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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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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.