), <strong>and</strong> Michal<strong>in</strong>os<br />

Zembylas (2005). Read<strong>in</strong>g explications of emotional labor has helped me to<br />

acknowledge that feel<strong>in</strong>gs can be connected to agency <strong>in</strong> subject formation <strong>and</strong><br />

pedagogy. In o<strong>the</strong>r words, critical analysis of emotion br<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>the</strong> potential “to<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k, feel, <strong>and</strong> act differently” (Mack, 2007, p. 22). The critical analysis process<br />

can beg<strong>in</strong> with an awareness of a bo<strong>the</strong>rsome or <strong>in</strong>tense emotion. Fem<strong>in</strong>ist<br />

scholar Alison Jaggar def<strong>in</strong>es troubl<strong>in</strong>g emotions as “outlaw emotions.”<br />

As well as motivat<strong>in</strong>g critical research, outlaw emotions may also enable us<br />

to perceive <strong>the</strong> world differently from its portrayal <strong>in</strong> conventional descriptions.<br />

They may provide <strong>the</strong> first <strong>in</strong>dications that someth<strong>in</strong>g is wrong with how th<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

are. Conventionally unexpected or <strong>in</strong>appropriate emotions may precede our<br />

conscious recognition that accepted descriptions <strong>and</strong> justifications often conceal<br />

as much as reveal <strong>the</strong> prevail<strong>in</strong>g site of affairs. Only when we reflect on our <strong>in</strong>itially<br />

puzzl<strong>in</strong>g irritability, revulsion, anger, or fear may we br<strong>in</strong>g to consciousness<br />

our “gut-level” awareness that we are <strong>in</strong> a situation of coercion, cruelty, <strong>in</strong>justice,<br />

or danger (Mack, 2007, p. 161).<br />

To some extent I wanted students to view <strong>the</strong>ir outlaw emotions as an early<br />

warn<strong>in</strong>g system that alerts <strong>the</strong>m to exam<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong> oppressive forces that may be<br />

connected to <strong>the</strong>se emotions.<br />

After draft<strong>in</strong>g a limit situation memoir, students completed a pronoun revision<br />

activity based on a presentation by Karen Hollis <strong>in</strong> which a paragraph is<br />

selected that conta<strong>in</strong>s <strong>the</strong> s<strong>in</strong>gular pronouns of I, me, or my that are revised to<br />

plural pronouns of we, us, <strong>and</strong> our. Students <strong>the</strong>n pondered how <strong>the</strong>ir <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

limit situation might be connected to <strong>the</strong> experiences of a larger group of<br />

people. The diversity of memoir topics seemed to widen as <strong>the</strong> term progressed.<br />

For <strong>the</strong> limit situation memoir, topics addressed family member’s rejection of<br />

educated vocabulary, decid<strong>in</strong>g to leav<strong>in</strong>g sem<strong>in</strong>ary, deal<strong>in</strong>g with negative comments<br />

from a professor, accept<strong>in</strong>g polygamy, f<strong>in</strong>ancial problems with meet<strong>in</strong>g<br />

social obligations, <strong>and</strong> negative comments about weight.<br />


Mack<br />

As part of <strong>the</strong> f<strong>in</strong>al portfolio reflection process, I shared my writ<strong>in</strong>g manifesto<br />

list <strong>and</strong> asked students to create one of <strong>the</strong>ir own, an activity I hoped would<br />

help students reflect on what <strong>the</strong>y wanted <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g to be <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> future.<br />

When <strong>the</strong> only writ<strong>in</strong>g you do is school writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>the</strong> teacher controls all <strong>the</strong><br />

assignments, topics, <strong>and</strong> deadl<strong>in</strong>es. F<strong>in</strong>d<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> time, motivation, <strong>and</strong> support<br />

necessary to keep writ<strong>in</strong>g outside of school is <strong>in</strong>credibly difficult. It is as if every<br />

o<strong>the</strong>r part of our lives conspires to prevent writ<strong>in</strong>g. Many o<strong>the</strong>r parts of our lives<br />

cannot be delayed to give us time to write. What we can control is our attitude.<br />

A negative attitude can block all possibilities to write. If <strong>the</strong> writer cannot believe<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> importance of his or her own writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>the</strong>n noth<strong>in</strong>g will get done. It<br />

is time to claim your writ<strong>in</strong>g for yourself, for your own projects, for your own<br />

purposes, desires <strong>and</strong> dreams.<br />

In addition to reflective journal entries after each of <strong>the</strong> three essays, <strong>the</strong><br />

portfolio cover essay assignment requested that students contemplate <strong>in</strong>sights<br />

ga<strong>in</strong>ed from writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir memoirs as well as <strong>the</strong>mes that connected <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

pieces <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir read<strong>in</strong>gs. Here are two excerpts from different students:<br />

Both memoirs make a strong case for <strong>the</strong> claim that we must<br />

constantly re<strong>in</strong>vent ourselves while fight<strong>in</strong>g aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong> societal<br />

forces that want us to adhere to dom<strong>in</strong>ant rules that may<br />

not benefit us.<br />

Bell wrote about <strong>the</strong> price of an education. She argued that<br />

those who are less fortunate will be challenged with hav<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

forget where <strong>the</strong>y came from, wipe <strong>the</strong>ir memories clean of<br />

anyth<strong>in</strong>g that is not fit for <strong>the</strong> educated elite. Unconsciously,<br />

I had already done this. If I was go<strong>in</strong>g to be successful <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

world of academia, I had to learn to cover up my roots with<br />

<strong>the</strong> soil of <strong>the</strong> high-class. I had to forget that I came from a less<br />

than worthy background. I had to accept that education wasn’t<br />

a right for me, but a privilege. I had to come to terms with be<strong>in</strong>g<br />

nei<strong>the</strong>r black nor white, but <strong>in</strong>stead <strong>the</strong> grey area that goes<br />

mostly neglected; <strong>the</strong> grey area that <strong>the</strong> m<strong>in</strong>ds of logic detest<br />

because it challenges <strong>the</strong>ir neatly organized world. I had to forget<br />

everyth<strong>in</strong>g that brought me to where I was if I was go<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

cont<strong>in</strong>ue to persevere myself <strong>and</strong> make my mark <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world.<br />


Regardless of <strong>the</strong> mode or genre, <strong>the</strong> teacher must create writ<strong>in</strong>g assignments<br />

that critically connect literacy to <strong>the</strong> student’s agency <strong>in</strong> identity formation. The<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> Memoir <strong>and</strong> Identity Formation<br />

traits that differentiate critical memoir from <strong>the</strong> personal narrative are primarily<br />

that <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g is more subtly nuanced <strong>and</strong> critically complex. The writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

should open <strong>the</strong> author to <strong>the</strong> possibility of agency through <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>terpretation<br />

<strong>and</strong> representation of memory. The mean<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> memoir is revised from <strong>the</strong><br />

student’s current vantage po<strong>in</strong>t of an <strong>in</strong>creased critical awareness <strong>and</strong> projected<br />

towards a hopeful future, thus giv<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> author some degree of agency <strong>in</strong> shap<strong>in</strong>g<br />

identity.<br />

Discount<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong> student has any agency <strong>in</strong> subject formation relegates<br />

literacy to function<strong>in</strong>g only <strong>in</strong> a most dismal manner. Vygotskian scholars Dorothy<br />

Holl<strong>and</strong> <strong>and</strong> William Lachicotte make room for agency <strong>in</strong> identity formation<br />

that might open up discursive spaces to new variants:<br />

People have to create selves that (<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> metaphor of residence)<br />

<strong>in</strong>habit <strong>the</strong> (social) structures <strong>and</strong> spaces (cultural<br />

imag<strong>in</strong>aries) that collectivities create, but <strong>the</strong>y produce selves<br />

that <strong>in</strong>habit <strong>the</strong>se structures <strong>and</strong> imag<strong>in</strong>aries <strong>in</strong> creative,<br />

variant, <strong>and</strong> often oppositional, ways …. And, <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> circuits<br />

of emerg<strong>in</strong>g communities of practice, <strong>in</strong>novation may play<br />

out <strong>and</strong> regularize <strong>the</strong> semiotic means for new identities <strong>and</strong><br />

activities that lie beyond exist<strong>in</strong>g structures of power. (2007,<br />

p. 135)<br />

This notion of creative variants is similar to Victor Turner’s discussion of<br />

lim<strong>in</strong>al or <strong>in</strong>-between spaces <strong>in</strong> social structures that permit resistance <strong>and</strong> revision<br />

(1977). However, unlike essays, identities take a great deal of time <strong>and</strong><br />

emotional energy to be revised.<br />

Hope is important, but agency should not be located only with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

itself. To make <strong>the</strong> larger connection between writ<strong>in</strong>g critical memoir <strong>and</strong><br />

civic literacy might be too gr<strong>and</strong> a claim. I do important work <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

classroom, but my goal is more that of <strong>in</strong>creas<strong>in</strong>g critical thought ra<strong>the</strong>r than<br />

liberat<strong>in</strong>g anyone’s identity. I agree with Rochelle Harris’ <strong>in</strong>sistence that emergent<br />

moments of critical thought can happen <strong>in</strong> students’ personal essays, autobiographies,<br />

<strong>and</strong> memoirs:<br />

Before <strong>in</strong>stitutional, community, national, <strong>and</strong>/or global<br />

transformation come <strong>the</strong> personal commitments <strong>and</strong> experiences<br />

that motivate one to claim <strong>the</strong> agency necessary to beg<strong>in</strong><br />

social critique. The most important critical work emerges<br />

as students write about <strong>the</strong> places <strong>the</strong>y have been, <strong>the</strong> experiences<br />

<strong>the</strong>y have had, <strong>the</strong> books <strong>the</strong>y have read, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> ideas<br />

<strong>the</strong>y have pondered. This is one of <strong>the</strong> most revolutionary of<br />

critical acts—to transform <strong>and</strong> empower one’s own words as<br />


Mack<br />

<strong>the</strong>y are embedded <strong>in</strong> that most difficult of <strong>in</strong>tertextual histories<br />

to negotiate, <strong>the</strong> history of one’s own life. (2004, p. 417)<br />

I must remember that Freire cautioned that <strong>the</strong> classroom is dom<strong>in</strong>ated by<br />

<strong>the</strong> hegemony of <strong>the</strong> larger society <strong>and</strong> not really <strong>the</strong> “lever of revolutionary<br />

transformation” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 33). Education may not be <strong>the</strong> great<br />

equalizer for my students (or for me, for that matter), but it can help us to<br />

compose a more thoughtful draft <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> endless revisions of ourselves <strong>and</strong> our<br />

lives.<br />


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CT: Information Age.<br />




Derek Owens<br />

St. John’s University<br />


From <strong>the</strong> beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g one of <strong>the</strong> messages I got (as far as teach<strong>in</strong>g first-year<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g was concerned) was that pretty much one beg<strong>in</strong>s by “teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> personal,”<br />

moves as soon as possible to <strong>the</strong> “analytical,” <strong>the</strong>n closes with <strong>the</strong> “argumentative.”<br />

There might be o<strong>the</strong>r stops en route—”expository” <strong>and</strong> “persuasive”<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> like could all get slipped <strong>in</strong> between <strong>the</strong> bookends. But <strong>the</strong> trajectory<br />

was clear: <strong>in</strong>itially “allow” students to dip <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong>ir lives <strong>and</strong> experiences, with<br />

<strong>the</strong> goal of eventually mov<strong>in</strong>g away from all that “personal stuff” <strong>in</strong>to realms<br />

more explicitly “academic,” “rigorous,” “scholarly.” Hook <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>itiates, <strong>in</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r<br />

words, by first “lett<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m” write about <strong>the</strong>ir lives <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terests, <strong>the</strong> stuff that<br />

floats <strong>the</strong>ir boats. Once we’ve whetted <strong>the</strong>ir appetite though, shift gears. “Personal<br />

expression” gets left beh<strong>in</strong>d as analysis of o<strong>the</strong>r people’s texts takes center<br />

stage. “Dissection” <strong>and</strong> “critique” <strong>and</strong> “debate” move <strong>in</strong> where <strong>the</strong> personal has<br />

been evicted, or at least rendered secondary or subservient to <strong>the</strong> exam<strong>in</strong>ation<br />

of artifacts, <strong>the</strong> elucidation of ideas located beyond <strong>the</strong> writer’s local experience.<br />

One might picture <strong>the</strong> progression like some k<strong>in</strong>d of game board—each student<br />

enter<strong>in</strong>g via <strong>the</strong>ir own unique paths <strong>and</strong> histories, engag<strong>in</strong>g with <strong>the</strong>m along <strong>the</strong><br />

way, but ultimately everyone com<strong>in</strong>g closer <strong>and</strong> closer to a common f<strong>in</strong>ish l<strong>in</strong>e<br />

where it’s not <strong>the</strong>ir “expressed” personal histories that matter but, say, <strong>the</strong> way<br />

<strong>the</strong>y marshal evidence, cite sources, make <strong>in</strong>ferences, assemble claims. Establish<br />

authority. Enter <strong>in</strong>to o<strong>the</strong>r people’s conversations.<br />

Occasionally this “personal-to-professional” path was made quite explicit. In<br />

one place where I used to teach, a senior colleague <strong>and</strong> supervisor laughed disparag<strong>in</strong>gly<br />

of how our freshmen were “so <strong>in</strong> love with <strong>the</strong>ir little stories” <strong>and</strong> needed<br />

to be “broken” of such self-<strong>in</strong>dulgences. This was <strong>in</strong> marked contrast to <strong>the</strong> fairly<br />

progressive graduate program I was <strong>in</strong> dur<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> late 1980s where considerable<br />

attention was placed on design<strong>in</strong>g learn<strong>in</strong>g environments where students had<br />

<strong>the</strong> freedom to explore writ<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong>ir own terms. And yet even <strong>the</strong>re, once we<br />

grad students got to our comps <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> dissertation, <strong>the</strong> notion of <strong>in</strong>corporat<strong>in</strong>g<br />

or validat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> “personal”—however much that concept had been valued <strong>in</strong><br />

our conversations about students’ rights to <strong>the</strong>ir own languages—was regarded<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.04<br />


Owens<br />

as risky <strong>and</strong> problematic. We were after all tra<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g ourselves to enter <strong>the</strong> profession;<br />

to not take seriously <strong>the</strong> genre conventions of <strong>the</strong> cover letter, dissertation<br />

prospectus, <strong>the</strong> manuscript, <strong>the</strong> job <strong>in</strong>terview, would have been self-defeat<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

I suppose what bo<strong>the</strong>rs me most of all is how seductive this one-directional<br />

ladder is. I know because I’m no stranger to it. I have <strong>in</strong> fact embraced it <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

past <strong>and</strong> at times uncritically enforced it. I used to recommend it to faculty<br />

look<strong>in</strong>g for suggestions on how to <strong>in</strong>troduce writ<strong>in</strong>g at different stages of <strong>the</strong><br />

semester. And this supposed progression—it really can be such a seductive little<br />

formula, no? I mean, <strong>the</strong>re is a comfortable logic to it. Those early-<strong>in</strong>-<strong>the</strong>-semester<br />

“personal essays” can be such excellent icebreakers. Everyone gets to f<strong>in</strong>d out<br />

a t<strong>in</strong>y bit about each o<strong>the</strong>r, tell some “personal” stories. Students f<strong>in</strong>d it little<br />

easier to open up <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir small group discussions, maybe even locate common<br />

ground. Then about a quarter <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> semester <strong>the</strong> focus can turn to texts written<br />

by real, published writers, <strong>the</strong> classroom vocabulary turn<strong>in</strong>g to matters of<br />

“close read<strong>in</strong>g” <strong>and</strong> “textual analysis” <strong>and</strong> “unpack<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> text.” Then, after <strong>the</strong>y<br />

graduate from this phase, students are channeled <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> even loftier realms<br />

of argumentation, <strong>and</strong> new vocabularies are adopted about “claims,” “def<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

terms,” “evidence,” “anticipat<strong>in</strong>g counter-arguments.”<br />

It’s not that any of <strong>the</strong> attendant topics or conversations that take place <strong>in</strong> this<br />

l<strong>in</strong>ear cont<strong>in</strong>uum is <strong>in</strong>herently problematic. What’s bo<strong>the</strong>rsome is <strong>the</strong> underly<strong>in</strong>g<br />

assumption that one <strong>in</strong>evitably goes <strong>in</strong> through <strong>the</strong> Expression door, exits out <strong>the</strong><br />

<strong>Critical</strong> door, <strong>and</strong> that <strong>the</strong>se realms have to occupy rigid, separate geographies.<br />

Of course what I’ve articulated here is a crude cartoon. I don’t personally<br />

know anyone who teaches a writ<strong>in</strong>g course exactly this way, slavishly march<strong>in</strong>g<br />

through <strong>the</strong>se realms <strong>in</strong> such predictable, lockstep manner. But I feel confident<br />

that this trajectory rema<strong>in</strong>s alive <strong>and</strong> well <strong>and</strong> largely implicit <strong>in</strong> vary<strong>in</strong>g degrees<br />

throughout writ<strong>in</strong>g curricula <strong>and</strong> textbooks. (If I’m wrong, we would probably<br />

see just as many courses demonstrat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>verse: students beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g with research<br />

papers, construct<strong>in</strong>g arguments, analyz<strong>in</strong>g texts, <strong>the</strong>n wrapp<strong>in</strong>g up with<br />

“personal narratives.”)<br />

I also realize that <strong>the</strong> terms <strong>and</strong> b<strong>in</strong>aries I’m <strong>in</strong>vok<strong>in</strong>g here—personal/expressive<br />

vs. academic/critical—aren’t givens. Some <strong>in</strong> this volume, like Peter Elbow<br />

<strong>in</strong> his open<strong>in</strong>g chapter, challenge <strong>the</strong> term<strong>in</strong>ology altoge<strong>the</strong>r. Still, for me, <strong>the</strong>se<br />

terms reta<strong>in</strong> some cash value. Ultimately I don’t f<strong>in</strong>d ei<strong>the</strong>r word mean<strong>in</strong>gless<br />

or <strong>in</strong>herently pejorative; <strong>in</strong>stead I want to bear <strong>in</strong> m<strong>in</strong>d <strong>the</strong>se are work<strong>in</strong>g fictions<br />

that po<strong>in</strong>t to dist<strong>in</strong>ct histories <strong>and</strong> perceptions, not <strong>in</strong>tractable discourse<br />

conventions, <strong>and</strong> that it’s <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir juxtaposition, <strong>the</strong>ir meld<strong>in</strong>g, where we f<strong>in</strong>d<br />

excit<strong>in</strong>g opportunities for imag<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

I’m <strong>in</strong>terested <strong>in</strong> how ei<strong>the</strong>r end of <strong>the</strong> spectrum puts pressure on its alleged<br />

anti<strong>the</strong>sis, push<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> pull<strong>in</strong>g us to a more hybrid middle arena where “critical”<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong>’s Alchemical Challenge<br />

embodies <strong>the</strong> “personal,” <strong>and</strong> “expressive” eats <strong>the</strong> “academic”—to a po<strong>in</strong>t where<br />

<strong>the</strong> paired construction no longer re<strong>in</strong>forces ei<strong>the</strong>r endpo<strong>in</strong>t but actually calls<br />

<strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong>to question. A b<strong>in</strong>ary issu<strong>in</strong>g a challenge for us to recognize <strong>the</strong> limitation<br />

of <strong>the</strong> very presupposed obligatory cont<strong>in</strong>uum. Ultimately this both/<strong>and</strong> construction—or<br />

more accurately, reflective process—calls to m<strong>in</strong>d (for me anyway)<br />

<strong>the</strong> alchemical pair<strong>in</strong>g of opposites referred to as <strong>the</strong> coniunctio, a reasonable metaphor,<br />

perhaps, to bear <strong>in</strong> m<strong>in</strong>d as we explore <strong>the</strong> possible benefits of conjo<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>se two modes of <strong>in</strong>quiry.<br />


Before unravel<strong>in</strong>g that fur<strong>the</strong>r let me take a detour <strong>in</strong>to etymological terra<strong>in</strong>.<br />

There’s a richness of mean<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> root “express” that is absent <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> manner<br />

<strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> word is commonly <strong>in</strong>voked <strong>in</strong> our field. For while “expressive” <strong>in</strong><br />

our compositional history has often been l<strong>in</strong>ked with, say, “personal,” “emotional,”<br />

<strong>and</strong> “uncritical,” a quick tour through <strong>the</strong> word’s history po<strong>in</strong>ts to some<br />

<strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g variations. An <strong>in</strong>complete list, courtesy of <strong>the</strong> OED:<br />

One of <strong>the</strong> earliest mean<strong>in</strong>gs of “express” is “to press out,”<br />

specifically to press or squeeze out milk from <strong>the</strong> breast. An<br />

organic, fem<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>e connotation—although express here also<br />

means be<strong>in</strong>g forced out by mechanical means.<br />

“Express” also means “to portray, represent,” l<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g it with<br />

render<strong>in</strong>g—<strong>and</strong> so <strong>in</strong> this way “expressive discourse” could,<br />

one might th<strong>in</strong>k, have someth<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> common with <strong>the</strong> detailed<br />

description associated with, say, more cl<strong>in</strong>ical, scientific<br />

observations.<br />

The term “beyond expression” is <strong>in</strong>trigu<strong>in</strong>g for it implies that<br />

“expression” is <strong>the</strong> endpo<strong>in</strong>t, a culm<strong>in</strong>ation—as <strong>the</strong>re can be<br />

no expression beyond expression. Expression thus as <strong>the</strong> f<strong>in</strong>al<br />

realm, a p<strong>in</strong>nacle of—well, expression.<br />

“Expressionless” of course means “destitute of expression;<br />

giv<strong>in</strong>g no <strong>in</strong>dication of character, feel<strong>in</strong>g, etc.; <strong>in</strong>expressive.”<br />

It means “express<strong>in</strong>g noth<strong>in</strong>g, convey<strong>in</strong>g no mean<strong>in</strong>g.” Here<br />

expression is thus saturated with mean<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>the</strong> source <strong>and</strong><br />

conveyor of mean<strong>in</strong>g—whereas expressionless equals absence.<br />

No mean<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>in</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r words, without expression.<br />

Expression is elsewhere def<strong>in</strong>ed as “to represent <strong>in</strong> language;<br />

to put <strong>in</strong>to words, set forth (a mean<strong>in</strong>g, thought, state of<br />


Owens<br />

th<strong>in</strong>gs); to give utterance to (an <strong>in</strong>tention, a feel<strong>in</strong>g).” Not<br />

only is expression thus mean<strong>in</strong>g saturated, but is here <strong>the</strong><br />

very creation of mean<strong>in</strong>g—mean<strong>in</strong>g conjured with<strong>in</strong> language.<br />

And when it’s summarized as “To put one’s thoughts<br />

<strong>in</strong>to words; to utter what one th<strong>in</strong>ks; to state one’s op<strong>in</strong>ion,”<br />

it comes very close to argumentation, <strong>the</strong> articulation of a<br />

position.<br />

If <strong>the</strong> earliest roots of “express” carry vestiges of <strong>the</strong> fem<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>e <strong>and</strong> maternal,<br />

embedded with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> term are conventionally mascul<strong>in</strong>e connotations as well.<br />

For express also means speed, no dillydally<strong>in</strong>g, no time to stop unnecessarily<br />

along <strong>the</strong> way. No paus<strong>in</strong>g for reflection. Hence we have <strong>the</strong> express tra<strong>in</strong>, express<br />

delivery, express highway, express messenger, <strong>and</strong> even <strong>the</strong> express rifle.<br />

It seems some <strong>in</strong> our field have chosen to def<strong>in</strong>e “expression” <strong>and</strong> “expressivist”<br />

<strong>and</strong> “expressionist” pretty narrowly. In composition such words have too<br />

often been <strong>in</strong>dicators of naive exuberance, narcissism, lack of self-reflection. 1<br />

Interest<strong>in</strong>gly, we have been much savvier about <strong>the</strong> term “critical.” While <strong>the</strong><br />

OED tells us that “criticism” certa<strong>in</strong>ly means “<strong>the</strong> action of criticiz<strong>in</strong>g, or pass<strong>in</strong>g<br />

judgment upon <strong>the</strong> qualities or merits of anyth<strong>in</strong>g; esp. <strong>the</strong> pass<strong>in</strong>g of unfavourable<br />

judgment; fault-f<strong>in</strong>d<strong>in</strong>g, censure,” we’re quick to make clear to our<br />

students that it is not that k<strong>in</strong>d of criticism we’re all about <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> academy but<br />

ra<strong>the</strong>r critique as measured, thoughtful, transparent, honest <strong>in</strong>trospection <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

search for truth. Or someth<strong>in</strong>g like that.<br />

Why has our field been more will<strong>in</strong>g to acknowledge <strong>the</strong> multiple mean<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> def<strong>in</strong>itional aura surround<strong>in</strong>g “critical,” <strong>and</strong> not so much “expressive”?<br />

What is it about <strong>the</strong> “personal” that makes <strong>the</strong> academic so nervous?<br />



Which br<strong>in</strong>gs me to my second short detour <strong>in</strong> which I feel compelled to<br />

highlight a contradiction we all know but which I don’t th<strong>in</strong>k gets acknowledged<br />

nearly enough: that, despite our professional tendency to reject <strong>the</strong> “personal” <strong>in</strong><br />

favor of “objectivity,” academia, as a culture <strong>and</strong> a workplace, is as fraught with<br />

as much raw, personal, messy personal emotion as any professional community<br />

you can probably th<strong>in</strong>k of.<br />

As academics we do an <strong>in</strong>credible job at portray<strong>in</strong>g ourselves as dispassionate<br />

scholars privileg<strong>in</strong>g neutral objectivity <strong>and</strong> reasoned discourse <strong>and</strong> impartial rigor.<br />

More often than not we value <strong>the</strong> quantitative over <strong>the</strong> qualitative, “empirical<br />

data” over storytell<strong>in</strong>g, measured debate over <strong>in</strong>-your-face f<strong>in</strong>ger po<strong>in</strong>t<strong>in</strong>g. But<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong>’s Alchemical Challenge<br />

let’s be honest: we are no strangers to <strong>the</strong> most personal of <strong>the</strong> personal—as<br />

any Human Resources office, dean, general counsel, chair, <strong>and</strong> most faculty,<br />

adjuncts, <strong>and</strong> grad assistants can tell you. For while <strong>in</strong> our peer-reviewed journals<br />

we might (might) bend over backwards to effect a posture of measured balance—<strong>in</strong>fus<strong>in</strong>g<br />

our prose with obligatory phrases like “I would like to suggest”<br />

<strong>and</strong> “an alternative read<strong>in</strong>g might” <strong>and</strong> “perhaps we ought to consider,” we are<br />

also people who are no slouches at throw<strong>in</strong>g tantrums <strong>in</strong> department meet<strong>in</strong>gs,<br />

diss<strong>in</strong>g colleagues, distribut<strong>in</strong>g ad hom<strong>in</strong>em attacks <strong>in</strong> mailboxes, mak<strong>in</strong>g students<br />

cry <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> classroom, mak<strong>in</strong>g our colleagues cry, cry<strong>in</strong>g ourselves <strong>in</strong> our offices,<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g snotty emails, <strong>and</strong> sparr<strong>in</strong>g with colleagues <strong>in</strong> all manner of venues.<br />

