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Re-imagining rhetoric

Material Information

Title:
Re-imagining rhetoric blending creative writing and composition studies to compose a new freshman comp course
Creator:
Albert, Michelle A
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
vii, 64 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching ( lcsh )
Creative writing (Higher education) ( lcsh )
Creative writing (Higher education) ( fast )
English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching ( fast )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 62-64).
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Michelle A. Albert.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
63804152 ( OCLC )
ocm63804152
Classification:
LD1193.L54 2004m A52 ( lcc )

Full Text
RE-IMAGINING RHETORIC: BLENDING CREATIVE WRITING
AND COMPOSITION STUDIES TO COMPOSE
A NEW FRESHMAN COMP COURSE
Michelle A. Albert
B.S., Towson University, 1992
M.F. A., Naropa University, 1998
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
by
Master of Arts
English
2004


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Michelle A. Albert
has been approved
by
Ikdij
Date 1


Albert, Michelle A. (M.A., English)
Re-Imagining Rhetoric: Blending Creative Writing and Composition Studies
to Compose a New Freshman Comp Course
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Michelle Comstock
ABSTRACT
Most English departments contain three different disciplines within their
walls: literary studies, creative writing, and composition. In many cases,
composition exists in a subservient, service relationship with the rest of the
department. In the hierarchy of English studies, literary criticism is often at
the top, creative writing in the middle, and composition at the bottom. I
contend that this stratification is detrimental to English studies as a whole and
to composition studies in particular. In this thesis, I add my voice to those
critics arguing for a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching the various
sub-disciplines within English studies; in particular, I argue for more
collaboration among composition and creative writing instructors and
scholars. The practice of writing in the field of composition has more
commonalities than differences with the practice of creative writing, and
composition and creative writing faculty and students stand to benefit greatly
from breaking down the walls that separate the disciplines. This thesis argues
that allowing the rhetorics, ideologies, and epistemologies of poetics and
creative writing to inform the freshman composition course can help expand
the freshman comp curriculum and re-shape the classroom so that creativity,
imagination, and emotion are as much an integral part of students writing
experiences as academic discourse, conventions, and structure. I am calling on
creative writing and composition theorists and instructors to dialog with each
m


other, to discuss practices, to share insights and experiences. It is my hope that
all of us in English departments will engage in thoughtful conversation, and
then, through active, ongoing collaboration, re-invent our curricula to
incorporate the best our disciplines have to offer.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed
Michelle Comstock
IV


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Id like to thank my advisor, Michelle Comstock, for her advice, feedback,
patience, and unconditional encouragement as Ive worked on this thesis
during the past year. Id also like to thank Catherine Wiley and Nancy Linh
Karls, the other members of my committee, for their support, and Rick
VanDeWeghe for giving me invaluable advice early on in the writing of this
thesis and for being a model professor during my three years in this graduate
program.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION.....................................1
2. MY LITERACY NARRATIVE............................6
On Living as a Creative Writer.................8
First Forays Into Teaching Composition........11
On Living as an Academic Writer...............15
Public vs. Private Writing....................19
3. A BRIEF HISTORY: OCCASIONING THE
COMP/CREATIVE WRITING SPLIT......................28
History of Composition as an
Academic Discipline...........................31
Expressivist Rhetoric.........................36
4. WHAT COMP CLASSES LACK
AS A RESULT OF THE SPLIT.........................42
Multiple Genres, Multiple Rhetorics...........44
Teacher as Writer ............................46
5. SUGGESTIONS FOR A REVISED
COMPOSITION CLASS ...............................50
Writers Who Teach/Teachers Who Write .........51
Re-Defining the Expository Essay .............55
vi


Naropa Writers Craft.......................57
6. CONCLUSION....................................59
Afterword...................................61
REFERENCES.............................................62
Vll


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
We need to be crossing the line between composition and creative writing far
more often than we do.
- Wendy Bishop, Crossing the Lines: On Creative
Composition and Composing Creative Writing, 221
Some of us may even have an epistemology that sees creative writing,
composition, and literature as false distinctions, that sees all text making
and text interpreting as a single process within which exist only illusory
boundaries.
- Hans Ostrom, in Colors of a Different Horse, xi
When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them Im a graduate
student and I teach. When they ask me what I teach, sometimes I say English,
sometimes writing, and sometimes college composition. But unless I explain
that I teach freshman composition (as in, Im only a freshman comp
instructor), I feel like Im lying. Teaching English implies teaching
literature, that lofty intellectual pursuit of deconstructing complex works of
high literary value and analyzing scholarly critiques too cerebral for the
common person to understand. Teaching writing conjures glamorous
images of a writer-in-residence imparting words of wisdom to a roomful of
1


future Bellwether Prize winners, an accomplished artist inspiring, shaping the
work of up-and-coming artists.
But freshman composition? Everybody knows that freshman comp is
just a boring required college course designed to teach basic Skills to freshmen
so they can write papers in other classes and be literate enough to join the
workforce after graduation. Its a remedial class. Its insignificant. Its taught
primarily by overworked teaching assistants (often grad students in literature
who have no background, training, or even interest in composition and
rhetorical theory) and adjuncts who are paid a fraction of a full-time faculty
salary. (Ive been both a TA and an adjunct.)
Contemporary college English departments are in large part
responsible for freshman comps low standing in the minds of both students
and professors. Composition, especially freshman composition, exists in a
subservient, service relationship with the rest of the English department. In the
hierarchy of English studies, literary criticism (the critique of literary texts, or
poetics) is at the top, followed by creative writing (the creation of presumably,
or at least potentially, literary texts), followed by composition (the production
of student essays prosaic, functional pseudo-writing). As Karen Fitts and
William Lalicker point out in a May 2004 College English article, English
departments are built on the curricular hierarchy of the belletristic,
individualistic cultivation of poetics resting upon the pragmatic, public
2


engagement of rhetoric (430). This stratification works very much to the
detriment of English studies as a whole, and to our composition students in
particular.
Fitts and Lalicker call for a re-envisioning of English departments so
that there is no longer a distinction between literary studies and composition,
so that the two scholarly fields work together toward one common goal.
English studies, they say, should teach students in the largest comprehensible
context possible how words produce worlds ..., how language and other
signifying systems are used and can be used by them to create culture
(Fitts and Lalicker 22). Integrating the processes of producing/creating and
interpreting texts would help students develop a sense of critical literacy
(Fitts and Lalicker 21) and provide a more meaningful, relevant context for
both the reading and writing they do in class.
I agree that a more interdisciplinary approach within English studies
would benefit our students. I am especially interested in examining the
boundaries between composition and creative writing. I believe that the
practice of writing in the field of composition has more commonalities than
differences with the practice of creative writing, and that composition and
creative writing faculty and students stand to gain a lot from working more
closely with each other and from breaking down the walls that separate the
disciplines. As creative writer and composition scholar Joseph Moxley says,
3


All writing carries the seeds of creativity: When our images and concepts
develop, combine, and connect and take shape in the form of words, writers
discover and construct their meaning (Creative 11).
In this thesis, I outline some of the ways composition classes and
curricula might change if they incorporate various elements typically found in
creative writing classes. In my composition and rhetoric graduate program, we
talk about teaching writing as a rhetorical act; I would also like to teach it as a
poetic and artistic act. In particular, a revised, re-imagined freshman comp
course would provide more room for creativity and imagination; it would
allow for genuine exploration and risk-taking in student writing; it would blur
the boundaries between genres and add more choices to the standard freshman
comp repertoire; and it would be taught be teachers who are also practicing
writers. The particulars of my suggested curriculum changes, though, are
mostly speculation, based on theory Ive read. What I really hope to do in this
thesis is to convince both composition and creative writing instructors that
they and their students would benefit from more open dialog and collaboration
between the disciplines. I call on college writing faculty to engage in
conversation, to talk with each other about their theories and practices, and
decide together how they might improve their classes.
My argument in this thesis will privilege the composition classroom
over creative writing, since that is what I am teaching and what I have been
4


studying for the past two years at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Before I began teaching composition, though, I completed a Master of Fine
Arts in Writing and Poetics. For many years, I identified as a creative
writer, although I used the terms creative writer and writer
interchangeably. I hope this thesis will help me bring together my two selves
and two lives: my life as a creative writer at an unconventional, Buddhist
college, and my life as a composition and rhetoric graduate student and
college composition instructor at a more conventional state university.
5


