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Goldblatt, Eli. Expressivism as “Tacit Tradition.” CCC, Feb. 2017. Posted 03/15/2017.

Goldblatt, Eli. “Don’t Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a ‘Tacit Tradition’.” College Composition and Communication 68.3 (2017): 438-65. Print.

Eli Goldblatt explores what he considers the “subtle legacies” (442) of a “much maligned movement” in composition studies, expressivism (439). His locates his exigency in conversations about the value of a “literacy autobiography” he recently published. These discussions led him to believe that this form of writing did not meet his colleagues’ definition of respectable academic work (438-39).

For Goldblatt, expressivist tendencies may be rejected by theorists but persist in much recent work in the field, creating what Christopher Burnham and Rebecca Powell call a “tacit tradition” within the field (qtd. in Goldblatt 440). Goldblatt argues that recognizing the value and influence of expression will lead to a sense of writing that more fully integrates important aspects of what actually inspires writers.

Graduate students, he reports, often learn about expressivism via the scholarly debate between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow in 1989 and 1991; such theoretical work cast personal expression as too grounded in the individual and “lacking in a political analysis of the composing situation in schools” (440).

Yet, Goldblatt observes, students often prefer “personal writing,” which they may consider “relatable” (439); his graduate students exhibit interest in the role of the personal in literacy activities in their own research (440). He posits, with Burnham and Powell, that the research from the 1970s by James Britton and his associates reveals “some sort of Ur-expressive drive [that] stands behind all writing” (440).

Goldblatt traces overt strands of expressivism through the work of such scholars as Sherrie Gradin and Wendy Bishop (440-41). He posits that some resistance to expressivism in composition may be traceable to concerns about the kind of research that would lead to tenure and promotion as the field began to define itself within departments heavily populated by literary critics (445). He notes “two stigmas” attached to expressivism: one is its centrality to high-school pedagogy; in its effort to establish itself as a respectable college-level endeavor, composition distanced itself from methods practiced in K-12 (446). Similarly, the field set itself apart from creative writing, in which, Goldplatt recounts, instruction in his experience emphasized “aesthetic achievement rather than self-actualization” (447).

Wendy Bishop, who characterized herself as “something-like-an-expressivist” (qtd. in Goldblatt 448), subsequently became CCCC chair. Goldblatt notes her defense of her pedagogy against the claim that expressivism

keep[s] students in a state of naiveté, [doesn’t] prepare them for the languages of  the academy, . . . and “emphasize[s] a type of self-actualization which the outside world would indict as sentimental and dangerous.” (Bishop, qtd. in Goldblatt 447-48; quoting from Stephen M. Fishman and Lucille Parkinson McCarthy)

Still, Goldblatt contends, her stance was “more admired than imitated” (448), doing little to recuperate expressivism within the field.

Despite his own commitment to poetry, Goldblatt acknowledges the importance of composition’s “social turn” and the power of the “social-epistemic rhetoric” promulgated by James Berlin and others. Still, he finds the rejection of expressivism problematic in recent movements in college writing such as the focus on transfer and the “writing about writing” program advocated by scholars like Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Goldblatt worries that too much emphasis on “school success and professional preparation” (441) undercuts “two  impulses” that he posits underlie the need to write: “the desire to speak out of your most intimate experiences and to connect with communities in need” (442).

Goldblatt examines “habits of mind” that he associates with expressivism in the recent work of four scholars who, he believes, would not explicitly call themselves expressivists (443). In Goldblatt’s view, Robert Yagelski’s Writing as a Way of Being “seems both anchored in and estranged from expressivism” (448). Yagelski’s focus on “the ‘writer writing’ rather than the ‘writer’s writing’” seems to Goldblatt a “phenomenological” approach to composing (448) that values the social impact of relationships at the same time it encourages individual self-actualization (448). Goldblatt compares Yagelski’s views to Ken Macrorie’s in his 1970 book Uptaught in that both reject “standardized instruction” in favor of “writing as a means to explore and enrich experience” (450), undoing a “false binary” between writing for the self and writing to engage with the world (448).