Nor are we strangers to favoritism, paranoia masked as overconfidence, jealous<br />

petty exchanges, <strong>in</strong>sults, one-upmanship, <strong>and</strong> character assass<strong>in</strong>ation. (It’s why,<br />

when academics read a novel like Richard Russo’s Straight Man, <strong>the</strong>y know immediately<br />

a text like that has to be grounded <strong>in</strong> reality.)<br />

I’m not say<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> “personal” or “expressive” are synonymous only with <strong>the</strong>se<br />

touchier emotions. Obviously much of our “expressive” discourse is also what<br />

we would consider laudatory, necessary, <strong>and</strong> worth celebrat<strong>in</strong>g—we are after all<br />

a breed of professionals who value academic freedom, speak<strong>in</strong>g truth to power,<br />

<strong>and</strong> pursu<strong>in</strong>g th<strong>in</strong>gs like “truth” even when it disrupts various status quos.<br />

My po<strong>in</strong>t is that such more emotionally problematic “expressive,” “personal”<br />

iterations are alive <strong>and</strong> well <strong>in</strong> our academy, always have been, <strong>and</strong> that a more<br />

accurate <strong>and</strong> comprehensive assessment of “academic discourse” would have to<br />

<strong>in</strong>clude this richer, messier pool of discourse. To pretend that <strong>the</strong> discourses of<br />

academic culture aren’t <strong>in</strong> a great many ways <strong>in</strong>herently “expressive” just isn’t<br />

true.<br />


For me <strong>the</strong> challenge <strong>and</strong> appeal of “critical expressivism” is <strong>in</strong> its both/<strong>and</strong><br />

implications. Alchemically, <strong>the</strong> coniunctio refers to <strong>the</strong> wedd<strong>in</strong>g of opposites,<br />

<strong>the</strong> br<strong>in</strong>g<strong>in</strong>g toge<strong>the</strong>r of unlike materials or states of be<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> order to construct<br />

some alternate hybrid form or perception that, synergistically, depends upon yet<br />

is dist<strong>in</strong>ct from its components. For me <strong>the</strong> bridg<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> “critical” <strong>and</strong> “expressive”<br />

doma<strong>in</strong>s ultimately leads us to a reflective process where, Uroboros-like, we<br />

cont<strong>in</strong>ually cycle through both opposites to a po<strong>in</strong>t where <strong>the</strong> b<strong>in</strong>ary might be<br />

left beh<strong>in</strong>d <strong>and</strong> some o<strong>the</strong>r, more <strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g, complex, queered underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

of <strong>in</strong>trospection, <strong>and</strong> how it might be imag<strong>in</strong>atively conveyed, beg<strong>in</strong>s to surface.<br />

These conjo<strong>in</strong>ed tw<strong>in</strong>s push us to cont<strong>in</strong>ually problematize <strong>and</strong> question our<br />

own positionality as we write—mov<strong>in</strong>g us to ask such questions as:<br />


Owens<br />

What’s my own personal, private <strong>in</strong>vestment <strong>in</strong> this? (<strong>and</strong> if<br />

<strong>the</strong>re isn’t one, <strong>the</strong>n, why exactly am I engaged <strong>in</strong> this writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

act?) What does this writ<strong>in</strong>g task hold for me, personally, <strong>and</strong><br />

how <strong>and</strong> why might I acknowledge (or conceal) <strong>the</strong> degree of<br />

that personal <strong>in</strong>vestment? Am I sufficiently subject<strong>in</strong>g my predilections<br />

to healthy skepticism, process<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m through a<br />

critical filter, unwill<strong>in</strong>g to leave anyth<strong>in</strong>g to assumption? How<br />

far am I will<strong>in</strong>g to critique my own ideas, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> process<br />

regard my lived histories that have made <strong>the</strong>m part of who<br />

I am? If <strong>the</strong> discursive arenas I seek to enter <strong>and</strong> participate<br />

with<strong>in</strong> frown upon rhetorical markers o<strong>the</strong>rs might characterize<br />

as too “personal,” or likewise too “academic,” how far am I<br />

will<strong>in</strong>g to go to challenge <strong>the</strong> expectations of those audiences?<br />

When do I acquiesce? How might my concept of “<strong>the</strong> personal”<br />

evolve <strong>in</strong>to someth<strong>in</strong>g that resembles noth<strong>in</strong>g like all<br />

<strong>the</strong> forms <strong>and</strong> genres typically, maybe pejoratively associated<br />

with that word? And same for “critical,” <strong>the</strong> “academic?” Most<br />

of all, how to write, <strong>and</strong> th<strong>in</strong>k through writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> ways that<br />

move outside both ends of this spectrum, that don’t reject ei<strong>the</strong>r<br />

<strong>the</strong> “expressive” or <strong>the</strong> “critical,” but engage <strong>in</strong> a means of<br />

try<strong>in</strong>g to make writ<strong>in</strong>g with<strong>in</strong> (or outside—?) an arena where<br />

personal/academic, critical/expressive beg<strong>in</strong> to drop <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

mean<strong>in</strong>gs, <strong>and</strong> no longer make all that much sense anyway?<br />

What I like about <strong>the</strong> concept of <strong>the</strong> “critically expressive” is how it queers<br />

<strong>the</strong> b<strong>in</strong>ary, challeng<strong>in</strong>g each half by forc<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r’s arms. Comparable<br />

pair<strong>in</strong>gs (although, here, flipped) might be “personally academic,” “locally<br />

global,” “emotionally objective.” It’s <strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g too that <strong>in</strong> such pair<strong>in</strong>gs one of<br />

<strong>the</strong>se <strong>in</strong>verted tw<strong>in</strong>s is always <strong>the</strong> suspect term dem<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g validation, whereas<br />

its partner is typically assumed to be more appropriate. “Expressive,” “personal,”<br />

“local,” “emotional”—traditionally, <strong>in</strong> academic contexts anyway, such gestures<br />

have to be justified, excused, permitted. Allowances made. We feel we have to<br />

make good arguments for lett<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m through <strong>the</strong> door. On <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r h<strong>and</strong><br />

“critical,” “academic,” “global,” “objective”—<strong>the</strong>se are assumed to be self-evident.<br />

Ultimately though it’s not condemn<strong>in</strong>g one side over <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r, or even<br />

revers<strong>in</strong>g this imbalance, but <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>vitation to create some wholly dist<strong>in</strong>ct third<br />

space through writ<strong>in</strong>g that I f<strong>in</strong>d appeal<strong>in</strong>g. An <strong>in</strong>vitation lead<strong>in</strong>g, perhaps, to<br />

an underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of writ<strong>in</strong>g as, say, art.<br />

So how might this manifest <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> classroom? When we f<strong>in</strong>d ourselves compos<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

verbally or <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g, “<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> personal”—that is, self-consciously <strong>in</strong>vok<strong>in</strong>g<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong>’s Alchemical Challenge<br />

<strong>the</strong> autobiographical or <strong>the</strong> local or <strong>the</strong> personal or even <strong>the</strong> “emotional”—we<br />

might push ourselves <strong>and</strong> our students to consider never settl<strong>in</strong>g for “just” tell<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> story, vent<strong>in</strong>g, confess<strong>in</strong>g, shar<strong>in</strong>g. Not that <strong>the</strong>re’s anyth<strong>in</strong>g wrong with<br />

“just” do<strong>in</strong>g any of that. But if <strong>the</strong> critically expressive is one of our <strong>in</strong>terests,<br />

we’ve an opportunity before us to question <strong>the</strong> stories we would o<strong>the</strong>rwise “just”<br />

tell (<strong>the</strong> classroom as a conversational, compositional realm dist<strong>in</strong>ct from, say,<br />

<strong>the</strong> d<strong>in</strong>ner table or bar). It’s a space where we can expect ourselves to keep ask<strong>in</strong>g:<br />

so why that story? Why convey this personal account? What’s <strong>the</strong> motive beh<strong>in</strong>d<br />

this desire to share <strong>the</strong>se emotions? What might be some of <strong>the</strong> as of yet unrealized<br />

stories percolat<strong>in</strong>g beneath this autobiographical render<strong>in</strong>g? In o<strong>the</strong>r words,<br />

not to simply be satisfied with <strong>the</strong> presentation of story for story’s sake, but provoked<br />

to keep crack<strong>in</strong>g story open, unravel<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> unpack<strong>in</strong>g it.<br />

On <strong>the</strong> flip side, when we f<strong>in</strong>d ourselves operat<strong>in</strong>g “<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> academic”—that<br />

is, attentive to all that critical stuff like evidence, analysis, arguments, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

rest of it—we might seek to be more unabashedly up front about <strong>the</strong> personal,<br />

<strong>and</strong> maybe even private, motivations <strong>and</strong> concerns beh<strong>in</strong>d <strong>the</strong> ideas <strong>and</strong> decisions<br />

that grow out of this work. Here, <strong>the</strong> focus could also be on storytell<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

but <strong>the</strong> stories beh<strong>in</strong>d our professional <strong>and</strong> research needs.<br />

Many of us <strong>in</strong> composition studies do someth<strong>in</strong>g like this already. Most of<br />

our journals are filled with articles where authors make no apologies for <strong>in</strong>troduc<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir own autobiographical, “personal” accounts <strong>and</strong> motives. Still, I’m<br />

<strong>in</strong>terested <strong>in</strong> what happens when we push ourselves fur<strong>the</strong>r to <strong>the</strong> po<strong>in</strong>t where<br />

consider<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> personal as critical, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> critical as personal, becomes risky,<br />

startl<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> maybe uncomfortable.<br />

I did this recently <strong>in</strong> a book I wrote where I struggled to tell a variety of<br />

stories <strong>and</strong> pull toge<strong>the</strong>r a bunch of research. The process was for me more<br />

pa<strong>in</strong>ful, awkward, <strong>in</strong>vigorat<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> ultimately reveal<strong>in</strong>g than any o<strong>the</strong>r writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

project I’ve undertaken. The book had its genesis <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>se so-called “recovered<br />

memories” my mo<strong>the</strong>r started to have <strong>in</strong> her early fifties—accounts of ra<strong>the</strong>r<br />

sensational abuse at <strong>the</strong> h<strong>and</strong>s of gr<strong>and</strong>mo<strong>the</strong>r. I wanted to tell <strong>the</strong>se stories,<br />

which my mo<strong>the</strong>r passed along to me, but needed to present that tell<strong>in</strong>g with<strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> context of someth<strong>in</strong>g larger than “just” her childhood story. And so I found<br />

myself research<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> history of <strong>the</strong> region <strong>in</strong> which she grew up—a weird section<br />

of central New York State. This historical m<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g unexpectedly led me back<br />

to <strong>the</strong> “personal” as I turned up accounts of long lost relatives on my mo<strong>the</strong>r’s<br />

side (<strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g, I discovered, <strong>the</strong> leader of a religious cult back <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> late 18 th<br />

century).<br />

After a while I realized, somewhat reluctantly, that I would also have to <strong>in</strong>troduce<br />

some of my own childhood memories <strong>and</strong> photos <strong>in</strong> this narrative as<br />

a means of contrast<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> horrorshow my mom experienced with <strong>the</strong> more<br />


Owens<br />

idyllic childhood my mo<strong>the</strong>r, <strong>and</strong> fa<strong>the</strong>r too, constructed for me <strong>and</strong> my sister.<br />

This was exceptionally hard for me. To sh<strong>in</strong>e a light on myself that way <strong>and</strong> be<br />

so reveal<strong>in</strong>g to an outside audience made me <strong>in</strong>credibly nervous. I was much<br />

more comfortable lett<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> focus be on my mo<strong>the</strong>r, dead relatives, <strong>and</strong> regional<br />

histories. As a result I learned that, while <strong>the</strong> “personal” <strong>and</strong> “expressive” are<br />

often assumed to be problematic <strong>in</strong> that <strong>the</strong>y <strong>in</strong>vite undiscipl<strong>in</strong>ed, narcissistic<br />

navel-gaz<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>in</strong> truth a render<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>timate, <strong>the</strong> guarded, <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>nermost,<br />

can require no small degree of difficult reflection <strong>and</strong> self-critique <strong>in</strong> figur<strong>in</strong>g out<br />

how to communicate all that to an <strong>in</strong>visible, imag<strong>in</strong>ed public audience. Be<strong>in</strong>g<br />

“expressive,” <strong>in</strong> this sense, for me, turned out to be way harder <strong>and</strong> weirder than<br />

any of <strong>the</strong> academic writ<strong>in</strong>g I ever did. Develop<strong>in</strong>g that k<strong>in</strong>d of confidence <strong>in</strong><br />

one’s work, one’s audience—it’s just scary.<br />

As I worked through this bus<strong>in</strong>ess of bridg<strong>in</strong>g o<strong>the</strong>r people’s stories with my<br />

own, <strong>the</strong> focus of this book took on new significance. I became <strong>in</strong>terested <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

strangeness of memory <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> slipper<strong>in</strong>ess of identity. In do<strong>in</strong>g research <strong>in</strong>to<br />

accounts of child abuse as well as controversies surround<strong>in</strong>g concepts like recovered<br />

memory, I found myself realiz<strong>in</strong>g I had to reth<strong>in</strong>k concepts like “childhood”<br />

<strong>and</strong> “trauma” from scratch. On top of all this I wanted to <strong>in</strong>troduce as much<br />

photographic <strong>and</strong> visual “narrative” as possible—old photos <strong>and</strong> postcards—<br />

while mess<strong>in</strong>g around with <strong>the</strong> visual arrangement of text on <strong>the</strong> page <strong>in</strong> ways<br />

that might (if only to me) <strong>in</strong>discreetly reflect some of <strong>the</strong> ideas housed with<strong>in</strong>.<br />

In <strong>the</strong> end it turned out to be <strong>the</strong> most difficult th<strong>in</strong>g I’ve written <strong>and</strong> will<br />

likely ever publish. More than anyth<strong>in</strong>g else I’ve tackled <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g, this manuscript<br />

represented more fully a susta<strong>in</strong>ed engagement with <strong>the</strong> merg<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong>se<br />

two endpo<strong>in</strong>ts—<strong>the</strong> critical, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> expressive. Work<strong>in</strong>g with<strong>in</strong> this hybrid,<br />

lim<strong>in</strong>al realm now seems to me more challeng<strong>in</strong>g than self-consciously choos<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to reside with<strong>in</strong> ei<strong>the</strong>r side. A both/<strong>and</strong> embrace that seems fraught with difficulties,<br />

but also unexpected surprises.<br />

I make mention of my manuscript not because it’s how I’m push<strong>in</strong>g o<strong>the</strong>rs<br />

to write. I mention it because it’s an example of what this whole critical/expressive<br />

coniunctio (or whatever metaphor you prefer) might po<strong>in</strong>t to. Ultimately<br />

I’m <strong>in</strong>terested <strong>in</strong> classroom environments, <strong>and</strong> master’s <strong>the</strong>ses, <strong>and</strong> dissertations,<br />

<strong>and</strong> published articles, where authors (<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> faculty, directors, supervisors,<br />

editors, <strong>and</strong> readers who say yea or nay to <strong>the</strong> worth<strong>in</strong>ess of such work, validat<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>m or not) grant <strong>the</strong>mselves permission to dive <strong>in</strong>to <strong>and</strong> beyond notions<br />

of both “expressive” <strong>and</strong> “critical,” “personal” <strong>and</strong> “academic,” to a po<strong>in</strong>t where<br />

<strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g manifests messily, curiously. “Of its own accord.” I’ve come to realize<br />

that I privilege discovery, even when it surfaces <strong>in</strong> odd <strong>and</strong> uncomfortable<br />

ways. Experimentation borne out of need <strong>and</strong> desire, not necessarily fashion or<br />

convention or tradition. Right now “critical expressivism” seems to me about as<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> <strong>Expressivism</strong>’s Alchemical Challenge<br />

excit<strong>in</strong>g a new concept as any surfac<strong>in</strong>g with<strong>in</strong> our field, open<strong>in</strong>g up strange <strong>and</strong><br />

startl<strong>in</strong>g new l<strong>and</strong>scapes for compos<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

NOTES<br />

1. And when I say “we” I <strong>in</strong>clude myself. Because—<strong>and</strong> here is my essay’s little mea<br />

culpa moment—I was often one of those who was too quick to assign pejorative<br />

connotations to “expressive” discourse. For <strong>the</strong> longest time I associated <strong>the</strong> word<br />

with sloppy exuberance, or loud relatives, or <strong>the</strong> constant barrage of egos run amuck<br />

on television <strong>and</strong> radio. Of course, my resistance to <strong>the</strong> “expressive” had more to do<br />

with my own discomfort with convey<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> autobiographical—someth<strong>in</strong>g touched<br />

on <strong>in</strong> this essay. So I failed to draw a dist<strong>in</strong>ction between <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of obligatory,<br />

scripted expressionism one f<strong>in</strong>ds <strong>in</strong>, say, reality television <strong>and</strong> bad memoir writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> extroverted uncles, with <strong>the</strong> legitimately self-preoccupied explorations of firstyear<br />

writers who have every reason to be fasc<strong>in</strong>ated with <strong>the</strong>ir lives, histories, m<strong>in</strong>ds,<br />

<strong>and</strong> emotions. Thanks, by <strong>the</strong> way, to <strong>the</strong> editors of this collection for provid<strong>in</strong>g me<br />

with an opportunity to figure this out.<br />





Jean Bessette<br />

University of Vermont<br />

Early advocates of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g sought to use first-year composition<br />

to restore au<strong>the</strong>nticity to students who must suffer a “plastic, mass-produced<br />

world” outside <strong>the</strong> classroom (Adler-Kassner, 1998, p. 218). In l<strong>in</strong>e with this objective,<br />

<strong>the</strong> rhetoric of early personal writ<strong>in</strong>g pedagogy is constituted by tropes of<br />

ownership, expression, self-underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> “au<strong>the</strong>ntic voice,” as <strong>the</strong> title of<br />

Donald C. Stewart’s 1972 expressivist textbook illustrates. L<strong>in</strong>da Adler-Kassner<br />

contends that, as a result of this goal of au<strong>the</strong>nticity <strong>and</strong> ownership, expressivism<br />

“started with <strong>and</strong> centered around experience—def<strong>in</strong>ed as personal, private,<br />

<strong>in</strong>dividually felt underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> writer” (1998, p. 219). 1 “Experience”<br />

however, was almost always framed <strong>in</strong> terms of <strong>the</strong> past. Expressivist Gordon<br />

Rohmann argued, for example, that it is <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> nature of human be<strong>in</strong>gs to make<br />

analogies between “this experience <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs” gone by; we “know anyth<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong><br />

our present simply because we have known similar th<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>in</strong> our past to which<br />

we compare <strong>the</strong> present” (1965, p. 111). For Rohmann <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r expressivists,<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g past experience—that is, compos<strong>in</strong>g with memory—was a means by<br />

which students could achieve <strong>the</strong> self-underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g expressivists sought.<br />

More contemporary textbooks with calls for personal writ<strong>in</strong>g echo <strong>the</strong>se<br />

early underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>gs of “<strong>in</strong>dividually felt,” au<strong>the</strong>ntic access to past experience,<br />

mak<strong>in</strong>g it clear that <strong>the</strong> reliance of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> authority of memory<br />

persists. Robert Yagelski’s 2010 Read<strong>in</strong>g our World: Conversations <strong>in</strong> Context, 2 for<br />

example, asks students to write essays “based on memories of [<strong>the</strong>ir] childhood”<br />

or essays <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y “describe an important memory [<strong>the</strong>y] have of [<strong>the</strong>ir]<br />

family” (pp. 80; 85). Assignments such as <strong>the</strong>se often l<strong>in</strong>k memory writ<strong>in</strong>g with<br />

present identity, ask<strong>in</strong>g students to focus on a “particular aspect of [<strong>the</strong>ir] upbr<strong>in</strong>g<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> how <strong>the</strong> place where [<strong>the</strong>y] were raised might have <strong>in</strong>fluenced<br />

[<strong>the</strong>ir] sense of identity” (Yagelski, 2010, p. 85). When Yagelski asks students<br />

to write <strong>the</strong> past experience that has constituted <strong>the</strong>m as <strong>in</strong>dividuals today, he<br />

treats experience as foundational <strong>in</strong> some way, as a stable referent students can<br />

access <strong>and</strong> articulate <strong>in</strong> order to better underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir present selves. These<br />

assignments <strong>in</strong>vite <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g of narrative, chronological <strong>and</strong> l<strong>in</strong>ear <strong>in</strong> structure,<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.05<br />


Bessette<br />

because <strong>the</strong> memories often end up <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> form of a story, bolstered by <strong>the</strong> authority<br />

of <strong>the</strong> writer’s experience.<br />

This chapter takes a closer look at <strong>the</strong> “pastness” of <strong>the</strong> experience students of<br />

personal writ<strong>in</strong>g are asked to compose. When we refigure “experience” as “memory,”<br />

we emphasize <strong>the</strong> slipper<strong>in</strong>ess of our perceptions of <strong>the</strong> past: <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong><br />

which chang<strong>in</strong>g present circumstances reconfigure our sense of what happened.<br />

Lynn Z. Bloom expla<strong>in</strong>s that writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> past cannot be understood <strong>in</strong> terms of<br />

truth, except <strong>in</strong> Joan Didion’s sense of a subjective truth: <strong>the</strong> “truth of how it felt<br />

to me” (as quoted <strong>in</strong> Bloom, 2003, p. 278). But even Didion’s sense of a truth<br />

of feel<strong>in</strong>g is underm<strong>in</strong>ed when, as Bloom puts it, “<strong>the</strong> writer’s vision varies over<br />

time <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terven<strong>in</strong>g circumstances” <strong>and</strong> when, “as we experience more of life<br />

<strong>and</strong> learn more ourselves <strong>and</strong> as <strong>the</strong> world itself changes, we come to underst<strong>and</strong><br />

events <strong>and</strong> people differently” (Bloom 2003, p. 286). Memory is dynamic <strong>and</strong><br />

unstable, at odds with our attempts to grab hold of it <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> make it<br />

permanent as a foundation for underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g our present selves. Such underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>gs<br />

of memory upset calls to represent experience as <strong>in</strong>dividual, au<strong>the</strong>ntic,<br />

chronological, <strong>and</strong> l<strong>in</strong>ear.<br />

What becomes of expressivist writ<strong>in</strong>g when <strong>the</strong> pastness of experience complicates<br />

its foundational stability for present self-underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g? Ra<strong>the</strong>r than<br />

view <strong>the</strong> complexity of writ<strong>in</strong>g with memory as support for discont<strong>in</strong>u<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g, I consider here how we might approach personal<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> a way that takes <strong>in</strong>to account <strong>the</strong> dynamic slipper<strong>in</strong>ess of memory.<br />

Writ<strong>in</strong>g memory with attention to its complexities is important work for students<br />

not only because <strong>the</strong>y are already writ<strong>in</strong>g with memory <strong>in</strong> many composition<br />

classrooms but also because, as I will show, memory writ<strong>in</strong>g offers a unique<br />

opportunity for critical analysis of students’ social <strong>and</strong> political locations. As a<br />

fem<strong>in</strong>ist scholar, I offer <strong>in</strong> this paper a fem<strong>in</strong>ist pedagogical approach emphasiz<strong>in</strong>g<br />

strategies of alternative discourse as one way to address <strong>the</strong> complexity of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g with memory. 3 Ultimately, by draw<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ories of collective memory<br />

<strong>in</strong>to conversation with fem<strong>in</strong>ist composition pedagogy, I hope to illustrate how<br />

this k<strong>in</strong>d of memory writ<strong>in</strong>g might be taught <strong>and</strong> learned.<br />

Before I describe a sequence of assignments <strong>and</strong> a course <strong>in</strong> which I attempted<br />

to put <strong>in</strong>to practice my underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of how writ<strong>in</strong>g with memory might<br />

best be approached <strong>in</strong> first-year composition, I will briefly articulate <strong>the</strong> <strong>the</strong>oretical<br />

perspective that <strong>in</strong>formed <strong>the</strong> course. Historian <strong>and</strong> memory studies scholar<br />

David Lowenthal argues that we<br />

select, distill, distort, <strong>and</strong> transform <strong>the</strong> past, accommodat<strong>in</strong>g<br />

th<strong>in</strong>gs remembered to <strong>the</strong> needs of <strong>the</strong> present … Memories<br />

are not ready-made reflections of <strong>the</strong> past, but eclectic selective<br />


econstructions based on subsequent actions <strong>and</strong> perceptions<br />

<strong>and</strong> on ever-chang<strong>in</strong>g codes by which we del<strong>in</strong>eate, symbolize<br />

<strong>and</strong> classify <strong>the</strong> world around us. (1985, p. 210)<br />

Past-Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Lowenthal’s emphasis on <strong>the</strong> “subsequent actions[,] … perceptions,” <strong>and</strong><br />

“ever-chang<strong>in</strong>g codes” that organize our memories underscores <strong>the</strong> elusiveness<br />

of our grasp on a pure reconstruction of our experience. But it also suggests a<br />

second, simultaneous focus for writers of experience to consider: not only <strong>the</strong><br />

experience “itself” <strong>the</strong>y wish to recall <strong>and</strong> reproduce <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g but <strong>the</strong> dynamic<br />

“codes” through which <strong>the</strong> experience becomes legible <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writer’s present<br />

structure of underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g. Historian Joan Wallach Scott’s underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of experience<br />

resonates with Lowanthal’s. She objects to uncritical uses of experience<br />

because such uses preclude our critical exam<strong>in</strong>ation of <strong>the</strong> ideological system <strong>in</strong><br />

which <strong>the</strong> experiencer both enacts <strong>the</strong> experience <strong>and</strong> later recalls <strong>the</strong> experience.<br />

Instead of analyz<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> work<strong>in</strong>gs of <strong>the</strong> system, <strong>the</strong> authority of experience<br />

reproduces <strong>the</strong> terms of <strong>the</strong> system, “locat<strong>in</strong>g resistance outside its discursive<br />

construction” (Scott, 1991, p. 777).<br />

Lowenthal <strong>and</strong> Scott’s <strong>the</strong>orizations of memory articulate <strong>the</strong> mediation<br />

of our memories, <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> experience itself <strong>and</strong> our subsequent<br />

memory of it are constructed by <strong>the</strong> “system” or “codes” through which we<br />

view <strong>the</strong> world. When we br<strong>in</strong>g Lowenthal <strong>and</strong> Scott <strong>in</strong>to conversation with<br />

composition scholars of expressivism, <strong>the</strong> difference becomes apparent between<br />

view<strong>in</strong>g memory as culturally situated <strong>and</strong> constituted <strong>and</strong> view<strong>in</strong>g experience<br />

as “personal, private, [<strong>and</strong>] <strong>in</strong>dividually felt,” as Adler-Kassner (1998, p.218)<br />

characterizes expressivism. Instead, Lowanthall <strong>and</strong> Scott’s <strong>the</strong>orization of memory<br />

shows it to be necessarily social <strong>and</strong> discursive. As Scott suggests, subjects<br />

are constructed discursively through <strong>the</strong> act <strong>and</strong> memory of experience, which<br />

