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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Sep 30, 2015



Doot-do-do…doot-doot-do-do…Welcome Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. Special thanks to the Samantha in the booth and the Humanities Media Project for the support as we head on into the podcast. First though, I’d like to remind you to swing on over to iTunes and leave us a review. Hopefully a good review, but, you know, you have to take what you get. Or you can check out our Twitter page @mererhetoricked. Also, if you want to reach out to me in more than 140 characters, you can send me an email at mererhetoricpodcast That’s a lot of ways to send me a message. It wasn’t like that for poor Peter Elbow.



In the early 1960s, Peter Elbow was an over-worked, over-stressed grad student. He was homesick as an American in Oxford, rejected by an English girl whom he loved and, just as bad, he couldn’t writing. Week after week, he failed to turn in the essays assigned him.


He felt burned out on school and like he was a failure. But then he learned about a scholar named Ken Macrorie, who emphasized a method called freewrting, the unimpeded flow of writing without second-guessing, without doubting yourself and without worrying about whether you were impressing anyone else. He began to take notes about when his writers block took over, when he got stuck and what he did to become unstuck. By the time he emerged from the sixties, PhD in hand, he had a huge stack of notes which eventually became Writing Without Teachers, a book that is still widely read more than 25 years later and a hallmark of the expressivist movement.


Expressivism was a composition theory that really took off in the 70s and 80s in America as composition instructors moved away from the strict “drill and kill” days of current traditionalism. Because of the trickling impact of research like the Braddock reports, which condemned the efficicacy of grammar drills, instructors were looking for a new way to teach and expressivism was just that.


Elbow and other expressivist theoreticans like Wendy Bishop, and Donald Murray believed that the best way for student to write was to just let them write, and write a lot. Instead of focusing on what the teacher wants the student to say, the expressivists were more concerned with what the student has to say. This means more open topics, even more open genres of writing. Want to write a poem about global warming? Sounds great. Want to express your anger t having to take a required class? Excellent. Passion is a big deal. Over all, expressivism was highly individualistic, impressionistic and idiosyncratic.


This can take different forms. Elbow’s Teacherless Writing Class as a way of giving and getting feedback: a very diverse group (115)seven to twelve people, encouraged to give only their personal reading responses (77) instead of worrying about “whether the writing is good or bad” but rather “whether it worked or didn’t work” (80, emphasis in original). Elbow admits that he was heavily influenced by Carl Rogers and group theorpy. If you don’t remember who Rogers was from your psychology class, he’s the guy who’s always parroting back what you said in the form of a question. “I’m angry.” “So you’re saying you’re angry?” So you can imagine Elbow’s workshops going kind of similarly: “I can’t write my introduction.” “So you’re having a hard time writing an introduction? Why do you think that is?”


Another expressivist, Donald Murray, in A Writer Teaches Writing suggests that students write like real writers and the instructor “shut up, to wait, to listen, to let your students teach themselves” (144, cf 224, 103). However, Murray is concerned that students learn to work under the deadlines and criticism that real writers use. Although Murray admires Peter Elbow (Murray calls him “the master of free writing” [8]) for the workshopping thing, but I think there’s less of a connection than some have claimed. While he claims that writing can be therapeutic, he doesn’t think that writing should be therapy (()) and he thinks that bad writing comes from “writing before [students] are ready to write” (17) which is very different from Elbow’s “write until it comes” philosophy, Although Murray did “vote with that caucus” of personal expression for many years (4-5).



Expressivism, despite-slash-because of its hippy-dippy reputation was controversial. Harris and Hashimoto (debate and doubt are vital to critical thinking), James Berlin (knowledge is too private, not socially conductive enough).


Famously, David Bartholmae who claimed that Elbow “comes down on the side of credulity as the governing idea in the undergraduate writing course” and doesn’t expect writers to prove themselves first and “wants his students to ‘trust’ language and implies, rightly, that I would teach a form of mistrust” (CCCC 1995)


But all of these critics may have been overstating the importance of expressivism as a movement.


As James Zebroski has pointed out in History, Reflection and Narrative: the Professionalization of Composition 1963-1983, expressivism was never actually a serious threat, even to the degree that he finds “very little evidence to suggest there even was anything one could title an expressivist movement” (106). Still what Zebroski calls “the spectre of expressivism” (106-9) nevertheless played a crucial role in rallying compositionists to professionalize within the academy. By responding to the imaginary opposition, those who wished to professionalize composition could draw lines in the sand that articulate their position. Faced with the idea that writing can’t be taught, compositionists had to formulate a good argument about how it could and develop cognitive lines of research that emphasize the process of writing and writing acculturation.


So while few compositionists would ever call themselves expressivits (Wendy Bishop insisted that she was, instead, a “social-expressivist”), expresivism had a huge impact on composition studies, even if it was just something to shake us out of the emphasis on grammatical correctness and writing themes that had dominated writing instrution for more than 75 years. So at least for that, we owe the expressivists a huge debt of gratitude. And even if the whole movement didn’t take root permanently, the methods of expressivism, of open, uncriticizing writing, free, fast and joyful, these have been added to the techniques of helping writers just write something, the way the helped Peter Elbow to do so all those years ago.