CHAPTER 2
MY LITERACY NARRATIVE
[0]nly by crossing the artificial institutional borders that I was trained in
first as a creative writernext as a compositionist was I able to better
compose my writing life.
- Wendy Bishop, Crossing the Lines: On Creative
Composition and Composing Creative Writing, 220
[Writing] can be ... one of the most difficult self-assigned tasks on the
planet.
- Wendy Bishop, Places to Stand: The Reflective Writer-
Teacher-Writer in Composition, 28
This is the fun part. That is, this is supposed to be the fun part. The
part in my thesis where I tell my story: the narrative part, the creative part.
The part I get to write in my real voice the natural, genuine, expressive
voice that comes out in my creative writing, as opposed to the more detached,
practiced, transactional voice I use in my academic writing. But of course, as
with all my creative writing, this is brutal. I call myself a writer, I identify
as a writer, Ive been writing off and on since early childhood, but writing is
something I struggle with more than any other activity in my life, something I
resist with all the energy and intensity of... of... See, I cant even think of a
decent metaphor. I hate writing.
6


But this is not a story about my life as a tormented writer, not a Natalie
Goldberg- or Anne Lammot- or Dorothea Brande-style memoir about my
writing practice and process. (I have a whole shelf in my bookcase full of self-
help writing guides by those, and other, authors. See how much good theyve
done.) Im not going to delve into my psychology, not going to lay bare my
personal demons (the damn demons that granted me the talent to write well,
the desire to write often, but saddled me with paralyzing self-doubt and a
depressing inability to sustain a regular, consistent writing practice).
No. Thats not what Im going to write about.
This is a masters thesis, an academic paper. I am writing this thesis
about the intersections between creative writing, as I have practiced it, lived it
and studied it in various academic settings and on my own, and college
composition, as I have studied it and taught it at conventional academic
institutions. In this narrative section I am going to trace the path of my writing
and academic careers for the purpose of illustrating the main argument of this
paper. Namely, I want to show how in my life, the fields of creative writing
and college composition are thoroughly intertwined, almost inseparable. How
the personal, creative writing that I do on my own and the writing I teach my
composition students have more in common than English departments seem to
want to admit. And how acknowledging and working with those
7


commonalities can bring new depth and meaning to freshman composition
classes.
On Living as a Creative Writer
Throughout the course of my comp and rhet graduate studies, Ive
been struggling with the tension inherent in the meaning of the word
writing. Its such a loaded word. Talking about writing with my
composition colleagues feels very different from talking about writing with
my poet and fiction-writer friends. In my creative writing world, the word
writing connotes a sense of imagination, experimentation, emotion, intuition,
craft, passion, nature; in the academic composition world, the word writing
connotes a sense of pragmatism, function, necessity, rules, convention, logic,
linearity, science. This has been a point of frustration for me throughout the
two years of this graduate program. Its difficult to articulate these
differences, difficult to explain them to people in either world.
At Naropa University, a small Buddhist-influenced college in Boulder
where I got my MFA, writing meant art. Writing meant the act of stringing
together a series of words in some inventive, crazy, brilliant, original way to
create whole new worlds, to challenge my own and my readers conceptions
of reality, to transform everyday experience and observations into some sort
of semantic representation of the sublime. To me, as a prose writer, it meant
8


sitting down at my computer, usually late at night, pulling words from my
head and from pieces of scrap paper Id scribbled on that day, typing those
words onto my computer screen, using them to build images, characters,
dialog, scenes, stories. Genre and form were irrelevant. Sometimes I wrote
conventional short stories, and sometimes I wrote more experimental fiction,
playing with notions of plot, time, linearity of any kind. My preferred genre,
really, was creative non-fiction, usually essays about some personal
experience, but there wasnt room for that in my workshops so I mostly stuck
to writing fiction during my MFA years. It didnt matter. All that mattered,
then, was that I spent enough hours pounding away at my computer keyboard
to produce some piece of writing I could show to my classmates and
instructors the next day.
Whatever form the writing ended up taking, though, the process of
producing that writing always felt the same it was always both exhilarating
and agonizing at the same time. It was always an intellectual and emotional
struggle. And it never got any easier. In fact, the longer I was in the MFA
program, the more pressure I felt to be a published writer, and the more I
doubted my abilities to ever make it there; thus, I ended up resisting writing
even more forcefully than I did before I started the program. Writing even
2000-word short stories was often a Herculean task for me. But the
intoxicating sense of accomplishment and transcendence I felt at the end of
9


even a minimally successful writing session made it worthwhile and drove me
to do it again and again.
Writing, to us MFA candidates, was a valorized pursuit. More than
that it was a divine calling, an exquisitely painful activity that we were
driven to do at all costs by some force larger than ourselves. We were in love
with writing or, in many cases, in love with the romantic idea of being a
writer. My fellow students and I commiserated over the plight of the
artist/writer in an un-art-friendly coiporate world. How would we pay the bills
as we struggled with our craft? Did we have enough self-confidence to cany
us through years (possibly a lifetime) of rejection, years of poverty, years of
writing and re-writing and submitting our work on the desperate hope that one
day someone would publish it? Were we good enough? Were we disciplined
enough to write day after day, year after year, with no support system to back
us up? We formed a tight community around these shared obsessions. We
greeted each other not with the question How are you? but Hows your
writing? We talked endlessly about our processes as writers, about our
writing habits, our emotions, our successes and failures. We critiqued each
others drafts. We read each others chapbooks. We attended each others
readings. We devoted our lives to the art of creating literature.
This community of fellow writers was integral to my MFA experience.
In fact, one reason I chose Naropa for my MFA program was because of the
10


sense of community I felt when I visited the school. Writing may be a solitary
act, but the writer is a social being and text is a social creation. My peers
and I valued writing above all else, but we also valued all activities that
supported writing including talking about writing, reading literature,
following the news media, attending readings, being active in our community,
and, especially in the case of Naropa students, maintaining a contemplative
practice. Because of my close interactions with my peers and instructors, my
understanding of my self as an individual, social, and political person and
most importantly, my writing grew tremendously during my MFA years.
First Forays Into Teaching Composition
One thing the MFA program didnt do was prepare us for any sort of
viable career. Very few of us harbored any illusions about supporting
ourselves financially as poets or fiction writers, but we were left on our own
to figure out what to do to pay the bills. Some of my classmates opted to
continue to make writing the center of their lives and took low-paying part-
time jobs that allowed them to put most of their energy and effort into their
art. I couldnt do that, mostly because I had too many doubts about my own
abilities and my commitment to writing. Plus, I didnt see anything romantic
in living the life of a starving artist. I had too many pressures on me (primarily
from family) to get a respectable job, to do something with my time that
11


produced an income, provided health insurance. These needs superceded the
dream of being a writer. Luckily, I had been designing web sites as a hobby,
and in 1999, at the peak of the internet boom, I was able to find a full-time job
as a web designer. My web job became my vocation; writing became a hobby.
I continued to meet with the writing group Pd hooked up with at Naropa, and
I continued to write, but with less and less frequency and enthusiasm. I tried to
pretend writing didnt matter to me anymore, tried to pretend that the web job
did.
At the suggestion of some friends, after more than a year of working as
a web designer and hating it, I applied to be an adjunct composition instructor
at Metropolitan State College of Denver. At least Pd get to work with writing
again in some way. I taught one evening class my first semester while
working full-time at the web job. I had never taught before, didnt have any
training in pedagogy, didnt know anything about what freshman composition
classrooms were supposed to look like. All I had to bring to that first class was
my own experience as a writer and a writing student. I modeled the class after
my own MFA workshops and approached my students the way I thought I
would have wanted a teacher to approach me if I were a student writer
enrolling in a college writing class for the first time. The main goals I had for
the class were to help my students overcome any writing anxiety they may
have had and to instill in them a sense of confidence in their abilities as
12


writers and thinkers. I wanted to dispel the myths I knew many people have
about writing (that good writers get it right the first time, that being a bad
speller means youre a bad writer, that revision simply means fixing the typos)
and demystify the writing process as much as possible. I wanted my students
to write a lot, write with as little pressure as possible, to take risks, to play
with their writing, to talk to each other and to me about their writing
processes. I summed up my views on writing in a few sentences that I
included on the first syllabus I ever wrote:
I believe that there are two factors that constitute good writing:
sincerity and clarity. As a writer, you need to be aware of
whats going on in the world around you and in your own mind
(notice what you notice, as Allen Ginsberg said) you need
to be able to access the deep, full, wild depths of your mind
and imagination. And then you need to be able to express what
you find there accurately and clearly, with skill and craft. A
combination of uninhibited creativity and finely honed
technical skill work together to produce a good piece of
writing.
Above all, I tried to create a classroom environment that supported
writing, the way such an environment had been created for me at Naropa. I did
a lot of modeling in that class. I wrote along with my students. We did many
playful freewriting activities in class, and I asked students to create and direct
some of these activities. We read a lot, and wrote and talked about the
readings. We talked about our writing processes together in many different
class discussions. I told my class stories from my own writing experience,
13