<strong>in</strong> turn produces (not merely records) a particular perspective on <strong>the</strong> experience.<br />

This view can be seen as a critique of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividualism implicit <strong>in</strong> expressivism<br />

because it situates <strong>the</strong> self <strong>in</strong>extricably <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> social <strong>and</strong> discursive world.<br />

Memory can be described as “collective” because, as Maurice Halbwachs argued<br />

<strong>in</strong> The Social Frameworks of Memory, “<strong>the</strong> m<strong>in</strong>d reconstructs its memories<br />

under <strong>the</strong> pressure of society” (1992, p. 51). Memories hang toge<strong>the</strong>r <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

m<strong>in</strong>d of an <strong>in</strong>dividual because <strong>the</strong>y are “part of a totality of thoughts common<br />

to a group” (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52). Accord<strong>in</strong>g to Halbwachs <strong>the</strong>n, <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

memories are not necessarily <strong>in</strong>dividual; <strong>the</strong>y are produced <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> social milieu<br />

of <strong>the</strong> group <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual identifies with. This social memory can “characterize<br />

groups” by reveal<strong>in</strong>g a “debt to <strong>the</strong> past” <strong>and</strong> express<strong>in</strong>g “moral cont<strong>in</strong>uity”<br />

(Kle<strong>in</strong>, 2002, p. 130). Taken toge<strong>the</strong>r, <strong>the</strong> implications of Lowenthal, Scott, <strong>and</strong><br />

Halbwachs are that, when we set out to recount past experience, we must attend<br />


Bessette<br />

to <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which memories are formed with o<strong>the</strong>rs <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> present as a means<br />

of connection, group coherence, <strong>and</strong> a sense of shared past <strong>and</strong> future. I see <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

<strong>the</strong>orizations as a call to view experience not as such but ra<strong>the</strong>r for <strong>the</strong> social <strong>and</strong><br />

discursive frames through which we underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> experience <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> social<br />

(which is to say, identificatory) uses to which we put <strong>the</strong> experience—<strong>the</strong> ways<br />

we shape memories to fit those we believe we share with o<strong>the</strong>rs, as a way of coher<strong>in</strong>g<br />

more securely as a group.<br />

If students of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g are asked to attend to <strong>the</strong> social, discursive<br />

forces <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> present identificatory uses that might shape <strong>the</strong>ir memories, <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

approach to expressivism becomes “critical.” This attention to how “personal”<br />

memories are socially or discursively shaped <strong>in</strong> service of present identifications<br />

begs questions of power <strong>and</strong> agency. In what narrative forms do <strong>the</strong> experiences<br />

we remember take shape? How are certa<strong>in</strong> experiences remembered <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs<br />

forgotten? The ability to use a memory <strong>and</strong> to def<strong>in</strong>e for o<strong>the</strong>rs its use is fundamentally<br />

related to historical distributions of power (Connorton, 1989, LeGoff<br />

& Nora, 1977). This tension between memory <strong>and</strong> forgett<strong>in</strong>g reveals <strong>the</strong> past<br />

to be a dynamic, perpetually contested site, constantly open to vary<strong>in</strong>g degrees<br />

of fluctuation depend<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> cont<strong>in</strong>gent power of <strong>the</strong> group <strong>in</strong> question.<br />

Memory is a dynamic, “processional action by which people constantly transform<br />

<strong>the</strong> recollections <strong>the</strong>y produce” (Zelizer, 1995, p. 218). In sum, when we<br />

reconfigure experience as memory, <strong>the</strong> task of expressivism becomes decidedly<br />

social <strong>and</strong> decidedly critical.<br />

Though “personal” memory cannot be extricated from present social forces,<br />

compos<strong>in</strong>g critically with memory is not without opportunities for agency. As<br />

Nancy Mack expla<strong>in</strong>s <strong>in</strong> her contribution to this collection, writ<strong>in</strong>g what she<br />

calls “critical memoir”<br />

should open <strong>the</strong> author to <strong>the</strong> possibility of agency through<br />

<strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>terpretation <strong>and</strong> representation of memory. The mean<strong>in</strong>g<br />

of <strong>the</strong> memoir is revised from <strong>the</strong> student’s current<br />

vantage po<strong>in</strong>t of an <strong>in</strong>creased critical awareness <strong>and</strong> projected<br />

towards a hopeful future, thus giv<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> author some degree<br />

of agency <strong>in</strong> shap<strong>in</strong>g identity.<br />

When we th<strong>in</strong>k of memory as dynamic, processual, presentist, <strong>and</strong> very much<br />

situated <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> social <strong>and</strong> discursive world, agency is made possible when such<br />

complexity is both represented <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terrogated <strong>in</strong> language. While conventional<br />

personal narratives are structured chronologically with a beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g, middle,<br />

<strong>and</strong> end <strong>and</strong> often conform to familiar plots, a presentist, processual, social, <strong>and</strong><br />

discursive underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of memory calls for a disruption of conventional structures.<br />

Because such structures can be understood as a present “system” or “code”<br />


Past-Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

that produces, ra<strong>the</strong>r than records, <strong>the</strong> experience, adherence to <strong>the</strong>se conventions<br />

of narrative <strong>in</strong>hibit <strong>the</strong> simultaneous <strong>in</strong>terrogation of memory’s social <strong>and</strong><br />

discursive construction that makes identificatory agency possible.<br />

Thus, writ<strong>in</strong>g with memory compels alternative rhetorical strategies to conventional<br />

personal narratives. My considerations of alternative discourse are <strong>in</strong>spired<br />

by Kate Ronald <strong>and</strong> Joy Ritchie’s critical read<strong>in</strong>g of Dorothy Allison’s<br />

creative nonfiction piece, Two or Three Th<strong>in</strong>gs I Know For Sure. Ronald <strong>and</strong><br />

Ritchie see <strong>in</strong> Allison’s memoir a “model for how to use language to survive <strong>and</strong><br />

change one’s reality” (2006, p. 7). Allison’s work takes an unconventional form<br />

for writers to imitate, a “method of unfold<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> hold<strong>in</strong>g on to <strong>the</strong> paradoxical<br />

relationships between fiction <strong>and</strong> fact, silence <strong>and</strong> speak<strong>in</strong>g, certa<strong>in</strong>ty <strong>and</strong><br />

doubt, cultural norms <strong>and</strong> taboos” (2006, p. 7). That is, for Ronald <strong>and</strong> Ritchie,<br />

<strong>the</strong> rhetorical strategies Allison employs allow her to accomplish seem<strong>in</strong>gly improbable<br />

contradictions <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> same text, which I reread here <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> language of<br />

memory: to show through memory writ<strong>in</strong>g what is remembered <strong>and</strong> forgotten,<br />

what “was” <strong>and</strong> what present circumstances reconfigure, <strong>and</strong> to situate <strong>the</strong>se<br />

potential contradictions <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> context of “cultural norms <strong>and</strong> taboos” (that is,<br />

how <strong>the</strong>y align with cultural expectations <strong>and</strong> where <strong>the</strong>y transgress). The use of<br />

alternative discourse <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g memory may accomplish what Lisa Ede <strong>and</strong> Andrea<br />

Lunsford call “crimes of read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g,” <strong>the</strong> upsett<strong>in</strong>g of normative<br />

conventions with <strong>the</strong> goal of facilitat<strong>in</strong>g “transformative agency” (2006, p. 17).<br />

Tak<strong>in</strong>g my cues from <strong>the</strong>se fem<strong>in</strong>ist pedagogues, I set out to design a pedagogical<br />

approach through which students might be taught to read for <strong>the</strong> rhetorical<br />

strategies used by writers of memory who employ alternative discourse,<br />

<strong>in</strong> order to <strong>the</strong>n selectively imitate <strong>the</strong> strategies <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir own personal writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

How do memory writers like Allison, or Susan Griff<strong>in</strong>, or Gloria Anzaldua, for<br />

example, grapple <strong>and</strong> rhetorically represent <strong>the</strong>ir past experience <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> context<br />

of larger social <strong>and</strong> historical discourses? What do <strong>the</strong>ir particular choices <strong>in</strong><br />

language allow <strong>the</strong>m to th<strong>in</strong>k through that more conventional personal narratives<br />

do not? What alternative sentence structures do <strong>the</strong>y employ? How do <strong>the</strong>y<br />

position <strong>the</strong>mselves vis-à-vis o<strong>the</strong>rs, vis-à-vis “history,” vis-à-vis <strong>the</strong>ir memories,<br />

<strong>in</strong> language?<br />

To exam<strong>in</strong>e how this work played out <strong>in</strong> my own classroom, I will describe<br />

how this project was undertaken with Susan Griff<strong>in</strong>’s creative nonfiction/memoir<br />

chapter, “Our Secret,” published <strong>in</strong> her collection Chorus of Stones (1993).<br />

“Our Secret” is a complex, fragmented essay, amalgamat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> juxtapos<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong>terpretations of Griff<strong>in</strong>’s memories of her family life with her <strong>in</strong>terpretations<br />

of He<strong>in</strong>rich Himmler’s family life. Himmler was <strong>the</strong> chief of <strong>the</strong> SS under Hitler<br />

dur<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> Second World War—clearly an unlikely c<strong>and</strong>idate <strong>and</strong> cultural context<br />

for a contemporary American writer to situate her own memories among.<br />


Bessette<br />

But Griff<strong>in</strong> does so <strong>in</strong> order to ask larger questions about where rage comes from,<br />

how it emerges <strong>and</strong> manifests culturally, <strong>and</strong> how acts of rage dissem<strong>in</strong>ate <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>in</strong>fluence o<strong>the</strong>rs across time <strong>and</strong> place. Her <strong>in</strong>quiry <strong>in</strong>to her own past unearths<br />

<strong>and</strong> analyzes <strong>the</strong> source of her acts of childish rage aga<strong>in</strong>st her gr<strong>and</strong>mo<strong>the</strong>r<br />

<strong>and</strong> leads her to compare own family’s strict childrear<strong>in</strong>g practices to Himmler’s<br />

context of rigid, almost torturous German childrear<strong>in</strong>g. She asks questions ak<strong>in</strong><br />

to more traditional expressivist writ<strong>in</strong>g: she wants to learn “how it is” that people—herself,<br />

Himmler, o<strong>the</strong>rs—”become [<strong>the</strong>m]selves.” But she does so <strong>in</strong> a<br />

complex mélange of personal <strong>and</strong> historical pasts, us<strong>in</strong>g her own memories to<br />

better underst<strong>and</strong> larger historical happen<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>and</strong> vice versa.<br />

In <strong>the</strong> classroom, I sought to help students see Griff<strong>in</strong>’s strategies for engag<strong>in</strong>g<br />

with <strong>and</strong> problematiz<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> past. I designed discussion questions <strong>and</strong><br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g assignments that asked students to attend to her particular rhetorical<br />

strategies for identify<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> disidentify<strong>in</strong>g with a larger cultural past. We read<br />

Griff<strong>in</strong>’s essay for <strong>the</strong> textual cues of her unique rhetoric of memory—her radical<br />

disruption of chronology, use of uncerta<strong>in</strong> speculative language, <strong>and</strong> strategic<br />

shifts <strong>in</strong> perspective that emphasize <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tersections of personal <strong>and</strong> cultural<br />

pasts. As a class, we looked for what “pieces” constituted Griff<strong>in</strong>’s fragmented<br />

essay <strong>and</strong> found it to be an <strong>in</strong>terweav<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>in</strong>terviews; read<strong>in</strong>gs of diaries, photographs,<br />

<strong>and</strong> art; scientific facts; <strong>and</strong> her own familial memories <strong>in</strong>to a tapestry<br />

of emotion, tragedy, <strong>and</strong> perhaps hope.<br />

Look<strong>in</strong>g more closely at particular paragraphs <strong>and</strong> sentences, we looked for<br />

textual cues that <strong>in</strong>dicated how she represented <strong>the</strong> relationship between <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

<strong>and</strong> collective memory. Students saw fragility <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>certitude <strong>in</strong> her<br />

read<strong>in</strong>gs of o<strong>the</strong>rs <strong>and</strong> her own pasts, revealed <strong>in</strong> particular choices of language<br />

that disrupted any sense of historical accuracy. For example, we focused on a<br />

passage <strong>in</strong> which Griff<strong>in</strong> describes an <strong>in</strong>terview with a woman who witnessed <strong>the</strong><br />

aftermath of a German concentration camp as a young child. In her description<br />

of <strong>the</strong> woman’s memory, Griff<strong>in</strong>’s language is <strong>in</strong>itially assured, employ<strong>in</strong>g jarr<strong>in</strong>g<br />

imagery of concrete th<strong>in</strong>gs: she saw “shoes <strong>in</strong> great piles. Bones. Women’s hair”<br />

(1993, p. 114). But immediately <strong>the</strong> woman’s memories are called <strong>in</strong>to question:<br />

“She had no words for what she saw. Her fa<strong>the</strong>r admonished her to be still.<br />

Only years later, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong> a classroom, did she f<strong>in</strong>d out <strong>the</strong> name of this place <strong>and</strong><br />

what happened here” (Griff<strong>in</strong>, 1993, p. 114). Students saw <strong>the</strong> certa<strong>in</strong>ty of <strong>the</strong><br />

woman’s experience, represented by lists of objects, threatened by her <strong>in</strong>ability<br />

to capture it <strong>in</strong> language; <strong>the</strong>y saw, through careful close read<strong>in</strong>g for rhetorical<br />

strategies <strong>in</strong> represent<strong>in</strong>g memory, that it was only through <strong>the</strong> later safety of<br />

sterilized classroom history that <strong>the</strong> woman could “underst<strong>and</strong>” what happened.<br />

In close-read<strong>in</strong>g passages like <strong>the</strong>se, students saw a k<strong>in</strong>d of dual representation<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terrogation. 4 The woman’s memory is of a time when she had no words<br />


Past-Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to underst<strong>and</strong> her experience. The experience, as she can access it, is not foundational<br />

because it is only later <strong>in</strong> school when she realizes what happened—a<br />

delayed realization that becomes <strong>the</strong> foundation for her response to Griff<strong>in</strong>’s<br />

<strong>in</strong>terview, <strong>and</strong> which may be understood as a “system” or “code,” <strong>in</strong> Scott <strong>and</strong><br />

Lowenthal’s terms, through which <strong>the</strong> experience is constructed legibly. My students<br />

began to see <strong>the</strong> slipper<strong>in</strong>ess of experience because Griff<strong>in</strong> spr<strong>in</strong>kles her<br />

tapestry with rem<strong>in</strong>ders that, though she speaks of <strong>and</strong> through various historical<br />

figures (from Himmler to her gr<strong>and</strong>mo<strong>the</strong>r), it is always mediated through<br />

her own memory. The aforementioned <strong>in</strong>terview, a form of evidence collection<br />

often validated by its claim to direct experience, is called <strong>in</strong>to question when<br />

Griff<strong>in</strong> writes, “I give [<strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>terviewee] <strong>the</strong> name Laura here,” (1993, p.114)<br />

suggest<strong>in</strong>g that it is Griff<strong>in</strong> who controls <strong>the</strong> representation of “Laura’s” memory<br />

<strong>and</strong> that ultimately, it is Griff<strong>in</strong>’s memory to share. In-class close read<strong>in</strong>g practice<br />

helps students see how <strong>in</strong>dividual memories are constructed retrospectively <strong>in</strong><br />

different social environments, <strong>and</strong> that it matters how we represent memory <strong>in</strong><br />

language, because to do so critically is to <strong>in</strong>terrogate how memories get made<br />

<strong>and</strong> what present needs <strong>the</strong>y serve.<br />

In order to get students close-read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>se k<strong>in</strong>ds of rhetorical moves so <strong>the</strong>y<br />

could later put <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong>to practice <strong>in</strong> “personal” writ<strong>in</strong>g, I asked <strong>the</strong>m to write<br />

an analytical essay first, <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y exam<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>and</strong> evaluated <strong>the</strong> rhetorical<br />

strategies Griff<strong>in</strong> used to “write <strong>the</strong> past.” One student 5 wrote that<br />

Griff<strong>in</strong> keeps herself <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> story as an ‘imag<strong>in</strong>er’ that tries to<br />

see how an event transpired. Perhaps this gives her an opportunity<br />

to <strong>in</strong>clude her own stories of childhood <strong>in</strong> comparison<br />

with Himmler’s. For <strong>in</strong>stance, she details Dr. Schreber’s<br />

[German, WWII-era] advice on childhood parent<strong>in</strong>g: “Crush<br />

<strong>the</strong> will, <strong>the</strong>y write. Establish dom<strong>in</strong>ance. Permit no disobedience.<br />

Suppress everyth<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> child.” She <strong>the</strong>n compares<br />

<strong>the</strong> childrear<strong>in</strong>g acts with what she had gone through with her<br />

gr<strong>and</strong>mo<strong>the</strong>r. She too was suppressed: “When at <strong>the</strong> age of six<br />

I went to live with her, my gr<strong>and</strong>mo<strong>the</strong>r worked to reshape<br />

me … not by casual example but through anxious memorization<br />

<strong>and</strong> drill.”<br />

This student is notic<strong>in</strong>g how Griff<strong>in</strong> is able to <strong>in</strong>corporate her personal memories<br />

<strong>in</strong>to a larger collective past: by rema<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> story always as an “imag<strong>in</strong>er”<br />

who looks through <strong>the</strong> same lens of <strong>in</strong>quiry at historical pasts as she does<br />

her own memories.<br />

Ano<strong>the</strong>r student wrote of rhetorical moves that allow Griff<strong>in</strong> to evade talk<strong>in</strong>g<br />

about <strong>the</strong> past “as though it had actually occurred” <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>stead allow her to “state<br />


Bessette<br />

<strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong> a way that <strong>the</strong>y were possibilities, us<strong>in</strong>g qualify<strong>in</strong>g cues such as ‘did…?,’<br />

‘must have,’ <strong>and</strong> maybe,’ etc.” Between seem<strong>in</strong>gly straightforward, traditionally<br />

historical statements garnered from <strong>in</strong>terviews, photographs, art, <strong>and</strong> science, this<br />

student noticed that Griff<strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>terjects with her own memory’s “I.” After def<strong>in</strong>ite<br />

claims like, “it is 1910. The twenty-second of July,” he noticed that Griff<strong>in</strong> extended<br />

<strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> imag<strong>in</strong>ary, speculat<strong>in</strong>g that “his fa<strong>the</strong>r must have loomed large to<br />

him. Did Gebhard lay his h<strong>and</strong> on He<strong>in</strong>rich’s shoulder?” (Griff<strong>in</strong>, 1993, p. 118).<br />

“I can see him,” Griff<strong>in</strong> writes of <strong>the</strong> long deceased Himmler, but it is always, ultimately,<br />

herself she sees: through Laura, through her gr<strong>and</strong>mo<strong>the</strong>r, through <strong>the</strong><br />

mélange of fact <strong>and</strong> fiction that constitute her exploration <strong>and</strong> generation of <strong>the</strong><br />

past. The student thought that “<strong>the</strong> fact that she has produced her own stories”<br />

formed a “biased view of Himmler <strong>and</strong> his childhood” but one that “generates<br />

a different perspective on <strong>the</strong> war <strong>and</strong> her relationship to it.” The student, <strong>in</strong><br />

o<strong>the</strong>r words, was notic<strong>in</strong>g how Griff<strong>in</strong>’s rhetorical strategies for writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> past<br />

produced someth<strong>in</strong>g that o<strong>the</strong>r, more traditional strategies could not, despite<br />

<strong>the</strong> accompany<strong>in</strong>g loss of “objectivity.” Griff<strong>in</strong> writes her memories but employs<br />

stylistic strategies to perpetually question <strong>the</strong> certa<strong>in</strong>ty of <strong>the</strong> claims to memory<br />

she makes. She situates herself <strong>in</strong> different perspectives <strong>and</strong> historical moments,<br />

destabiliz<strong>in</strong>g herself as a unified, prediscursive self with unmediated access to<br />

experience even as she <strong>in</strong>terrogates <strong>the</strong> larger sociocultural structures that would<br />

make <strong>the</strong> events she remembers (<strong>the</strong> Holocaust, childhood abuse) possible.<br />

After my students wrote essays analyz<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> rhetorical strategies with which<br />

Griff<strong>in</strong> writes her personal past <strong>and</strong> situates it <strong>in</strong> a larger cultural/historical context,<br />

<strong>the</strong>y were tasked with a project like hers: to write an experimental essay<br />

<strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y situate <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terrogate <strong>the</strong>ir own memories <strong>in</strong> relation to o<strong>the</strong>r<br />

historical figures <strong>and</strong> histories. I see this assignment as enact<strong>in</strong>g what Toni Morrison<br />

calls <strong>the</strong> “willed creation” of memory writ<strong>in</strong>g (1984). Morrison’s use of<br />

<strong>the</strong> term “willed” juxtaposed with “creation” emphasizes how rhetorical choices<br />

<strong>in</strong> represent<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> past are <strong>in</strong>ventive <strong>and</strong> pa<strong>in</strong>stak<strong>in</strong>gly strategic, ra<strong>the</strong>r than a<br />

mere record of <strong>the</strong> past as it was. As Morrison suggests, “<strong>the</strong>re may be play <strong>and</strong><br />

arbitrar<strong>in</strong>ess <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> way a memory surfaces but none <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> way <strong>the</strong> composition<br />

is organized, especially when I hope to recreate <strong>the</strong> play <strong>and</strong> arbitrar<strong>in</strong>ess <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> way narrative events unfold” (1984, p. 216). The writ<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> analytical<br />

essay prior to <strong>the</strong> composition of <strong>the</strong> more “personal”/experimental essay helps<br />

students see that <strong>the</strong> rhetorical choices we make <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> past facilitate or<br />

<strong>in</strong>hibit <strong>the</strong> critical expressivist work we can do.<br />

I will close by describ<strong>in</strong>g one student’s response to this assignment, for<br />

which she was tasked to read her own memories through <strong>the</strong> art <strong>and</strong> life of a<br />

historical figure, as Griff<strong>in</strong> did with Himmler <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r figures. My student,<br />

Dylan Gallagher, was to use <strong>the</strong> past of a historical figure to raise questions <strong>in</strong><br />


Past-Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong>quiry <strong>in</strong>to her own past, <strong>and</strong> to represent this <strong>in</strong>quiry experimentally: to use<br />

unorthodox form <strong>and</strong> “crimes of writ<strong>in</strong>g” to subvert conventional modes of<br />

historiography (Ede &Lunsford, 2006). She was to take seriously our discussions<br />

of Griff<strong>in</strong>’s stylistic subversions of form <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which Griff<strong>in</strong>’s<br />

textual cues underm<strong>in</strong>ed historical (<strong>and</strong> memorial) accuracy <strong>in</strong> favor of a different<br />

project: a complex merg<strong>in</strong>g of history <strong>and</strong> personal writ<strong>in</strong>g, a powerful<br />

connection between <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> political, <strong>and</strong> a simultaneous <strong>in</strong>terrogation<br />

of personal memory <strong>and</strong> cultural history.<br />

Dylan chose her own unorthodox writer to read her memories aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>and</strong><br />

through: e. e. cumm<strong>in</strong>gs. Inspired by <strong>the</strong> visual of Griff<strong>in</strong>’s fragmented, italicized<br />

layout, Dylan <strong>in</strong>corporated images <strong>and</strong> fragments with her own <strong>in</strong>ventive <strong>and</strong><br />

imitative twist. She emulated a childhood letter from cumm<strong>in</strong>gs to his mo<strong>the</strong>r<br />

that was h<strong>and</strong>written with columns, horizontal <strong>and</strong> vertical writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> h<strong>and</strong>drawn<br />

pictures. Dylan replicated cumm<strong>in</strong>gs’ visual layout, typ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> columns<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terweav<strong>in</strong>g excerpts from his poetry <strong>and</strong> biography with analysis of her<br />

own memories. The strategies of speculation <strong>and</strong> sentence fragments she learned<br />

from Griff<strong>in</strong> st<strong>and</strong> out to me: buried <strong>in</strong> an open<strong>in</strong>g paragraph of seem<strong>in</strong>gly<br />

straightforward biography of cumm<strong>in</strong>gs’ early life, she writes “I can picture his<br />

mo<strong>the</strong>r, Rebecca, look<strong>in</strong>g at one of his letters <strong>and</strong> laugh<strong>in</strong>g at <strong>the</strong> lopsided draw<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

of elephants <strong>and</strong> d<strong>in</strong>osaurs <strong>and</strong> planets. At his scattered writ<strong>in</strong>g.”<br />

But later strategies are of her own <strong>in</strong>vention, <strong>in</strong>spired by cumm<strong>in</strong>gs. Us<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> close read<strong>in</strong>g strategies she learned <strong>in</strong> her analysis of Griff<strong>in</strong>, Dylan reads<br />

cumm<strong>in</strong>gs, <strong>in</strong>terweav<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>terpretations of his poetry with her memories. I<br />

quote her at length:<br />

He did not shy away from writ<strong>in</strong>g about death or sex. Death<br />

has always been an uncomfortable subject for Many People.<br />

Many People refuse to acknowledge death <strong>and</strong> worms <strong>and</strong><br />

ceas<strong>in</strong>g to exist. But ee does not. He asks <strong>and</strong> answers <strong>the</strong><br />

hard questions through a simple arrangement of words …<br />

i like my body when it is with your<br />

body. It is so quite new a th<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

muscles better <strong>and</strong> nerves more.<br />

i like your body. I like what it does,<br />

i like its hows …<br />

<strong>and</strong> possibly I like <strong>the</strong> thrill of<br />

under me you so quite new (cumm<strong>in</strong>gs 218)<br />


Bessette<br />

The first time I had sex I was terrified <strong>and</strong> uncerta<strong>in</strong>. I was full<br />

of questions, about how sex works, how it alters <strong>the</strong> relationship<br />

between two people <strong>and</strong> also about who I was. But more<br />

than that, I was excited. It was thrill<strong>in</strong>g, los<strong>in</strong>g my virg<strong>in</strong>ity.<br />

Independence is an odd th<strong>in</strong>g to ga<strong>in</strong> from sex. Often, I hear<br />

people feel an <strong>in</strong>appropriately strong attachment to <strong>the</strong> person<br />

with whom <strong>the</strong>y lose <strong>the</strong>ir virg<strong>in</strong>ity. I experienced no such<br />

attachment. As ee describes. An <strong>in</strong>itial attraction to a body,<br />

lov<strong>in</strong>g perfections <strong>and</strong> flaws, lov<strong>in</strong>g bones <strong>and</strong> sk<strong>in</strong>, want<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to touch feel, know <strong>the</strong>ir body. The physical act of sex. The<br />

thrill. And afterwards,<br />

noth<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

From Griff<strong>in</strong>, she learns to play with visual form (unorthodox layout <strong>and</strong><br />

fragments), <strong>and</strong> she learns to amalgamate diverse materials to get at her own<br />

memory (she looks to letters, poetry, <strong>and</strong> biography).<br />

But more importantly, she learns to read cumm<strong>in</strong>gs’ history <strong>and</strong> work<br />

through her own memories, which has an apparent transformative effect. From<br />

