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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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Bollig, Chase. Students as Citizen-Workers. CCC, Dec. 2015. Posted 01/11/2016.

Bollig, Chase. “‘Is College Worth It?’ Arguing for Composition’s Value with the Citizen-Worker.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (2015): 150-72. Print.

Chase Bollig urges compositionists to address the ongoing debate about the value of college by adopting a view of students as “citizen-workers.” Bollig argues that the field must “[resist] the compartmentalization of higher education’s cultural, civic, and economic functions” (163). Such resistance can challenge what Bollig sees as reductionist views of the relationship between education and economics that proliferate in the public debate.

Bollig reviews the conversation within the “commentariat” (151) as to whether college is “worth it,” finding widespread agreement that people’s desire to attend college is related to the existence of “precarious job markets” (152) that both spur enrollment and raise questions about the trade-offs involved, especially when applicants are deemed underprepared.

According to one school of thought, a college degree is more important than ever in times of tight job markets (154), while another approach, which Bollig characterizes partly through the claims of economics professor Richard Vedder, laments an overproduction of college graduates as problematic in view of the economy’s need for people to do low-tech work (154-55). Supporters of the importance of a college degree reply that higher education provides “social capital” that is more important than specific skills learned; indeed, some contend that college admissions serve as markers for employers looking for workers capable of being inculcated into middle-class roles and values (156).

A thread in such discussions, Bollig reports, is the increasing cost of college attendance, which is blamed on such factors as “administrative costs” (157), but which Bollig ties to the question of whether higher education in general should be seen as a public good. He cites Jeffrey J. Williams, who associates the rising costs that students must bear with “the rollback of the welfare state” (qtd. in Bollig 157). This rollback transforms “the primary function of a university from being a social good to an individual investment,” a shift that Vedder supports because, in Vedder’s view, there is little or no “spillover effect” for society as a whole from an increase in college-educated citizens (157). Bollig sees the privatization called for by Vedder as an impediment to access that “naturalizes” the need for large amounts of student-loan debt (157), a burden that then disempowers employees who must hold onto jobs to pay back their loans (158).

Bollig explores prior efforts by composition scholars to valorize composition’s place in an institution that “is not a space but a market” (Williams, qtd. in Bollig 158). A number of defenses focus on college’s redistributive role, centering on issues of access like those related to the work of Mina P. Shaughnessy in showing that supposedly “ineducable” students can succeed if seen as “beginners” (159). Tom Fox similarly assumes that “redistributing wealth and privilege” and enhancing democracy are primary responsibilities of higher education (161). Bollig responds that discourses in support of access and redistribution “do not directly engage the market-oriented terms of the ‘worth it’ debate” (160). Such terms, for example, include claims by Vedder and others that remediation is not cost-effective and that inviting all to aspire to advanced literacy will “dilute quality” (Vedder, qtd. in Lauren Weber and Bollig 160). Moreover, Bollig writes, current trends that distinguish elite institutions from those attended by most students guarantee that stratification will persist regardless of educators’ beliefs in the equalizing potential of a college degree (161).

A second category of responses offered by compositionists in defending the value of college involves the role of higher education in fostering civic engagement. Bollig references work on service-learning to illustrate support for this view, but counters with cites from Catherine Chaput that efforts to produce effective “citizens” accept rather than challenge “the classed positionality into which we are hailed” (qtd. in Bollig 162).

Bollig presents Christopher Newfield as a scholar who does address economic factors in defending the value of college and particularly of humanities and social-science majors (162-63). Newfield believes that it is possible to “manage markets” by establishing the economic value of graduates in these fields (qtd. in Bollig 162; emphasis original). Chaput further states that the development of land-grant institutions specifically answered an economic exigency (163). These claims lead Bollig to suggest that

we in composition should reflect on how aspects of vocationalism can be appropriated to advance a reflexive, flexible vision of the relationship between higher education, composition, and the economy. (163)

Bollig develops the concept of the citizen-worker as it has been expressed in the work of a number of composition scholars. He draws on Joshua S. Hanan to explore the claim that classical rhetoric encourages separation of daily lived experience, including its economic aspects, from political involvement (164). Chaput and Tony Scott both advocate expanding the definition of “professionalism” to counteract a mindset that “distances college students and instructors from working-class Others” (164). Bollig cites scholarship by James Berlin, John Trimbur, and Russel K. Durst that argues for incorporating into the classroom a view of work that highlights its location in a larger, collective, democratic venue (165): Rather than banishing vocational concerns from the classroom, compositionists can encourage students to critically “examine their positionality as workers and consumers within the system of global capitalism” (165).

Extending this concept, Bollig urges making an examination of work “a mode of inquiry” that moves from a discussion casting “postgraduation employment as an individual problem” to one that “becomes an engagement with both the potential privileges of a degree and its limits” (166). In taking such steps, Bollig writes, the field can embrace the concerns and needs of the many students who must work while attending college, concerns and needs that he sees as absent from the extant debate (167).

Thus, in this view, making the “citizen-worker” the “subject of composition” (151) melds civic, economic, and political dimensions, a set of connections that are occluded both by the commentariat and by much scholarship in composition (168). This approach, Bollig believes, will allow composition not only to undercut the “literacy myth[s]” that tie education unproblematically to social mobility but also to advocate more effectively for the value of the work done in composition classrooms (168). One result, he believes, can be a renewed sense that the “mass literacy” (160) enabled by college is a “social good” (168).