emphasizing my straggles and self-doubts and talking about how I worked
through them. I asked my students to reflect on their writing processes,
strengths, and weaknesses, both out loud and in writing. I offered them plenty
of encouragement. I assumed each student was giving each assignment his/her
best effort, even if the writing seemed like it was done in the 15 minutes
before class. I allowed the benefit of the doubt and took the students and their
writing seriously.
I loved teaching that class more than I ever could have imagined. I felt
alive and engaged in the classroom; teaching felt as natural and exciting to me
as my best experiences writing. I knew I wanted to make a career as a writing
teacher. But from the first day I set foot in the classroom, I was acutely aware
of my lack of training, my lack of experience in the world of college
composition. I felt very strongly that if I wanted to continue to do this
teaching thing, I needed more education. That spring, near the end of my first
semester at Metro, the web company went out of business. I spent the summer
of2001 collecting unemployment and exploring graduate programs in
composition and rhetoric. I entered CU-Denver masters program in the fall of
2001 to learn pedagogy, to study theory, and to be trained as a composition
instructor in a structured environment, with guidance and supervision from
experienced professors. I wanted to be an informed, aware, knowledgeable
teacher. In the UCD masters program I began, to use Irvin Hashimotos
14


words, to establish a way of thinking about [my] teaching that includes
criteria forjudging what [I] do and why [I] do it (3).
On Living as an Academic Writer
I entered this graduate program as a writer, wanting to learn to be a
better writing teacher. I assumed that all my experience as a creative writer
(not to mention my earlier experience as a journalist and copy editor, jobs I
held before entering the MFA program) would be directly relevant to my life
as a college composition instructor. Pretty quickly, though, I began to learn
that scholars in the world of English studies in general, and composition and
rhetoric studies in particular, view creative writing and the writing produced
in freshman comp classes as two entirely different species. After a semester or
two, I started to identify less as a writer and more as an academic who was
learning how to be a composition instructor and scholar.
In contrast to the way I experienced and talked about writing as an
MFA student/fiction writer, I was now experiencing and talking about writing
not as an art or an act of wild imagination and creation, but as a skill, a
function, an argument, an academic subject, a political tool. I began to realize
that in this graduate program, it didnt really matter if I identified as a writer
myself; my own experience as a journalist and creative writer was only a
peripheral factor in my rhetorical theory and pedagogy classes. As long as I
15


was able to write proficiently, as long as I could understand the elements of
writing that mattered in college classrooms, that was enough. I was surprised
to learn that some of my fellow students didnt identify as writers at all yet
they were studying comp and rhet theory and teaching freshman composition.
This just further corroborated the feeling I was getting that writing in this
academic world wasnt writing as I knew it in the creative world. Writing,
to us grad students and freshman comp TAs, wasnt a valorized pursuit or a
divine calling. Writing was something we had to do to produce the academic
papers required by all of our classes, and it was the subject we were teaching
our freshman composition students.
Writing, then, became composition (a word which, when I stopped to
think about it, conjured images of schoolchildren in the 1950s sitting in neat
rows of desks practicing penmanship in blue-lined notebooks); I was studying
composition theory and was employed as a freshman composition instructor.
Being a writer wasnt a calling in the academic world, it was a necessity.
Writing was a skill a person had to master in order to graduate college, to get
a job and to have voice and power in his/her community, in the world.
Writing wasnt so much the act of stringing together a series of words to
transform everyday experience and observations, but to reflect it, qualify it,
categorize it, critique it, argue about it. In my graduate classes, we talked
about writing as a rhetorical act; we talked about the interplay of writer, text,
16


and audience. We talked about expressivist pedagogy, social-constructivist
pedagogy, critical pedagogy. I began to see how to translate some of the
theory into classroom practice; my confidence as a composition teacher
soared, and my class design got stronger with each passing semester.
But I still couldnt reconcile some contradictions between the theory I
was being taught and the actual classroom practice of teaching freshman
comp. For example, I learned to teach to portfolio standards, which place a
lot of emphasis on clarity, organization, logic; in essence, the standards
provide a long set of rules students are supposed to follow in order to produce
acceptable academic writing. My fellow TAs and I talked about student
writing in terms of functionality, correctness, form. We broke it down into
categories for purposes of assessment: content, organization,
grammar/mechanics. We talked about thesis statements, supporting details,
paragraphs and transitions, sentence structures, language use, elements of
persuasion, documenting sources. As much as I value the importance of these
elements in producing a solid piece of writing (and was disappointed at how
little we talked about these essentials in my MFA program), I felt that we
were placing a disproportionate amount of emphasis on them in our
classrooms. We focused on them to the exclusion of the elements I cared so
much about as a creative writer/MFA student: imagination, passion, emotion,
17


intuition, voice (all those words so many creative writers and expressivists
love and so many social-constructivists hate).
More importantly, I felt that teaching writing in such a rule-bound,
structured way is too restrictive, and it critically limits the freedom of inquiry
were supposed to be encouraging in our students. We want our students to
take risks, but then we penalize them if they break the rules (i.e., dont meet
portfolio standards). This seems to contradict the underlying ideology we
were taught in our own grad classes: If Im supposed to teach students critical
reading, critical thinking, and critical writing skills, teach them to challenge an
oppressive social system through their reading and writing, then requiring
them to adhere to a pretty strict set of rules is problematic. As William Zeiger
says, With overwhelming frequency, college composition classes today teach
the writing of an essay which conforms to the scientific model of thesis and
support (456), a mode of writing that is too rule-bound to truly enfranchise a
spirit of genuine inquiry (454).
As an MFA student, though, that spirit was actively cultivated. I felt
much more free to experiment and break rules as a creative writing student
than I feel as an academic. I would like to create a space in my own
composition classrooms that is conducive to the sort of genuine exploration,
experimentation, and risk-taking I engage in as a creative writer, but that still
helps students learn the academic and public discourse skills they will need in
18


college and beyond. Id like to design a truly authentic curriculum, one that
allows students to read and write in ways that are the most interesting, natural,
and appealing to them; Id like to create a classroom space that invites
students to try out new things, to explore, to mess around, to play with their
writing in ways that creative writers play. Writing, as I have learned these past
two years, is a heuristic; it is generative. I would like my students to be able to
folly take advantage of the generative nature of writing in their own work. I
dont want to ignore the conventions of writing, but would like to bring them
into better balance with the creative side of writing. In this way, I hope that by
the end of their three months in my class, my students will be more thoughtful
and confident writers, more critical readers, more literate, active, and engaged
citizens of their communities, and will grow in their understanding of
themselves as individuals and as social and political beings and will see
themselves as people whose voices and ideas matter.
Public vs. Private Writing
In the final piece of this narrative, Id like to discuss one other theme
that is central to my life as a writer and writing instructor: the tension between
private and public writing, which, in my experience, directly correlates to the
creative/academic duality. As a child I learned that there is a difference
between writing private and public writing, and that the playful, crazy poems
19


and short stories I wrote alone in my bedroom late at night all through my
adolescent and teenage years bore little or no resemblance to the tidy,
controlled writing I produced for school. No one taught me this explicitly, but
the lesson became ingrained by the time I was a young teenager. If were to put
words to this lesson now, I would say that the personal creative writing I did
at home was expressive, the writing I did for school transactional. As a kid, all
I knew was that one was fon and exciting and stimulating; the other was
(mostly) functional and regulated and reserved. They served two very
different purposes in my life. The first was my primary means of self-
expression, self-exploration; it was a creative outlet, an instinctive act that I
engaged in freely, with and for pleasure. The second was a means of
succeeding in school; it was an act I engaged in to prove I had learned a
particular lesson, to demonstrate my abilities and knowledge; it was
something I did with caution, aware that I would be judged and graded on my
efforts.
Although Ive had a neurotic love/hate relationship with writing my
whole adult life, as a child I simply loved writing, unconditionally. As a
young child, writing was just like any other kind of play: something I did for
fun, without self-consciousness, without fear of judgment. I wrote my first
book when I was five; it was called The Dog Who Could Talk. I followed
that stellar debut a few weeks later with the gripping sequel: The Dog Who
20