Dylan’s own experience with cumm<strong>in</strong>gs, a poet who is himself a part of <strong>the</strong><br />

memories of her upbr<strong>in</strong>g<strong>in</strong>g, she learns to play with <strong>the</strong> comb<strong>in</strong>ations of words,<br />

capital letters, <strong>and</strong> punctuation because someth<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong> way he puts words<br />

toge<strong>the</strong>r speaks “her”—but not a unified or static sense of self. The excerpt above<br />

implies that at first she was terrified, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>n through <strong>the</strong> experience of read<strong>in</strong>g<br />

cumm<strong>in</strong>gs, she articulates a new memory, one that replaces vulnerable emotion<br />

with a detached tactile physicality she f<strong>in</strong>ds empower<strong>in</strong>g. Afterwards, when <strong>the</strong><br />

man’s body has left her side, she feels noth<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> she fears noth<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> noth<strong>in</strong>gness,<br />

unlike “Many People.” The past she arrives at is arguably subversive:<br />

us<strong>in</strong>g cumm<strong>in</strong>gs’ life <strong>and</strong> work, she arrives at a memory that defies larger sociocultural<br />

expectations for what she, as a young woman, should feel. She rejects<br />

expectations for sentimentality <strong>and</strong> attachment through a “crime of read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g,” subvert<strong>in</strong>g conventional sentence structure <strong>and</strong> spatial layout. I read<br />

this as a k<strong>in</strong>d of identity work with a fem<strong>in</strong>ist edge. She is putt<strong>in</strong>g pressure on<br />

<strong>the</strong> expectations of “Many People” <strong>and</strong> revis<strong>in</strong>g her memory from her <strong>in</strong>itial<br />

recollection of “terror,” which Many People would expect, to a sense of detachment<br />

that might protect her from retrospective <strong>and</strong> future feel<strong>in</strong>gs of fear <strong>and</strong><br />

dependence.<br />

While Dylan’s <strong>and</strong> my o<strong>the</strong>r students’ writ<strong>in</strong>g was not “perfect” <strong>and</strong> while<br />

<strong>the</strong>re were certa<strong>in</strong>ly some students who could or would not break out of conventional<br />

modes of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g, Dylan’s <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r students’ essays revealed<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which writ<strong>in</strong>g memory with complexity is someth<strong>in</strong>g that<br />


Past-Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

has <strong>the</strong> potential to be taught. Students can learn to write with memory to<br />

reveal a discursive self <strong>in</strong> motion, an underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of a self as always shift<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> multiple depend<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> memory texts <strong>the</strong> writer comes <strong>in</strong>to contact<br />

with <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> present circumstances <strong>in</strong> which she f<strong>in</strong>ds herself. For Griff<strong>in</strong>, it<br />

was through representations of “Laura” <strong>and</strong> Himmler <strong>and</strong> so many o<strong>the</strong>rs;<br />

for Dylan, it was through representations of cumm<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>and</strong> his work. In <strong>the</strong><br />

process of exam<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> imitat<strong>in</strong>g cumm<strong>in</strong>gs’ life <strong>and</strong> work <strong>in</strong> unorthodox<br />

ways, she articulated a transitioned underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of her own past—aga<strong>in</strong>st<br />

dom<strong>in</strong>ant narratives of what a young woman should feel dur<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> after<br />

physical <strong>in</strong>timacy. I want to suggest that Dylan’s work be read as a fem<strong>in</strong>ist<br />

memory, written through fem<strong>in</strong>ist means, <strong>in</strong> a way that does some justice to<br />

<strong>the</strong> complexity of writ<strong>in</strong>g with memory. 6 Dylan uses cumm<strong>in</strong>gs to write herself<br />

to an empower<strong>in</strong>g memory of physical <strong>in</strong>timacy, simultaneously show<strong>in</strong>g<br />

us her transformation such that we know this memory is not stable <strong>and</strong> foundational.<br />

It is someth<strong>in</strong>g to be generated <strong>and</strong> used for strength <strong>in</strong> this moment,<br />

perhaps to be revised aga<strong>in</strong> <strong>and</strong> aga<strong>in</strong> as she cont<strong>in</strong>ues to f<strong>in</strong>d herself <strong>in</strong> new<br />

present circumstances.<br />

When we br<strong>in</strong>g collective memory studies <strong>in</strong>to conversation with fem<strong>in</strong>ist<br />

composition pedagogy, 7 it becomes clear that memories sit <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tersection<br />

between <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> social, a location that is always political with<br />

real implications for <strong>in</strong>dividuals’ sense of <strong>the</strong>ir relationship to <strong>the</strong> world. This<br />

chapter has contended that memories’ location <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tersection between<br />

<strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> social is someth<strong>in</strong>g that can be rhetorically represented <strong>and</strong><br />

simultaneously <strong>in</strong>terrogated, <strong>in</strong> such a way that students are called to attention<br />

to <strong>the</strong> role of pasts <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir present lives <strong>and</strong> cultural locations. Unorthodox<br />

“crimes of writ<strong>in</strong>g” have <strong>the</strong> potential to help students represent <strong>the</strong> self that<br />

emerges from memory work as one that is as processual <strong>and</strong> collective as memories<br />

<strong>the</strong>mselves <strong>and</strong> one with <strong>the</strong> critical potential to challenge <strong>the</strong> social <strong>and</strong><br />

discursive frameworks that might be constra<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir present senses of self.<br />

This chapter is a call to complicate experience, to disrupt traditional, narrative<br />

approaches to personal writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> to help students learn to read <strong>and</strong> write<br />

for a more critically expressivist underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tersections between<br />

personal <strong>and</strong> collective memory <strong>and</strong> identity.<br />

NOTES<br />

1. Like Adler-Kassner, Wendy Hesford f<strong>in</strong>ds <strong>in</strong> expressivism a po<strong>in</strong>t of view that<br />

reads “autobiography … as a doorway to <strong>the</strong> apprehension of an orig<strong>in</strong>al experience<br />

or an unchang<strong>in</strong>g essence” (1999, p. 65). Instead, she advocates autobiographical<br />

acts that attend to <strong>the</strong> “social signify<strong>in</strong>g practices shaped <strong>and</strong> enacted with<strong>in</strong> …<br />


Bessette<br />

ideologically encoded” social <strong>and</strong> historical forces” (p. 64).<br />

2. Yagelski’s is representative of textbooks that do not forefront personal writ<strong>in</strong>g as<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir central pedagogy but none<strong>the</strong>less <strong>in</strong>corporate assignments that ask students to<br />

write with memory, <strong>in</strong>dicat<strong>in</strong>g expressivism’s subtle but endur<strong>in</strong>g legacy.<br />

3. I want to underscore that fem<strong>in</strong>ist pedagogy is only one way to approach <strong>the</strong><br />

complexity of writ<strong>in</strong>g with memory, stemm<strong>in</strong>g from my own <strong>in</strong>vestments <strong>in</strong> fem<strong>in</strong>ist<br />

studies, which have, as <strong>the</strong> chapter will show, led me to experimental <strong>and</strong><br />

alternative discourse. Fem<strong>in</strong>ist pedagogy <strong>and</strong> experimental writ<strong>in</strong>g may not be, I<br />

believe, <strong>the</strong> only way to address <strong>the</strong> problem of memory’s over-simplification, but<br />

<strong>the</strong>y are <strong>the</strong> methods that <strong>in</strong>spired <strong>the</strong> assignment sequence I describe later <strong>in</strong> this<br />

chapter.<br />

4. Students’ simultaneous attention to representation <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terrogation resonates<br />

with M<strong>in</strong>-Zhan Lu’s problematization of experience. Lu argues that uncritical uses<br />

of experience, even <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> pursuit of fem<strong>in</strong>ist goals, can work to subsume differences<br />

<strong>and</strong> essentialize gender as dist<strong>in</strong>ct from o<strong>the</strong>r cultural- or identity-based vectors of<br />

difference. Instead, she advocates a use of personal experience that works on both<br />

experiential <strong>and</strong> analytical levels to disrupt a “false notion of ‘oneness’ with all women<br />

purely on <strong>the</strong> grounds of gender” (1998, p. 242).<br />

5. I cite three students <strong>in</strong> this essay. All three were from a recent first-year composition<br />

course at <strong>the</strong> University of Pittsburgh; <strong>the</strong> first two have allowed me to<br />

reference <strong>the</strong>ir work but preferred to rema<strong>in</strong> anonymous, while <strong>the</strong> last, Dylan Gallagher,<br />

permitted me to use her full name.<br />

6. Ronald <strong>and</strong> Ritchie write that a fem<strong>in</strong>ist pedagogy “locates <strong>the</strong>ory <strong>and</strong> practice <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> immediate contexts of women’s lives,” help<strong>in</strong>g students move toward a “resistant,<br />

critical stance toward monolithic descriptions of discourse <strong>and</strong> gender” (1998, p.<br />

219). Writ<strong>in</strong>g, through a fem<strong>in</strong>ist pedagogy, becomes an act of constant awareness<br />

of one’s particular location, work<strong>in</strong>g “among <strong>and</strong> between” analytical, experiential,<br />

objective, subjective, authoritative <strong>and</strong> local strategies. I’m contend<strong>in</strong>g that Dylan’s<br />

transformed memory does <strong>in</strong>deed take a “resistant, critical stance” toward expectations<br />

for her age <strong>and</strong> gender <strong>in</strong> its very movement “among <strong>and</strong> between” analytic<br />

<strong>and</strong> experiential, subjective <strong>and</strong> authoritative strategies: she is analytic <strong>and</strong> authoritative<br />

<strong>in</strong> her use <strong>and</strong> read<strong>in</strong>g of cumm<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>and</strong> subjective <strong>and</strong> experiential <strong>in</strong> her<br />

representation of a transitioned memory.<br />

7. Marianne Hirsch <strong>and</strong> Valerie Smith attest to fem<strong>in</strong>ism <strong>and</strong> memory studies’<br />

shared concern with <strong>the</strong> reception of a version of <strong>the</strong> past <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> context of larger society<br />

forces. As Hirsch <strong>and</strong> Smith put it, “fem<strong>in</strong>ist studies <strong>and</strong> memory studies both<br />

presuppose that <strong>the</strong> present is def<strong>in</strong>ed by a past that is constructed <strong>and</strong> contested.<br />

Both fields assume that we do not study <strong>the</strong> past for its own sake; ra<strong>the</strong>r, we do so<br />

to meet <strong>the</strong> ends of <strong>the</strong> present” (2002, p. 12).<br />



Past-Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Adler-Kassner, L. (1998). Ownership revisited: An exploration <strong>in</strong> progressive era<br />

<strong>and</strong> expressivist composition scholarship. College <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong> Communication,<br />

49(2), 208-233.<br />

Allison, D. (1996). Two or three th<strong>in</strong>gs I know for sure. New York: Plume Books.<br />

Bloom, L. Z. (2003). Liv<strong>in</strong>g to tell <strong>the</strong> tale: The complicated ethics of creative<br />

nonfiction. College English, 65(3), 276-289.<br />

Connerton, P. (1989). How societies remember. New York: Cambridge University<br />

Press.<br />

Ede, L., & Lunsford, A. (2006). Crimes of read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g. In K. Ronald,<br />

& J. Ritchie (Eds.), Teach<strong>in</strong>g rhetorica: <strong>Theory</strong>, pedagogy, practice (pp. 13-31).<br />

Portsmouth, NH: He<strong>in</strong>emann/Boynton.<br />

Griff<strong>in</strong>, S. (1993). Chorus of stones: The private life of war. New York: Anchor<br />

Books.<br />

Halbwachs, M. (1992). On collective memory. Chicago: University of Chicago<br />

Press.<br />

Hesford, W. S. (1999). Fram<strong>in</strong>g identities: Autobiography <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> politics of pedagogy.<br />

M<strong>in</strong>neapolis: University of M<strong>in</strong>nesota Press.<br />

Hirsch, M., & Smith, V. (2002). Fem<strong>in</strong>ism <strong>and</strong> cultural memory: An <strong>in</strong>troduction.<br />

Signs, 28(1), 1-19.<br />

Kle<strong>in</strong>, K. L. (2000). On <strong>the</strong> emergence of memory <strong>in</strong> historical discourse. Representations,<br />

69, 127-150.<br />

LeGoff, J., & Nora, P. (Eds.). (1977). Construct<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> past: Essays on historical<br />

methodology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.<br />

Lowenthal, D. (1985).The past is a foreign country. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge<br />

University Press.<br />

Lu, M. (1998). Read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g differences: The problematic of experience.<br />

In S.C. Jarratt, & L. Worsham (Eds.), Fem<strong>in</strong>ism <strong>and</strong> composition studies: In<br />

o<strong>the</strong>r words (pp. 239-251). New York: Modern Language Association.<br />

Morrison, T. (1984). Memory, creation, <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g. Thought, 59, 381-390.<br />

Rohmann, G. D. (1965). Pre-writ<strong>in</strong>g: The stage of discovery <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g process.<br />

College <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong> Communication, 46, 111.<br />

Ronald, K., & Ritchie, J. (1998). Rid<strong>in</strong>g long coattails, subvert<strong>in</strong>g tradition:<br />

The tricky bus<strong>in</strong>ess of fem<strong>in</strong>ists teach<strong>in</strong>g rhetoric(s). In S. Jarratt, & L. Worsham<br />

(Eds.), Fem<strong>in</strong>ism <strong>and</strong> composition studies: In o<strong>the</strong>r words (pp. 217-238).<br />

New York: Modern Language Association.<br />

Ronald, K., & Ritchie, J. (2006). Teach<strong>in</strong>g rhetorica: <strong>Theory</strong>, pedagogy, practice.<br />

Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook He<strong>in</strong>emann.<br />

Scott, J. W. (1991). The evidence of experience. <strong>Critical</strong> Inquiry, 17(4), 773-797.<br />


Bessette<br />

Yagelski, R. (2010). Read<strong>in</strong>g our world: Conversations <strong>in</strong> context. Independence,<br />

KY: Wadsworth Cengage Learn<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Zelizer, B. (1995). Read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> past aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong> gra<strong>in</strong>: The shape of memory<br />

studies. <strong>Critical</strong> Studies <strong>in</strong> Mass Communication,12, 214-39.<br />




Lea Povozhaev<br />

Kent State University<br />

An “essai” writer responds to <strong>the</strong> world with a sense of dynamic responsibility.<br />

Her task has roots <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> European enlightenment <strong>and</strong> can be understood as a<br />

means to critical, personal, <strong>and</strong> socially relevant writ<strong>in</strong>g. My notion of essai (<strong>the</strong><br />

word means “an attempt” <strong>in</strong> French) comes from <strong>the</strong> sixteenth century French<br />

essayist Michel De Montaigne who wrote essays to better underst<strong>and</strong> who he<br />

was. He wrote <strong>in</strong> response to ancient philosophers, <strong>and</strong> he, like <strong>the</strong>m, reflected<br />

upon <strong>the</strong> mean<strong>in</strong>g of one’s own life, found <strong>in</strong> a felt-sense of personal experiences<br />

with<strong>in</strong> socially situated realities. His th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g was critical <strong>and</strong> deep, <strong>and</strong> it went<br />

so far as to <strong>in</strong>form him on how to live <strong>and</strong> die. Montaigne valued honest <strong>in</strong>quiry<br />

above word play <strong>and</strong> verbosity <strong>and</strong> considered himself a gentleman more than<br />

a scholar. For Montaigne, writ<strong>in</strong>g was for self-knowledge <strong>and</strong> underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of<br />

human nature. Consequently, his writ<strong>in</strong>g was to actualize improvement <strong>in</strong> himself<br />

<strong>and</strong> society. In an “essai,” one demonstrates self-awareness <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> context of<br />

socio-cultural situations with<strong>in</strong> which one lives. For example, this article arises<br />

naturally from my work as a writer <strong>and</strong> teacher with <strong>the</strong> ever-present <strong>in</strong>quiry:<br />

Why write <strong>and</strong> why teach students to write? From my experiences writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g, I f<strong>in</strong>d composition is a tool towards underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g social issues<br />

<strong>in</strong> personal ways. I argue that students of composition should be <strong>in</strong>vited to write<br />

essais <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y compose first-person life narratives of embodied experiences<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world.<br />

To illustrate my po<strong>in</strong>t, allow this small essaistic <strong>in</strong>dulgence. I write true stories<br />

of my experiences <strong>in</strong> a multicultural family, rais<strong>in</strong>g three children, <strong>and</strong> explor<strong>in</strong>g<br />

issues of faith. I teach composition at a large state university where I am<br />

complet<strong>in</strong>g studies for a doctorate <strong>in</strong> English. As I study writ<strong>in</strong>g philosophies<br />

<strong>and</strong> practice pedagogy, <strong>the</strong> question of why I write merges with questions on<br />

<strong>the</strong> importance of writ<strong>in</strong>g for students of various backgrounds study<strong>in</strong>g a range<br />

of subjects with different jobs <strong>in</strong> m<strong>in</strong>d. I consider students’ real lives, busy with<br />

work <strong>and</strong> families, as I also teach writ<strong>in</strong>g at a community college. Some of my<br />

students are adults who have returned to earn <strong>the</strong>ir long-awaited college degrees.<br />

Particularly adult students alert me to <strong>the</strong> need (<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir ability) to see<br />

mean<strong>in</strong>g-mak<strong>in</strong>g as central to composition. Purpose tends to motivate students<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.06<br />


Povozhaev<br />

to carve out <strong>the</strong> time <strong>and</strong> exact <strong>the</strong> necessary patience from <strong>the</strong>ir busy lives <strong>and</strong><br />

engage <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> task of essai writ<strong>in</strong>g. I relate with students at this community<br />

college ten m<strong>in</strong>utes from my husb<strong>and</strong>’s host-family, with whom we have been<br />

liv<strong>in</strong>g s<strong>in</strong>ce last Christmas. I underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> push-pull of return<strong>in</strong>g to school<br />

<strong>and</strong> fight<strong>in</strong>g to earn a degree with academic objectives <strong>and</strong> balance family life. I<br />

am motivated to write <strong>and</strong> enter a public conversation when <strong>the</strong> subject matters<br />

<strong>in</strong> particular ways to my life. For example, research<strong>in</strong>g vacc<strong>in</strong>ations <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

essays on alternative medic<strong>in</strong>e <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> face of ris<strong>in</strong>g health costs <strong>and</strong> threats of<br />

<strong>in</strong>creas<strong>in</strong>g bodily toxicity. Answers seem fur<strong>the</strong>r away <strong>the</strong> deeper one probes <strong>and</strong><br />

attempts to underst<strong>and</strong>; however, <strong>the</strong> care deepens <strong>and</strong>, ultimately, one asserts a<br />

stance as knowledge is ga<strong>the</strong>red (both life experiences <strong>and</strong> facts).<br />

Writ<strong>in</strong>g has been a way to locate myself <strong>in</strong> time <strong>and</strong> to contextualize o<strong>the</strong>rs’<br />

lives around me by <strong>the</strong> concrete act of words on a page. Time seems fluid as I<br />

live <strong>in</strong> an old castle on a hill with extended family. My children swim <strong>in</strong> a pool<br />

where once I first met <strong>the</strong>ir fa<strong>the</strong>r. I have composed essays to underst<strong>and</strong> where<br />

I am, <strong>and</strong> why I’m here. By essai writ<strong>in</strong>g, my personal life <strong>in</strong>tersects with my<br />

academic life <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>re is liberty to become self-aware, to construct mean<strong>in</strong>gs,<br />

<strong>and</strong> to articulate <strong>the</strong> purposes emerg<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> a present vision of life. In addition<br />

to temporality, writ<strong>in</strong>g can be a resource for <strong>in</strong>creas<strong>in</strong>g wellness by lessen<strong>in</strong>g<br />

isolation <strong>and</strong> seek<strong>in</strong>g underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g as one’s personal realities are made public.<br />

Fur<strong>the</strong>rmore, <strong>in</strong>dividuals writ<strong>in</strong>g essais learn to evaluate socially situated mean<strong>in</strong>gs,<br />

which <strong>the</strong>y may wish to challenge aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong>ir own embodied realities. In<br />

<strong>the</strong> process of realiz<strong>in</strong>g one’s own positions on issues, an essai writer pays critical<br />

attention to details of o<strong>the</strong>rs’ arguments. By so do<strong>in</strong>g, an essai writer becomes<br />

more conscious of herself as well as o<strong>the</strong>rs.<br />

For me, an essai writer analyzes aspects of life <strong>and</strong> constructs mean<strong>in</strong>gs for<br />

<strong>the</strong> benefit of self <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs. An essai writer engages o<strong>the</strong>rs with <strong>the</strong> passion<br />

she encounters <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g to underst<strong>and</strong> relationships among aspects of life that<br />

might o<strong>the</strong>rwise have seemed unrelated. Accord<strong>in</strong>gly, an essai moves from closeup-<strong>and</strong>-personal,<br />

divulg<strong>in</strong>g details of one’s own life, to academic <strong>and</strong> scholarly,<br />

whereby one relates to o<strong>the</strong>rs’ ideas <strong>and</strong> extends <strong>the</strong>m. In addition, one develops<br />

notions <strong>and</strong> cont<strong>in</strong>uously connects <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> social to render<br />

a cohesive <strong>and</strong> coherent essai. A composer of <strong>the</strong> essai aims to push past <strong>the</strong><br />

obvious <strong>and</strong> delve <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> deeply mean<strong>in</strong>gful, <strong>and</strong> one is ultimately surprised<br />

by underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>gs ga<strong>in</strong>ed through writ<strong>in</strong>g that relates personal experiences to<br />

social issues researched.<br />

Essai writ<strong>in</strong>g can be pragmatic, particularly for students of composition, because<br />

it is a non-foundational approach to writ<strong>in</strong>g that enables a critical, search<strong>in</strong>g<br />

spirit <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>vites students to construct personally relevant mean<strong>in</strong>gs with<strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> social contexts of <strong>the</strong>ir everyday lives. Compos<strong>in</strong>g essais can be <strong>in</strong> l<strong>in</strong>e with<br />


Essai—A Metaphor<br />

Deweyian philosophy as an experimental, hybridiz<strong>in</strong>g act that extends students’<br />

thoughts <strong>and</strong> experiences with o<strong>the</strong>rs. Fur<strong>the</strong>rmore, when students develop<br />

greater underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong>ir own lives, <strong>and</strong> learn to compose essais that relate<br />

this knowledge, <strong>the</strong>ir critical th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g skills develop alongside <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

sense of confidence as <strong>in</strong>tellectuals.<br />

My approach to writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> essai comes from a pedagogical philosophy <strong>in</strong><br />

l<strong>in</strong>e with critical social expressivism. In order to fur<strong>the</strong>r discuss <strong>the</strong> benefits <strong>in</strong><br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g composition with <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>clusion of essai writ<strong>in</strong>g, I turn now to an account<br />

of scholars whose basic pedagogical pr<strong>in</strong>ciples are expressivistic <strong>and</strong> whose<br />

notions lead us to critical social expressivism.<br />


Harken<strong>in</strong>g back to ancient Rome, composition was <strong>the</strong> capstone of a classical<br />

education, “help<strong>in</strong>g students make a smooth transition of <strong>the</strong> ‘play’ of <strong>the</strong><br />

classroom <strong>and</strong> to <strong>the</strong> ‘bus<strong>in</strong>ess’ of real-world civic action” (Flem<strong>in</strong>g, 2003, p.<br />

109). Language <strong>in</strong>formed students’ identities <strong>and</strong> was a source of power. Ancient<br />

rhetors argued for social action <strong>in</strong> civic arguments at court or <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> arena where<br />

<strong>the</strong>y aimed to persuade <strong>the</strong> masses. An argument was structured by one’s personal<br />

style, <strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g word choice, arrangement, <strong>and</strong> narrative accounts. There<br />

was <strong>the</strong>n, as <strong>the</strong>re is now, a dialectic of form <strong>and</strong> expressiveness. Today, with<br />

my proposal for writ<strong>in</strong>g essai, one communicates his or her perception of self<br />

<strong>and</strong> relationship of self with <strong>the</strong> world. An essai is not only a genre but a way of<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> a way of demonstrat<strong>in</strong>g thoughtfulness by writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

John Dewey understood that academic work required a balance of one’s attention<br />

on what was near <strong>and</strong> what was more distant. His work has been used<br />

by figures such as Janet Emig, Stephen Fishman <strong>and</strong> Lucille McCarthy, Thomas<br />

Newkirk, Lad Tob<strong>in</strong>, <strong>and</strong> Donald Jones to refigure <strong>the</strong> social climate of composition<br />

studies. Like Dewey, <strong>the</strong>y understood that “to be playful <strong>and</strong> serious<br />

at <strong>the</strong> same time is possible, <strong>and</strong> it def<strong>in</strong>es <strong>the</strong> ideal mental condition. Absence<br />

of dogmatism <strong>and</strong> prejudice, presence of <strong>in</strong>tellectual curiosity <strong>and</strong> flexibility,<br />

are manifest <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> free play of m<strong>in</strong>d upon a topic” (Dewey, 1916, p. 224).<br />

Dewey expla<strong>in</strong>ed at <strong>the</strong> turn of <strong>the</strong> century how <strong>the</strong> self <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> world were not<br />

separate but necessary for one ano<strong>the</strong>r. He shook loose <strong>the</strong> rigid boundaries set<br />

around personal versus social concerns <strong>and</strong> suggested pragmatism serve as <strong>the</strong><br />

loop hole, <strong>the</strong> means to a negotiated end. Accord<strong>in</strong>g to Deweyian philosophy,<br />

what worked <strong>in</strong> practice took precedence over, even validated, <strong>the</strong>ory. Therefore,<br />

Dewey <strong>and</strong> his followers perceived <strong>the</strong> social <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> personal as cooperative,<br />

<strong>and</strong> “experience, knowledge, <strong>and</strong> habits of good liv<strong>in</strong>g” (Dewey, 1916, p. 224)<br />

governed educational practices. In this way, nested dualisms, or concepts that<br />


Povozhaev<br />

appeared mutually exclusive, blended <strong>and</strong> overlapped <strong>in</strong>to complementary forces.<br />

For example, Dewey’s educational philosophy was a flexible, constructive<br />

endeavor:<br />

Dewey’s educational goals focus on <strong>the</strong> development of certa<strong>in</strong><br />

habits <strong>and</strong> dispositions ra<strong>the</strong>r than on <strong>the</strong> acquisition of<br />

a fixed body of knowledge or belief. He ma<strong>in</strong>ta<strong>in</strong>s <strong>the</strong> world<br />

is chang<strong>in</strong>g. He calls it “unstable, uncannily unstable” (Experience<br />

<strong>and</strong> Nature, Dewey, 1958, p. 38) … Dewey wants<br />

students to develop flexibility or ‘<strong>in</strong>telligence’—<strong>the</strong> ability<br />

to respond to novel situations, access <strong>the</strong>ir culture’s resources,<br />

reshape <strong>the</strong>ir plans, <strong>and</strong> take positive residue from <strong>the</strong>se<br />

experiences. Of course this critical <strong>and</strong> constructive process<br />

must be done, if it is to be moral, <strong>in</strong> cooperation with o<strong>the</strong>rs.<br />