In Adam Banks’s Digital Griots, Goldblatt finds the personal entering through voice and style that both invoke the African-American tradition while “consciously modeling that social boundaries everywhere must be crossed” (451). Banks recounts “personal testimony” from young African Americans for whom individual storytelling establishes solidarity while creating connections with the past (452). Goldblatt notes that unlike early expressivists, Banks rejects the sense that “all expression is drawn from the same well” (453). Instead, he “remixes” many different individual voices to generate an implicit expressivism as “a deep and dialogic commitment to the individual within the swirl of events, movements, and economic pressures” (453-54).

Tiffany Rousculp’s Rhetoric of Respect recounts her creation and administration of the Community Writing Center at Salt Lake City Community College (454). Goldblatt finds Rousculp addressing tensions between progressive Freirean motives and her recognition that community members from a wide range of backgrounds would have personal reasons for writing that did not accord with the specific goals of the “sponsoring institution” (455). Although honoring these individual goals may seem antithetical to a social-epistemic approach, Goldblatt writes that the Center’s orientation remained deeply social because, in his view of Rousculp’s understanding, “individuals can only be seen within the web of their relationships to others” (456). Only when able to escape the constraints of the various institutions controliing their lives and select their own reasons for writing, Goldblatt posits, can individuals “exert agency” (456).

Sondra Perl’s On Austrian Soil depicts a teaching experience in which she worked with native Austrian writers to explore the legacy of the country’s Nazi past. Stating that he connects Perl not so much with early expressivism as with the origins of the process movement (458), Goldblatt notes her interest in the “personal, even bodily, experience of composing” (457). In his view, her experience in Austria, though painful in many ways, highlights the ways in which students’ emotional positioning, which can both inspire and limit their ability to write, must often become a teacher’s focus (458). Moreover, Goldblatt stresses, the learning both for individuals and the group arose from the shared emotions, as Perl connects what she called each student’s “wonderful uniqueness” (qtd. in Goldblatt 459) with “the socially oriented responsibility” of ethical behavior (459).

Goldblatt hopes for an understanding within composition of how a sophisticated approach to expressivism can infuse writing with the “intentionality, joy, seriousness, and intimacy available in the act of writing” (461). He worries that the writing-about-writing agenda “elevates the study of writing over the experience of writing,” an agenda perhaps appropriate for more advanced writing majors but complicit in what he sees as higher education’s current “hostility toward intellectual play and exploration” in the service of completely managed institutional priorities. He proposes that recognizing the power of expressivism can fuel compositionists’ hopes that students will embrace writing:

Without an urgency that is felt as personal, a writer will always be looking to the teacher, the boss, the arbiter for both permission to begin and approval to desist. (461)


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Thomson-Bunn, Heather. When religion and academic norms conflict. CE, Jan. 2017. Posted 01/19/2017.

Thomson-Bunn, Heather. “Mediating Discursive Worlds: When Academic Norms and Religious Belief Conflict.” College English 79.3 (2017): 276-96. Web. 10 Jan 2017.

Heather Thomson-Bunn describes a study on the reactions of composition instructors to students who incorporate their religious views into their writing coursework. Forty lecturers or graduate student instructors at a large “Public Midwestern University” responded to a survey and seven experienced instructors also participated in interviews (278-79).

The discussion focuses on Christian students because, Thomson-Bunn hypothesizes, the Christian religion intersects with higher education in especially salient ways, with the result that it is with these students that “instructors appear to have the most frequent conflicts” (278). She defines Christians as “followers and/or worshippers of Jesus Christ, whose commitment to their faith is a significant (if not the significant) dimension of identity” (278). Thomson-Bunn refrains from modifying “Christian” with other labels because in her findings, the students themselves did not claim these labels (279).

In her literature review, Thomson-Bunn explores previous composition scholarship on religious discourse in academic settings, citing several recent volumes to contend that the topic is “an increasingly visible area of scholarship” (276). Views range from rejection of the possibility that religious discourse can find a place within academic norms to the contention that instructors should help students find appropriate ways to examine and articulate their positions (276-77).

The survey and interviews revealed ways in which instructors felt that Christian students often had difficulty with “academic norms,” in particular those associated with “critical thinking,” “audience awareness,” “appropriate use of evidence,” and “tolerance” (280).

Difficulties involving critical thinking, according to Thomson-Bunn’s findings, revolved around differences in the kinds of discourses religious students found meaningful and the kinds composition instructors felt were appropriate in secular writing classrooms. Citing Thomas Amorose, Thomson-Bunn notes that religious discourse “privileges received meaning over constructed or contested meaning” (278; emphasis original). Similarly, citing Douglas Downs, she explores the claim that religious discourses are “discourses of affirmation,” while those of the composition classroom are “discourses of inquiry” (280). Instructors in her sample seem to find Christian students struggling to see their views as fluid and context-based and to consider them in the light of a range of perspectives, practices that the instructors saw as central to successful academic work (281).