Learned to Cook. I still have those yellowing, stapled-together pages with the
bubble quotes and stick-figure drawings. I remember showing my parents
those stories, and remember getting lots of praise. Here was their oldest child,
still in kindergarten and already writing books. In their minds, Im sure, this
was a triumph, an indication that I would excel in school, which was of
paramount importance.
Some years later, around age 10,1 discovered poetry, and I remember
spending hours and hours sitting on the floor of my bedroom scribbling poems
in notebooks. I showed my parents some of those poems, and they responded
by offering an empty thats nice and asking me if the poems were for
school. No praise. No condemnation, either. But just: Its not for school? Why
are you showing us, then? I sensed discomfort and awkwardness from my
parents, as if I had broken some tacit social code by showing them those
poems. This happened several times before I eventually gave up and kept the
poems to myself. I interpreted this lesson to mean that writing at least,
writing that evokes strong emotion, writing that is done for fim behind closed
bedroom doors, writing that is done out of personal motivation and not in
response to a school assignment is meant to be kept private. I began to
believe that writing is just one of those secretive, private things that everyone
does but no one talks about, like going to the bathroom or daydreaming.
Throughout my middle and high school years, I continued to write poems,
21


songs, short stories, and diary entries on my own for fun, tucked away in my
bedroom late at night after my family had gone to bed. I never talked about
that writing with anyone.
During those same years, I was also, of course, writing in and for
school. That writing, was different. There were rules to follow rules about
grammar, language, organization, content. The writing had a distinct purpose:
meet the assignment requirements, prove you learned something, please the
teacher, get an A. By the time I got to high school, I had mastered the basics:
grammar, spelling, organization. I could always figure out what kind of
content the teacher was looking for in any given assignment. And anyway, we
usually got spec sheets, checklists with all the elements we were supposed to
include in a paper. Transitions between paragraphs? Check. Quotes from a
primary source? Check. One metaphor and one simile? Check, check. My
public, school-sanctioned writing won praise and approval from teachers. It
got me the As I wanted.
But the rules for school writing didnt apply to the sort of writing Id
been doing on my own at home. One way I learned to write on my own was to
imitate writers I Eked. I figured out that while those writers followed some of
the rules I was learning in school, they broke just as many of those rules. I
learned, though, that if I wanted to get good grades, I couldnt break those
rules in school myself. I still have vivid memories of times I tested the
22


boundaries in school, experiences that cemented the follow the rules in
school lesson in my mind. One such memorable time was in a seventh-grade
English class. We were supposed to write a short story in the first-person. I
had just read A Catcher in the Rye (on my own, not for school), and Holden
Caulfields language and voice were filling my head. I remember being
amazed that a writer was allowed to use language like that, to write in a style
like that. I wanted to try it myself- if it was good enough for JD Salinger,
then it should certainly be good enough for Mr. Wilsons junior high English
class, I thought. I got that story back covered in red ink, the comments
inappropriate language and not proper English scrawled all over. Thats
also where I first encountered that phrase so loved by English teachers
everywhere: avoid colloquial language. At least I learned a new vocabulary
word. But I also learned that if I wanted As, I had to play it safe.
In college, I learned that there are even more, even stricter rules for
judging the quality of writing, and I grew self-conscious about all my writing,
both in and outside of school. I learned that there was a right and wrong
way to write. I learned that professors judged writing and placed different
values on different kinds of writing. I started judging my private writing
harshly, the way I expected it would be judged by the critical, fastidious,
demanding academic and professional worlds I was being introduced to in my
classes. I became my own worst critic, and I stopped writing for fun during
23


my undergrad years. I would return to it, though, at various periods in my life;
I couldnt ever let go of the drive to write. This has been the defining struggle
of my literary life ever since.
In recent years, the boundaries between my public and private writing
have blurred. Ive written in and for a wide variety of settings (Naropas MFA
program, various writing groups, this comp and rhet program, the Denver
Writing Project), publications (newspapers and magazines, experimental
literary journals), and purposes (for fun, for money, for school, for friends). I
am aware of the public nature of all writing, aware of how rules and
conventions serve the purpose of translating, transmitting private thoughts and
ideas into public communication. As an adult, I still have those old school
rules burned into the core of my being, but I am aware of the arbitrary and
often destructive nature of them. Im also aware of how knowing and
mastering the rules can give a person power and voice, allow a person the
possibility of being heard by others in society.
In his essay Mr. Secrets, Richard Rodriguez describes how putting
words on paper inherently makes private thoughts public, even if those words
are only being written in a personal diary: For by rendering feelings in words
that a stranger can understandwords that belong to the public, this Other
the young diarist no longer need feel all alone or eccentric. His feelings are
capable of public intelligibility (187). Linguistic rules and conventions
24


belong to the public; ideas and thoughts and feelings belong to the personal.
Language and writing form the bridge that connects the two. Whatever the
subject of any given piece of writing is personal feelings or economic
theory, a narrative about a trip abroad or a report on a city council meeting -
the process of pulling thoughts from the mind and using words to make them
public is the same, or at least very similar. I am much more interested in the
commonalities among writing in different genres, for different purposes and
audiences, than I am in the differences.
After years of studying my own writing process in the MFA program,
and after studying the cognitive process of writing in general in this comp and
rhet program, I realize that it is the process of writing that most fascinates me.
Ultimately, no matter what the end product magazine article, college paper,
experimental short story the process is mostly the same, at least the part of
the process that matters most to me, the creative/creating part of the process.
Theres the writer in a room all alone pulling words out of nowhere to form
sentences, paragraphs, essays, novels. The writer struggling to reconcile all
the lessons he/she has learned from school, from family, from media, from
society in general; to reconcile all his/her various identities and selves; to pull
together his/her fragmented knowledge and self long enough to type the next
sentence. Thats the part of the process that fascinates me how the mind
does that. How the brain reaches into its own murky depths, extracts some
25


unformed idea, and gives it shape. How that idea somehow gains clarity, how
the writer can begin to see what shes thinking. And then how the mind is able
to use the conventions of language to put that idea on paper, to communicate
it, thus making it knowable to other people, making it public, making it part of
the discourse that shapes and informs society, no matter how small an
audience may end up reading a given piece.
As a composition teacher, Id like to work with those commonalities,
to blur boundaries between public and private, academic and creative. Id like
to help undo some of the creativity-stifling and confidence-killing lessons my
students have probably learned in their own school lives, to encourage them to
write prolifically and freely, and to teach them to use the rules in such a way
that those rules empower rather than inhibit them. Id like to encourage them
to experiment with content, form, style, and language in their writing. I found
that the approach to writing I experienced in the creative writing world is
more conducive to encouraging imagination and risk-taking and rule-breaking
than the approach to writing Ive experienced in the academic world. But in
my MFA world, no one placed much value on conventions and mechanics, as
if it was below us to bother with such things, as if those elements of writing
werent important to real writers.
In my career as a writer and writing instructor, Id like to find a
balance. Id like to figure out howto synthesize the best of the creative
26


\
writing world with the best of the academic writing world. And thats what
lead me to this thesis topic. Im hoping that by reflecting on and writing about
these concerns, and reading books and articles by other scholars and writers
and teachers who have similar concerns, I will come to an understanding of
how to redesign my future comp classes and how to integrate my splintered
creative writing, academic writing, and teaching selves into a more unified
whole.
27