(Fishman & McCarthy, 1996, pp. 346-347)<br />

With a non-foundational approach to education, <strong>the</strong> context <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> situation were important. In fact, Dewey advocated active<br />

learn<strong>in</strong>g or a “reconciliation of tensions between <strong>the</strong> self <strong>and</strong> its surround<strong>in</strong>gs”<br />

(1916, p. 19). In <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g classroom, this meant personal narrative because<br />

<strong>the</strong> personal experience transitioned <strong>in</strong>to a dialogic, social activity as o<strong>the</strong>rs related<br />

<strong>and</strong> reacted. In <strong>the</strong> field of composition, proponents of Deweyian philosophy<br />

have argued for <strong>the</strong> effectiveness <strong>in</strong> us<strong>in</strong>g personal narrative writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

classroom.<br />

Perhaps <strong>the</strong> most <strong>in</strong>fluential proponents of Dewey’s <strong>the</strong>ories written <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

field of composition were Fishman <strong>and</strong> McCarthy. They revisited criticisms of<br />

expressivism that proclaimed <strong>the</strong> movement “dead.” Fishman defended expressivism<br />

aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong> notion of <strong>the</strong> isolated writer. He supported Peter Elbow’s<br />

use of expressivist pedagogy as a means to better underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g one’s self <strong>and</strong>,<br />

ultimately, society. Consider<strong>in</strong>g expressivism as rooted <strong>in</strong> German romanticism,<br />

Fishman expla<strong>in</strong>ed that personal experience was not used for isolation but to<br />

identify with one ano<strong>the</strong>r <strong>and</strong> restructure community. Elbow <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> German<br />

romanticist Johann Gottfried Herder suggested writ<strong>in</strong>g was a social connection.<br />

In eighteenth century German romanticism, people sought unity through diversity.<br />

The people didn’t trust one ano<strong>the</strong>r <strong>and</strong> constructed a social contract<br />

to ensure protection: <strong>the</strong> trade of liberty for protection. The contract united<br />

<strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> social—Elbow <strong>and</strong> Herder suggested we write to underst<strong>and</strong><br />

our own thoughts <strong>and</strong> to communicate with society, cont<strong>in</strong>ually reshap<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

reform<strong>in</strong>g our social worlds (Fishman, McCarthy, 1998, p. 648).<br />

Neo-expressivists or pragmatists such as Thomas Newkirk, Lad Tob<strong>in</strong>, Karen<br />

Paley, <strong>and</strong> Michelle Payne exam<strong>in</strong>ed writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g pedagogy from a<br />


Essai—A Metaphor<br />

non-foundationalist perspective. They advocated use of <strong>the</strong> personal narrative<br />

for pragmatic reasons, but <strong>the</strong>ir focus rema<strong>in</strong>ed predom<strong>in</strong>antly social. Personal<br />

narratives were a pragmatic way to develop writers. Newkirk discussed students’<br />

autobiographies, or essays, as narratives of development. Erv<strong>in</strong>g Goffman’s notion<br />

of “presentation of self” supported Newkirk’s belief that students strived<br />

to formulate <strong>the</strong>ir ideas, experiences, <strong>and</strong> underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>gs <strong>in</strong>to acceptable form<br />

through <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g. As Goffman suggested, “<strong>in</strong> all public performances …<br />

we selectively reveal ourselves <strong>in</strong> order to match an idealized sense of who we<br />

should be” (Tob<strong>in</strong>, 1993, p. 4). Writ<strong>in</strong>g personal narratives was viable, expla<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

Newkirk, because students saw <strong>the</strong>mselves as learners, revised beliefs, learned<br />

narrative conventions of literature, celebrated self-discovery, <strong>and</strong> developed critical<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g skills (quoted <strong>in</strong> Payne, 200, p. xxi).<br />

Newkirk supported <strong>the</strong> narrative of development, derived from Montaigne,<br />

that was challeng<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> exploratory, open to <strong>in</strong>consistencies that demonstrated<br />

critical analysis of <strong>the</strong> self <strong>and</strong> world. Personal student writ<strong>in</strong>g was criticized for<br />

corner<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> teacher <strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong> role of counselor, but Newkirk po<strong>in</strong>ted out that<br />

students who confess <strong>the</strong>ir <strong>in</strong>timate realities want to share, <strong>and</strong> through <strong>the</strong><br />

act of writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>y become consoled. Students want to have <strong>the</strong>ir experiences<br />

treated as normal, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir texts allow <strong>the</strong>m this right. Personal narratives<br />

were criticized for <strong>the</strong>ir emotionality, but Newkirk affirmed <strong>the</strong> importance of<br />

emotion <strong>in</strong> real life. While <strong>the</strong>re is a place for emotion <strong>in</strong> personal narrative, he<br />

also addressed <strong>the</strong> need for reason <strong>and</strong> ethos. The most persuasive writ<strong>in</strong>g stems<br />

from personal, emotional concerns that are exam<strong>in</strong>ed reasonably <strong>and</strong> presented<br />

credibly.<br />

Tob<strong>in</strong> argued that emotion <strong>and</strong> relationships were essential <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

classroom. The most effective pedagogical approach depended upon <strong>the</strong> students’<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir teacher’s <strong>in</strong>teractions. A writ<strong>in</strong>g teacher is not a counselor, but<br />

feel<strong>in</strong>gs needn’t be omitted from writ<strong>in</strong>g because of <strong>the</strong> fear of role confusion:<br />

By attempt<strong>in</strong>g to edit feel<strong>in</strong>gs, unconscious associations, <strong>and</strong><br />

personal problems out of a writ<strong>in</strong>g course, we are fool<strong>in</strong>g<br />

ourselves <strong>and</strong> shortchang<strong>in</strong>g our students. The teach<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g is about solv<strong>in</strong>g problems, personal <strong>and</strong> public, <strong>and</strong> I<br />

don’t th<strong>in</strong>k we can have it both ways: we cannot create <strong>in</strong>tensity<br />

<strong>and</strong> deny tension, celebrate <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> deny <strong>the</strong> significance<br />

of <strong>the</strong> personalities <strong>in</strong>volved. In my writ<strong>in</strong>g courses,<br />

I want to meddle with my students’ emotional life <strong>and</strong> I want<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g to meddle with m<strong>in</strong>e. (Tob<strong>in</strong>, 1993, p. 33)<br />

Tob<strong>in</strong> addressed <strong>the</strong> expressivist shift of teacher authority, correct<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

faulty assumption that teachers got out of <strong>the</strong> way so students could just write.<br />


Povozhaev<br />

Ra<strong>the</strong>r, he argues that teachers were still <strong>the</strong> center of decentered classrooms <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> stakes were even higher with personal narrative <strong>and</strong> conferenc<strong>in</strong>g, which<br />

gave <strong>the</strong> teacher more authority. Tob<strong>in</strong> suggested <strong>the</strong> real key for student-teacher<br />

success was to develop good relationships.<br />

Like Tob<strong>in</strong>, Karen Paley worked with elements of expressivism <strong>and</strong> constructed<br />

a philosophy which proved useful for her. Paley called herself a social-expressivist<br />

<strong>and</strong> argued that expressivism <strong>in</strong>cluded, but was not limited to, narratives<br />

<strong>in</strong> which a writer focused on personal experiences. A writer used first-person <strong>and</strong><br />

could isolate his or her <strong>in</strong>dividual consciousness; however, a writer could use<br />

first-person <strong>and</strong> write about social issues without mention of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual writer’s<br />

thoughts <strong>and</strong> feel<strong>in</strong>gs, experiences <strong>and</strong> underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>gs. Paley’s re-assessment<br />

of expressivism justified criticisms of <strong>the</strong> movement’s strictly personal focus. She<br />

called her notion of <strong>the</strong> personal essay “psychosocial” <strong>and</strong> argued that it could<br />

communicate social significance—not that it must or should, but that it could<br />

(2001). Paley’s pragmatic dist<strong>in</strong>ction opened <strong>the</strong> personal narrative genre to <strong>the</strong><br />

social, while not forc<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> social <strong>in</strong>to it <strong>in</strong>def<strong>in</strong>itely. To her, personal narratives<br />

often represented gender, class, family, <strong>and</strong> ethnic group matters. Accord<strong>in</strong>gly,<br />

personal issues were social, <strong>and</strong> social issues were personal.<br />

Pick<strong>in</strong>g up on <strong>the</strong> potential of personal narratives, Michelle Payne exam<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

personal narratives that explored physical pa<strong>in</strong>, <strong>and</strong> surmised that we “stop see<strong>in</strong>g<br />

emotion, pa<strong>in</strong>, <strong>and</strong> trauma as threaten<strong>in</strong>g, anti-<strong>in</strong>tellectual, <strong>and</strong> solipsistic,<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>stead beg<strong>in</strong> to ask how we might, like <strong>the</strong>rapists, fem<strong>in</strong>ist <strong>the</strong>orists, <strong>and</strong><br />

philosophers, beg<strong>in</strong> to recognize <strong>the</strong>m as ways of know<strong>in</strong>g” (2000, p. 30). The<br />

body, she argued with reference to Foucault, was not only a representation of<br />

<strong>the</strong> personal but a composite of <strong>the</strong> social. The body was “not our own anymore.<br />

Or, at least with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> academic discussions of <strong>the</strong> body. It is more text than substance,<br />

more a product of language than a corporeal presence” (Payne, 2000, p.<br />

xxi). We did not need to fear personal writ<strong>in</strong>g, but, ra<strong>the</strong>r (as Foucault argues),<br />

we should consider <strong>the</strong> implications of deviant identity, emotion, power, <strong>and</strong><br />

discipl<strong>in</strong>e suggested by writ<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong> physical body.<br />


I propose teach<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g with <strong>the</strong> essai, follow<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> above conversation<br />

on <strong>the</strong> development of critical, social expressivism. My conceptualization of <strong>the</strong><br />

essai extends <strong>the</strong> various discussions above by draw<strong>in</strong>g toge<strong>the</strong>r aspects of <strong>the</strong>se<br />

effective, pragmatic arguments on us<strong>in</strong>g personal writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> academy. For<br />

example, my notion of <strong>the</strong> essai <strong>in</strong>corporates Newkirk’s narrative of development<br />

with<strong>in</strong> which one explores <strong>and</strong> analyzes one’s self <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> world (Tob<strong>in</strong>,<br />

1993, p. 4). Writ<strong>in</strong>g an essai, one works from a similar pedagogical impulse as<br />


Essai—A Metaphor<br />

proposed by Newkirk <strong>and</strong> Tob<strong>in</strong> who argue that emotion, reason, <strong>and</strong> ethos<br />

<strong>in</strong>form writ<strong>in</strong>g (Tob<strong>in</strong>, 1993, p. 33). Fur<strong>the</strong>rmore, Tob<strong>in</strong> argues that teach<strong>in</strong>g<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g effectively depends upon teacher-student relationships (Tob<strong>in</strong>, 1993, p.<br />

34). Teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> essai can foster positive, responsive relationships by <strong>the</strong> teacher’s<br />

<strong>in</strong>vitation (by assignment) for students to compose on personally significant<br />

<strong>and</strong> socially relevant topics. Additionally, essai writ<strong>in</strong>g can be <strong>the</strong>rapeutic as<br />

one realizes that one’s personal life relates with o<strong>the</strong>rs <strong>and</strong> is, <strong>the</strong>refore, socially<br />

significant. While Paley notes that <strong>the</strong> personal essay can communicate social<br />

significance (2001), so can <strong>the</strong> essai, even if <strong>the</strong> tone is highly personal <strong>and</strong> even<br />

<strong>in</strong>timate. Essai writ<strong>in</strong>g can demonstrate an awareness of <strong>the</strong> body as it moves<br />

<strong>and</strong> th<strong>in</strong>ks with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> social situations of life. Fur<strong>the</strong>rmore, <strong>the</strong> act of compos<strong>in</strong>g<br />

an essai necessitates awareness of <strong>the</strong> reader. A writer of <strong>the</strong> essai pays critical<br />

attention to how she writes so that ano<strong>the</strong>r can underst<strong>and</strong> what is personally<br />

important to <strong>the</strong> writer; <strong>the</strong>refore, it is even more essential for an essai writer<br />

to achieve clarity because <strong>the</strong> message is valuable on both a personal <strong>and</strong> social<br />

level. Additionally, an essai writer evaluates <strong>the</strong> messages she arrives at from <strong>the</strong><br />

process of writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong>, ultimately, must determ<strong>in</strong>e if it is pre-essai writ<strong>in</strong>g or<br />

personally relevant <strong>and</strong> socially significant <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>refore worth submitt<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

ano<strong>the</strong>r.<br />

With<strong>in</strong> a critical social expressivist pedagogy, us<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> essai to teach writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong> freshman composition is ideal. Essais might bridge <strong>the</strong> gap between play <strong>and</strong><br />

rigor <strong>in</strong> a freshman composition course where students are expected to assimilate<br />

with<strong>in</strong> a new academic culture. Us<strong>in</strong>g students’ own lives as material for <strong>in</strong>quiry<br />

teaches <strong>the</strong>m early on <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir academic careers to self-reflect <strong>and</strong> apply critical<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>the</strong>ir real lives. However, despite <strong>the</strong> effectiveness of <strong>the</strong> essai <strong>in</strong> draw<strong>in</strong>g<br />

toge<strong>the</strong>r <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> social <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>vit<strong>in</strong>g students to critical reflection,<br />

three false assumptions relegate personal narratives to creative writ<strong>in</strong>g classrooms:<br />

serious writ<strong>in</strong>g is void of playfulness; emotion hasn’t a place <strong>in</strong> academic discourse;<br />

<strong>and</strong> private is irrelevant <strong>in</strong> public <strong>in</strong>stitutional sett<strong>in</strong>gs. However, writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

with a spirit of playfulness can motivate <strong>the</strong> writer. And a challeng<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>tellectual<br />

task is to write one’s emotions <strong>in</strong> a controlled <strong>and</strong> exact<strong>in</strong>g manner. Fur<strong>the</strong>rmore,<br />

emotion, whe<strong>the</strong>r cloaked or exposed, is always a part of communication, as it<br />

<strong>in</strong>forms one’s positions <strong>and</strong> leads one to reason <strong>in</strong> particular ways. When one<br />

develops an ethos <strong>and</strong> reasons alongside emotional claims, one develops an essai.<br />

Though school essays have diverged from essai’s orig<strong>in</strong>al attempt to th<strong>in</strong>k<br />

critically <strong>and</strong> construct mean<strong>in</strong>gs with personal relevance, scholars such as Graham<br />

Badley harken back to Montaigne by his reflective essay<strong>in</strong>g model for higher<br />

education. For Badley, as with Montaigne, essai writ<strong>in</strong>g is a process where<br />

students try out op<strong>in</strong>ions <strong>and</strong> test responses, reflect on ideas, <strong>and</strong> develop valuable<br />

relationships with o<strong>the</strong>rs. Badley’s reflective essay<strong>in</strong>g model is “<strong>the</strong> free <strong>and</strong><br />


Povozhaev<br />

serious play of m<strong>in</strong>d on an <strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g topic <strong>in</strong> an attempt to learn” (2009, p.<br />

248). He bases this def<strong>in</strong>ition on four assumptions: that <strong>the</strong>re is academic freedom,<br />

that <strong>the</strong> university is a safe place to be serious <strong>and</strong> playful, that reflection is<br />

useful for students <strong>and</strong> teachers who respond to questions, <strong>and</strong> that <strong>the</strong> process<br />

of compos<strong>in</strong>g an essay is an attempt to learn (Badley, 2009, p. 249). In Badley’s<br />

model, learn<strong>in</strong>g occurs as writers <strong>in</strong>terpret experiences <strong>and</strong> reconsider previous<br />

<strong>in</strong>terpretations. The writer’s objective is to conv<strong>in</strong>ce an audience that his or her<br />

reflections are plausible <strong>and</strong> to conv<strong>in</strong>ce ano<strong>the</strong>r that his or her ideas are useful<br />

<strong>and</strong> even valuable (Badley, 2009, p. 251). The reader <strong>and</strong> writer toge<strong>the</strong>r determ<strong>in</strong>e<br />

what constitutes use <strong>and</strong> value. Badley’s model illustrates that essai writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

is social <strong>and</strong> personal because mean<strong>in</strong>g is made by <strong>the</strong> construction of relationships<br />

whereby <strong>the</strong> student <strong>in</strong>itiates learn<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> acts upon necessary impulses<br />

<strong>and</strong> needs. Moreover, by clearly see<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> relationship between <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> social, students learn to <strong>in</strong>vest <strong>in</strong> social concerns <strong>and</strong> mature past solipsistic<br />

<strong>and</strong> immature th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g “only of me.” Importantly, <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> social<br />

are <strong>in</strong> relationship.<br />

James Zebroski presents Mikhail Bakht<strong>in</strong>’s argument that many voices <strong>in</strong>form<br />

one’s thoughts <strong>and</strong> this “accentuates <strong>the</strong> plurality of a text <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> pushpull,<br />

center-seek<strong>in</strong>g, center-flee<strong>in</strong>g forces of <strong>the</strong> word” (1989, p. 35). Because<br />

mean<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>in</strong> an essai can be constructed with<strong>in</strong> relationships between readers<br />

<strong>and</strong> writers, my argument lies beyond <strong>the</strong> debate of personal versus social impetuses<br />

for writ<strong>in</strong>g. Instead, compos<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> essai implicates <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual writer<br />

with <strong>the</strong> writer’s audience <strong>and</strong>, thus, “<strong>the</strong> author gives [ideas] to <strong>the</strong> world, nei<strong>the</strong>r<br />

as a work wholly orig<strong>in</strong>al, nor as a compilation from <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>gs of o<strong>the</strong>rs.<br />

On every subject conta<strong>in</strong>ed <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>m, he has thought for himself” (Blair, Lectures<br />

on Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> Belles Lettres, quoted <strong>in</strong> Ferguson, Carr, <strong>and</strong> Schultz, 2005, p.<br />

20). Consequently, essai writ<strong>in</strong>g can be personal, social, <strong>and</strong> cognitive.<br />

Some may still argue that my <strong>in</strong>terpretation of <strong>the</strong> essai’s personal, I-voiced,<br />

anecdotal narrativist nature belongs with creative writ<strong>in</strong>g. But academic <strong>and</strong><br />

creative writ<strong>in</strong>g have <strong>the</strong> similar objective of clear, concise, <strong>and</strong>, ultimately, persuasive<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g. By compos<strong>in</strong>g an essai, students might learn to reason, present<br />

emotion, <strong>and</strong> demonstrate a trustworthy ethos. Of course, a writer learns to<br />

write appropriately for a given audience, <strong>and</strong> a coffee house read<strong>in</strong>g is not <strong>the</strong><br />

same as a graduate sem<strong>in</strong>ar for which one presents an essay. However, <strong>the</strong>re is<br />

more benefit <strong>in</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g composition students to write essais than funnel<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong>to an academic vacuum with<strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> five-paragraph essay becomes<br />

a formula for thoughtless composition.<br />

At first glance, academic writ<strong>in</strong>g may often have different expectations from<br />

creative writ<strong>in</strong>g. However, as Car<strong>in</strong>i demonstrates through work with children<br />

creat<strong>in</strong>g art, prisoners writ<strong>in</strong>g poems, <strong>and</strong> student writ<strong>in</strong>g, creative acts can be<br />


Essai—A Metaphor<br />

pleasurable, <strong>the</strong>rapeutic, <strong>and</strong> educational (1994). It is not my <strong>in</strong>tention to def<strong>in</strong>e<br />

<strong>the</strong> many genres <strong>and</strong> objectives for writ<strong>in</strong>g. Instead, writ<strong>in</strong>g as “verbal habits<br />

<strong>and</strong> dispositions oriented to public effectiveness <strong>and</strong> virtue” (Flem<strong>in</strong>g, 2003, p.<br />

110) is not a form but a way of perceiv<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> respond<strong>in</strong>g with words. Writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to more carefully consider <strong>and</strong> reconsider th<strong>in</strong>gs, <strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g one’s own experiences,<br />

is academic <strong>and</strong> real-to-life.<br />

An essai is like creative writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> school essay writ<strong>in</strong>g, but can be more<br />

than both because it is a way of illustrat<strong>in</strong>g one’s thoughts by details <strong>and</strong> scenes,<br />

as well as research <strong>and</strong> representation of o<strong>the</strong>rs’ ideas. Importantly, <strong>the</strong> writer’s<br />

response to his or her own life <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> writer’s response to scholarship is<br />

what can set <strong>the</strong> essai apart from o<strong>the</strong>r forms of writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> makes it a form<br />

that shows one’s th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. Janet Emig observes: “all student writ<strong>in</strong>g emanates<br />

from an expressive impulse <strong>and</strong> that <strong>the</strong>y <strong>the</strong>n bifurcate <strong>in</strong>to two major modes,”<br />

which she calls “extensive” (<strong>in</strong>teractive, writer <strong>and</strong> situation) <strong>and</strong> “reflexive”<br />

(contemplative, personal mean<strong>in</strong>g-mak<strong>in</strong>g) (1967, p. 130). An essai can blend<br />

<strong>the</strong>se dichotomies through <strong>the</strong> ve<strong>in</strong> of writ<strong>in</strong>g to show th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g of one’s own<br />

life as well as of o<strong>the</strong>rs’ lives <strong>and</strong> social issues pert<strong>in</strong>ent to <strong>the</strong> writer’s time <strong>and</strong><br />

place. The <strong>in</strong>-between place of <strong>the</strong> essai serves as a sp<strong>in</strong>e <strong>and</strong> holds toge<strong>the</strong>r <strong>the</strong><br />

extend<strong>in</strong>g frame that explores <strong>and</strong> expresses mean<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Gregory Light dist<strong>in</strong>guishes between creative writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> essay writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong><br />

differentiates between surface underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g where students reproduce conceptions<br />

<strong>and</strong> deeper grasp<strong>in</strong>g where students transform conceptions. Light argues<br />

that when <strong>the</strong> essay is essentially about ano<strong>the</strong>r’s argument, <strong>and</strong> not <strong>the</strong> student’s<br />

own, <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g can be unreflective <strong>and</strong> mechanical (2002, p. 258). The goal of<br />

an essai is to move past filler words <strong>and</strong> borrowed thoughts <strong>and</strong> to demonstrate<br />

underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> specific, personally relevant ways.<br />

Students often f<strong>in</strong>d <strong>the</strong> jump between high school <strong>and</strong> college writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>timidat<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

They seem to underst<strong>and</strong> that more is expected of <strong>the</strong>m, <strong>and</strong> that “better”<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g is supposed to result. However, <strong>the</strong> expectation <strong>in</strong> much of college<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g seems to be a confident rhetorical sense of self. And yet, one’s voice is<br />

always chang<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> be<strong>in</strong>g found. Diane Glancy argues that one writes as one is<br />

written by “circumstance <strong>and</strong> environment” to make use of one’s self as a “found<br />

object” (quoted. <strong>in</strong> Adrienne Rich, 1993, p. 206). In order to make use of one’s<br />

self as a found object, one must <strong>in</strong>quire <strong>and</strong> reth<strong>in</strong>k <strong>the</strong> familiar. One learns to<br />

exam<strong>in</strong>e th<strong>in</strong>gs near <strong>and</strong> far, <strong>and</strong> to believe that <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> process of seek<strong>in</strong>g to underst<strong>and</strong><br />

relationships among aspects of life, mean<strong>in</strong>gs will emerge.<br />

*<br />

An essai is an attempt to underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>and</strong> should be used as such. I view it as<br />

essentially a process <strong>and</strong> not a f<strong>in</strong>ished product. Car<strong>in</strong>i argues that students are<br />


Povozhaev<br />

compos<strong>in</strong>g a sense of <strong>the</strong>mselves, <strong>and</strong>, <strong>the</strong>refore, professionals who use writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong> such a way could treat <strong>the</strong>se attempts as “th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g spaces” <strong>in</strong> which students<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k through “images, ideas, form <strong>and</strong> media” (1994, p. 53).<br />

However, after <strong>the</strong> rigors of drafts, conferences, <strong>and</strong> peer work, <strong>in</strong>structors<br />

often expect students’ essays to be polished. I submit that teachers might shift<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir focus <strong>in</strong>stead on how well students express what has happened to <strong>the</strong>m personally,<br />

<strong>in</strong>formation <strong>and</strong> ideas related to larger societal concerns, <strong>and</strong> mean<strong>in</strong>gs<br />

derived from reflect<strong>in</strong>g upon that relationship between one’s experience <strong>and</strong> socially<br />

relevant issues. Teachers might evaluate work based on how well students<br />

have demonstrated <strong>the</strong> degree <strong>the</strong>ir subject holds personal relevance.<br />

Students enter<strong>in</strong>g academe contribute to discourse communities by writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir own cultures <strong>in</strong>to exist<strong>in</strong>g frames. Through <strong>the</strong> more experimental,<br />

<strong>in</strong>tuitive processes that go along with <strong>the</strong> essai, we might convey that <strong>in</strong>tellectual<br />

rigor is worthwhile because it transcends <strong>the</strong> classroom. Us<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> essai can<br />

allow students to connect personally to socially relevant issues, respond with<br />

confidence, <strong>and</strong> speak to society <strong>in</strong> important ways—beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g with <strong>the</strong> college<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g classroom <strong>and</strong> reach<strong>in</strong>g past it.<br />


Badley, G. (2009). A reflective essay<strong>in</strong>g model for higher education. Education<br />

+ Tra<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g, 51(4), 248-58.<br />

Car<strong>in</strong>i, P. (1994). Dear sister bess: An essay on st<strong>and</strong>ards, judgment <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Assess<strong>in</strong>g Writ<strong>in</strong>g, 1(1), 29-65.<br />

De Montaigne, M. (1580/1958). Essays. (J. M. Cohen, Trans.). Harmondsworth,<br />

UK: Pengu<strong>in</strong> Books.<br />

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy <strong>and</strong> education. New York: Macmillan.<br />

Emig, J. (1967). On teach<strong>in</strong>g composition: Some hypo<strong>the</strong>ses as def<strong>in</strong>itions. Research<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Teach<strong>in</strong>g of English, 1, 127-135.<br />

Ferguson, S., Carr, L., & Schultz, L. (2005) Archives of <strong>in</strong>struction: N<strong>in</strong>eteenth-century<br />

rhetorics, readers <strong>and</strong> composition books <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> United States.<br />

Carbondale, IL: Sou<strong>the</strong>rn Ill<strong>in</strong>ois University Press.<br />

Fish, S. (1980). Is <strong>the</strong>re a text <strong>in</strong> this class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.<br />

Fishman, S., & McCarthy, L. (1998). John Dewey <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> challenge of classroom<br />

practice. Urbana, IL: NCTE.<br />

Fishman, S., & McCarthy, L. (1996). Teach<strong>in</strong>g for student change: A Deweyan<br />

alternative to radical pedagogy. College <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong> Communication, 47,<br />

342-364.<br />

Flem<strong>in</strong>g, D. (2003). The very idea of progymnasmata. Rhetoric Review, 22, 105-<br />

118.<br />


Essai—A Metaphor<br />

Light, G. (2002). From <strong>the</strong> personal to <strong>the</strong> public: Conceptions of creative writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong> higher education. Higher Education, 43, 257-276.<br />

