Fear, Teaching Composition, and Students' Discursive Choices: Re-Thinking Connections between Emotions and College Student Writing

By Chandler, Sally | Composition Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Fear, Teaching Composition, and Students' Discursive Choices: Re-Thinking Connections between Emotions and College Student Writing


Chandler, Sally, Composition Studies


A growing body of research has opened new possibilities for understanding how emotions affect the composing process. In the past, researchers across the disciplines have been discouraged by the fact that "emotion has simply seemed fraught with too many difficulties to be considered as a tractable topic of study" (Niedenthal 1003). In Composition Studies, many researchers assumed that emotions connected to students' life situations and individual psychology, and could not be integrated into pedagogical practice (Richmond; McLeod "Some Thoughts"). Recent work in both the biological and social sciences has produced theories of embodied cognition (Damasio; Niedenthal), explorations of writing and healing (Pennebaker and Seagal; Pennebaker and Beall; Pennebaker et al.), and characterization of discourses associated with emotion (Jacobs and Micciche; Lutz and Abu-Lughod; Thorne and McLean). Composition researchers have established a corresponding body of work connecting emotion and writing (Brand; Brand and Graves; Jacobs and Micciche; McLeod, "Some"; McLeod, Notes; Perl; Murphy; Richmond; Welch; Worsham). These studies have become possible, in part, because of a shift in the perception of emotion. Within this new perspective, emotion, like other social interactions, is assumed to be "not only individually experienced, but also socially experienced and constructed" (Jacobs and Micciche 4); that is, emotion is understood as cultural rather than individual and biological, and instances of perceiving, responding to, expressing, and containing emotions are (unconsciously) enacted in terms of discursive forms evoked by specific contexts and conditions. This new approach provides a basis for studying emotions not as internal, idiosyncratic events, but as patterns that can be characterized and understood contextually.

As noted in Dale Jacobs and Laura Micciche's essay collection, assuming that emotions are discursive opens up a new "way to move" for composition studies. The study of emotion as discourse not only eliminates objections about the individual psychology of students, it also connects researchers to methods that go beyond reflection and self-reporting. In the following analysis, I pursue these ideas within the context of a college composition course where students experienced a particularly high level of anxiety. I correlate formal characteristics of students' final, reflective essays with findings from psychological studies of writing and healing, as well as with life-course development studies on subject positioning and discourse. This analysis suggests that writing assignments that press young adults toward critical thinking and identity shifts can evoke stressful emotions that, in turn, evoke discursive patterns inappropriate for the demands of critical, analytic writing. I focus on emotional as opposed to cognitive factors in students' composing processes, and I pose a theory for how and why anxiety surrounding the writing process might lead to the clichés, generalizations, and pat conclusions so typical of beginning writers. I conclude by considering how re-thinking connections between emotional and written discourses can help instructors support students as they strive to meet expectations for college writing.

ANALYSIS OF STUDENT WRITING

Imagine this: it's the first day of class your sophomore year in college and you 've already sat through three other teachers gofingj over their course syllabus and all you want to do is go home... so you sit quietly and wait for the teacher to start talking. When she does, one of the first things that comes out of her mouth is, "You will be tutoring other Wayne State students in the University's Writing Center as a requirement for this class. " Now just think for a minute, what would be going through your head?

-From "Fear of Tutoring" by Emma, Fall 2002

Student writing in this essay comes from a writing practicum taught at Wayne State University in Detroit. …

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