CHAPTER 3
A BRIEF HISTORY: OCCASIONING THE
COMP/CREATIVE WRITING SPLIT
Composition, of course, has long existed in a service relationship to both
Literature and Creative Writing, although it has come into sharper focus as the
necessary foothill region of the English Mount Olympus (funding teaching
assistants who would fill the seminars of both critics and creators) for the last
two decades.
- Wendy Bishop, Places to Stand: The Reflective Writer-
Teacher-Writer in Composition, 18
From everything Ive read and experienced, it is clear that composition
and creative writing are treated as two distinct disciplines in college and
university English departments. Most English departments contain three
different disciplines within their walls: literary studies, creative writing, and
composition, with literature at the top of the hierarchy, followed by creative
writing in the middle, and composition at the bottom. As composition scholar
Ted Lardner points out, its surprising that composition and creative writing
havent formed more of an alliance, based both on their common position in
relation to a shared object the study, practice, and teaching of writing and
on their shared position on the margins of the institutional core, literary
28


studies (77). But instead, they remain distinct; each discipline has separate
faculty, different students, and each has its own publications and professional
associations: the Modem Language Association (MLA) for lit studies,
Associated Writing Programs (AWP) for creative writing, and the Conference
on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) for composition and
rhetoric. In 2004, in fact, the AWP and CCC conferences were held on the
same days, so people couldnt go to both even if they wanted to. Thats a
pretty convincing indication that the boundary between these fields is not only
solid, its nearly impermeable.
All of the scholars Ive read who argue for breaking down barriers
between composition and creative writing begin their arguments with the
unquestioned assumption that these fields are separate, and they then go on to
point out why this separation is problematic and offer suggestions for change.
The first order of business, though, is to simply get a conversation started.
There have been a few isolated instances of collaboration over the years: most
notably, about 25 or 30 years ago the field of composition adopted the idea of
workshopping of having peers respond to each others writing from
creative writing. But, as Wendy Bishop contends, thats only the beginning;
scholars have been reluctant to carry on the conversation beyond this.
Seldom discussed, Bishop says, are the basic commonalities of writing a
poem and writing an essay. That is, many teachers in both writing areas deny
29


commonalities while a few teachers are exploring the connections
(Crossing 230-31).
In September 1999, CCCC devoted an entire journal issue to the topic
of teaching writing creatively. Editor Joseph Harris points out in his
introduction to this issue that there had been very little discussion of creative
writing in the journal to date: The call for articles which has appeared on the
copyright page of each issue of CCC since 1994 does not list creative writing
... as one of the fields that scholars in composition might connect with (8).
One of the highlights of this issue is a symposium that includes contributions
from composition scholars Mary Ann Cain, George Kalamaras, Tim Mayers,
and Ted Lardner. The purpose of the symposium is to introduce a
conversation between two areas of writing studies that function, more often
than not, as parallel undertakings within English departments (Cain
Introduction 70-71). Cain argues in her introduction to the symposium: If
much of compositions vitality stems from its forays into other fields of
inquiry, a dialogue with creative writing can add to that vitality
(Introduction 71). She and her co-writers hope that by locating at least
some intersections and divergences between composition and creative writing,
a more thoughtful conversation about existing boundaries can develop
(Introduction 71).
30


History of Composition as an Academic Discipline
To understand why the comp/creative writing split exists in
contemporary universities, it is helpful to trace the history of writing as an
academic discipline. Writing and rhetoric were part of a students academic
training as far back Aristotles time maybe even further, depending on ones
definitions of writing and academic training. Of course, the function and
role of writing and rhetoric in the education system has changed and continues
to change tremendously through the generations. In this section, I am going to
present a very brief outline of the recent history of composition in the
academy to understand where and how the split from creative writing
occurred. Mary Ann Cain traced the history of the composition/creative
writing split in a conference paper she presented at the Conference on College
Composition and Commication in 1997. She found that initially there was no
separation between the two fields in higher education. She concurs with James
Berlins assertion that it was the adoption of the German research university
model in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that occasioned the split (Cain
Split 2). This university model engendered the disciplining of academia,
with each discipline and sub-discipline developing their own increasingly
narrow and specialized discourses whose audience was limited primarily to
their own disciplinary communities (Cain Split 2). Thus, literature studies
branched off on its own in a quest for legitimacy and authority both within
31


and outside the university, leaving composition and creative writing behind
to form their own identities and define their own specializations (Cain Split
2).
Ironically, Cain points out, both composition and creative writing
claim the same event as their point of origin: James Berlin, tracing the history
of the contemporary composition field, and D.G. Myers, tracing the history of
the contemporary creative writing field, both cite a composition class taught
by Barrett Wendell at Harvard in the 1880s as the turning point in writing
instruction (Cain Split 3). Berlin contends that this course marked the
beginning of the end for rhetoric in its embrace of the positivistic
epistemology of rising science and business communities, while Myers
contends that Wendells class was the seminal American creative writing
course, noting that Wendells sense of craft was, in fact, based upon flexible
literary judgment over strict rhetorical principal (Cain Split 3).
James Berlin recounts the epistemologies that inform the history of
composition instruction in American higher education between 1900 and 1985
in his book Rhetoric and Reality. In the early part of the 20th Century, he tells
us, scholars generally had one of two views on the function, definition, and
role of writing instruction in undergraduate education: some viewed
composition as the art of writing clearly and correctly about ordinary
matters, and others viewed it as the production of literature (Genung in
32


Berlin 40). Some of the scholars who responded to an early 20*^ Century
survey on the topic favored writing as preparation for practical living, while
others favored writing as a preparation for literature (Berlin 40).
As Berlin goes on to explain in the rest of the hook, its the former
approach that came to dominate composition pedagogy for the rest of the 20th
Century. The dominant rhetoric in composition classes for most of the century
was current-traditional rhetoric, which presumes that writing is simply a
reflection of reality and places emphasis on correctness, precision,
arrangement, and clarity in writing (Berlin 8). In the current-traditional
paradigm, Berlin says, the business of the writer is to record ... reality
exactly as it has been experienced so that it can be reproduced in the reader
(7). Even today, in 2004 even with all the various pedagogies and ideologies
that have shaped and changed composition in the past 20 or so years the
current-traditional influence is still very strong in freshman comp classes.
And it is this current-traditional rhetoric, and the ideology and values
associated with it, that continues to reinforce to justify the hierarchy in
English departments, and to keep composition subordinate to other disciplines
within English studies. As Berlin says: In tacitly supporting the impoverished
notion of rhetoric found in the freshman writing course, academic literary
critics have provided a constant reminder of their own claim to superiority and
privilege (28). Instead of literature, creative writing, and composition being
33


equally important contributors to English studies as a whole, composition
continues to exist as a precursor to the other two: at most colleges, most
students are required to take freshman composition, and often it is a
prerequisite to other English courses. Ted Lardner points out:
We commonly speak of the first-year writing course as an
initiation into the academic discourse communities, and we
often characterize the writing sponsored in our programs as
fulfilling the quasi-ceremonial function of earning the
credentials that would allow students to go on to the real
work of the university. (76)
Making room in composition for other rhetorics and, in the case of my
argument, for creative writing and poetics can help raise it from its remedial
role in the college curriculum and re-form it as a real, valued class in its
own right, as a subject of study equal to all others in academia.
Creative writing classes that is, classes in writing fiction and poetry
- have been offered at universities since the late 1800s, but the Iowa Writers
Workshop, founded in 1936, gets credit for being the seminal graduate
creative writing program (Moxley Preface xii). In the past 30 or so years,
there has been a proliferation of graduate-level creative writing programs
throughout the United States. Most of these contemporary MFA programs, as
well as undergraduate creative writing classes, are modeled after the Iowa
Workshop. The primary trademark of the Iowa approach to teaching writing is
34


the workshop method, in which students meet in small groups under direction
of an experienced, published writer and offer critiques of each others writing.
In recent years, though, creative writing instructors and scholars have
revisited this method and have begun to expose its flaws and point out ways of
improving creative writing instruction; much of what they suggest is drawn
from the world of composition pedagogy, as well as from the world of literary
studies. Joseph Moxley entreats creative writing instructors to stop
enshrinfing] and mystifyfing] the creative process and to learn from
composition theorists [who] have been charting common patterns of how
writers generate and refine material by studying the planning, pre-writing,
revising, and editing practices of professional and student writers for years
(Tearing 27). Fiction writer and creative writing instructor Eve Shelnutt
recommends an interdisciplinary approach to teaching fiction and poetry
workshops, integrating literature and literary theory into the creative writing
curriculum (in much the same way that Fitts and Lalicker suggest an
interdisciplinary approach among composition and literature) (Shelnutt 22-
23). The point is, many scholars in all branches of English studies believe that
their disciplines and their students stand to benefit from more collaboration
among the specialties rather than continued segregation.
35