Nystr<strong>and</strong>, M. (1989). A social-<strong>in</strong>teractive model of writ<strong>in</strong>g. Written Communication,<br />

6(1), 66-85.<br />

Paley, K. S. (2001). I-writ<strong>in</strong>g: The politics <strong>and</strong> practice of teach<strong>in</strong>g first-person writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Carbondale, IL: Sou<strong>the</strong>rn Ill<strong>in</strong>ois University Press.<br />

Payne, M. (2000). Bodily discourses: When students write about abuse <strong>and</strong> eat<strong>in</strong>g<br />

disorders. Portsmouth, NH: He<strong>in</strong>emann.<br />

Rich, Ad. (1993). What is found <strong>the</strong>re, notebooks on poetry <strong>and</strong> politics. New York:<br />

W.W. Norton.<br />

Tob<strong>in</strong>, L. (1993). Writ<strong>in</strong>g relationships: What really happens <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> composition<br />

class. Portsmouth, NH: He<strong>in</strong>emann.<br />

Zebroski, J. (1989). A hero <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> classroom. In B. Lawson, S. Ryan, & R. W<strong>in</strong>terowd<br />

(Eds.), Encounter<strong>in</strong>g student texts: Interpretive issues <strong>in</strong> read<strong>in</strong>g student<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g (pp. 35-48). Urbana, IL: NCTE.<br />









Patricia Webb Boyd<br />

Arizona State University<br />

In his highly <strong>in</strong>fluential essay “Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> Ideology <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g Class,”<br />

James Berl<strong>in</strong> positions expressionistic rhetoric as a “romantic recoil from <strong>the</strong><br />

urban horrors created by n<strong>in</strong>eteenth-century capitalism” (2009, p. 674). In <strong>the</strong><br />

early twenty-first century, we face a new set of horrors based <strong>in</strong> a sense of imm<strong>in</strong>ent<br />

threats from both domestic <strong>and</strong> global forces along with strident concerns<br />

about <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>fluence that our government is hav<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>in</strong>dividual lives. In this<br />

time, many feel unable to control <strong>the</strong>ir own lives much less effect change <strong>in</strong> larger<br />

society. Academics have responded to <strong>the</strong> problems of modernity by construct<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong>ories that emphasize <strong>the</strong> importance of language <strong>in</strong> construct<strong>in</strong>g reality<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> need to critically analyze our social <strong>and</strong> material conditions. As compositionists<br />

have taken up <strong>the</strong>se postmodern goals, <strong>the</strong>y have, as Diane Freedman<br />

po<strong>in</strong>ts out, eschewed expressivism, position<strong>in</strong>g it as a supposedly “naïve acceptance<br />

of <strong>the</strong> notion of a rational, coherent <strong>and</strong> unified ‘self,’ a notion critiqued<br />

by postmodernists <strong>and</strong> thought to <strong>in</strong>here <strong>in</strong> all personal writ<strong>in</strong>g” (2001, p. 206).<br />

Instead of focus<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>the</strong> importance of <strong>the</strong> self as a counter to problematic<br />

social conditions, postmodernists argue that <strong>the</strong> expressivist <strong>in</strong>dividual actually<br />

“conspire[s] <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> replication of a capitalist/consumerist hegemony responsible<br />

for various forms of political, social, <strong>and</strong> economic oppression” (O’Donnell,<br />

1996, p. 423).<br />

How can we imag<strong>in</strong>e creative alternatives where students <strong>and</strong> teachers can, as<br />

Paul Markham suggests, see <strong>the</strong>mselves as active participants <strong>in</strong> public spheres/<br />

discourses who can co-create change ra<strong>the</strong>r than be passive consumers wait<strong>in</strong>g<br />

for o<strong>the</strong>rs to “fix th<strong>in</strong>gs”? Giv<strong>in</strong>g importance to <strong>in</strong>dividual experiences <strong>and</strong> beliefs<br />

is an important step <strong>in</strong> this process. <strong>Critical</strong> expressivism highlights that <strong>the</strong><br />

<strong>in</strong>dividual is not a fixed or unchang<strong>in</strong>g entity, acknowledg<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> role that culture<br />

plays <strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividuals’ identity <strong>and</strong> identifications. As Sherrie Grad<strong>in</strong> argues,<br />

social expressivism (her version of critical expressivism) “suggests that all subjects<br />

negotiate with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> system; <strong>the</strong>y act <strong>and</strong> are acted upon by <strong>the</strong>ir environments.<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.07<br />


Boyd<br />

In order to be effective citizens <strong>and</strong> effective rhetorical be<strong>in</strong>gs, student must first<br />

learn how to carry out <strong>the</strong> negotiation between self <strong>and</strong> world” (1995, p. xv).<br />

In order to carry out <strong>the</strong>se connections between <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> world,<br />

though, “a first step <strong>in</strong> this negotiation must be to develop a clear sense of one’s<br />

own beliefs as well as a clear sense of how one’s own value system <strong>in</strong>tersects or<br />

not with o<strong>the</strong>rs, <strong>and</strong> how f<strong>in</strong>ally to communicate effectively” (Grad<strong>in</strong>, 1995, p.<br />

xv). So, students need to beg<strong>in</strong> with <strong>the</strong>ir own experiences <strong>in</strong> order to be active<br />

participants <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> larger society.<br />

<strong>Critical</strong> expressivism suggests that it is through <strong>in</strong>dividual experiences that<br />

commitments are made, stances are taken, responsibility is assumed <strong>and</strong> actions<br />

are advanced—not through an ephemeral, relative subject position that can easily<br />

be seen as objectified by social structures. The more ephemeral <strong>and</strong> fragmented<br />

we see ourselves, <strong>the</strong> less ability we feel we to have to transform th<strong>in</strong>gs. Fur<strong>the</strong>r,<br />

<strong>the</strong> more fragmented we feel, <strong>the</strong> less connection we sense to communities around<br />

us. Feel<strong>in</strong>g connected to communities is an important aspect of transform<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong><br />

issues that face us today. Feel<strong>in</strong>g disconnected from <strong>the</strong> self translates <strong>in</strong>to particular<br />

views on <strong>the</strong> power (or lack <strong>the</strong>reof) of one’s ability to act as well. Too often,<br />

people feel disempowered to change any of <strong>the</strong> problems <strong>the</strong>y see <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world,<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong> problems are too large <strong>and</strong> must be changed by someone else.<br />

These feel<strong>in</strong>gs are also translated <strong>in</strong>to beliefs about communication. Too often<br />

students see discussions <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g as empty exercises that have no ability<br />

to change social situations. <strong>Critical</strong> expressivist practices can help us challenge<br />

<strong>the</strong>se views of communication. Instead of see<strong>in</strong>g communication as empty exercises<br />

or as tools to only analyze social texts ra<strong>the</strong>r than change society, students<br />

can learn to see writ<strong>in</strong>g—<strong>and</strong> social discussions—as social action—i.e., a way of<br />

be<strong>in</strong>g an agent <strong>in</strong> public discourses. When students realize <strong>the</strong>ir words matter<br />

<strong>and</strong> can have impact on social action (<strong>and</strong> can even be social action), <strong>the</strong>n <strong>the</strong>y<br />

become more aware of how important it is to take responsibility for <strong>the</strong>ir words<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> work those words do <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir communities <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> lives of people.<br />

<strong>Critical</strong> expressivists’ emphasis on <strong>in</strong>dividual experiences illustrates <strong>the</strong> importance<br />

that those experiences play <strong>in</strong> one’s <strong>in</strong>teractions <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world—<strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> political <strong>and</strong> social problems that face us domestically <strong>and</strong> globally. Instead<br />

of see<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual as an isolated, monolithic entity whose sole <strong>in</strong>tent<br />

is to search for <strong>in</strong>ner truth, critical expressivists demonstrate that <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

is situated with<strong>in</strong> larger social experiences. Eschew<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> importance of <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

experiences as postmodernism does fails to acknowledge <strong>the</strong> important<br />

work that a fairly stable concept of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual plays <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> beliefs we have;<br />

our lived realities of who we are <strong>and</strong> how we engage with o<strong>the</strong>rs; <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> actions<br />

we take <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir impact on o<strong>the</strong>rs. Even as <strong>the</strong>y recognize <strong>the</strong> durable quality<br />

of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual, critical expressivists are aware (<strong>and</strong> work to teach students to<br />


Communication as Social Action<br />

be aware of as well) that <strong>the</strong>se beliefs <strong>and</strong> actions are socially situated <strong>and</strong> constructed<br />

over time. Learn<strong>in</strong>g how we learned <strong>and</strong> developed those beliefs <strong>and</strong><br />

how <strong>the</strong>y have solidified over time is an important step <strong>in</strong> build<strong>in</strong>g public voices<br />

that help us become active agents <strong>in</strong> public arenas, both of which are important<br />

practices <strong>in</strong> critical expressivist classrooms. We need to see both <strong>the</strong> “stable” self<br />

that is somewhat durable across time <strong>and</strong> recognize how it is constructed to be<br />

durable <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> consequences of that durability.<br />

In this chapter, I analyze how critical expressivist pedagogies can help students<br />

learn to <strong>in</strong>corporate <strong>in</strong>dividual experiences <strong>in</strong>to education <strong>in</strong> order to create<br />

public voices that provide <strong>the</strong>m with agency <strong>in</strong> public arenas. <strong>Critical</strong> expressivism<br />

focuses on “conditions of language use,” not “study<strong>in</strong>g private truths”<br />

(O’Donnell, 1996, p. 437). By do<strong>in</strong>g so, critical expressivism can help students<br />

learn to situate <strong>the</strong>ir own experiences <strong>and</strong> personal narratives with<strong>in</strong> larger social<br />

arenas <strong>and</strong> take responsibility. Students can become more responsive to <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

audiences <strong>and</strong> more responsible for <strong>the</strong>ir words so that <strong>the</strong>y can see <strong>the</strong> ways<br />

communication is more than just an empty exercise. Students can “become <strong>in</strong>vested<br />

as writers when <strong>the</strong>y realize that be<strong>in</strong>g articulate when someth<strong>in</strong>g is at<br />

stake … is what launches <strong>in</strong>dividuals <strong>in</strong>to public life” (Danielewicz, 2008, p.<br />

444). Communication can be social action.<br />



Postmodern critics argue that expressivists def<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual much like<br />

<strong>the</strong> modernist <strong>in</strong>dividual: eternal, universal, rational, coherent, unique, <strong>and</strong> au<strong>the</strong>ntic<br />

(Judd, 2003, p. 489, Freedman, 2001, p. 206). Berl<strong>in</strong> argues that for expressivists,<br />

reality resides “with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual subject. While <strong>the</strong> reality of <strong>the</strong><br />

material, <strong>the</strong> social, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> l<strong>in</strong>guistic are never denied, <strong>the</strong>y are considered significant<br />

only <strong>in</strong>sofar as <strong>the</strong>y serve <strong>the</strong> needs of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual” (Berl<strong>in</strong>, 2009, p.<br />

674). In Berl<strong>in</strong>’s estimation of expressivism, <strong>the</strong> external world serves as material<br />

for <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual to “underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> self” (2009, p. 674) <strong>and</strong> “awaken <strong>in</strong> readers<br />

<strong>the</strong> experience of <strong>the</strong>ir selves” (2009, p. 675). He argues that expressivism<br />

denies “’<strong>the</strong> place of <strong>in</strong>tersubjective, social processes <strong>in</strong> shap<strong>in</strong>g reality. Instead,<br />

it always describes groups as sources of distortion of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual’s true vision,<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> behavior it recommends <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> political <strong>and</strong> social realms is atomistic,<br />

<strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual act<strong>in</strong>g alone’ (2009, p. 146)” (quoted <strong>in</strong> Paley, 2001, p. 190).<br />

O<strong>the</strong>r critics <strong>in</strong>sist that expressivist rhetoric <strong>and</strong> pedagogy focus “upon personal<br />

growth while ignor<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> social sett<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> specialized skills <strong>and</strong> bodies of<br />

knowledge,” thus emphasiz<strong>in</strong>g “a naïve view of <strong>the</strong> writer … as possess<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>nate<br />

abilities to discover truth” (Fishman & McCarthy, 1992, p. 648).<br />


Boyd<br />

This def<strong>in</strong>ition of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual leads to problematic views of <strong>the</strong> solutions<br />

to <strong>the</strong> world’s problems. Berl<strong>in</strong> argues that for expressivists, <strong>the</strong> solutions to <strong>the</strong><br />

problems of a commodified culture are supposedly found through re-experienc<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>the</strong> self. For expressivists, <strong>the</strong> only hope <strong>in</strong> a society work<strong>in</strong>g to destroy <strong>the</strong><br />

uniqueness of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual is for each of us to assert our <strong>in</strong>dividuality aga<strong>in</strong>st<br />

<strong>the</strong> tyranny of <strong>the</strong> authoritarian corporation, state, <strong>and</strong> society. Strategies for<br />

do<strong>in</strong>g so must of course be left to <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual, each light<strong>in</strong>g one small c<strong>and</strong>le<br />

<strong>in</strong> order to create a brighter world (Berl<strong>in</strong>, 2009, p. 676-677).<br />

Donald Judd shares Berl<strong>in</strong>’s critique of expressivist solutions to <strong>the</strong> current<br />

social problems, describ<strong>in</strong>g a class project on homelessness that had only m<strong>in</strong>imal<br />

success. Although students were awakened to new ways of th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g about<br />

homelessness through discuss<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir personal beliefs on homelessness, Judd<br />

claims expressivist practices left students “ignorant of larger social forces which<br />

play fundamental roles <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> eviction of <strong>the</strong> homeless” (Judd, 2003, p. 77).<br />

Judd argues that because it focuses only on <strong>in</strong>dividual’s reflections on social issues,<br />

expressivist teach<strong>in</strong>g “offers little guidance on how to th<strong>in</strong>k more critically<br />

about homelessness <strong>and</strong> many o<strong>the</strong>r important social issues” (2003, p. 76). Judd<br />

<strong>in</strong>sists that focus<strong>in</strong>g on <strong>in</strong>dividual responses to problems—a practice he attributes<br />

to expressivism—leaves students flounder<strong>in</strong>g to f<strong>in</strong>d solutions.<br />

Interest<strong>in</strong>gly enough, although Judd agrees with Berl<strong>in</strong> on some accounts,<br />

he argues that Berl<strong>in</strong> offers an overly simplified def<strong>in</strong>ition of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual used<br />

by expressivism. Counter<strong>in</strong>g Berl<strong>in</strong>’s argument that expressivists see <strong>the</strong> “self as<br />

‘universal, eternal, au<strong>the</strong>ntic … that beneath all appearances is at one with all<br />

o<strong>the</strong>r selves’” (Judd, 2003, p. 489), Judd shows how, <strong>in</strong> actuality, for expressivists<br />

“<strong>the</strong> self goes through changes <strong>in</strong> its <strong>in</strong>teractions with o<strong>the</strong>r selves <strong>and</strong> with <strong>the</strong><br />

world. The self is nei<strong>the</strong>r universal, eternal, nor autonomous” (Judd, 2003, p.<br />

63); <strong>in</strong>stead expressivists argue that <strong>the</strong> self is shaped by o<strong>the</strong>r people <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>stitutions<br />

(2003, p. 71). And he is not alone. Many critics have illustrated that<br />

branches of expressivism like critical expressivism draw on an <strong>in</strong>dividual that<br />

is not “monolithic, centered or rational” (Grad<strong>in</strong>, 1995, p. xv). In fact Sherrie<br />

Grad<strong>in</strong> argues that <strong>the</strong> expressivist <strong>in</strong>dividual is one who “confronts one’s own<br />

beliefs <strong>and</strong> exam<strong>in</strong>es her <strong>in</strong>teraction with culture [<strong>and</strong>] is particularly plural <strong>and</strong><br />

decentered because <strong>the</strong> self is constructed differently <strong>in</strong> various times <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong><br />

multiple classes <strong>and</strong> cultures” (1995, p. xv). <strong>Critical</strong> expressivists highlight <strong>the</strong><br />

way <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual builds connections with communities <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

is situated, valu<strong>in</strong>g both <strong>in</strong>dividual experiences <strong>and</strong> social relationships.<br />

This process of build<strong>in</strong>g relationships can be facilitated by genres that have<br />

been traditionally labeled “personal” <strong>and</strong> have been critiqued by postmodernism.<br />

These genres can help students become more engaged <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> classroom <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

worlds because <strong>the</strong>y encourage students to start with <strong>the</strong>ir own experiences, <strong>and</strong><br />


Communication as Social Action<br />

<strong>the</strong>n negotiate between <strong>the</strong>m <strong>and</strong> different worlds. Freedman writes of “<strong>the</strong> capacity<br />

of personal classroom writ<strong>in</strong>g … to negotiate <strong>the</strong> divide college students often<br />

feel between school <strong>and</strong> work or school <strong>and</strong> home, <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir car<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir know<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir be<strong>in</strong>g” (2001, p. 199). When students beg<strong>in</strong> with <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

own experiences, <strong>the</strong>y can feel empowered <strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>stitutional sett<strong>in</strong>gs that can often<br />

be alienat<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>y can f<strong>in</strong>d a public voice that gives <strong>the</strong>m agency. Students<br />

beg<strong>in</strong> to see <strong>the</strong> ways that various <strong>in</strong>stitutions <strong>and</strong> various identities/identifications<br />

have shaped <strong>the</strong>ir actions (<strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>actions) <strong>and</strong> have caused <strong>the</strong>m to feel powerful or<br />

powerless <strong>in</strong> particular situations. Writ<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong>se <strong>in</strong>stances can help students<br />

underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> causes beh<strong>in</strong>d <strong>the</strong>ir actions (or <strong>in</strong>actions), help <strong>the</strong>m feel passionate<br />

about <strong>the</strong>se life experiences, connect <strong>the</strong>m to o<strong>the</strong>rs through <strong>the</strong>se analyses,<br />

<strong>and</strong> lead <strong>the</strong>m to take different k<strong>in</strong>ds of actions out of those new realizations.<br />

As Freedman <strong>in</strong>sists, “students are unavoidably br<strong>in</strong>g<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir personal lives<br />

<strong>in</strong>to <strong>the</strong>ir academic work, <strong>the</strong> classroom space, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir conversations with<br />

teachers <strong>and</strong> peers” (2001, p. 200). Draw<strong>in</strong>g on those experiences <strong>in</strong> both <strong>the</strong><br />

k<strong>in</strong>d of discussions <strong>the</strong>y have <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>y do are useful ways for<br />

students to learn what is at stake <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir communications. Start<strong>in</strong>g with personal<br />

experiences <strong>and</strong> locat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong> larger social contexts is a center stone of<br />

critical expressivism practices that help students learn <strong>the</strong>y are “supposed to have<br />

someth<strong>in</strong>g at stake” <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir learn<strong>in</strong>g. As Danielewicz argues, <strong>the</strong>re are two key<br />

results of personal writ<strong>in</strong>g genres: “students learn that <strong>the</strong>y are supposed to have<br />

someth<strong>in</strong>g at stake <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g an argument, academic or o<strong>the</strong>rwise” (2008, p.<br />

421) <strong>and</strong> “students who do write when someth<strong>in</strong>g is at stake are participat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong><br />

public discourse; <strong>the</strong>y expect someth<strong>in</strong>g to happen as a result of writ<strong>in</strong>g” (2008,<br />

p. 421). Both of <strong>the</strong>se benefits highlight why <strong>the</strong> genres typically denigrated as<br />

“personal” hold much value for students <strong>and</strong> our classrooms.<br />

The next section discusses two examples that illustrate <strong>the</strong> way critical expressivist<br />

pedagogies <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> classroom can help students be responsive to audiences<br />

<strong>and</strong> take responsibility for <strong>the</strong>ir words <strong>and</strong> actions. They show <strong>the</strong> ways that<br />

discussions <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> personal genres can help students start with personal<br />

experiences <strong>in</strong> order to create authoritative public voices that make <strong>the</strong>m active<br />

participants <strong>in</strong> public arenas.<br />



Class discussions <strong>and</strong> conversations are one crucial way that students can<br />

learn to be responsible language users. Instead of see<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m as “just” discussions,<br />

critical expressivist pedagogies can turn class discussions <strong>in</strong>to moments<br />


Boyd<br />

where students take responsibility for <strong>the</strong>ir words <strong>in</strong> a community <strong>and</strong> learn<br />

to place <strong>the</strong>ir own experiences with<strong>in</strong> larger social contexts. Once students see<br />

how <strong>the</strong>ir ideas have been shaped, <strong>the</strong>y realize that <strong>the</strong>ir ideas are not “givens”<br />

but have been produced <strong>and</strong> can, thus, be changed <strong>and</strong> transformed. <strong>Classroom</strong><br />

discussions <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> curriculum <strong>the</strong> teacher establishes can be a start<strong>in</strong>g po<strong>in</strong>t for<br />

this k<strong>in</strong>d of change.<br />

The narratives students br<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>the</strong> classroom should be an important part<br />

of <strong>the</strong> class curriculum. In “What Is Public Narrative,” Marshall Ganz argues<br />

that we make sense of <strong>the</strong> world through three types of stories: story of self, story<br />

of us, <strong>and</strong> story of now. The story of self “communicates who I am—my values,<br />

my experiences, why I do what I do;” <strong>the</strong> story of us “communicates who we<br />

are—our shared values, our shared experience, <strong>and</strong> why we do what we do;” <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> story of now “transforms <strong>the</strong> present <strong>in</strong>to a moment of challenge, hope, <strong>and</strong><br />

choice” (Ganz, 2008, p. 1). All three steps are important <strong>in</strong> critical expressivist<br />

classrooms because <strong>the</strong> story of us cannot be built without a thorough knowledge<br />

of <strong>the</strong> story of self <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> story of now, which leads to civic agency <strong>and</strong><br />

action, requires both of <strong>the</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r two stories.<br />

Mak<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>se stories a central part of <strong>the</strong> class situates <strong>the</strong> curriculum as<br />

a conversation ra<strong>the</strong>r than a merely a presentation of <strong>in</strong>formation (Shields &<br />

Mohan, 2008, p. 296). Carolyn Shields <strong>and</strong> Erica Mohan advocate for curriculum<br />

as conversation that focuses on “teach<strong>in</strong>g students to ask about o<strong>the</strong>r perspectives,<br />

<strong>and</strong> to question, reflect, critique, <strong>and</strong> challenge” (2008, p. 296). This<br />

approach requires that <strong>in</strong>structors honor “each student’s unique experiences <strong>in</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> sense-mak<strong>in</strong>g conversations of <strong>the</strong> classroom” (Shields & Mohan, 2008, p.<br />

296) <strong>in</strong> order to “ensure that a greater range of student experiences is considered<br />

valid <strong>and</strong> valuable as a basis for learn<strong>in</strong>g” (2008, p. 296). Thus, classroom conversations<br />

should honor students’ experiences <strong>and</strong> situate <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong> larger social<br />

contexts as a way of mak<strong>in</strong>g sense of what is happen<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world, just as<br />

Ganz’s three types of stories encourage students to do. Creat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> curriculum<br />

as a conversation means <strong>the</strong> students’ stories <strong>and</strong> sense-mak<strong>in</strong>g are <strong>the</strong> basis of<br />

<strong>the</strong> class, but <strong>the</strong>se experiences are situated with<strong>in</strong> a question<strong>in</strong>g of, reflect<strong>in</strong>g<br />

on, <strong>and</strong> challeng<strong>in</strong>g of o<strong>the</strong>r perspectives—connect<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> story of self <strong>and</strong> story<br />

of us, ultimately mov<strong>in</strong>g toward a story of now that can be filled with hope <strong>and</strong><br />

choice.<br />

Thomas O’Donnell’s article “Politics <strong>and</strong> Ord<strong>in</strong>ary Language: A Defense of<br />

Expressivist Rhetorics” (1996) provides a good example of how class discussion<br />

can use <strong>the</strong> story of self, story of us, <strong>and</strong> story of now to create curriculum as conversation<br />

that helps raise students’ awareness of <strong>the</strong> way <strong>the</strong>ir views are situated<br />

with<strong>in</strong> larger social contexts. He describes a class discussion on whe<strong>the</strong>r health<br />

<strong>in</strong>surance should pay for alcoholics’ rehabilitation treatment—a discussion that,<br />


Communication as Social Action<br />

<strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>gly enough, quickly turned <strong>in</strong>to a debate about what “free will” meant.<br />

The discussion pivoted around <strong>the</strong> question of whe<strong>the</strong>r alcoholism was a disease<br />

or a choice. If students saw alcoholism as a disease, <strong>the</strong>n <strong>the</strong>y thought that alcoholics<br />

should be given treatment, just like any o<strong>the</strong>r sick person. If, however,<br />

students thought that alcoholism was a “free will” choice that one made, <strong>the</strong>n<br />

<strong>the</strong>y did not th<strong>in</strong>k that health <strong>in</strong>surance should pay for that choice. Instead of<br />

an abstract discussion of public policy, <strong>the</strong> class discussion quickly turned to a<br />

story of self <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y discussed what “free will” meant to <strong>the</strong>m <strong>and</strong> where<br />

<strong>the</strong>y learned that term; <strong>the</strong>n because <strong>the</strong>y were discuss<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir perceptions<br />

with<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> classroom, <strong>the</strong>y had to take responsibility for <strong>the</strong>ir word use <strong>and</strong> be<br />

responsive to <strong>the</strong>ir audience. Through deep engagement with <strong>the</strong>ir peers <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

classroom discussions which were situated <strong>in</strong> curriculum as conversation (not<br />

curriculum as <strong>in</strong>formation transmission), <strong>the</strong>y were participat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> story of<br />

us. They began to learn <strong>the</strong> culture’s shared values <strong>and</strong> shared narratives about<br />

“free will.” The story of now came <strong>in</strong>to play when students realized those larger<br />

cultural narratives of “free will” (<strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y played a part) had an impact on<br />

<strong>the</strong> actions taken by public policy makers <strong>and</strong> health care agencies as well as on<br />

those whose lives were directly affected by those decisions. They realized that<br />

narratives of “free will” <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r such concepts directly shaped people’s lives<br />

<strong>and</strong> were not abstract terms that meant little beyond personal op<strong>in</strong>ion. These<br />

concepts were based <strong>in</strong> public narratives that could create despair or could be<br />

challenged <strong>and</strong> questioned to create hope <strong>and</strong> choice.<br />

O’Donnell’s class demonstrates that critical expressivist teach<strong>in</strong>g does offer<br />

students help <strong>in</strong> sort<strong>in</strong>g through public issues, thus challeng<strong>in</strong>g critiques like<br />

Judd’s who argues that students <strong>in</strong> expressivist classrooms are offered “little guidance<br />

on how to th<strong>in</strong>k critically” (Judd, 2003, p. 76). Discussions like <strong>the</strong> one<br />

on health care that centered on multiple socially-constructed def<strong>in</strong>itions of “free<br />

will” illustrate that “it makes little sense to see <strong>the</strong> expressivist move to <strong>the</strong> personal<br />

as emerg<strong>in</strong>g from an <strong>in</strong>ord<strong>in</strong>ate confidence <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> capacity of <strong>in</strong>dividuals<br />

to apprehend unta<strong>in</strong>ted truth” (O’Donnell, 1996, p. 432). The po<strong>in</strong>t of <strong>the</strong> class<br />

discussion was not to f<strong>in</strong>d <strong>the</strong> one “true” mean<strong>in</strong>g of “free will” <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>refore <strong>the</strong><br />

