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.

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