Monthly Archives: November 2011

Dancing with Don – Reflections on an 8-year-old Piece of Writing

Back in the winter of 2003-04, back before Barack Obama had been elected to the Senate or YouTube or Facebook had been launched – and when I was still an assistant professor -, I wrote an essay about Don Murray and his scholarship about the teaching of writing.

That essay was published earlier this month.

When you wait almost eight years for an essay to be published, it’s an intriguing exercise in perspective and self-reflection. But before I get into that, I want to provide a brief background to the essay and it’s long hibernation before publication.

I wrote the essay – titled “Dancing with Don: Or, Waltzing with ‘Expressivism'” –  in response to a call for a special issue of the journal Enculturation. The special issue was to focus on the concept of “neo-expressivism” – a term I don’t particularly like (and one that, for my non-US readers, reflects a rather odd, parochial turf war in the field of rhetoric and composition). But I did see the focus of the issue as offering me the chance to reflect on the evolution of my intellectual relationship with Don Murray’s work, as well as my argument that he has not only been misread over the years, but in fact has largely gone unread and, consequently, been misrepresented by others citing his work. I also saw the piece as an opportunity to pay my respect to Don who, while not a close friend, had been a kind mentor to me and to others.

Donald Murray

So I wrote the piece, sent it to friends from my UNH days for comments, sent it to Don for his comments – which were generous and incisive – and sent it off to the editor of the special issue, where I was told it would be published by the next autumn. A long time ago I worked in daily journalism and was spoiled me in terms of how quickly I expected turnaround in terms of publishing. Still, I have learned to work within the pace of academic publishing and do not get bothered in the least by the one- or two- or even three-year wait to get something published. But I never imagined this length of time.

In the eight years that passed between the writing of the essay and its publication, a lot happened in my life. I had three books published, ended up a full professor, spent a term as first-year comp director, and watched my sons graduate from high school year.

Also, Don Murray died. In terms of this essay, that last fact is certainly the saddest. I had hoped it would come out before his death in winter 2006, not so much because it mattered whether he knew that the piece was published, but because I wanted the essay to be read as a conversation with a living scholar and not as a memorial. Now nobody else was going to get a chance to talk with him except through his writing.

Things moved on. The publication date got posted each year, and then that date passed. The special issue concept passed through another editor before falling apart completely. But at least the folks at Enculturation finally decided to just publish it on its own. It’s sort of out of place in terms of subject matter and tone as a stand-alone article in that journal and I wonder if anyone will ever read it. But, if they do, maybe it will be a different audience than I expected to reach.  I am grateful that it didn’t disappear completely and that they saw fit to publish it at all.

When the editors contacted me and said they were going to publish the essay, they gave me the option of revising and updating it. I read it over again and decided that, with the exception of an explanatory footnote about when it was written, not to change it. I like the passion of it from that time, and decided that the way I framed the argument when Don was still alive is the way I wanted to leave it.

Even so, the publication of this piece has encouraged me to stop and look at what I wrote eight years ago and notice a few things about the distance between the writer I was then and the one I am now. First of all, I was a little surprised to see that there wasn’t more that I wanted to revise. Essentially I think I was still right about my appraisal of Don’s work and that he had often been misrepresented because he had not actually been read in any depth by most rhet/comp scholars. And I think I was right in that his most radical stance, of making student writing and student experience the core of a writing course is an attempt at making teaching truly “student-centered” in a way that most writing teachers are not comfortable taking on. I think this vision of where knowledge is generated is substantially more like the work of Freire than most people realize. But, rather than repeat the whole argument here I should just let people read it.

What I also find intriguing in the in the essay though, is my writing voice. There is a tentativeness about it that reflects where I felt I was as an assistant professor without many publications. Were I writing today about writing from experience, about using the “personal” (whatever that is) in writing I think I’d be less tentative, maybe a bit less passionate. Less defensive, more confident. Maybe it’s the difference between my writing/teaching self that has not changed as much as my “professional” self that is situated by institutions and disciplines. I wouldn’t change a lot in the essay, but the tone in places would shift enough that, while it would still be me it would be a different “me” than eight years ago. As it should be, I suppose. And I suppose that’s a comfort as well.