“right” policy; <strong>in</strong>stead, <strong>the</strong> po<strong>in</strong>t of <strong>the</strong> discussion was to explore <strong>the</strong> impacts of<br />

language use <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> importance of be<strong>in</strong>g responsible for one’s language use. In<br />

O’Donnell’s class, <strong>the</strong> group helped <strong>in</strong>dividuals sort out <strong>the</strong>ir assumptions about<br />

“free will” <strong>and</strong> consider <strong>the</strong> impact on public policy. The conversational nature<br />

of <strong>the</strong> curriculum focused on students’ stories of how <strong>the</strong>y learned <strong>the</strong> terms<br />

<strong>and</strong> shifted those conversations to consider<strong>in</strong>g how <strong>the</strong> community used <strong>the</strong><br />

various narratives to construct policies <strong>and</strong> who was served (<strong>and</strong> not served) by<br />

those policies. Know<strong>in</strong>g what stories <strong>the</strong>y are a part of will help students realize<br />

<strong>the</strong> impact of <strong>the</strong> public narratives. Realiz<strong>in</strong>g this, accord<strong>in</strong>g to Paul Markham<br />


Boyd<br />

<strong>in</strong> “You Don’t Know Where You’re Go<strong>in</strong>g until You’re on <strong>the</strong> Way There: Why<br />

Public ‘Work’ Matters,” can help <strong>the</strong>m create public narratives—“a discursive<br />

process through which <strong>in</strong>dividuals, communities, <strong>and</strong> nations construct <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

identity, make choices, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>spire actions” (2011, p. 6). <strong>Critical</strong> expressivist<br />

pedagogies that center on <strong>the</strong> importance of draw<strong>in</strong>g on multiple narratives <strong>in</strong><br />

class <strong>and</strong> establish<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> curriculum as a conversation can help students take<br />

responsibility for <strong>the</strong>ir words <strong>and</strong> to see <strong>the</strong>ir communications as actions that<br />

have impact—that matter.<br />

O’Donnell’s class illustrates that expressivist pr<strong>in</strong>ciples can help students enter<br />

<strong>in</strong>to public discourse <strong>in</strong> a way that makes <strong>the</strong>m engaged <strong>and</strong> active citizens<br />

ra<strong>the</strong>r than passive dupes of <strong>in</strong>stitutional structures, as Berl<strong>in</strong> <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs want to<br />

position <strong>the</strong>m. How students use language <strong>and</strong> to what effect becomes <strong>the</strong> ma<strong>in</strong><br />

focus <strong>in</strong> critical expressivist classrooms, not <strong>the</strong> solipsistic analysis of <strong>the</strong> self, as<br />

critics of expressivism claim. Students <strong>in</strong> critical expressivist work need to connect<br />

to <strong>the</strong>ir audiences <strong>and</strong> to be responsive to <strong>and</strong> responsible to <strong>the</strong>ir audiences<br />

for <strong>the</strong>ir words to have impact <strong>and</strong> to create a powerful public voice. Students<br />

focus on <strong>the</strong> communities <strong>the</strong>y are located with<strong>in</strong>, <strong>the</strong>y beg<strong>in</strong> to contextualize<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir views with<strong>in</strong> difference, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>y work to build <strong>in</strong>tercontextual connections<br />

to be responsive to <strong>and</strong> responsible to <strong>the</strong>ir communities <strong>and</strong> audiences.<br />


<strong>Critical</strong> expressivist pedagogies shape class discussions <strong>in</strong> ways that teach students<br />

about tak<strong>in</strong>g responsibility for <strong>the</strong>ir language use <strong>and</strong> study<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> impact<br />

that use has on <strong>the</strong> communities <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong>y are located. <strong>Critical</strong> expressivist<br />

pedagogies can also teach students to achieve similar goals through writ<strong>in</strong>g—to<br />

help <strong>the</strong>m become “<strong>in</strong>vested as writers” (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 443)<br />

<strong>and</strong> create public voices <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g. In her article “Personal Genres, Public<br />

Voices,” Jane Danielewicz advocates for teach<strong>in</strong>g personal genres that have too<br />

often been short-sightedly critiqued as “solipsistic <strong>in</strong>dulgent exercise[s]” (2008,<br />

p. 439) <strong>and</strong> “private, confessional discourse[s], personal catharsis” (2008, p.<br />

440). In an analysis of her sem<strong>in</strong>ar course called “Read<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> Writ<strong>in</strong>g Women’s<br />

Lives,” Danielewicz illustrates how students can draw on personal genres to<br />

create public voices. In <strong>the</strong> process of writ<strong>in</strong>g personal genres like autobiographies,<br />

students can learn <strong>the</strong> process of be<strong>in</strong>g responsive to <strong>the</strong>ir audience <strong>and</strong><br />

be<strong>in</strong>g responsible for <strong>the</strong>ir words. They can learn to write multiple versions of<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir stories <strong>and</strong> multiple tell<strong>in</strong>gs of <strong>the</strong> “I,” thus see<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong>re is not one<br />

true <strong>in</strong>ner “I” revealed through writ<strong>in</strong>g, that <strong>in</strong>teractions with <strong>the</strong>ir audiences<br />

powerfully shape <strong>the</strong>ir tell<strong>in</strong>gs, <strong>and</strong> that personal stories are powerful material<br />

for creat<strong>in</strong>g public agency.<br />


Communication as Social Action<br />

Danielewicz asserts that writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> personal genres does not mean that <strong>the</strong><br />

self written about is solipsistic, or that <strong>the</strong> topics written about are only personal.<br />

In her class, <strong>the</strong> first drafts of <strong>the</strong> personal genres focused on religion, family<br />

drama, sexual orientation, cherished hobbies <strong>and</strong> were written <strong>in</strong> very writerly-based<br />

prose, present<strong>in</strong>g one version of <strong>the</strong> “I” <strong>and</strong> one particular retell<strong>in</strong>g<br />

of <strong>the</strong> experience. While <strong>the</strong>se were “personal” stories, <strong>the</strong>y were also common<br />

experiences, ones that conta<strong>in</strong>ed “issues that concern us all”—“surface[<strong>in</strong>g] organically,”<br />

even though public issues were not assigned, <strong>and</strong> even <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir first<br />

drafts (2008, p. 443).<br />

As Danielewicz po<strong>in</strong>ts out “when students write <strong>the</strong>ir own autobiographies,<br />

a two-way process is at work: first, <strong>the</strong>y identify <strong>and</strong> articulate <strong>the</strong>ir dist<strong>in</strong>ctive<br />

positions, <strong>and</strong> second, <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g for a public audience, <strong>the</strong>y come to terms<br />

with how to represent <strong>the</strong>mselves <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>n must contend with how audiences<br />

respond” (2008, p. 436). Students beg<strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g to express <strong>the</strong>ir experiences,<br />

but through discuss<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ir work <strong>in</strong> small peer groups <strong>and</strong> learn<strong>in</strong>g about genre<br />

conventions, <strong>the</strong>ir goals for <strong>the</strong>ir work shift to connect<strong>in</strong>g with <strong>the</strong> audience,<br />

want<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> audience to underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual’s experiences. In order to do<br />

so, <strong>the</strong>y have to be responsive to how <strong>the</strong> audience reacts to <strong>the</strong> tell<strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> story<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> “I” that is constructed through that tell<strong>in</strong>g. The small groups, <strong>the</strong>n,<br />

help students locate <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual <strong>in</strong> larger social contexts <strong>and</strong> lead to changed<br />

motivations for writ<strong>in</strong>g. Danielewicz disagrees with critics like Berl<strong>in</strong> who “reduces<br />

<strong>the</strong> dialectic <strong>in</strong> expressionist editorial groups to one function: ‘to enable<br />

<strong>the</strong> writer to underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> manifestation of her identity <strong>in</strong> language through<br />

consider<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> reaction of o<strong>the</strong>rs—not, for example, to beg<strong>in</strong> to underst<strong>and</strong><br />

how mean<strong>in</strong>g is shaped by discourse communities’” (Paley, 2001, p. 191); <strong>in</strong>stead,<br />

she found <strong>in</strong> her class that critical expressivist peer response groups have<br />

a significant impact on an <strong>in</strong>dividual’s underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of how <strong>the</strong>ir identities—<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir “I’s” are <strong>in</strong>dividually situated <strong>and</strong> socially constructed. These k<strong>in</strong>ds of<br />

groups help students underst<strong>and</strong> how <strong>the</strong>ir representations of <strong>the</strong>mselves impact<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir audiences <strong>and</strong> shape <strong>the</strong>ir possibilities for agency <strong>and</strong> effective public voice.<br />

Jackie, one of <strong>the</strong> women Danielewicz studies <strong>in</strong> her article, is a good example<br />

of how writers can use personal genres to create a public voice that gives<br />

<strong>the</strong>m agency <strong>and</strong> authority <strong>in</strong> public spheres. More importantly, perhaps, Jackie<br />

is a great example of how writ<strong>in</strong>g personal genres can help students learn<br />

“more effectively than any book <strong>the</strong>y might read <strong>the</strong> truth of <strong>the</strong> hard, <strong>the</strong>oretical<br />

claim that identity is constructed by <strong>in</strong>stitutions, groups, <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r social<br />

forces” (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 443). Jackie’s first draft of her autobiography expressed<br />

strong resentment <strong>and</strong> anger toward God <strong>and</strong> toward her family whom<br />

she felt pushed religion on her when she was grow<strong>in</strong>g up. Through extensive<br />

small group peer responses, though, Jackie realized that <strong>the</strong> way she represented<br />


Boyd<br />

<strong>the</strong> “I” <strong>in</strong> her first draft alienated her audience. It was through <strong>the</strong> small group<br />

work <strong>and</strong> through study<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> genre of autobiography that Jackie came to see<br />

that <strong>in</strong> order to connect to her audience, she had to rewrite <strong>the</strong> outpour<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

emotion <strong>in</strong>cluded <strong>in</strong> her first draft s<strong>in</strong>ce her representation of that emotion<br />

that was off-putt<strong>in</strong>g to her audience. She had to step back—<strong>in</strong> her th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g—to analyze <strong>the</strong> orig<strong>in</strong>al situations she <strong>in</strong>cluded <strong>and</strong> rewrite <strong>the</strong>m<br />

so that her audiences understood “<strong>the</strong> orig<strong>in</strong>s of ‘<strong>the</strong> outpour<strong>in</strong>g of shock<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>and</strong> offensive rhetoric’ or her life as ‘a tra<strong>in</strong>ed monkey,’ descriptions that were<br />

<strong>in</strong>cluded <strong>in</strong> her early draft” (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 430) of her autobiography.<br />

In order for her work to be relatable to a larger audience, she needed to underst<strong>and</strong><br />

how her audience responded to her language use <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> impact it<br />

had on her ability to achieve her goals <strong>in</strong> her autobiography She had to learn<br />

to construct an “I” that was situated <strong>in</strong> a larger social context. She positioned<br />

herself as one writ<strong>in</strong>g with “authority, knowledge, convictions, <strong>and</strong> self-consciousness<br />

about issues that concern us all” (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 443) ra<strong>the</strong>r<br />

than present<strong>in</strong>g an “I” giv<strong>in</strong>g an angry diatribe. As she made <strong>the</strong>se revisions, she<br />

clearly felt she had much at stake <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g. “Her portfolio letter states <strong>the</strong> case<br />

with conviction: ‘I adore this piece <strong>and</strong> I hope that <strong>the</strong> readers I hope that <strong>the</strong><br />

readers can connect to it as much as I do’” (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 434). Instead<br />

of see<strong>in</strong>g her autobiography as a personal expression of feel<strong>in</strong>gs or as an empty<br />

exercise, Jackie hoped her writ<strong>in</strong>g made a difference to a public audience. She<br />

felt her writ<strong>in</strong>g made a difference—at least she hoped it did, that it somehow<br />

changed her audience. This is a powerful outcome from a class assignment. As<br />

Danielewicz asks: “How often do our first-year writers ‘adore’ an essay? That<br />

achievement alone—recogniz<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> valu<strong>in</strong>g a powerful piece of work—is significant.<br />

But I’m most impressed with that Jackie’s criteria for success <strong>in</strong>clude a<br />

consideration of whe<strong>the</strong>r or not ‘<strong>the</strong> readers can connect to it’” (2008, p. 434).<br />

She truly wanted to make her assertions of “I” relatable to <strong>the</strong> collective—to<br />

make her “I” a “we.”<br />

It is clear, <strong>the</strong>n, that Jackie wrote her way <strong>in</strong>to an authoritative, agentive voice<br />

that responsibly connected to an audience to help her position her stories with<strong>in</strong><br />

a larger social context, not to better underst<strong>and</strong> her “<strong>in</strong>ner” self but to underst<strong>and</strong><br />

how <strong>the</strong> self is socially constructed by engagement with o<strong>the</strong>rs <strong>and</strong> how<br />

one’s representation of self is never unmediated or “pure.” Her revisions show<br />

that voice is not an <strong>in</strong>ternal truth but is <strong>in</strong>stead socially constructed, based on<br />

responses from <strong>and</strong> responsibility to audiences. Personal genres as used <strong>in</strong> critical<br />

expressivist pedagogies help students learn more about public issues. Genres like<br />

autobiographies can help <strong>the</strong>m underst<strong>and</strong> relationships between self/o<strong>the</strong>r/<strong>in</strong>stitutions/world<br />

(Freedman, 2001, p. 199; Danielewicz, 2008, p. 442). Danielewicz<br />

argues “experiments that <strong>in</strong>volve writ<strong>in</strong>g different versions of <strong>the</strong> self lead<br />


Communication as Social Action<br />

to growth, to knowledge of public issues, <strong>and</strong> to authority. Writ<strong>in</strong>g about one’s<br />

own or ano<strong>the</strong>r person’s life makes <strong>the</strong> stakes personal, <strong>the</strong>refore immediate, tangible,<br />

even urgent” (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 442). In fact, Danielewicz contends<br />

“we (<strong>and</strong> our cultures, communities, families) need such assertions of self, such<br />

articulation of differences, as a way to fight aga<strong>in</strong>st <strong>the</strong> depersonalization <strong>and</strong><br />

homogeniz<strong>in</strong>g effects of globalization” (2008, p. 439). Instead of conspir<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

replicate “a capitalist/consumerist hegemony responsible for various forms of<br />

political, social, <strong>and</strong> economic oppression” (O’Donnell, 1996, p. 423), critical<br />

expressivist practices can help students fight oppression by see<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> ways <strong>the</strong>y<br />

can take actions <strong>in</strong> our current cultural moment. Unlike critiques that personal<br />

genres are empty exercises (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 442), it is clear that <strong>the</strong>y can<br />

help students actively engage with social issues <strong>and</strong> develop public voices that<br />

make <strong>the</strong>m active participants <strong>in</strong> public arenas. If students realize that someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

is at stake when <strong>the</strong>y write, <strong>the</strong>y become more <strong>in</strong>vested <strong>and</strong> may, perhaps,<br />

see writ<strong>in</strong>g as social action (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 443-4). Draw<strong>in</strong>g on critical<br />

pedagogies like <strong>the</strong>se, we can help students learn to be responsible language users<br />

<strong>in</strong> public spheres.<br />


Near <strong>the</strong> beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>g of this article, I asked if we could imag<strong>in</strong>e creative alternatives<br />

that could help students position <strong>the</strong>mselves as active voices <strong>in</strong> public<br />

discourses. I suggested that an important step <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> process is valu<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

experiences <strong>and</strong> beliefs. Throughout <strong>the</strong> chapter, I have illustrated some of<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways that critical expressivist pedagogies use <strong>in</strong>dividual experiences to help<br />

students become more responsible language users <strong>in</strong> public discourse. So, if we<br />

return to that question now, I hope I have presented a few useful ideas.<br />

I recognize <strong>the</strong> paradoxical nature of this chapter: I am advocat<strong>in</strong>g for <strong>in</strong>corporat<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong>dividual experience <strong>in</strong>to academic <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>r k<strong>in</strong>ds of work <strong>in</strong> both<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> discussion, <strong>and</strong> yet <strong>the</strong>re is not one bit of evidence of my <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

story here. I have also encouraged <strong>in</strong>clud<strong>in</strong>g personal genres <strong>in</strong>to academic <strong>and</strong><br />

o<strong>the</strong>r k<strong>in</strong>ds of writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> yet <strong>the</strong>re is not a stitch of autobiography or autoenthography<br />

or auto-anyth<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> this article. And to be honest, it didn’t even occur<br />

to me to <strong>in</strong>clude it <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> chapter until I was writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> 27 th out of <strong>the</strong> 50 th<br />

draft of this piece (numbers are approximate)—I was tra<strong>in</strong>ed well <strong>in</strong> traditional<br />

academia.<br />

In an effort to answer some of <strong>the</strong> calls I have made <strong>in</strong> this article, I want to<br />

tell some of <strong>the</strong> stories of this article—to foreground <strong>the</strong> motivations, beliefs,<br />

values, <strong>and</strong> hopes that drive this article. Ganz’s story of self, story of us, <strong>and</strong> story<br />

of now help me do so.<br />


Boyd<br />


My motivations for writ<strong>in</strong>g this piece come from a strong belief: The <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

matters! By this, I do not mean to suggest that I am resort<strong>in</strong>g to a “naïve<br />

acceptance of <strong>the</strong> notion of a rational, coherent, <strong>and</strong> unified self” (Freedman,<br />

2001, p. 206); nor am I suggest<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual is “<strong>in</strong>sular, conf<strong>in</strong>ed or<br />

private” (Danielewicz, 2008, p. 440). I am suggest<strong>in</strong>g we need to exam<strong>in</strong>e <strong>the</strong><br />

work that ideas like “self” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>in</strong>dividual” play <strong>in</strong> people’s lives. Many people<br />

f<strong>in</strong>d it important to have a “ground” to st<strong>and</strong> on—a sort of foundation that <strong>the</strong>y<br />

can rely on <strong>in</strong> this world, <strong>and</strong> that ground can come from many places. Yes, it’s<br />

important to realize that <strong>the</strong> “ground” changes over time <strong>and</strong> that we learned<br />

that “ground” through social experiences. Never<strong>the</strong>less, a sense of identity—i.e.<br />

be<strong>in</strong>g an <strong>in</strong>dividual—does important work <strong>in</strong> people’s lives. Susan Hekman argues<br />

that “selves must necessarily experience <strong>the</strong>mselves as coherent identities,<br />

historically located <strong>and</strong> cont<strong>in</strong>gent, but endur<strong>in</strong>g through time” (2010, p. 299).<br />

It is <strong>the</strong> both/<strong>and</strong> that is appeal<strong>in</strong>g to me, that I believe <strong>in</strong>, <strong>and</strong> that attracts me<br />

to critical expressivism: stablity <strong>and</strong> cont<strong>in</strong>gency.<br />

Just as I passionately argue that <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>dividual matters, I just as passionately<br />

<strong>in</strong>sist that pedagogy matters—that composition is a valid <strong>and</strong> valuable field <strong>and</strong><br />

that critical expressivism is an important part of teach<strong>in</strong>g. I am disturbed by<br />

<strong>the</strong> divisiveness I sense every time I go to meet<strong>in</strong>gs where those who identify<br />

<strong>the</strong>mselves loudly as “rhetoricians” work actively to distance <strong>the</strong>mselves from<br />

“teach<strong>in</strong>g.” Many moons ago, Stephen North said that <strong>the</strong> field was suffer<strong>in</strong>g<br />

because <strong>the</strong> Researchers didn’t value <strong>the</strong> Practitioners, <strong>the</strong> Philosophers didn’t<br />

value <strong>the</strong> Researchers, <strong>and</strong> so on (1987). All too often I see this same struggles<br />

occurr<strong>in</strong>g today. My lived experiences <strong>in</strong> departments that too often feel that<br />

rhetoric <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ory is privileged over teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> composition (although I realize<br />

that teach<strong>in</strong>g is not <strong>the</strong> only th<strong>in</strong>g that scholars of composition study). I<br />

have lived through many meet<strong>in</strong>gs where I alternately felt like s<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> my<br />

seat, somehow feel<strong>in</strong>g ashamed to value teach<strong>in</strong>g, or st<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g up on <strong>the</strong> table<br />

shout<strong>in</strong>g “Teach<strong>in</strong>g matters!” I have lived—<strong>and</strong> sadly cont<strong>in</strong>ue to live—a sense<br />

of alienation as “<strong>the</strong>” composition person <strong>in</strong> an area where Rhetoric is privileged.<br />

My first passion <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong> higher education is teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

about teach<strong>in</strong>g. That’s why it was so important to me to contribute to this collection.<br />

I believe <strong>in</strong> students. I believe <strong>in</strong> study<strong>in</strong>g learn<strong>in</strong>g. I believe it’s important<br />

to study teach<strong>in</strong>g. I believe that <strong>the</strong> divisiveness <strong>in</strong> our departments <strong>and</strong> our<br />

own areas is corrosive. I like how Karen Surman Paley puts it: “I am not ask<strong>in</strong>g<br />

naively, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ but ra<strong>the</strong>r I am say<strong>in</strong>g, ‘Let us look<br />

more carefully before we write each o<strong>the</strong>r off.’” (2001, p. 197). That is precisely<br />

what North urged us to do <strong>in</strong> 1987. I believe books like this can help move us<br />


Communication as Social Action<br />

toward that. These are core personal beliefs I br<strong>in</strong>g with me to <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g of this<br />

chapter, to <strong>the</strong> conversation.<br />


“Our stories of self overlap with our stories of us …. A story of us expresses<br />

<strong>the</strong> values, <strong>the</strong> experiences, shared by <strong>the</strong> us we hope to evoke at <strong>the</strong> time”<br />

(Ganz, 2008, p. 12). The “us” be<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>voked <strong>in</strong> this collection is <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of<br />

teacher I want to be—<strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of compassionate, critical, th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g, reflective<br />

teacher (person) I want to be. It is an “us” I want to use to help shape my story<br />

of self because we are collectively construct<strong>in</strong>g a community of values <strong>and</strong><br />

experiences that help our students, communities, <strong>and</strong> worlds. The “collective<br />

identity” be<strong>in</strong>g constructed here across <strong>the</strong> articles is one I wish to be a part of.<br />

The overlap of my story with this collective “us.”<br />

“Like <strong>the</strong> story of self, [<strong>the</strong> story of us] is built from <strong>the</strong> choices po<strong>in</strong>ts—<br />

<strong>the</strong> found<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>the</strong> choices made, <strong>the</strong> challenges faced, <strong>the</strong> outcomes, <strong>the</strong> lessons<br />

learned” (Ganz, 2008, p. 12). I see this book as a story of us, cover<strong>in</strong>g all of <strong>the</strong>se<br />

ideas (explicitly or implicitly)—beg<strong>in</strong>n<strong>in</strong>gs, ongo<strong>in</strong>g choices, perpetually chang<strong>in</strong>g<br />

outcomes, ever blossom<strong>in</strong>g lessons. It is a story <strong>in</strong> which I feel welcomed, not<br />

isolated. It is a story <strong>in</strong> which teach<strong>in</strong>g is valued.<br />

Ganz says <strong>the</strong> story of us requires one key storyteller, “an <strong>in</strong>terpreter of experience”<br />

(2008, p. 12), but I suggest that we are all storytellers. We are all serv<strong>in</strong>g<br />

a critical leadership function <strong>in</strong> <strong>in</strong>terpret<strong>in</strong>g “<strong>the</strong> movement’s new experience”<br />

(Ganz, 2008, p. 12). That is a central part of this book’s story seen through <strong>the</strong><br />

emails we’ve shared, <strong>the</strong> engagements across articles, <strong>the</strong> nature of <strong>the</strong> “collective”<br />

part of <strong>the</strong> edited “collection.”<br />


This is <strong>the</strong> hardest of <strong>the</strong> three stories: “A story of now articulates an urgent<br />

challenge—or threat—to <strong>the</strong> values that we share that dem<strong>and</strong>s action now.<br />

What choices must we make? What is at risk? And where’s <strong>the</strong> hope?” (Ganz,<br />

2008, p. 13).<br />

While I do not th<strong>in</strong>k one writ<strong>in</strong>g class can change <strong>the</strong> world, I do believe that<br />

one writ<strong>in</strong>g class can help students become stronger language users <strong>and</strong> can learn<br />

that language can be an important part of social action. Words have impact;<br />

words can make th<strong>in</strong>gs happen; words do th<strong>in</strong>gs; words are action. Students can/<br />

should take responsibility for <strong>the</strong>ir words. Students can/should be responsive to<br />

<strong>the</strong>ir audiences. Instead of see<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g assignments as, well, assignments, <strong>the</strong>y<br />

should/can see <strong>the</strong>m as actions that matter—as tasks that matter.<br />


Boyd<br />

But some writ<strong>in</strong>g matters more than o<strong>the</strong>rs. Part of our responsibility as<br />

teachers is to make sure <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g we have <strong>the</strong>m do <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> discussions we have<br />

<strong>the</strong>m participate <strong>in</strong> matter. It is also our responsibility to help <strong>the</strong>m see how <strong>the</strong>y<br />

matter <strong>and</strong> to realize that <strong>the</strong>y won’t matter to every student <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> same way. We<br />

can’t assume that <strong>the</strong>y should see <strong>the</strong> world <strong>the</strong> way we do <strong>and</strong> that <strong>the</strong>y should<br />

take <strong>the</strong> stances we do—i.e. take on our political views or political agendas.<br />

But we do face a collective sort problem—i.e. a view that someone else somewhere<br />

else should fix <strong>the</strong> problems that plague us. In “You Don’t Know Where<br />

You’re Go<strong>in</strong>g until You’re on <strong>the</strong> Way There: Why Public ‘Work’ Matters,” Paul<br />

Markham summarizes it well. He argues that we must “re-imag<strong>in</strong>e citizenship<br />

for <strong>the</strong> twenty-first century” (2011, p. 4). Challeng<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> “customer service<br />

mentality” where we wait for someone else to serve us <strong>and</strong> fix our problems “requires<br />

more than policy change alone—it requires a cultural change, a new civic<br />

imag<strong>in</strong>ation. This new k<strong>in</strong>d of everyday politics emphasizes <strong>the</strong> creative role of<br />

citizens <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir ability to solve a wide variety of complex public problems”<br />

(Markham, 2011, p. 4). That emphasis on “a new civic imag<strong>in</strong>ation” <strong>and</strong> “<strong>the</strong><br />

creative role of citizens” is someth<strong>in</strong>g that <strong>the</strong>re is an urgent need for. However,<br />

<strong>the</strong>re is certa<strong>in</strong>ly not one path to fulfill<strong>in</strong>g that need. And <strong>the</strong>re is def<strong>in</strong>itely not<br />

one political agenda that will achieve that goal.<br />

Likewise, <strong>the</strong>re is not one writ<strong>in</strong>g method or approach that best prepares<br />

students to learn <strong>the</strong> k<strong>in</strong>d of creative problem solv<strong>in</strong>g that sort of citizenship<br />

will/does require. Valu<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>dividual experiences <strong>and</strong> situat<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>m <strong>in</strong> larger<br />

social contexts—larger social narratives—will, however, be a crucial part of it.<br />

