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Thein, Guise, and Sloan. Emotional Rules in Student Response. RTE, Feb. 2015. Posted 03/31/15

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Thein, Amanda Haertling, Megan Guise, and DeAnn Long Sloan. “Examining Emotional Rules in the English Classroom: A Critical Discourse Analysis of One Student’s Literary Responses in Two Academic Contexts.” Research in the Teaching of English 49.3 (2015): 200-23. Print.

Amanda Haertling Thein, Megan Guise, and DeAnn Long Sloan explore the ways in which emotion inevitably pervades classroom environments and argue for more attention to how students understand the “emotional rules” of different learning situations. They focus on pedagogy in literature with a call for similar research in writing, drama, or other language-arts coursework (219).

The authors draw from a broader qualitative project a case study of a “focal” student, Nina, enrolled in Sloan’s 10th-grade course. They chose such students as examples of a diverse range of “reading interests, abilities, and levels of engagement” (205). Nina, an able student who reads widely, is studied as she engages in two learning contexts, a whole-class seminar circle discussing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and a three-student “literature circle” focusing on Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina in which the students can interact without the direct oversight of a teacher (206). The researchers supplemented transcripts of discussion in each context with interviews with Nina. Thein, Guise, and Sloan examine Nina’s very different rhetorical choices as she responds to literature in the two different environments (205).

The authors’ focus emanates from their contention that emotion has often been theorized as an individual response that should be bracketed because it interferes with the analytical mindset necessary for true critical engagement. On the contrary, they maintain that emotion always underlies students’ construction of the proper way to respond in any given learning environment and, if ignored, can constrain the kinds of learning possible (205). They characterize the rules for incorporating emotion into academic environments and for displaying emotion as “circulating and sticking” through sociocultural processes in which people learn what is expected in each situation (203). Unless such “emotional rules” are “unstuck,” they close off certain interpretive options and allow important issues to be elided (213, 217-18).

The authors’ observations and interviews lead them to characterize Nina’s in-class responses as largely directed to Sloan as the teacher and structured to accord with the attitudes and ideologies Nina believes Sloan values. These include emotionally restrained expressions of tolerance and analytical contextualization of characters’ behavior. In contrast, in the relatively unsupervised literature-circle setting, Nina and her classmates reveal immediate, even visceral, emotional reactions to events in Bastard Out of Carolina. Drawing on the model of critical discourse analysis presented by N. Fairclough, the authors contrast these two sets of responses through examination of “genre,” “style,” and “discourse.” Genre relates to the socially transmitted emotional rules that determine appropriate emotional expression in different contexts; style allows analysis of modes of expression such as tone, voice level, use of metaphor, and phrasing. Discourse involves an account of the “themes” and “ideologies” that appear in the different environments (207-08).

Thein et al. illustrate with coded examples from transcripts and from interviews that Nina intuited “neutral” comments as acceptable within the seminar circle (212), whereas in the small-group student-led literature circle, all three students felt free to judge characters harshly, to address them by name, and even to advocate violent solutions to issues raised in the book (215). Where in the seminar circle, Nina offered her responses in a quiet “academic register,” in the literature circle she raised her voice and risked profane and politically incorrect language in a “street-smart” register that cast her as “someone powerfully able to cope with the fear and violence depicted in the novel” (215). Additionally, in their small group, the students responded to each other rather than to the teacher, as was Nina’s habit in the larger seminar circle (215).

Thein et al. note that Nina may have been drawing on emotional rules from experiences in earlier literature classes rather than accurately interpreting Sloan’s intentions (218). They consider teachers’ attention to students’ reading of such rules as crucial because of the tendency of analytical, academic registers and genres to drive such emotions underground where their implications cannot be part of the discussion. The authors contend that while emotions such as anger and a desire for violent solutions may not be “better” responses (217), they open up new interpretive opportunities that allow students a fuller exploration of their relationship to texts. For example, they argue that for Nina, the examination of varying perspectives she felt was appropriate in Sloan’s class meant trying out only certain approved perspectives; others that she expressed in the less constrained environment were inconsistent with the academic registers and discourses she saw as invited by the class (218). Teachers can help students recognize the existence of these rule sets in order to help them better investigate their responses to a range of emotionally laden situations (218).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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