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

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).


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Tinberg, Howard. Transfer at Community Colleges. TETYC, Sept. 2015. Posted 11/16/2015.

Tinberg, Howard. “Reconsidering Transfer Knowledge at the Community College: Challenges and Opportunities.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.1 (2015): 7-31. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Howard Tinberg argues for the value of studying “transfer” from first-year writing (FYW) to future academic work and career, particularly at the community-college level. He acknowledges the impediments to fruitful study of this phenomenon while demonstrating what he learned through a “naturalistic” study of transfer at the community college where he teaches (10). Among his findings is the conclusion that community-college curricula may not provide students with opportunities to engage in the kind of complex writing, including metacognitive components, that will serve them well in more advanced college work and in the workplace.

Tinberg reviews scholarship on the function of FYW and on transfer, noting that the course is often assumed to provide “generalized writing skills” that will be useful in a variety of contexts (7). Skeptics referenced by Tinberg claim that it is impossible to assume that such a thing as transfer exists because the specificity of each writing experience requires learning completely new practices (9).

Tinberg argues that such skepticism, which dismisses the possibility of explicit instruction for transfer, must fall back on “‘[t]he Bo Peep’ theory of transfer: somehow, as if by magic, knowledge needed to address tasks will ‘come home’ to assist students” (9). In Tinberg’s view, such hopes are not realistic for the community-college population. Encouraging transfer is especially important as pressure mounts to increase retention and to demonstrate learning (10, 28).

Tinberg reports that studies have urged attention to “metacognition as a foundational step to transfer” for both students and faculty (9). He cites scholarship that urges composition specialists to see the FYW course as delivering “rhetorical dexterity” (Shannon Carter, qtd. in Tinberg 9) and “rhetorical adaptability” (Holly Hassel and Joanna Baird Giordano, qtd. in Tinberg 9).

In his study, Tinberg surveyed students at the college who had taken the required ENG 101 “at least a semester before the fall of 2014” and who had been at the college at least a year but not more than two years (12). Of the nearly 4000 students invited to take the survey, 110 completed it, with 80 responding to an open-ended question (12). Tinberg interviewed and solicited writing samples from five students with varied interests and majors; he also interviewed four faculty members, all full-time (16); sixty-six percent of the ENG 101 sections are taught by part-time instructors (12). Faculty areas of those interviewed were psychology, history, economics, and human services (10-11).

The surveys indicated that a large majority of students believed that they had benefited from FYW, that they wrote a lot in subsequent courses, that subsequent courses introduced “new knowledge about writing,” and that writing would be important in the workplace (12). Open-ended responses indicated that the gains students reported most often from their FYW experience were formalistic: citation formats, formats for genres, organization, and grammar and mechanics (16). Tinberg speculates that the lack of a well-developed vocabulary made it difficult for students to interpret or articulate the contributions of their FYW classes and the differing requirements of courses in the disciplines. He posits that “new knowledge about writing” may suggest simply “more writing” rather than specific attention to writing processes or practices (13-14).

Tinberg’s goal in the faculty interviews was to determine what teachers in the disciplines hoped students would bring from ENG 101 and “[w]hat new knowledge sets as expressed in their writing” they hoped to see in their own courses (17). He presents two assignments from the psychology instructor and one from the history instructor.

This component of the study suggests to Tinberg that teachers in the disciplines have an attenuated sense of the content and purpose of FYW, seeing it as primarily focusing on such skills as “proofreading” (17); one instructor, however, mentioned the ability to evaluate sources, while one with writing-center experience “touched upon rhetorical understanding as transferable from ENG 101” (17).

The assignments demonstrate to Tinberg that some, though not all, instructors in subsequent courses design pedagogies to impart concepts important to their fields. These assignments also suggest that critical reading is a central concern to these teachers and that some embed metacognitive awareness in their coursework (19-21). Although Tinberg’s coding of instructor values indicates that “expressive” writing is less privileged than critical reading and writing, “concern with form,” and “adaptability” across situations (20-21), he notes a focus in some assignments on linking coursework to students’ personal experiences, “emphasiz[ing}. . . students’ affective response to the reading . . . rather than deep, exploratory examination of disciplinary concepts and methods” (19).

Student interviews generally bore out Tinberg’s expectation that students would most often cite formalistic concerns in discussions of what they considered transferable knowledge; however, “the need to be analytical and critical readers” and the importance of “writing in different contexts other than ENG 101” also earned support. Students generally did not value the “expression of one’s own feelings” (22).

The article discusses two student interviews and writing samples in detail. In each, Tinberg detects both struggles with adequate vocabulary to describe learning from ENG 101 and how it intersects with later learning and evidence of analytical and rhetorical thinking. Without being able to name genres, “Ann” characterizes writing in English as related to students’ personal experiences and writing in other courses as more content-based (23). The student expresses a wish that her teachers would “push” her more (“Ann,” qtd. in Tinberg 23). Similarly, Tinberg posits from interview and writing samples that the other student, “Ash,” “might very well welcome the challenge of complex and specialized reading and writing tasks,” but “is not being given the opportunity” (27).