Expressivist Rhetoric
Finally, a last area Id like to explore in this section is the particular
rhetoric of expressivism. Expressivism develops its pedagogical system by
issigning highest value to the writer and her imaginative, psychological,
social, and spiritual development and places emphasis on the presence of the
writer and the writers voice in the text (Burnham 19). Some theorists who
oppose bridging the composition/creative writing gap argue that adding
creative writing elements to a composition classroom would place too much
focus on expressivist rhetoric and pedagogy to the exclusion of other (and in
some theorists views, more important) rhetorics, such as social-
constructivism. In the minds of many writing teachers and scholars, creative
writing is closely aligned with the expressive side of the composition world.
Eminent expressivist theorists such as Peter Elbow and Donald Murray, both
active writers as well as writing teachers, make the case for using freewriting
in composition classrooms, for encouraging and developing a writers voice,
for incorporating personal writing into the academic classroom, for self-
reflection and meta-writing, for workshopping writing with fellow
writers/classmates all elements found in typical creative writing classrooms.
But to some critics, the idea of creative writing evokes the stereotypically
romantic image of the lone genius writer holed up in a room working by
him/herself, outside the bounds of external, social influence, and this idea is
36


one that social-constructivist critics in particular want to avoid transferring to
students in college composition classes. These critics fear that because
expressivist writing classes focus on the individual as opposed to the
relationships among the writer, the community, and the social, political, and
economic conditions of existence, an expressivist rhetoric and pedagogy
results in isolated, fragmented, politically ineffectual students and citizens
(Gradin 9).
I see two problems with this. First of all, I challenge the notion that
creative writing is inherently expressivist. Many writers and theorists
commonly conflate expressivism with creative writing, but this is an
erroneous connection; it ignores many other ideologies, techniques, and
approaches available to poets, fiction writers and essayists. Not all creative
writing is personal. And certainly not all creative writing is produced in
isolation, in some ivory tower or basement room without windows by writers
who have no interest in the social and political conditions that shape their
identity and their art.
As Mary Ann Cain reminds us, composition can draw other rhetorics
besides expressivism from creative writing, poetics, pedagogies, and
production (Introduction 70). Many fictions writers and poets are actively
engaged in the world around them. At Naropa, for instance, we were
encouraged to become involved in our communities, to engage in service
37


work, to be politically active and to allow these experiences to inform our
writing. The Naropa writing programs founding poets, Allen Ginsberg and
Anne Waldman, were/are overtly, outspokenly political with their art, and
they encouraged their students to be equally engaged. In fact, every year at
Naropas four-week-long Summer Writing Program (which MFA students are
required to attend), one week is devoted to writing and political activism. The
Slimmer Writing Program website describes the 2004 program for the
Political Activism and Writing Week:
This week we will focus on politics, identity, and activism,
exploring the impact of both direct and indirect actions in the
midst of this ongoing turbulent political time. When do we act?
When do we take to the streets? How or when do we as writers
take on the position of lobbyists? When do we turn our writing
skills towards the manifesto? How do we stay skillful in our
means rather than buying into cynicism? Many of our faculty
this week are cultural activists and infrastructure workers.
Together we will examine our roles and responsibilities as
writers and members of a community. (Summer Writing
Program)
To me, this seems right in line with social-constructivist ideologies. The only
difference is that the writing produced in these workshops will be poetry,
fiction and various other unnamable forms of creative writing, rather than
academic essays. I think this connection is worth investigating further, to see
what contribution social-constructivist poets and fiction writers could make
to a composition classroom.
38


My second objection is that expressivism has a much broader
definition and is a much more inclusive rhetoric than some critics give it
credit for. As Bishop says: the expressivist position is not solitary, unitary,
nor certain (Places 27). I personally feel a strong connection with the
expressivists, but, to use Wendy Bishops words again, I am not merely or
simply expressivist (Places 22). I embody both expressivist and social-
constructivist identities in my own pedagogy. I am interested in the cognitive
process of learning to write, in encouraging a student writers voice, in
bringing personal experience into academic writing, and I am also interested
in helping my students develop a critical understanding of the cultural and
social forces that construct their identities and realities.
The term I would use to define my own pedagogy/rhetoric is social-
expressivism. As Sherrie Gradin explains: Social-expressivism stresses the
need for teachers to focus on writing for discovery, writing to discover self
and voice, and development of power and authority of ones own writing. But
it also focuses on those things that social-epistemicism is being praised for:
positioning the self within the world and writing for change (vii).
Gradin calls for a broader interpretation of expressivism in her book
Romancing Rhetorics. She explores the expressivism/social-epistemicism (or
social-constructivism) dichotomy and argues that those two theoretical
schools are not mutually exclusive. She contends that expressivist
39


composition theory doesnt have to come at the expense or exclusion of social
awareness; expressivist classrooms, Gradin says, can resist disempowering
social influences, use interdisciplinary classroom methods, and posit a social
understanding of the self (112). Thus, the accusation from some scholars
that expressivists keep students in a state of naivete, dont prepare them for
the languages of the academy, [and] abandon them to the forces of politics and
culture (Bishop Places 11) is misguided and unfounded. I concur with
those critics who argue that the composition classes taught with an underlying
expressivist (or social-expressivist, depending on how you define the terms)
rhetoric can help students make important connections between their
personal lives and society at large (Paley 179) and as a result, produce
writing that is both personally and socially significant.
Many critics, though, dont think that creative writing or personal
writing are significant and believe that they have no place in academia (or,
that is, in an academic class such as freshman comp). Historically and in the
eyes of many scholars within English studies today freshman comp is
simply a course that is meant to introduce students to the rules and
conventions of academic discourse and to prepare them for more important
work to come, the real work of other disciplines. Thus, freshman comp fills
a perceived need in academia. But, as Mary Ann Cain asks, To what extent
is this need for academic discourse real any more than the need for more
40


imaginative writing is real except to perform some function, to get
something done? (Problematizing 92). Rendering freshman composition in
these purely functional terms discounts the importance of the imagination, of
creativity, of art in academia and in the world beyond, in the intellectual life
of the student, the writer, the human being. Cain goes on to say: If creative
writing tends to separate the desire to write from the need, then composition
tends to do the mirror opposite separate the need to write from the desire
(Troblematizing 92). I, personally, would love nothing more than to inspire
a genuine desire to write in my composition students. But composition
pedagogy as a whole needs to make some significant changes to before
desire is given equal consideration with need and function.
41


CHAPTER 4
WHAT COMP CLASSES LACK
AS A RESULT OF THE SPLIT
The general segregation of creative writing from literature and composition
corrodes the development of a literary culture.
- Joseph Moxley, Tearing Down the Walls: Engaging the
Imagination, 25
Until now, composition and creative writing have moved in parallel at the
margins of departments of English. Recognizing their contingency, we are in a
position to imagine alternative configurations that may prove to be more
suited to our needs as writers and teachers and to the needs of our students.
- Ted Lardner, Locating the Boundaries of Composition and
Creative Writing, 77
Scholars in both composition and creative writing contend that the
separation between the two fields is detrimental to English studies as a whole,
and to composition classes in particular. Students are missing out on what
could be a much broader, more holistic approach to teaching writing one
that draws from multiple rhetorics and poetics; has a more inclusive and
expansive definition of writing; encourages genuine inquiry, experimentation,
and risk-taking; treats students as real writers and expects teachers to be
active writers themselves; and offers students a wider choice of genres to read
and write in. As writer and composition scholar Wendy Bishop points out,
One result of the successful breaking down of barriers between composition
42


and creative writing (or the rebraiding of naturally congruent elements) is the
access this gives us as writers and teachers to all genres of writing
(Composing Ourselves 220).
Closing the doors against influences of other pedagogies and other
forms of writing leads to a more impoverished composition pedagogy. By
teaching writing only (or at least, primarily) as a rhetorical act and not
accounting for the poetic and artistic aspects, we are limiting our curriculum
and our pedagogy and limiting our students possibilities for genuine
exploration in their writing. Creative writer turned composition scholar Joseph
Moxley laments that
our passion for specialization has encouraged us to divide and
subdivide what should be considered an integrative and
generative process of discovering and shaping meaning.
Whether composing monthly feasibility studies, poetry,
screenplays, or the great American novel, writers are engaged
in a natural, organic process of forming meaning. (Tearing
26)
This is not to say that we should abandon all elements of traditional
composition curricula. We shouldnt toss out the unified text with the
academic bathwater, as Wendy Bishop says, but we could offer [more]
options (Places 17). Instead of assigning essays that exclusively, or
primarily, adhere to the thesis-support structure, a linear, sequential form of
expository writing that aims to establish the validity of a thesis and creates
a logically exclusive, linear progression to a predetermined end, we should
43


