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Lynch, Paul. Writing as Spiritual Exercise. CE, July 2018. Posted 08/17/2018.

Lynch, Paul. “Shadow Living: Toward Spiritual Exercises for Teaching.” College English 80.6 (2018): 499-516. Print.

Paul Lynch writes about a state of mind experienced by some seasoned writing teachers that he equates with Thomas Newkirk’s “emotional underlife of teaching” (qtd. in Lynch 500). Drawing on Paul Kameen’s depiction of this state of mind in Writing/Teaching, Lynch describes it as a point at which a well-developed set of teaching practices ceases to make classroom practice meaningful (499-500).

Further exploring this phenomenon, Lynch considers Bill Readings’s contention in The University in Ruins that teachers who see themselves as a “rhetor rather than magister” find that their “mastery” of teaching practice may not mesh with the need, as a rhetor, to “redefine pedagogy as ‘a relation, a network of obligation” rather than as a platform from which to dispense knowledge (qtd. in Lynch 500; emphasis original). Recognizing the contradictions between the accumulation of professional expertise and an understanding of teaching as relational leads, in Lynch’s view, to questions like Kameen’s “What am I doing here?” In Lynch’s view, teachers cannot easily resolve this contradiction and should consider instead, in Kameen’s words, “living in the shadow of [the question’s] imperative” (qtd. in Lynch 501; emendation in Lynch).

Central to the kind of mastery composition specialists commonly value, Lynch proposes, is faith in reflection as a means of becoming a critically aware teacher. Citing Kathleen Blake Yancey’s discussions of reflection, Lynch writes of the assumption that reflection can aid teachers just as it can students by allowing them to “consciously and therefore critically reflect on their own success and failure with an eye toward improvement” (502). Such reflection commonly involves exploring one’s experiences through writing. Donald Schön, in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, further develops the view that by combining “technical knowledge and practical experience” (503), experts like teachers can assemble a set of responses to the problems they encounter.

Lynch turns to critiques of reflection as a means of resolving the problem of the “emotional underlife” teachers may encounter. From Kenneth Burke he takes the concept of “trained incapacity” to argue that a teacher faced with a loss of faith in his or her professional practice may resort to reflection as an attempt to increase mastery, which may make responses to complex relational engagements “automatic” (Schön, qtd. in Lynch 504) and, in Lynch’s view, a grounds for “boredom, burnout, and breakdown” (504).

Casey Boyle similarly suggests that reflection as commonly understood “operates on a destructive subject-object distinction” that assumes that people can separate their “agency” from the environment in which it is created and perpetuated, examining their actions rationally to improve them based on technical assessments of success (505). Lynch also draws on Robert Yagelski’s views, in Writing as a Way of Being, that written reflection as often practiced sees writing “simply as a way to record and express one’s experience,” whereas writing can also be viewed as “an experience in and of itself” (507).

Lynch proposes that the feelings expressed by Kameen and Newkirk “cannot be addressed by a reconsidered lesson plan or a revamped pedagogy” (507); indeed, in his view, resorting to these strategies compounds the problem. He suggests instead the use of writing as a form of reflection as experience that he calls “spiritual.” Spirituality, in his view, need not be specifically religious but can serve as a way of “liv[ing] in the shadow of questions that do not seem amenable to reflective thinking” (507-08) and thus avoiding the need for control that may lead to “demoralization,” defined as a feeling that, for the teachers in question, moves beyond frustration that old ways no longer work to an awareness that “they’ve lost any sense of which ways might” (505).

Lynch draws on Foucault to propose a regimen of “care of the self” (qtd. in Lynch 508) that includes “practices through which subjects might shape themselves” (508). This self-formation addresses character through, in Debra Hawhee’s words, “intensive attention and discipline, painful repeated exercise” (qtd. in Lynch 509). Among the exercises that promote self-re-shaping is a form of writing related to the development of “[p]hilosophic wisdom,” which, for Lynch, is not about acquiring topic mastery but rather “a matter of living a certain way of life” (509). This view counters the view that Lynch, via Foucault, attributes to Descartes, in which the self can be held apart from the knowledge it acquires, with the result that the knowledge does not affect “the structure of the subject itself” (qtd. in Lynch 510).

