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Lynch, Paul. Writing as Spiritual Exercise. CE, July 2018. Posted 08/17/2018.

Lynch, Paul. “Shadow Living: Toward Spiritual Exercises for Teaching.” College English 80.6 (2018): 499-516. Print.

Paul Lynch writes about a state of mind experienced by some seasoned writing teachers that he equates with Thomas Newkirk’s “emotional underlife of teaching” (qtd. in Lynch 500). Drawing on Paul Kameen’s depiction of this state of mind in Writing/Teaching, Lynch describes it as a point at which a well-developed set of teaching practices ceases to make classroom practice meaningful (499-500).

Further exploring this phenomenon, Lynch considers Bill Readings’s contention in The University in Ruins that teachers who see themselves as a “rhetor rather than magister” find that their “mastery” of teaching practice may not mesh with the need, as a rhetor, to “redefine pedagogy as ‘a relation, a network of obligation” rather than as a platform from which to dispense knowledge (qtd. in Lynch 500; emphasis original). Recognizing the contradictions between the accumulation of professional expertise and an understanding of teaching as relational leads, in Lynch’s view, to questions like Kameen’s “What am I doing here?” In Lynch’s view, teachers cannot easily resolve this contradiction and should consider instead, in Kameen’s words, “living in the shadow of [the question’s] imperative” (qtd. in Lynch 501; emendation in Lynch).

Central to the kind of mastery composition specialists commonly value, Lynch proposes, is faith in reflection as a means of becoming a critically aware teacher. Citing Kathleen Blake Yancey’s discussions of reflection, Lynch writes of the assumption that reflection can aid teachers just as it can students by allowing them to “consciously and therefore critically reflect on their own success and failure with an eye toward improvement” (502). Such reflection commonly involves exploring one’s experiences through writing. Donald Schön, in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, further develops the view that by combining “technical knowledge and practical experience” (503), experts like teachers can assemble a set of responses to the problems they encounter.

Lynch turns to critiques of reflection as a means of resolving the problem of the “emotional underlife” teachers may encounter. From Kenneth Burke he takes the concept of “trained incapacity” to argue that a teacher faced with a loss of faith in his or her professional practice may resort to reflection as an attempt to increase mastery, which may make responses to complex relational engagements “automatic” (Schön, qtd. in Lynch 504) and, in Lynch’s view, a grounds for “boredom, burnout, and breakdown” (504).

Casey Boyle similarly suggests that reflection as commonly understood “operates on a destructive subject-object distinction” that assumes that people can separate their “agency” from the environment in which it is created and perpetuated, examining their actions rationally to improve them based on technical assessments of success (505). Lynch also draws on Robert Yagelski’s views, in Writing as a Way of Being, that written reflection as often practiced sees writing “simply as a way to record and express one’s experience,” whereas writing can also be viewed as “an experience in and of itself” (507).

Lynch proposes that the feelings expressed by Kameen and Newkirk “cannot be addressed by a reconsidered lesson plan or a revamped pedagogy” (507); indeed, in his view, resorting to these strategies compounds the problem. He suggests instead the use of writing as a form of reflection as experience that he calls “spiritual.” Spirituality, in his view, need not be specifically religious but can serve as a way of “liv[ing] in the shadow of questions that do not seem amenable to reflective thinking” (507-08) and thus avoiding the need for control that may lead to “demoralization,” defined as a feeling that, for the teachers in question, moves beyond frustration that old ways no longer work to an awareness that “they’ve lost any sense of which ways might” (505).

Lynch draws on Foucault to propose a regimen of “care of the self” (qtd. in Lynch 508) that includes “practices through which subjects might shape themselves” (508). This self-formation addresses character through, in Debra Hawhee’s words, “intensive attention and discipline, painful repeated exercise” (qtd. in Lynch 509). Among the exercises that promote self-re-shaping is a form of writing related to the development of “[p]hilosophic wisdom,” which, for Lynch, is not about acquiring topic mastery but rather “a matter of living a certain way of life” (509). This view counters the view that Lynch, via Foucault, attributes to Descartes, in which the self can be held apart from the knowledge it acquires, with the result that the knowledge does not affect “the structure of the subject itself” (qtd. in Lynch 510).

Similarly, Lynch cites the philosopher Pierre Hadot, for whom the “study of philosophy in the ancient world was more concerned with how the student lived than with what the student knew” (510). As an example of how writing furthered such a “spiritual program,” Hadot and Lynch reference the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which they present not as exercises to portray experience but rather to engage more deeply with it (510-14). The spiritual exercise of writing for this purpose allows Aurelius “a chance to examine his conduct” each day (511) and to prepare himself for “the challenges of . . . daily living” (512). Aurelius’s view, quoted by Lynch, is that

The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. (512)

In order to develop this stance, Lynch proposes, philosophical wisdom requires engaging rather than lamenting “the writer’s daily struggle (shadow boxing) against himself” (512). Lynch sees this kind of self-formative writing as important in the effort of “dwelling within a network of obligations,” which teachers must accept if they are to survive their encounters with the emotional underlife (512).

Contending that more experienced and capable teachers are among the most prone to confront this emotional quandary, Lynch concedes that reflection as most often understood can increase knowledge, but argues that knowledge alone is not sufficient (513). The kind of written reflection as spiritual exercise practiced by Aurelius and other philosophers, he asserts, can offer a way “to practice interdependence” rather than increase control (513). He argues that such exercise may bolster what Hawhee calls “a pedagogy of association” (qtd. in Lynch 514), that is, a pedagogy based on relationship and obligation:

Why would our students want to associate with us? And how will we be formed by the association? These are the kinds of questions that we might answer by practicing writing as a spiritual exercise. (514)


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Rice, Jenny. Para-Expertise in Writing Classrooms. CE, Nov. 2015. Posted 12/07/2015.