teach a more open form of writing, one that promotes inquiry and exploration
and aims to discover the fecundity of an idea and that holds several
possibilities in suspension simultaneously, inviting the inquisitive mind to
play among them (Zeiger 456-57).
Multiple Genres. Multiple Rhetorics
In my own experience with freshman composition curriculum, Ive felt
frustrated with the limitations imposed on me by departmental expectations.
My experience bears out Ted Lardners assertion that the institutional
practice of writing instruction inscribes composition in narrowly curricular
terms (76). For example, both of the colleges at which Ive taught freshman
comp (Metropolitan State College of Denver and University of Colorado at
Denver) provided me with a general curriculum outline based on a standard,
popular composition textbook (Reading Critically./Writing Well in one class,
Call to Write in the other), a curriculum that requires students to write four
essays throughout the semester in four different modes or genres. Both classes
follow the same progression: students begin the semester with personal
writing and move toward more transactional writing; the last essay of the
semester is always argumentative writing, lauded as the most important form
of writing for composition students to master. While each of the four essays is
a different genre, the essays all still have many similarities too many, I
44


believe: they are the same length, they adhere to the same organizational rules,
they follow the thesis-support structure, they are all academic writing. My
students choices in form and content are limited to the accepted norms of
the composition curriculum, to the chapters of the reader/rhetoric textbook we
use in the class. The students choose a topic to fit the form of the given
assignment, rather than allowing the form to fit their content, style, interests.
Furthermore, while composition instructors are encouraged to teach
students to write for a variety of audiences, including audiences outside the
classroom, the reality is we are asking students to write academic essays based
on models in a composition textbook to be submitted to and graded by a
teacher based on English department portfolio standards. If students were
really writing for a non-academic audience, many of the rules and
requirements I ask of them wouldnt apply; students would have true freedom
to experiment with rules, conventions, forms, genres, and to select ones that
work best for them in any given writing situation.
An additional danger with this approach is that we are teaching
students (by implication, at least, if not directly) that these genres are real, that
writing actually can be divided into neatly defined categories like the ones in
their textbooks as if real writers sit down at their computers and say to
themselves, Hmm, I think today Ill write a Cause and Effect essay. Instead, in
45


the real world of writing, content often dictates form, and genre is decided
arbitrarily by editors or critics well after publication if ever.
By contrast, in creative writing classes, students often write in a style
or genre that they already have an interest in, or that comes naturally to them,
or that suits the particular topic or content they are writing about, or that, for
whatever reason, they want to write in, and after the writing is done they find
an appropriate outlet for it, a publication (journal, magazine, newspaper,
anthology, chapbook, literature contest, public reading) that publishes writing
in a style or genre similar to the piece theyre submitting. I think composition
pedagogy would benefit from making this switch: for at least part of the
semester, it would be worthwhile to see what happens if we let content
determine form, and let students follow their own lines of inquiry and
exploration and select their own criteria and genres and potential audiences or
publications for their writing projects.
Teacher as Writer
Another deficiency in composition classes (and another area where
composition could benefit from mirroring the creative writing world) is that
many college composition teachers are not writers themselves. This further
devalues composition as a discipline: it implies that writing is merely a
remedial subject that can be taught by instructors with a minimum of training
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rather than a valuable art, craft, skill that is developed over long years of
practice, and it implies that an instructors experience (or lack thereof) as a
writer doesnt necessarily matter in the classroom. It doesnt take into account
the fact that writing experience can and should inform the teaching of writing
as much as training in writing pedagogy and composition theory. In my
composition and rhetoric graduate courses, we rarely discussed how to work
with ourselves as writers in the classroom, how to let our writing experience
inform our teaching experience, or how to develop our writing skills in order
to enhance our teaching skills.
In MFA programs, students wouldnt even consider taking a class
from someone who doesnt write regularly really, from someone who hasnt
published pretty extensively. The first question prospective students ask as
theyre choosing an MFA program is: Who are the writers who teach there?
Not, what kind of teachers are they, but what kind of writers? Creative
writing students want to be mentored and coached and advised by a writer
they admire; teaching ability isnt nearly as important a consideration (which,
of course, is not exactly a good thing creative writing scholars argue
repeatedly for raising the standards of instruction in creative writing classes
and for requiring teachers to study pedagogy, no matter how many prize-
winning novels they may have published). But fiction, poetry, and creative
non-fiction teachers are almost always professional or published writers
47


themselves, and it is this experience the writer/teachers real-world
experience of struggling through the writing process, of revising and
rewriting, of submitting piece after piece for publication and dealing with
rejection letters, of sorting through the complex world of literary journals and
agents and publishing companies that creative writing students value and
want to learn from.
Wendy Bishop, a self-defined writer-teacher/teacher-writer who
actively taught, wrote, and produced scholarship in both the composition and
creative writing worlds, makes a strong argument in many of her published
articles for composition teachers to be writers. As Bishop says, I can no more
imagine being a writing teacher who does not write than I can imagine being
one who does not read (Places 14). But so far in my experience in the
college composition world, there has been no requirement that a comp
instructor be a writer him or herself; I have known many colleagues who dont
write at all. Many do, of course, but peoples personal or professional writing
experience seems to have had no bearing on whether or not they get hired as a
TA or adjunct composition instructor. All that matters is academic
competence. And not even that since so many freshman composition
teachers are graduate student teaching assistants studying literature and
underpaid, highly expendable adjuncts with little or no training in the field of
composition and rhetoric. If freshman comp will ever be valued highly and
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taken seriously as an academic course, as it deserves and needs to be, it needs
to be taught by qualified, well-trained professionals, as are other academic
subjects.
49.


CHAPTER 5
SUGGESTIONS FOR A REVISED
COMPOSITION CLASS
[Mjany of us entered the corridors of English studies hoping to write and
have conversations with writers, about writing, as writers.
- Bishop Places to Stand, 13
Engaging students imaginations requires an interdisciplinary approach, one
which brings together creative writing, literature, criticism, and composition.
- Joseph Moxley, Tearing Down the Walls, 25
Finally, in the last section of this thesis, Id like to offer some
suggestions for what a revised freshman composition class, one that blends
academic writing pedagogy with creative writing, might look like. I will
elaborate on the ideas outlined in the previous section, adding more specific
ways a freshman comp class might be improved if some of the deficiencies
named above are addressed and some of the changes implemented. The
suggestions Ive come up with are based on scholarship Ive read from both
creative writing and composition scholars, on insight Ive gained from my
own writing and teaching practices, and from ideas I learned in talking to a
Naropa writing instructor who designed and teaches a class called Writers
Craft, which is Naropas very unconventional version of freshman
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composition. All of these suggestions are hypothetical. My real hope is that
creative writers and composition instructors and scholars will understand the
benefit of collaborating and will engage in dialog and from these
conversations, devise new curricula that I (or any one person sitting down to
consider these ideas) couldnt even begin to imagine alone.
In general, my ideal freshman composition class would embody the
following qualities: It would be taught by writers-who-teach/teachers-who-
write (that is, it would be taught by people who are dedicated to both their
own writing and to writing pedagogy); it would offer a wide variety of genres
and forms for students to read and write in; it would ask students to define the
standards, terms, criteria, and of course topics for their writing projects; it
would genuinely encourage students to take risks and to experiment with
content, form, style, and language; it would incorporate ample, guided peer
review; and it would include many opportunities for students to reflect on
their writing. Ultimately, it would give students more control and authority
over the curriculum, allowing them to choose readings, direct their own
learning, and determine the nature of their writing projects.
Writers Who Teach/Teachers Who Write
All writing classes, from undergraduate composition courses to
graduate-level fiction and poetry workshops, should be taught by someone
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who is a practicing writer as well as an informed writing teacher. I cant
imagine taking a writing course from someone who doesnt write any more
than I can imagine taking piano lessons from someone who doesnt play
piano. English department search committees looking to hire new freshman
composition instructors (whether full-time or adjunct) should ask to see
several writing samples from those applicants, and should ask those
prospective teachers to talk about themselves as writers during an interview;
writing ability and experience should be as important as teaching ability and
experience when English departments decide which new instructors to hire.
I personally identify both as a writer and as a writing teacher.
Depending on what Im doing on any given day, my priorities shift; as Wendy
Bishop says, some days I am a writer-who-teaches (WT) and on others I am
a teacher-who-writes (TW) but inevitably, always, I am one or the other
(Places 14). As a WT/TW, I relate to my students as writers, not just as
students. I know the writing process intimately. I have experienced what they
are experiencing as they go through the writing process, and I am personally
familiar with the issues that hold many of them back, that make many of them
anxious, resistant writers: self-doubt, perfectionism, insecurity, belief that they
cant write because they dont know all the rules.
My experience as a writer greatly enhances my composition
instruction. In my classes, I share my writing as well as stories from my own
52


