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Sumpter, Matthew. Linked Creative Writing-Composition Courses. CE, Mar. 2016. Posted 05/01/2016.

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Sumpter, Matthew. “Shared Frequency: Expressivism, Social Constructionism, and the Linked Creative Writing-Composition Class.” College English 78.4 (2016): 340-61. Print.

Matthew Sumpter advocates for “tandem” creative-writing and composition courses as first-year curricula. To support this claim, he examines the status of both composition and creative writing in the academy through the “dual metrics” of expressivism and social constructionism (341).

Sumpter characterizes the two types of writing classes as separate enterprises, describing creative writing as “an almost anti-academic endeavor” (Tim Mayers, qtd. in Sumpter 340), exhibiting a “lack of reflectiveness about what, how, and why one teaches creative writing” (340). He portrays composition, in contrast, as highly theorized and “characterized by a greater dedication to informed pedagogy” (340). He contends that both areas would benefit from increased communication: creative writing could draw on composition’s stronger critical and theoretical grounding while composition would be able to offer students more “tools with which to manipulate language’s rhythm, pace, sound, and appearance” (340).

He locates the roots of expressivism and social constructivism respectively in the work of Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae. In Sumpter’s view, Elbow’s project involved placing students and their lives and thoughts at the center of the classroom experience in order to give them a sense of themselves as writers (342), while Bartholomae saw such emphasis on students’ individual expression as a “sleight of hand” that elides the power of the teacher and the degree to which all writing is a product of culture, history, and textual interaction (qtd. in Sumpter 342). For Sumpter, Bartholomae’s approach, which he sees as common in the composition classroom, generates a teacher-centered pedagogy (342-43).

Sumpter points to ways in which current uses of these two approaches merge to create “a more flexible version of each philosophy” (341). By incorporating and valuing diverse student voices, expressivism gains a critical, socially aware component, while social constructionists exploit the de-emphasis on the genius of the individual author to welcome voices that are often marginalized and to increase student confidence in themselves as writers (344). Yet, Sumpter argues, attention to the differences in these two philosophies enables the implications of each to be explored more fully (344).

Sumpter presents a history of the relationship between creative writing and composition, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, according to D. G. Myers, there was no distinction between the two (cited in Sumpter 345). The next part of the 20th century saw a increasing emphasis on “efficiency,” which led writing classes to a focus on “practical activities” (Myers, qtd. in Sumpter 345). Creative writing, meanwhile, allied itself with New Criticism, “melding dual impulses—writing and literature, expression and ideas, art and social practice” (345). This liaison, Sumpter writes, gave way fairly quickly after World War II to a new role for universities as they tried to assert themselves as a “haven for the arts” (Myers, qtd. in Sumpter 346), leading to a rupture between creative writing and criticism (346).

Sumpter states that this rupture, establishing as it did that creative writing was “something different from an academic discipline” (Tim Mayers, qtd. in Sumpter 346; emphasis original), coincided with composition’s development as an academic field. As composition studies continued to evolve theoretically, according to Sumpter, creative writing pedagogy retreated into “lore,” disappearing from discussions of the history of writing instruction like those of Gerald Graff and James Berlin (347).

Sumpter references moves during the latter decades of the 20th century to question the divorce between the two fields, but posits the need to examine creative-writing pedagogy more carefully in order to assess such moves. He focuses in particular on criticism of the workshop model, which scholars such as Patrick Bizarro and Michael McClanahan and Kelly Ritter characterize as built around a dominating teacher who imposes conformity on student writers (348). Moreover, according to Sumpter, the pursuit of consensus in the workshop model “will reflect a dominant ideology” (348) that excludes many students’ unique or marginalized voices and experiences (349). In Sumpter’s view, theory like that informing composition studies can disrupt these negative practices (349).

Sumpter examines a number of scholarly proposals for bridging the gap between creative writing and composition. Some adjust pedagogy in small ways to integrate expressivism and social-contructionism (353-54). Others more aggressively redesign pedagogy: for example, Tim Mayers proposes a course built around “craft criticism,” which he says can meld creative writing with “sociopolitical understandings of literacy” to locate it in “a more general intellectual framework concerning literacy itself” (qtd. in Sumpter 354). Wendy Bishop’s “transactional workshop” includes “strong components of exploratory and instrumental writing” as well as self-reflection to introduce theory while retaining students as the pedagogical center (qtd. in Sumpter 355).

Other models revise workshop design: for example, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet have students respond to each others’ work in small groups, meeting with an instructor only occasionally to diminish the dominance of the teacher (355). Sumpter discusses other models that ask composition to encourage risk-taking, originality, and experimentation (357).

Sumpter expresses concern that some models, such as Mayers’s, ultimately fail to put expressivism on equal footing with social constructionism (354) and that efforts to inject social-constructionism into creative writing courses can impose “certain pedagogical traits that just about every theorist of creative writing pedagogy wants to avoid,” such as increased teacher dominance (353). His solution is a two-course curriculum in which the two courses are taught separately, though coordinated, for example, by theme (358) and each infused with aspects of its counterpart (351, 359).

He grounds this proposal in claims that what creative writing offers is sufficiently different and valuable that it deserves its own focus and that, if simply added to composition classes, will always risk being eclipsed by the theoretical and analytical components (350-352). He addresses the institutional burden of staffing this extra course by adapting Bythe and Sweet’s model, in which most of the feedback burden is taken on by students in small groups and the instructor’s role is minimized. In such a model, he argues, current faculty and graduate instructors can take on an additional course assignments without substantially increasing work load (358-59).

The virtues of such a model, he contends, include allowing each course to focus on its own strengths while addressing its weaknesses and “formalizing” the equal value of creative writing in the academy. He believes that realizing these goals “will give students a deep, diverse exposure to the world of written discourse and their place in it” (359).

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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