Arguing for the importance of such study, especially in the community-college environment, Tinberg reports that teachers and students value ENG 101 and that faculty value critical reading (27). But faculty ignorance about the content of the FYW course, “exacerbated by the increasing reliance on part-time faculty,” means that “bridging” between ENG 101 and other courses “is not explicitly and knowingly done” (28). Tinberg’s research points to a tendency of faculty in the disciplines to advance a “generalized” curriculum (26, 28) that subordinates discipline-specific concepts to efforts to efforts to engage students through personal, affective connections (26).

Tinberg urges support for writing-in-the-disciplines initiatives at community colleges, less focus on moving students rapidly through the curriculum, less reliance on part-time faculty, and broader “cross-disciplinary conversations about transfer knowledge” (28-29).


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Durst, Russel K. James Britton’s Contributions. CCC, Feb. 2015. Posted 05/05/15.

Durst, Russel K. “British Invasion: James Britton, Composition Studies, and Anti-Disciplinarity.” College Composition and Communication 66.3 (2015): 384-401. Print.

Russel K. Durst explores the contributions of James Britton to the field of composition studies during its formative years from the 1960s through the 1980s. Durst posits that although Britton’s work powerfully affected the development of the field as a scholarly discipline, Britton himself did not value the move toward disciplinarity in which he participated. According to Durst, of particular focus in Britton’s resistance to the field’s emergence were the pedagogy/theory dichotomy and the role of personal writing in students’ literacy growth.

Durst aligns Britton’s view of writing with that of “progressive educators” like John Dewey, contrasting that view with the prevailing approaches of Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget, who posited “context-independent” theories of language and cognitive growth. According to Durst, Britton emphasized the social nature of writing, drawing on wide reading and research to valorize personal, “expressivist” writing in which students used informal registers to explore personally meaningful topics. Incorporating the work of Lev Vygotsky, Britton argued for the fundamental role of the social uses of language in learning, encouraging pedagogies that allowed students to write for purposes other than evaluation (388-89).

Durst recounts Britton’s role at the 1966 Dartmouth conference, where he represented a break with traditional and classical views of writing instruction (387), and summarizes Britton’s important empirical study, The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18). The premise of Britton and his colleagues in conducting this study was that informal, personal writing to varied audiences and to “the teacher as a trusted adult” would appear frequently in the more than two thousand samples of school writing in Britain that they collected (389-90). However, although the “discourse category” terminology of “transactional,”, “expressive,” and “poetic” writing proved valuable to composition studies, Britton et al.’s research revealed very little writing other than reproducing textbook and lecture material for the teacher to evaluate (390-91). Britton argued that teachers should recognize and more extensively exploit the value of personal and social uses of writing, which he saw as the starting point for writing and learning (390). Studies in the United States based on Britton’s categories by Arthur Applebee and others showed an even greater dearth of meaningful writing in American schools (389-90).

Durst cites four areas in which Britton’s contributions furthered the growth of composition studies (391-93):

  • the use of expressivist writing and talk that continues to inform activities like group work and conferencing;
  • the development of writing across the curriculum as an area of pedagogical focus;
  • the development of “facilitative response” as elaborated by C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon to encourage a view of the teacher as a supportive learning collaborator;
  • the legitimation of collaborative research and publication that Durst speculates resulted from Britton’s location in schools of education.

In order to explore the “paradox” of the “anti-disciplinary” attitude of such a major contributor to a solidifying discipline, Durst distinguishes Britton’s sense of the expressive from the type of writing James Berlin categorized as “expressionistic.” For Durst, the focus on the personal that Berlin critiqued was individualistic, in contrast to Britton’s view of a kind of writing that engaged students’ personal interests through social activity (391). Similarly, Durst finds that Britton’s approach differs from that of “figures associated with expressionism” like Peter Elbow, Ken McCrorie, and Donald Murray (395). Britton’s concept of student-centered teaching, which rejected tradition and received knowledge, was similar to the views of these scholars and writers in that it accorded with the spirit of the 1960s: it appealed to the ethos of composition theorists who saw writing and learning as “liberating” activities and who were then breaking free from a limiting relationship with literary studies (394-95). But, Durst contends, Britton’s theories were more firmly grounded in his wide-ranging scholarly explorations, including empirical research (396). Yet Durst spots another crucial similarly between Britton and the expressionist writers. Elbow, McCrorie, and Murray, like Britton, focused on classroom practices and pedagogy in contrast to recent scholars like Sidney Dobrin, who contends that “writing theory must move beyond composition studies’ neurosis of pedagogy, must escape the shackles of classrooms, students, and management” (qtd. in Durst 397). In Durst’s view, the expressionists’ emphasis on students and classrooms makes them less than fully respected members of the current composition community. For Durst, this evidence that the field resists a focus on pedagogy affirms Britton’s sense that composition would not be well served by becoming a traditional academic discipline in which theory and scholarship took center stage (395-96).

In proposing “doubling down on pedagogy” in composition studies, Durst defines Britton as a scholar for whom writing instruction enabled broad intellectual growth and “liberation from society’s oppressive forces” (397); he sees in Britton’s example the possibility of solidly grounded scholarship specifically aimed at meeting the new challenges faced by students and teachers as diversity increases, technology expands, and the pressure to prepare students for careers escalates (398). Britton’s contributions illustrate that scholarly inquiry and a focus on student-centered pedagogy need not be competing activities; they can function jointly to enrich composition as an academic field.