Learning to Play Well with Others

Sometimes I can’t decide what kind of writer and scholar I am. I don’t mean in terms of the quality of my work (I have my own anxieties and suspicions there). No, I mean in terms of how I prefer to work. I used to think I was best on my own. I like conceiving of projects by myself, researching alone, certainly writing alone. I used to encourage students to collaborate, and admire people like Kate Ronald and Hepsi Roskelly who seemed to collaborate so productively and imaginatively, all the while thinking of how I wasn’t much in favor of it myself.

Yet, having just finished work on an edited collection – a collaborative project with my dear friend, Amy Zenger that we just sent off to the publishers this week, I realize that I’m not the moody loner I sometimes imagine myself to be in my more flamboyantly romantic moments. And when I look back over the books and articles I’ve done in the last few years – and what projects I’m contemplating in the future – I see, along with my single-authored pieces, collaborative work with a number of different people. So clearly I do enjoy working with others. Part of what I’ve realized is that, sometimes, collaborations in which I’m invited to join a friend’s project, push me into new areas of ideas and scholarship, and pull me out of any tendency toward scholarly isolation. On top of that, they often force me to follow through with work I might otherwise leave aside.

But this latest project also helped me remember that sometimes loosening my grip on an idea, actually helps it grow. I had the idea for New Media Literacies and Participatory Popular Culture Across Borders when I was writing Shimmering Literacies. I realized while researching Shimmering Literacies that the students I was talking with and observing were often engaged with popular culture and other fans from countries around the world. Clearly, then, studying how participatory popular culture expanded and shaped literacy practices needed to look at students and texts beyond the U.S. Initially I thought this would be a chapter in Shimmering Literacies, but then also realized it was too big a topic for one chapter. In addition, I knew that it was a project I could not study adequately from Louisville, Kentucky, or understand fully from my perspective as a white, male from the U.S. If any project called out for the diverse voices of an edited collection, it was this. And I also knew I needed help to think about this project from someone who could broaden my thinking about texts and about crossing cultures, and thankfully Amy agreed to go in with me on the book.

Yet even as I realized I wanted to bring in diverse perspectives around the world for the project, deep inside I can now also see that I still had a particular approach to the subject matter that I wanted to see in the book. Deep inside, I was still writing the missing chapter of Shimmering Literacies. The thing is, when you get an edited collection in which the contributors come from Australia, Nepal, Lebanon, the U.S. South Africa, Qatar, and Turkey, not only is the subject matter going to be varied, but so are the perspectives on the subject, on how to engage in research and scholarship, on theory, and on the writing itself. While I was fascinated by the material we were receiving, I realized I was becoming frustrated because it was not always conforming to my initial vision. This was not going to be the tightly focused book I had originally been thinking about.

I was fortunate that Amy helped me get over myself. She helped me realize the power in having a more creative, varied, and expansive set of views of the focus of the book. She was right, of course, because that was the whole point of doing an edited collection. When I finally embraced that expansive conception of the book and realized the power of the different writing voices, different approaches to epistemology, different cultural contexts, I became even more excited about the collection we were putting together. It was a lesson that I need to keep in mind, not only for my scholarship, but also for my teaching – but more on that in a coming post.

So what we wrote in the introduction, is very true:

The collection itself also reflects the diverse opportunities and practices within participatory popular culture. As the contributors sent us their chapters, we found that their conceptions of participatory popular culture and literacy often challenged us to expand and rethink our own. What you will not find in this book is a lock-step set of definitions or scholarly approaches to this subject matter. The contributors not only represent a number of different countries, but also several different academic fields and approaches to research and scholarship. We encouraged these authors to demonstrate how their scholarly backgrounds and local cultural contexts led them to conceive of the issues involved with participatory popular culture across borders. The result is a book that ranges widely on this subject, but around every corner provides new and provocative ways of thinking about how people in different cultures work with and respond to the affordances of new media and popular culture. The effect is a book with intriguing juxtapositions, unusual connections, and often unexpected tensions and insights, all drawn together by the idea that literacy as a social practice is being changed by participatory popular culture in a transnational world.

Letting go a bit, listening to others, and learning from them – I may need to be reminded about it now and again, but I am glad I can still learn to let it happen.