Thomson-Bunn suggests that teachers may not always fully articulate their definitions of critical thinking so that students understand why they are being asked to develop certain habits of thought (281). The result, she finds, can be that students feel that their teachers are rejecting them personally or their faith specifically, rather than advocating for a useful approach to academic tasks (282-83). Teachers’ attitudes, Thomson-Bunn posits, may reflect a sense that their relationship with Christian discourses is a “battle” to be won, an approach that may obscure the more productive uses of critical thinking (283).

Issues involving audience awareness emerged as instructors answered a question as to whether it was “appropriate to incorporate religious beliefs into academic writing” (283). Ninety-eight percent of the participants “answered with a version of “it depends’” (283). Instructors suggested that issues of faith were more appropriate to “personal narratives,” which they tended to contrast with other forms of writing deemed more specific to academic discourse, such as argumentative writing (283). Thomson-Bunn quotes an instructor who postulates that some religious students may not realize that the tenets of their faith are not “a fact for everyone” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 285) and thus do not recognize the need to “accommodate” an audience as diverse as that of academia (284). Thomson-Bunn offers examples of Muslim graduate students who were able to incorporate an examination of their religious beliefs into academically appropriate intellectual work (284), but suggests that many students lack the “rhetorical dexterity” such accomplishments require (286). Study participants expressed concern about how to respect students’ values while simultaneously requiring them to adhere to academic norms (285).

Instructors expressed similar concerns about how to address students’ use of personal experience and/or Biblical material as evidence in argumentative writing. Thomson-Bunn notes that personal experience has been considered legitimate argumentative evidence by many groups, such as “women, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities” (286). Instructors find premises based on Biblical infallibility problematic because such arguments may assume that “received meanings and values” should be “automatically accepted” (287) rather than subjected to critical evaluation.

Thomson-Bunn notes an instructor who bases judgments about the acceptability of evidence on its effectiveness in a “specific rhetorical context”; this move, Thomson-Bunn argues, eliminates the question of whether or not the student’s “beliefs are correct” (288). Religious students, she points out, share with all students a need for help in determining how to choose evidence for specific situations (288).

Thomson-Bunn finds that “tolerance” for diverse views has become, at least implicitly, “one of the purposes of instruction within the academy” (288). This particular academic norm is of concern in her study because the question, “What characteristics come to mind when you think of a Christian student?” (288) generated responses like “Judgmental,” “Not very open-minded,” and “Suspicious of ideas that challenge their faith” (288-89). No contrasting terms, such as “very open-minded,” emerged (289).

Thomson-Bunn reports a study participant who was taken aback by an intolerant statement from a religious student but who also worried that she responded by “shutting down the conversation” and avoiding “teaching ‘gay’ texts for two years,” responses that she deemed, in fact, emblematic of her own intolerance (289). Thomson-Bunn finds that many instructors respond to the expression of intolerance from religious students by declaring certain topics off limits in their classes (289).

Thomson-Bunn encourages “work[ing] through discursive conflict, rather than avoid[ing] it or inflam[ing] it” (290). She cites one study participant who felt that “critical responsibility [for helping students through such conflict] lies with the instructor” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 290). Following Beth Daniell, she suggests that what may look like resistance may be students’ efforts to “work through new ideas” (291).

One instructor addresses the use of the Bible as evidence by conducting a full-class discussion rather than one-on-one conversations with specific students. This tactic, according to the instructor, allows other students to make audience responses and differing interpretations of the text visible and to allow Christian students to examine audience further by re-imagining themselves as audiences for the religious texts of other faiths (292).

Another strategy involves helping students analyze texts that do meet academic norms while drawing on faith, such as the 1805 text “Red Jacket Defends Native American Religion” and “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Through such texts, students can analyze the rhetorical power of specific textual moves to alienate or appeal to diverse audiences (293).

Finally, Thomson-Bunn argues that by finding ways to respond constructively to religious values in the composition classroom, teachers can “model the very kinds of tolerance and critical thinking we want all students to exhibit” (294; emphasis original).