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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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Geiger II, T J. “Relational Labor” in Composition. CS, Sept. 2015. Posted 11/23/2015.

Geiger II, T J. “An Intimate Discipline? Writing Studies, Undergraduate Majors, and Relational Labor.” Composition Studies 43.2 (2015): 92-112. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

T J Geiger II examines undergraduate writing majors as sites in which “relational labor” forms a large part of faculty activities and shapes student perceptions. He considers the possibility that, despite the tendency to view dedicated writing majors as a step toward disciplinary status, the centrality of relational labor to writing instruction may undercut this status. Further, he addresses the concern that support for writing majors may devalue writing instruction itself (94). He focuses on “what the field learns” about these concerns when it listens to students in these programs (98).

Through surveys and interviews with undergraduate majors in “independent writing programs” at a “Private Research University” and a private “Liberal Arts College” (98), Geiger establishes “relational labor” as work done between faculty and undergraduate writing majors in which the personal connections formed contribute to the students’ representations of their learning. The students discussed and quoted consider their relationships with faculty crucial to their “personal development” (“Mark,” qtd. in Geiger 99), which Geiger characterizes in this student’s case “as synonymous with writing development” (99; emphasis original). He argues that faculty attentiveness to the affective components of writing instruction provides students with a sense of a caring audience interested not just in conveying the technical aspects of writing but also in fostering the growth of “unique” individuals through social encounters (102):

Interactions with faculty, part of the context for writing, encourage not only writing majors’ literacy acquisition, but also a sense of themselves as individuals who matter, which in turn can fuel their capacity to take rhetorical action. (99)

Geiger develops this picture of faculty engaged in relational labor against a range of scholarship that has expressed concern about “the ideological complex that figures the composition teacher as a maid/mother disciplinarian,” a characterization he attributes to Susan Miller’s 1991 critique (106). Similarly, he addresses Kelly Ritter’s critique of a “gendered ideology of ‘help'” that Ritter sees as potentially “counterproductive to the discipline of composition studies as a whole” (qtd. in Geiger 106).

Geiger detects justification for these concerns in students’ use of terms like “lovely,” “nice,” and “help” in describing their interactions with faculty (106). His question is whether accepting the role of empathetic helper or the centrality to writing instruction of affective responsiveness necessarily restricts the field’s focus to the “teaching of writing” rather than “teaching about writing” (96; emphasis original).

These concerns accord with those expressed in a larger debate about whether the field should “distance” itself from the constraints that some see as imposed by first-year writing courses, concerns that Geiger notes are themselves broached in affective terms of escape and freedom, indicating that attention to “feeling” permeates all levels of the field (96).

Among the specific concerns that Geiger explores are the ways in which intensive interpersonal investment in students and their work can intersect with professional exigencies. He notes the Modern Language Association’s 2006 report, “Still Standing;: The Associate Professor Survey,” which finds that women in the field report marginally less time spent on research and marginally more on teaching than men; these small differences seem to add up over time to a slower path to promotion for female faculty (107-08). In addition, he addresses the possibility that students who cast faculty as empathetic helpers downplay their role as experts with valuable knowledge to convey (106).

In Geiger’s view, the disciplinary promise of a focus on “teaching about writing” need not be at odds with a pedagogy that values developmental relationships between faculty and students (109). He cites student responses that express appreciation not just for the personal interaction but also for the access to professional expertise provided by faculty during the interactions: He quotes “Jeremiah,” for whom “faculty in the writing program understand themselves as not just research producers, but also as people working with their students” (qtd. in Geiger 102). Indeed, Geiger claims, “students recognize the need for informed care” (108; emphasis original). Such an understanding on the part of students, Geiger argues, demonstrates that investment in a writing major need not crowd out pedagogical value (102), while, conversely, focus on the teaching of writing through an ideology of “care” need not interfere with more intensive study of writing as disciplinary content (107).

Students interviewed do recognize the professional burdens with which faculty must contend and value the personal investment some faculty are still able to make in students’ individual projects and growth (104); Geiger advocates for ongoing consideration of how this ubiquitous and clearly valued kind of labor “is distributed within a program and a writing major” (108).

In addition, Geiger argues that developing as writers through close working relationships with faculty instills in students an understanding of writing as a rhetorical process:

situated, not context-free; social, not solely personal; collaborative, not entirely individual; and (though less often) explicitly politically implicated, not neutral. (108)

Building on the collection by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Geiger urges composition professionals to attend not just to “what we are becoming” (108; emphasis original) but also to “who . . . writing majors (i.e., students) are becoming” (109; emphasis original). Attention to the students’ own perceptions, he contends, provides informative indications of these attainments (109).