writing experience with my students. I relate anecdotes from my life as a
journalist, as a student/academic writer, as a fiction writer, as a freelance
essayist, using different stories to illustrate different aspects of writing or
parts of the writing process. For example, I might talk about how, at the
monthly magazine I worked for as copy chief, a story would pass through the
hands of two editors, a copy editor, and a proofreader, going back to the
writer a dozen or more times for revision, before it reached the publishable
version readers see on newsstands. My students and I also have many open,
meaningful conversations about what it means to be a writer, what it feels like
to sit down at a computer and do this thing called writing, and we do a lot of
meta-writing in my classes. I want my students to notice how their minds
work, how their emotions come into play as theyre writing, how their beliefs
about themselves and their abilities affect their writing, much the same way I
examined myself during my MFA years.
And now, after teaching for three and a half years, I cant imagine
being a writer who doesnt teach any more than I can imagine being a writing
teacher who doesnt write. Each experience informs and improves the other.
As self-identified writer/writing teacher Lisa Mongno tells it:
My writing impacts my teaching, tying pedagogy to experience
... and, recently, my teaching has impacted my writing. As I
look for new writing experiences now, I think about how they
may contribute to my teaching I weigh them in terms of what
I may learn, and in turn share with my students. How will I
53


write this? Is it similar to the activities my students complete in
class? How will it differ from previous writing experiences?
My writing has become a part of the unspoken conversation in
my classroom. (A17)
My belief in the importance of being a WT/TW lead me to the Denver
Writing Project in the summer of2003. The DWP (the Denver site of the
National Writing Project) is part of a nationwide network of educators who
strive to improve student writing and learning by improving the teaching of
writing (Denver Writing Project). The philosophy behind this 30-year-old
project is that the more teachers cultivate their own writing, the better they
will be able to teach writing to their students. As a fellow in the 2003 summer
institute, I was part of a group of K-16 teachers who worked closely together
for five weeks to develop ourselves simultaneously as writers and as writing
teachers; in the morning we demonstrated our best classroom teaching
practices, and in the afternoons we workshopped our personal and academic
writing in small groups. Most of the other fellows were K-12 teachers; I wish
more college instructors and professors would see the value in attending a
program like this. My ideal freshman composition classroom would be lead
by just such an instructor.
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Re-Defining the Expository Essay
Another aspect of my revised freshman composition course that would
look different is the content of the course itself. The curriculum would offer a
much broader range of options for student writers: instead of the four-essays-
in-four-genres course progression (or some similar variation on that theme),
the curriculum would include readings of all different lengths, forms, genres,
content areas many of those readings selected by the student based on
personal interest and would allow students to choose the form, genre,
content of their writing to match their interests and topic areas. Additionally,
the curriculum would be open to the influence of all kinds of rhetorics and
poetics. While the course would focus on nonfiction prose, students would
also read and write fiction and poetiy to learn how elements of those crafts
can sharpen their essay-writing skills.
Many scholars see the benefit of opening up the curriculum, giving
students more authority/authorship over their course of study, and allowing
more room for genuine exploration, experimentation, and risk-taking. Joseph
Moxley believes that [t]he first step toward engaging students begins with
developing a curriculum that addresses their interests and provides them with
opportunities for composing in a way that encourages risk-taking and
independence (Tearing 29). The typical freshman comp course, with its
55


emphasis on textbook readings and expository writing that adheres to the
thesis-support structure, doesnt provide much room for this, though.
One way to address this inadequacy is to re-visit the very notion of
essay itself as William Zeiger recommends. Instead of limiting ourselves to
teaching the expository essay, which aims to prove an idea, we should also
teach the personal or familiar essay, a more informal, friendly style of
writing that allows the writer to make a genuine inquiry into a topic, to
examine it from many angles, to unfold the intellectual potential of an idea
(Zeiger 460). The familiar essay
provides a fertile field for creativity, permits the mind to
examine without penalty or prejudice the most unlikely and
even untenable positions, and makes possible the emergence of
new ideas and associations. (Zeiger 461)
Furthermore, such an essay can accommodate multiple viewpoints at once,
allowing the writer to try out many different ideas and readily embrace
contrasting alternatives (Zeiger 460). This form inherently encourages more
experimentation and risk-taking than the more structured, formulaic thesis-
support exposition. And after all, writing should be where students get to
experiment freely with new ideas. As Joseph Moxley reminds us: Successful
writers take risks and we should be careful to give student writers room to do
the same (Creative 9).
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This open essay, though, would only be one of many options students
could choose to write in. There is still value, of course, in teaching a more
conventional argument essay. In teaching the traditional rhetorical modes. In
teaching literature, teaching business writing, science writing. No one genre is
better than another. Wendy Bishop explains: And so I do my mixing [of
types of writing], not to elevate genres but to intermingle them, not to
venerate the poetic or belletristic but to point out that each brings us to our
senses, though in different modes and tones (Places 17). The goal is simply
to offer many more options than most conventional freshman comp classes
currently do. And among those options, we should include a few selections
from the world of poetics and from the creative side of the writing process -
getting the unconscious and the right brain just as involved in the act of
composing as the rational mind, the left brain (Moxley Tearing 34).
Naropa Writers Craft
While researching this thesis, I found a model of a course that
embodies many of the qualities Ive been describing. Naropa Universitys
required undergraduate writing class, called Writers Craft, combines
elements of both conventional freshman comp courses and creative writing
courses. Candace Walworth, writer and long-time Naropa teacher who
designed the course and has been teaching it for about 12 years, explains that
57


the class follows an authentic curriculum (Walworth). What this means is
that the content of the class is not predetermined by the teacher but unfolds as
the semester progresses and is generated by the members of the class, their
personal, community and literary interests and their explorations and
investigations of those interests throughout the semester. Similarly, the form
of students writing is also not predetermined, but takes shape based on their
content. The only formal requirement is that students submit two pages of
writing each week of the semester, culminating in a 30-page bound
manuscript at semesters end. Students may write one 30-page-long piece, 30
one-page pieces, or any combination in between. Walworth says that most
students leave Writers Craft having fallen in love with writing (Walworth).
I wish I could say the same about my freshman comp class. Maybe one day I
will.
58


CHAPTER 6
CONCLUSION
Although the walls in English departments that separate creative writers,
literature professors, literary critics, and composition scholars are not easily
scaled, we must tear down the arbitrary boundaries and firmly establish
writing programs that are informed by the dynamics of the creative process. In
order to meet the myriad needs of writing students, we need to inform each
other, rather than retreat from each others disciplines.
- Joseph Moxley, Creative Writing and
Composition: Bridging the Gap, 12
So I hope that as a profession we have finally moved from feeling the need to
be horses of a different color ....
- Wendy Bishop, On Learning to Like Teaching
Creative Writing, 251
Joseph Moxley wrote an article in the AWP Chronicle, a publication
for academic creative writing professionals, in which he an outlined principles
and practices that he thought should be the foundation for all writing classes.
He made his suggestions based on his own experience as a creative writer and
his study of composition theory. Although he was making his suggestions for
an audience of creative writing instructors, many of his ideas apply just as
well to a composition class. This, in fact, is his point: we should work together
because our fields have so much in common. Moxley is trying to sell this idea
to the creative writers; I am trying to sell it to compositionists. Moxley is
59


looking for alternatives to the conventional creative writing workshop model;
I am looking for alternatives to the conventional composition curriculum.
Ultimately, I believe that allowing the rhetorics, ideologies, and
epistemologies of poetics and creative writing to inform the freshman
composition course can help expand the curriculum and re-shape the
classroom so that creativity, imagination, and emotion are as much an integral
part of students writing experiences as academic discourse, conventions, and
structure.
But as far as what, exactly, that would look like in practice? I dont
have the answers. Ive made some suggestions in this thesis, but mostly I am
calling for further inquiry into this subject. I am calling on creative writing
and composition theorists and instructors to dialog with each other, to discuss
practices, to share insights and experiences, and to investigate commonalities
and differences. Most writing teachers can agree on the value of writing in
cultivating self-understanding, social and political awareness, critical thinking
skills in generating knowledge and ideas of all kinds. It is my hope that all
of us in English departments can engage in thoughtful conversation, and then,
through active, ongoing collaboration, re-invent our curricula to incorporate
the best our disciplines have to offer.
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Afterword
Recently a new acquaintance asked me that dreaded question: So what
do you do? I answered as always: Im finishing a second masters degree and I
teach. When pressed further, I talked about my MFA in creative writing, my
own writing practice, and the freshman composition classes I teach. My new
friend then asked, So, is there a difference between teaching freshman
composition and teaching writing?
I paused for a minute, thought about summarizing all the points I just
made in this thesis, then answered, simply, no.
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