Rice, Jenny. “Para-Expertise, Tacit Knowledge, and Writing Problems.” College English 78.2 (2015): 117-38. Print.

Jenny Rice examines how views of expertise in rhetoric and composition shape writing instruction. She argues for replacing the definition of non-expertise as a lack of knowledge with expanded approaches to expertise open to what Michael Polanyi has called “tacit knowledge” (125). Rice proposes a new category of knowledge, “para-expertise,” that draws on tacit knowledge to enable students and other non-experts to do activities related to expertise.

Rice cites a number of approaches to expertise in rhet/comp’s disciplinary considerations. Among them is the idea that the field has content that only qualified individuals can impart (120). Further, she sees expectations in writing-across-the-curriculum and writing-in-the-disciplines, as well as the view that composition courses should inculcate students in “expert [reading and writing] practice[s]” (121), as indications of the rhetorical presence notions of expertise acquire in the field (120-21).

She opposes the idea of novice practice as a deficiency with other attitudes toward expertise. Within the field of composition studies, she points to the work of Linda Flower and John Hayes. These scholars, she writes, found that the expertise of good writers consisted not of specific knowledge but rather of the ability to pose more complex problems for themselves as communicators. Whereas weaker writers “often flatline around fulfilling the details of the prompt, including word count and other conventional details,” expert writers “use the writing prompt as a way to articulate and define their own understanding of the rhetorical situation to which they are responding” (121).

This discussion leads Rice to a view of expertise as meaningful problem-posing, an activity rather than a body of knowledge. In this view, students can do the work of expertise even when they have no field-specific knowledge (122). Understanding expertise in this way leads Rice to explore categories of expertise as laid out in “the interdisciplinary field of Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE)” (123). Scholars in this field distinguish between “contributory experts” who “have the ability to do things within the domain of their expertise” (Harry Collins and Robert Evans, qtd. in Rice 123; emphasis original); and “interactional experts,” who may not be able to actively produce within the field but who are “immersed in the language of that particular domain” (123). Rice provides the example of artists and art critics (123).

Rice emphasizes the importance of interactional expertise by noting that not all contributory experts communicate easily with each other and thus require interactional experts to “bridge the gulf” between discourse communities addressing a shared problem (124). She provides the example of “organic farmers and agricultural scholars” who function within separate expert domains yet need others to “translate” across these domains (124-25).

But Rice feels these definitions need to be augmented with another category to encompass people like students who lack the domain-specific knowledge to be contributory or interactional experts. She proposes the category “para-expertise,” in which para takes on its “older etymology” as “alongside (touching the side of) different forms of expertise” (119).

In Rice’s view, the tacit knowledge that fuels para-expertise, while usually discounted in formal contexts, arises from “embodied knowledge” gleaned from everyday living in what Debra Hawhee has called “rhetoric’s sensorium” (cited in Rice 126). In Rice’s words, this sensorium may be defined as “the participatory dimension of communication that falls outside of simple articulation without falling outside the realm of understanding” (126). She gives the example of not being able to articulate the cues that, when implicitly sensed, result in her clear knowledge that she is hearing her mother’s voice on the phone (125)

Rice’s extended example of the work of para-expertise revolves around students’ sense of the effects of campus architecture on their moods and function. Interviews with “hundreds of college students” at “four different university campuses” regarding their responses to “urban legends” about dorms and other buildings being like prisons lead Rice to argue that the students were displaying felt knowledge of the bodily and psychological effects of window and hallway dimensions even though they did not have the expert disciplinary language to convert their sensed awareness into technical architectural principles (127-31). In particular, Rice states, the students drew a sense of a problem to be addressed from their tacit or para knowledge and thus were embarking on “the activity of expertise” (131).

In Rice’s discussion, para-expertise can productively engage with other forms of expertise through the formation of “strategic expertise alliances” (131). By itself para-expertise cannot resolve a problem, but those whose tacit knowledge has led them to identify the problem can begin to address it via coalitions with those with the specific disciplinary tools to do so. As a classroom example, she explains that students on her campus had become concerned about intentions to outsource food options, thus endangering connections with local providers and reducing choices. Lacking the vocabulary to present their concerns to administrators, a group of students and faculty joined with local community organizations that were able to provide specific information and guidance in constructing arguments (132-33).

Rice’s own writing students, participating in this campus issue, were asked to gather oral histories from members of a nearby farmers’ market. The students, however, felt “intimidated and out of place” during their visits to the farmers’ market (136), partly because, as students from other areas, they had seldom had any reason to visit the market. Rice considers this tacit response to the market the opening of a problem to be addressed: “How can a community farmers market reach students who only temporarily reside in that community?” (136; emphasis original).

Rice writes:

[T]he solution calls for greater expertise than first-year students possess. Rather than asking students to (artificially) adopt the role of expertise and pose a solution, however, we turned to a discussion of expert alliances. Who were the “pivot points” in this problem? Who were the contributory experts, and who had the skills of interactional expertise? (136)

Ultimately, alliances resulting from this discussion led to the creation of a branch of the farmers’ market on campus (136).

Rice argues that this approach to expertise highlights its nature as a collaborative effort across different kinds of knowledge and activities (134). It de-emphasizes the “terribly discouraging” idea that “discovery” is the path to expertise and replaces that “myth” with an awareness that “invention and creation” and how “[e]xperts pose problems” are the keys to expert action (122; emphasis original). It also helps students understand the different kinds of expertise and how their own tacit knowledge can become part of effective action (135).