Similarly, Lynch cites the philosopher Pierre Hadot, for whom the “study of philosophy in the ancient world was more concerned with how the student lived than with what the student knew” (510). As an example of how writing furthered such a “spiritual program,” Hadot and Lynch reference the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which they present not as exercises to portray experience but rather to engage more deeply with it (510-14). The spiritual exercise of writing for this purpose allows Aurelius “a chance to examine his conduct” each day (511) and to prepare himself for “the challenges of . . . daily living” (512). Aurelius’s view, quoted by Lynch, is that

The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. (512)

In order to develop this stance, Lynch proposes, philosophical wisdom requires engaging rather than lamenting “the writer’s daily struggle (shadow boxing) against himself” (512). Lynch sees this kind of self-formative writing as important in the effort of “dwelling within a network of obligations,” which teachers must accept if they are to survive their encounters with the emotional underlife (512).

Contending that more experienced and capable teachers are among the most prone to confront this emotional quandary, Lynch concedes that reflection as most often understood can increase knowledge, but argues that knowledge alone is not sufficient (513). The kind of written reflection as spiritual exercise practiced by Aurelius and other philosophers, he asserts, can offer a way “to practice interdependence” rather than increase control (513). He argues that such exercise may bolster what Hawhee calls “a pedagogy of association” (qtd. in Lynch 514), that is, a pedagogy based on relationship and obligation:

Why would our students want to associate with us? And how will we be formed by the association? These are the kinds of questions that we might answer by practicing writing as a spiritual exercise. (514)


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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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Boyle, Casey. Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice. CE, July 2016. Posted 08/06/2016.

Boyle, Casey. “Writing and Rhetoric and/as Posthuman Practice.” College English 78.6 (2016): 532-54. Print.

Casey Boyle examines the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, issued by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, in light of its recommendation that writing instruction encourage the development of “habits of mind” that result in enhanced learning.

Boyle focuses especially on the Framework‘s attention to “metacognition,” which he finds to be largely related to “reflection” (533). In Boyle’s view, when writing studies locates reflection at the center of writing pedagogy, as he argues it does, the field endorses a set of “bad habits” that he relates to a humanist mindset (533). Boyle proposes instead a view of writing and writing pedagogy that is “ecological” and “posthuman” (538). Taking up Kristine Johnson’s claim that the Framework opens the door to a revitalization of “ancient rhetorical training.” Boyle challenges the equation of such training with a central mission of social and political critique (534).

Boyle recounts a history of writing pedagogy beginning with “current-traditional rhetoric” as described by Sharon Crowley and others as the repetitive practice of form (535). Rejection of this pedagogy resulted in a shift toward rhetorical and writing education as a means of engaging students with their social and political surroundings. Boyle terms this focus “current-critical rhetoric” (536). Its primary aim, he argues, is to increase an individual’s agency in that person’s dealings with his or her cultural milieu, enhancing the individual’s role as a citizen in a democratic polity (536).

Boyle critiques current-critical rhetoric, both in its approach to the self and in its insistence on the importance of reflection as a route to critical awareness, for its determination to value the individual’s agency over the object, which is viewed as separate from the acting self (547). Boyle cites Peter Sloterdijk’s view that the humanist sense of a writing self manifests itself in the “epistle or the letter to a friend” that demonstrates the existence of a coherent identity represented by the text (537). Boyle further locates a humanist approach in the “reflective letter assignments” that ask students to demonstrate their individual agency in choosing among many options as they engage in rhetorical situations (537).

