Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Don't Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a "Tacit Tradition"

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Don't Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a "Tacit Tradition"

Article excerpt

At a national conference of rhetoricians a couple of years ago, I was talking to a group of colleagues in the hallway. I had just come down with a bad cold and was hanging on till I could give my talk and return to bed, but I was trying my best to act friendly and engaged. One of the people in the conversation was a well-known member of our field whom I had known slightly for a number of years. He turned to me and said, "Oh, Eli, I see your literacy autobiography is out." I nodded, and was about to thank him for noticing, but before I could say anything he turned to someone else in the circle and said cheerily, "J, we should write autobiographies. That would be easy and fun, wouldn't it?" I was a little taken aback by the remark, but I was too sick to respond. Fortunately, a friend in that conversation wrote me the next day deploring the snarky comment by our mutual acquaintance. If she hadn't testified to its reality, I might have remembered the interchange as an anxiety dream generated by my feverish condition.

Personal writing evokes strong reactions from readers. Some prefer memoir to most other forms because they experience stories from life as more authentic than analytical writing or even fiction. Present-day undergraduates, for example, refer to narratives with which they can readily connect as "relatable," and they often prize that quality above logical persuasion or even emotional appeals of other kinds. Others, like my colleague at the conference, find the undertaking embarrassing and unworthy of academic attention, perhaps even a bit threatening. There might have been a bit of gender policing involved in that episode, but I think my colleague spoke for many in the field who would rather such writing be leftto adolescents, the recently divorced, veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, and anybody else innocent enough to think that writing should include feelings. Literacy autobiography in particular, I suspect, smacks of a cartoon version of early 1970s expressivism, when sharing your struggles with a group was not only going to raise your consciousness and alleviate your emotional suffering but also improve your prose style. Long ago, Thomas O'Donnell proposed a more sympathetic view of expressivist practice: "what we do is encourage students to bring words to bear on their experiences, to ground their writing in their lives, to be responsible for their words, and to be responsible to the community in which they are reading, writing, and responding" (429). These are commitments to which writing teachers of most pedagogical orientations could subscribe, just as long as the word expressivism is leftunspoken.

The strange interchange with one colleague at a conference made me realize that, correctly or not, I'm now associated with expressivist tendencies because I've published a literacy autobiography (Writing Home) and written about the rhetoric of my own ethnic group ("'Ceremonious Feeling'"). Moreover, recent conversations with students about expressivism have made me realize that I need to reconsider the legacy of that much-maligned movement. Graduate students are often aware of the history of expressivism largely through the Bartholomae/Elbow public conversations in 1989 and 1991 (Bartholomae) and tend to side with Bartholomae in the "debate." Yet when some of them speak about their research interests, many demonstrate a preference for personal writing and narrative, for teaching keyed to individual development, and for writers who are marginalized in such a way that their voices hardly register in the public arena, even on the Internet. One Temple undergraduate named Rachel Efstathion became fascinated with the expressivism movement, wanted to learn about it from the beginning, and sought out expressivists writing now. Her passion for the approach and commitment to connect the historical movement to counseling and psychology challenged me to face my own attitudes toward expressivism. What do the works of Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, Ken Macrorie, Wendy Bishop, and others mean to me today? …

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