And critical expresssivism can be an important part of that process, as I have<br />

argued. <strong>Critical</strong> expressivism can, thus, be an important part of <strong>the</strong> story of now.<br />

Ganz writes: “In a story of now, we are <strong>the</strong> protagonists <strong>and</strong> it is our choices that<br />

shape <strong>the</strong> outcome” (2008, p. 13). The choice/action does not need to be huge/<br />

monumental, but it must be specific <strong>and</strong> hold a vision. When mak<strong>in</strong>g choices,<br />

Ganz po<strong>in</strong>ts out, “It can beg<strong>in</strong> by gett<strong>in</strong>g that number of people to show up at<br />

a meet<strong>in</strong>g that you committed to do. You can w<strong>in</strong> a ‘small’ victory that shows<br />

change is possible. A small victory can become a source of hope if it is <strong>in</strong>terpreted<br />

as part of a greater vision” (Ganz, 2008, p. 13).<br />

What we need is small steps <strong>and</strong> new stories to tell about those steps—exactly<br />

what this article has allowed me to do, to consider: what do I want for my<br />

students? For our classrooms? For our educational <strong>in</strong>stitutions? For our communities?<br />

For our nation? While hope may seem like a vague <strong>and</strong> abstract concept,<br />

Ganz <strong>in</strong>sists that “it is a strategy—a credible vision of how to get from here<br />

to <strong>the</strong>re” (2008, p. 13). We all have that hope. This collection has allowed me<br />

(us?) to make a space for vision <strong>and</strong> hope <strong>in</strong> our academic pursuits. The story of<br />

now—<strong>the</strong> hope of critical expressivism.<br />


Communication as Social Action<br />


Berl<strong>in</strong>, J. (2009). Rhetoric <strong>and</strong> ideology <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g class. In S. Miller (Ed.),<br />

The Norton book of composition studies (pp. 667-684). New York: W. W. Norton.<br />

Danielewicz, J. (2008). Personal genres, public voices. College <strong>Composition</strong> <strong>and</strong><br />

Communication, 59(3), 420-450.<br />

Fishman, S., & McCarthy, L. P. (1992). Is expressivism dead? Reconsider<strong>in</strong>g its<br />

romantic roots <strong>and</strong> its relation to social constructivism. College English, 54(6),<br />

647-661.<br />

Freedman, D. P. (2001). Life work through teach<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> scholarship. In D.<br />

Holdste<strong>in</strong> & D. Bleich (Eds.), Personal efects: The social character of scholarly<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g (pp. 199-219). Logan, UT: Utah State Press.<br />

Ganz, M. (2008). What is public narrative? Retrieved from New Engl<strong>and</strong> Grassroots<br />

Environmental Fund Web site: http://wearesole.com/What_is_Public_<br />

Narrative.pdf<br />

Grad<strong>in</strong>, S. (1995). Romanc<strong>in</strong>g rhetorics: Social expressivism on <strong>the</strong> teach<strong>in</strong>g of writ<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Pourtsmouth, NH: He<strong>in</strong>emann.<br />

Hekman, S. (2010). Private Selves, public identities: Reconsider<strong>in</strong>g identity politics.<br />

Penn State Press.<br />

Judd, D. (2003). <strong>Critical</strong> realism <strong>and</strong> composition <strong>the</strong>ory. New York: Routledge.<br />

Markham, P. (2011). You don’t know where you’re go<strong>in</strong>g until you’re on your<br />

way <strong>the</strong>re: Why public “work” matters. Journal for Civic Commitment, 17,<br />

1-17.<br />

North, S. (1987). The mak<strong>in</strong>g of knowledge <strong>in</strong> composition: A portrait of an emerg<strong>in</strong>g<br />

discipl<strong>in</strong>e. Pourtsmouth, NH: He<strong>in</strong>emann.<br />

O’Donnell, T. (1996). Politics <strong>and</strong> ord<strong>in</strong>ary language: A defense of expressivist<br />

rhetorics. College English, 58(4), 423-439.<br />

Paley, K. S. (2001). The social construction of “expressivist” pedagogy.” In D.<br />

Holdste<strong>in</strong> & D. Bleich (Eds.), Personal effects: The social character of scholarly<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g (pp. 178-198). Logan, UT: Utah State Press.<br />

Shields, C. M. & Mohan, E. J. (2008). High-quality education for all students:<br />

Putt<strong>in</strong>g social justice at its heart. Teacher Development, 12(4), 289-300.<br />

Warnock, T. (2003). Br<strong>in</strong>g<strong>in</strong>g over yonder over here: A personal look at expressivist<br />

rhetoric asi action. In T. Enos, K. Miller, & J. McCracken (Eds.),<br />

Beyond postprocess <strong>and</strong> postmodernism: Essays on <strong>the</strong> spaciousness of rhetoric (pp.<br />

203-216). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence/Erlbaum Press.<br />




Daniel F. Coll<strong>in</strong>s<br />

Manhattan College<br />

We live, th<strong>in</strong>k, <strong>and</strong> write between baby steps <strong>and</strong> master <strong>the</strong>ories, where <strong>the</strong><br />

richness, confusion, tragedy, violence, <strong>and</strong> joy of life rush at us where we are<br />

<strong>and</strong> await us where we go.<br />

—Robert L. Davis <strong>and</strong> Mark H. Shadle<br />

“We are all learn<strong>in</strong>g to live toge<strong>the</strong>r.” So reads <strong>the</strong> banner hang<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> prototypical<br />

classroom depicted <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> graphic <strong>in</strong>troduction to teach<strong>in</strong>g, To Teach:<br />

The Journey, <strong>in</strong> Comics, by William Ayers <strong>and</strong> Ryan Alex<strong>and</strong>er-Tanner. Good<br />

teach<strong>in</strong>g prompts students to engage <strong>the</strong> surround<strong>in</strong>g world. Such engagement<br />

commences by honor<strong>in</strong>g each student <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> room, each voice, each person.<br />

*<br />

We are all learn<strong>in</strong>g to live toge<strong>the</strong>r. So evoked President Barack Obama <strong>in</strong><br />

his January 2011 Tucson speech after <strong>the</strong> shoot<strong>in</strong>g of Congresswoman Gabrielle<br />

Giffords <strong>and</strong> o<strong>the</strong>rs. “It’s important for us to pause for a moment <strong>and</strong> make sure<br />

that we are talk<strong>in</strong>g with each o<strong>the</strong>r <strong>in</strong> a way that heals, not a way that wounds,”<br />

<strong>the</strong> President advised (2011). Learn<strong>in</strong>g to live toge<strong>the</strong>r, we check our ideas <strong>and</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong>ir expression through o<strong>the</strong>rs.<br />

*<br />

We are all learn<strong>in</strong>g to live toge<strong>the</strong>r. Mary Rose O’Reilly describes her composition<br />

pedagogy <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> same <strong>in</strong>tertw<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> personal <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> social. O’Reilly<br />

asks students to beg<strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> personal, because such a stance honors <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

voice <strong>and</strong> provides <strong>the</strong>m an opportunity to write from who <strong>the</strong>y are, what <strong>the</strong>y<br />

know, <strong>and</strong> what <strong>the</strong>y want. Her pedagogy concludes <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> social, or <strong>the</strong> communal,<br />

as students write for an audience, <strong>and</strong> this audience <strong>in</strong>forms what <strong>the</strong>y<br />

say <strong>and</strong> how <strong>the</strong>y say it. Writ<strong>in</strong>g to f<strong>in</strong>d one’s voice, O’Reilly argues, “def<strong>in</strong>es a<br />

moment of presence, of be<strong>in</strong>g awake, <strong>and</strong> it <strong>in</strong>volves not only self-underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g,<br />

but <strong>the</strong> ability to transmit that self-underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g to o<strong>the</strong>rs. Learn<strong>in</strong>g to<br />

write so that you will be read, <strong>the</strong>refore, vitalizes both <strong>the</strong> self <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> community”<br />

(2009, p. 58). By encourag<strong>in</strong>g writ<strong>in</strong>g as <strong>the</strong> expression of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>ner world,<br />

O’Reilly escorts students from <strong>the</strong> idiosyncrasies of <strong>the</strong> personal to <strong>the</strong> checks<br />

DOI: https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2014.0575.2.08<br />


Coll<strong>in</strong>s<br />

<strong>and</strong> balances of <strong>the</strong> social. “It seems important,” O’Reilly writes, “that many<br />

oppos<strong>in</strong>g communities exist <strong>in</strong> balance, polish<strong>in</strong>g each o<strong>the</strong>r up like rocks <strong>in</strong> a<br />

river bed, with <strong>the</strong> friction of daily contact” (2009, p. 11).<br />

*<br />

We are all learn<strong>in</strong>g to live toge<strong>the</strong>r. This is <strong>the</strong> feel<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> tenor of <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g<br />

classroom I try to construct <strong>and</strong> implement, a classroom set to up to explore<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g from personal <strong>and</strong> social perspectives. This collage—an homage to <strong>the</strong><br />

writers <strong>and</strong> teachers that <strong>in</strong>form my practice—attempts to articulate <strong>the</strong> ways<br />

<strong>in</strong> which personal <strong>and</strong> social dimensions of writ<strong>in</strong>g are embedded <strong>in</strong> expressivist<br />

th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g. Writ<strong>in</strong>g, Sherrie L. Grad<strong>in</strong> describes,<br />

is an act of <strong>the</strong> whole be<strong>in</strong>g; it is through reflect<strong>in</strong>g, question<strong>in</strong>g<br />

feel<strong>in</strong>g, experienc<strong>in</strong>g, reason<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> imag<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g that writers<br />

become writers. While this might seem an ambitious <strong>and</strong><br />

ideal approach to writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>struction, I would argue that it is<br />

such an ideal that we need to hold to fully educate students <strong>in</strong><br />

a system that often denies <strong>the</strong> emotive, creative, <strong>and</strong> imag<strong>in</strong>ative<br />

aspects of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tellect. (1995, p. 57)<br />

For Grad<strong>in</strong>, expressivism has always been an exploration of self <strong>and</strong> social<br />

world, a form of <strong>in</strong>quiry <strong>and</strong> discovery; expressivism has always been about <strong>the</strong><br />

construction of mean<strong>in</strong>g, about <strong>the</strong> development of self through a concern for<br />

voice <strong>and</strong> lived experience.<br />

*<br />

Robert Yagelski asks writ<strong>in</strong>g teachers to uphold writ<strong>in</strong>g as an ontological act:<br />

“When we write, we enact a sense of ourselves as be<strong>in</strong>gs <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world. In this<br />

regard, writ<strong>in</strong>g both shapes <strong>and</strong> reflects our sense of who we are <strong>in</strong> relation to<br />

each o<strong>the</strong>r <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> world around us. There<strong>in</strong> lies <strong>the</strong> transformative power of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g” (2009, p. 8). While Yagleski upholds <strong>the</strong> act of writ<strong>in</strong>g over any product,<br />

<strong>the</strong> transformation of self <strong>and</strong> world enmeshed <strong>in</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g as an ontological<br />

act mirrors an expressivist impulse to write <strong>in</strong> two specific ways. First, Yagelski<br />

endorses “<strong>the</strong> capacity of writ<strong>in</strong>g to enhance an awareness of ourselves <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

world around us, both <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> moment <strong>and</strong> over time” (Yagelski, 2009, p. 16).<br />

Second, Yagelski acknowledges <strong>the</strong> transformative qualities of writ<strong>in</strong>g as “it opens<br />

up possibilities for awareness, reflection, <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>quiry that writ<strong>in</strong>g as an act of textual<br />

production does not necessarily do” (Yagelski, 2009, p. 7). The act of writ<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

from Yagelski’s perspective, affirms <strong>the</strong> need to compose one’s story <strong>in</strong> mean<strong>in</strong>gful<br />

ways <strong>and</strong> provides <strong>the</strong> means through which to develop a need to reckon with <strong>the</strong><br />

self through <strong>the</strong> act of writ<strong>in</strong>g. <strong>Expressivism</strong> re<strong>in</strong>forces <strong>the</strong>se same dimensions.<br />


From <strong>the</strong> Personal to <strong>the</strong> Social<br />

*<br />

Expressivist writ<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong>ory, it seems to me, upholds <strong>the</strong> idea that to write is<br />

to discover oneself amidst an array of o<strong>the</strong>rs. It honors <strong>the</strong> importance of <strong>the</strong><br />

student engag<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> mak<strong>in</strong>g sense out of <strong>the</strong> world. <strong>Expressivism</strong> grew from<br />

personal uses of language to us<strong>in</strong>g language to engage o<strong>the</strong>rs. “Personal modes<br />

of writ<strong>in</strong>g,” Peter Elbow argues, “help writers take more authority over <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g: not to feel so <strong>in</strong>timidated by it <strong>and</strong> not to write so much tangled or<br />

un<strong>in</strong>vested prose or mechanical or empty th<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g” (2002, p. 16). R<strong>and</strong>all R.<br />

Freis<strong>in</strong>ger agrees, argu<strong>in</strong>g that an academic neglect of <strong>the</strong> expressivist function of<br />

language impairs <strong>the</strong> cognitive development of students simply because students<br />

rema<strong>in</strong> alienated from writ<strong>in</strong>g by a strict emphasis on academic writ<strong>in</strong>g (1980,<br />

p. 162). Sherrie Grad<strong>in</strong> seeks to redress this neglect by rem<strong>in</strong>d<strong>in</strong>g her readers of<br />

<strong>the</strong>se social dimensions of expressivism:<br />

I envision a social-expressivism where <strong>the</strong> best of both expressivism<br />

<strong>and</strong> social epistemic <strong>the</strong>ories are practiced: students<br />

carry out negotiations between <strong>the</strong>mselves <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir culture,<br />

<strong>and</strong> must do this first <strong>in</strong> order to become effective citizens,<br />

imag<strong>in</strong>ative th<strong>in</strong>kers, <strong>and</strong> savvy rhetorical be<strong>in</strong>gs. Learn<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to enact <strong>the</strong>se negotiations means first develop<strong>in</strong>g a sense of<br />

one’s own values <strong>and</strong> social constructions <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong>n exam<strong>in</strong><strong>in</strong>g<br />

how <strong>the</strong>se <strong>in</strong>teract or do not <strong>in</strong>teract with o<strong>the</strong>rs’ value<br />

systems <strong>and</strong> cultural constructs.” (1995, p. 110)<br />

Freis<strong>in</strong>ger argues that <strong>the</strong> end result of <strong>the</strong> expressivist impulse is no less than<br />

connect<strong>in</strong>g personal experience <strong>and</strong> voice to an expansion of <strong>the</strong> student’s conception<br />

of <strong>the</strong> world (1980, p. 164). We are all learn<strong>in</strong>g to live toge<strong>the</strong>r.<br />

*<br />

bell hooks offers a productive def<strong>in</strong>ition of voice from a social perspective:<br />

“Com<strong>in</strong>g to voice is not just <strong>the</strong> act of tell<strong>in</strong>g one’s experience. It is us<strong>in</strong>g that<br />

tell<strong>in</strong>g strategically—to come to voice so that you may also speak freely about<br />

o<strong>the</strong>r subjects” (1994, p. 148). Part of hooks’ <strong>in</strong>struction here is <strong>the</strong> direction of<br />

student attention to <strong>the</strong> voices of o<strong>the</strong>rs. hooks’ sense of self-underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g has<br />

both personal <strong>and</strong> social dimensions: “A personal def<strong>in</strong>ition of self aids, <strong>and</strong> is<br />

<strong>in</strong>deed necessary <strong>in</strong>, <strong>the</strong> development of an awareness of one’s socially def<strong>in</strong>ed<br />

<strong>in</strong>teractions with o<strong>the</strong>rs” (1994, p. 166). In o<strong>the</strong>r words, writers come to know<br />

<strong>the</strong>mselves through <strong>the</strong>ir actions as social be<strong>in</strong>gs. Without a voice, Grad<strong>in</strong> argues,<br />

students may be unwill<strong>in</strong>g to beg<strong>in</strong> important work: “underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g what <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

beliefs are <strong>and</strong> where <strong>the</strong>y come from <strong>in</strong> terms of <strong>the</strong>ir own experiences, so that<br />

<strong>the</strong>y can see how <strong>the</strong>ir value systems might differ from o<strong>the</strong>rs’” (1995, p. 119).<br />


Coll<strong>in</strong>s<br />

*<br />

An expressivist classroom can become a transformative community, one that<br />

embeds personal discoveries <strong>in</strong> social engagement (Fishman & McCarthy, 1992,<br />

p. 659).<br />

*<br />

“We believe that all learn<strong>in</strong>g is autobiographical <strong>and</strong> passionate,” Robert Davis<br />

<strong>and</strong> Mark Shadle confess (2007, p. 9). Davis <strong>and</strong> Shadle go to great lengths<br />

to pa<strong>in</strong>t <strong>the</strong>mselves as composition traditionalists uphold<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> sanctity of academic<br />

projects <strong>and</strong> academic discourse even as <strong>the</strong>y work to extend (<strong>and</strong> undo)<br />

<strong>the</strong> purview <strong>and</strong> parameters of both. “We do not th<strong>in</strong>k that be<strong>in</strong>g <strong>the</strong> best of<br />

academicians is <strong>the</strong> end po<strong>in</strong>t for students or <strong>the</strong> most useful manner of be<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Instead, we hope that students will be <strong>in</strong>tellectuals pursu<strong>in</strong>g press<strong>in</strong>g questions<br />

<strong>and</strong> fertile mysteries, who can engage, <strong>and</strong> change, <strong>the</strong> rhetorical <strong>and</strong> actual<br />

situations of <strong>the</strong>ir lives” (Davis & Shadle, 2007, p. 3). Davis <strong>and</strong> Shadle offer a<br />

useful dist<strong>in</strong>ction here: writ<strong>in</strong>g from <strong>the</strong> self versus writ<strong>in</strong>g about <strong>the</strong> self (see,<br />

too, Elbow, 2002, p. 18): expressivist writ<strong>in</strong>g beg<strong>in</strong>s from <strong>the</strong> self, from <strong>the</strong> personal<br />

experiences <strong>and</strong> observations of <strong>the</strong> writer. But <strong>the</strong> writer is not separate<br />

from larger social contexts, <strong>and</strong> so <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g process does not end until such<br />

<strong>in</strong>quiry is used <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> mak<strong>in</strong>g of mean<strong>in</strong>g for <strong>the</strong> writer <strong>and</strong> for o<strong>the</strong>rs.<br />

*<br />

Peter Elbow considers expressivism as a form of discourse that addresses <strong>the</strong><br />

ways <strong>in</strong> which <strong>in</strong>terested parties engage o<strong>the</strong>r <strong>in</strong>terested parties, all <strong>the</strong> while<br />

identify<strong>in</strong>g (<strong>and</strong> check<strong>in</strong>g <strong>and</strong> modify<strong>in</strong>g) our <strong>in</strong>dividual <strong>and</strong> collective stakes<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> matters at h<strong>and</strong>. Elbow endorses <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>tellectual tasks of “giv<strong>in</strong>g good<br />

reasons <strong>and</strong> evidence yet do<strong>in</strong>g so <strong>in</strong> a rhetorical fashion which acknowledges<br />

an <strong>in</strong>terested position <strong>and</strong> tries to acknowledge <strong>and</strong> underst<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> positions<br />

of o<strong>the</strong>rs” (2002, p. 148). Self <strong>in</strong> a world of o<strong>the</strong>rs—we are all learn<strong>in</strong>g to live<br />

toge<strong>the</strong>r.<br />

*<br />

Stephen M. Fishman <strong>and</strong> Lucille Park<strong>in</strong>son McCarthy argue that Peter Elbow<br />

“hopes to <strong>in</strong>crease our chances for identify<strong>in</strong>g with one ano<strong>the</strong>r <strong>and</strong>, as a<br />

result, our chances for restructur<strong>in</strong>g community” (1992, p. 649). Expression,<br />

<strong>the</strong>n, becomes about both self-discovery <strong>and</strong> social connection (Fishman & Mc-<br />

Carthy, 1992, p. 650). Both goals rest <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> clarification of mean<strong>in</strong>g embodied<br />

<strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> act of expression, acts designed to help us engage our sense of selves <strong>and</strong><br />

of o<strong>the</strong>rs (Fishman & McCarthy, 1992, pp. 650, 652).<br />


*<br />

From <strong>the</strong> Personal to <strong>the</strong> Social<br />

Ken Macrorie writes, “All good writers speak <strong>in</strong> honest voices <strong>and</strong> tell <strong>the</strong><br />

truth” (1985, p. 15). Macrorie values writ<strong>in</strong>g as truth-tell<strong>in</strong>g: “a connection between<br />

<strong>the</strong> th<strong>in</strong>gs written about, <strong>the</strong> words used <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> author’s<br />

experience <strong>in</strong> a world she knows well—whe<strong>the</strong>r <strong>in</strong> fact or dream or imag<strong>in</strong>ation”<br />

(1985, p. 15). Such truth-tell<strong>in</strong>g overrides <strong>the</strong> perceived importance of academic<br />

discourse, which r<strong>in</strong>gs so false <strong>and</strong> pretentious to Macrorie that he gives it<br />

ano<strong>the</strong>r name: Engfish. Engfish, accord<strong>in</strong>g to Macrorie, prevents <strong>the</strong> tell<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

truth <strong>and</strong> promotes <strong>the</strong> tell<strong>in</strong>g of lies (1985, p. 14). Instead of Engfish, Macrorie<br />

promotes <strong>the</strong> use of natural, au<strong>the</strong>ntic, alive voices, voices that recount <strong>and</strong><br />

recreate experiences us<strong>in</strong>g concrete facts <strong>and</strong> details to produce mean<strong>in</strong>gs for<br />

readers (1985, p. 34).<br />

*<br />

Macrorie identifies three resources at h<strong>and</strong> for any writer. First, <strong>the</strong> writer has<br />

her experiences from which to draw. These experiences can <strong>and</strong> should acknowledge<br />

<strong>the</strong> ways <strong>in</strong> which <strong>the</strong> thoughts <strong>and</strong> feel<strong>in</strong>gs of o<strong>the</strong>rs have impacted <strong>the</strong><br />

writer. Second, <strong>the</strong> writer has her writ<strong>in</strong>g skills, those rhetorical strategies used<br />

to speak <strong>in</strong> an au<strong>the</strong>ntic voice to connect with her readers. Third, she has her<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g group, this circle of o<strong>the</strong>rs to be used to hone <strong>the</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g, <strong>the</strong> practice of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g (Macrorie, 1985, p. 74). “Good writers meet <strong>the</strong>ir readers only at <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

best,” advocates Macrorie, <strong>in</strong>dicat<strong>in</strong>g a concern for audience that is generally<br />

downplayed <strong>in</strong> discussions of his work (1985, p. 35). This concern for audience<br />

seems fundamental to <strong>the</strong> ways that Macrorie’s work is about <strong>the</strong> impact of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g on its readers.<br />

*<br />

Robert Yagelski offers three important po<strong>in</strong>ts relat<strong>in</strong>g to <strong>the</strong> act of writ<strong>in</strong>g:<br />

“<strong>the</strong> experience of writ<strong>in</strong>g is an experience of our be<strong>in</strong>g as <strong>in</strong>herently social; it<br />

is <strong>the</strong> experience of <strong>the</strong> <strong>in</strong>terconnectedness of be<strong>in</strong>g” (2009, p. 14); writ<strong>in</strong>g “is<br />

an act of <strong>the</strong> self becom<strong>in</strong>g more fully present <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world at <strong>the</strong> moment of<br />

writ<strong>in</strong>g” (2009, p. 13); <strong>and</strong> writ<strong>in</strong>g can be a profound act of self-awareness, a<br />

deepen<strong>in</strong>g of underst<strong>and</strong><strong>in</strong>g of <strong>the</strong> self as a be<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> <strong>the</strong> world (2009, p. 15).<br />

“Writ<strong>in</strong>g is <strong>the</strong>rapeutic not because it is <strong>the</strong> catharsis of confess<strong>in</strong>g,” argue Davis<br />

<strong>and</strong> Shadle, “but because writ<strong>in</strong>g about topics that writers are passionate about<br />

can help transform lives” (2007, p. 72). The ontological act of writ<strong>in</strong>g favors an<br />

expressivist emphasis on imag<strong>in</strong>ation, creativity, <strong>and</strong> process.<br />

*<br />


Coll<strong>in</strong>s<br />

Mary Rose O’Reilly asks her students to enchant <strong>the</strong>mselves with <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

through <strong>the</strong>ir writ<strong>in</strong>g (2009, p. 54). To be enchanted suggests that <strong>the</strong> work<br />

will be engaged, completed, relished. One danger may be that that students simply<br />

fall <strong>in</strong> love with <strong>the</strong>ir stories. I don’t simply want student narratives, stories<br />

about <strong>the</strong>ir lives. I want well-written narratives, crafted compositions about who<br />

<strong>the</strong>y are <strong>and</strong> who <strong>the</strong>y want to be. Mean<strong>in</strong>g made by mean<strong>in</strong>g shaped. Ander<br />

Monson helps me out here, <strong>in</strong> a passage I distribute to my students for discussion.<br />

Forgive <strong>the</strong> lengthy quotation:<br />

But I still don’t want to read what most people have to say<br />

about <strong>the</strong>mselves if it’s just to tell <strong>the</strong>ir story. I want it to<br />

be art, mean<strong>in</strong>g that I want it transformed, juxtaposed,<br />

collaged—worked on like metal sculpture, each sentence<br />

hammered, gleam<strong>in</strong>g, honed …. The action of tell<strong>in</strong>g is f<strong>in</strong>e:<br />

kudos for you <strong>and</strong> your confession, your <strong>the</strong>rapy, your bravery<br />

<strong>in</strong> releas<strong>in</strong>g your story to <strong>the</strong> public. But tell<strong>in</strong>g is perform<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

even if it seems effortless …. With years of reflection on that<br />

story <strong>and</strong> how it can be shaped as prose (<strong>and</strong> how its shape<br />

changes from our shap<strong>in</strong>g it, reflect<strong>in</strong>g on it), given audience<br />

<strong>and</strong> agents <strong>and</strong> editors, rhetoric <strong>and</strong> workshop <strong>and</strong> rewrit<strong>in</strong>g<br />

for maximum emotional punch—given <strong>the</strong> endless possibilities<br />

of <strong>the</strong> sentence on <strong>the</strong> page, I expect to see a little fuck<strong>in</strong>g<br />

craft. I guess I want awareness, a sense that <strong>the</strong> writer has<br />

reckoned with <strong>the</strong> self, <strong>the</strong> material, as well as what it means<br />

to reveal it, <strong>and</strong> how secrets are revealed, how stories are told,<br />

that it’s not just be<strong>in</strong>g simply told. In short, it must make<br />

someth<strong>in</strong>g of itself. (Monson, 2010, p. 13)<br />

Yes, writ<strong>in</strong>g should move <strong>and</strong> surprise; it should teach its readers <strong>and</strong> writers<br />

someth<strong>in</strong>g new.<br />