To develop the concept of the “ecological orientation” (538) that is consistent with a posthumanist mindset, Boyle explores a range of iterations of posthumanism, which he stresses is not be understood as “after the human” (539). Rather, quoting N. Katherine Hayles, Boyle characterizes posthumanism as “the end of a certain conception of the human” (qtd. in Boyle 539). Central posthumanism is the idea of human practices as one component of a “mangled assemblage” of interactions among both human and nonhuman entities (541) in which separation of subject and object become impossible. In this view, “rhetorical training” would become “an orchestration of ecological relations” (539), in which practices within a complex of technologies and environments, some of them not consciously summoned, would emerge from the relations and shape future practices and relations.

Boyle characterizes this understanding of practice as a relation of “betweenness among what was previously considered the human and the nonhuman” (540; emphasis in original). He applies Andrew Pickering’s metaphor of practice as a “reciprocal tuning of people and things” (541). In such an orientation, “[t]heory is a practice” that “is continuous with and not separate from the mediation of material ecologies” (542). Practice becomes an “ongoing tuning” (542) that functions as a “way of becoming” (Robert Yagelski, qtd. in Boyle 538; emphasis in original).

In Boyle’s view, the Framework points toward this ecological orientation in stressing the habit of “openness” to “new ways of being” (qtd. in Boyle 541). In addition, the Framework envisions students “writing in multiple environments” (543; emphasis in Boyle). Seen in a posthuman light, such multiple exposures redirect writers from the development of critical awareness to, in Pickering’s formulation, knowledge understood as a “sensitivity” to the interactions of ecological components in which actors both human and nonhuman are reciprocally generative of new forms and understandings (542). Quoting Isabelle Stengers, Boyle argues that “an ecology of practices does not have any ambition to describe things ‘as they are’ . . . but as they may become” (qtd. in Boyle 541).

In Boyle’s formulation, agency becomes “capacity,” which is developed through repeated practice that then “accumulates prior experience” to construct a “database of experience” that establishes the habits we draw on to engage productively with future environments (545). Such an accumulation comes to encompass, in the words of Collin Brooke, “all of the ‘available means'” (qtd. in Boyle 549), not all of them visible to conscious reflection, (544) through which we can affect and be affected by ongoing relations in rhetorical situations.

Boyle embodies such practice in the figure of the archivist “whose chief task is to generate an abundance of relations” rather than that of the letter writer (550), thus expanding options for being in the world. Boyle emphasizes that the use of practice in this way is “serial” in that each reiteration is both “continuous” and “distinct,” with the components of the series “a part of, but also apart from, any linear logic that might be imposed” (547): “Practice is the repetitive production of difference” (547). Practice also becomes an ethics that does not seek to impose moral strictures (548) but rather to enlarge and enable “perception” and “sensitivities” (546) that coalesce, in the words of Rosi Braidotti, in a “pragmatic task of self-transformation through humble experimentation” (qtd. in Boyle 539).

Boyle connects these endeavors to rhetoric’s historical allegiance to repetition through sharing “common notions” (Giles Deleuze, qtd. in Boyle 550). Persuasion, he writes, “occurs . . . not as much through rational appeals to claims but through an exercise of material and discursive forms” (550), that is, through relations enlarged by habits of practice.

Related to this departure from conscious rational analysis is Boyle’s proposed posthuman recuperation of “metacognition,” which he states has generally been perceived to involve analysis from a “distance or remove from an object to which one looks” (551). In Boyle’s view, metacognition can be understood more productively through a secondary meaning that connotes “after” and “among” (551). Similarly, rhetoric operates not in the particular perception arising from a situated moments but “in between” the individual moment and the sensitivities acquired from experience in a broader context (550; emphasis original):

[R]hetoric, by attending more closely to practice and its nonconscious and nonreflective activity, reframes itself by considering its operations as exercises within a more expansive body of relations than can be reduced to any individual human. (552).

Such a sensibility, for Boyle, should refigure writing instruction, transforming it into “a practice that enacts a self” (537) in an ecological relation to that self’s world.