Tag Archives: Don Murray

Yes, But Are You Having Fun?

Irv Peckham, who teaches writing at LSU and whose work I have always admired, stirred up a lively conversation on the WPA-L email list this week (is an email list primarily of US university writing teachers). Irv posted several emails in which he talked about how he was organizing his current writing course on “Life Writing” to try to find a way for the students to enjoy the experience of writing, for them to have fun. (You can see Irv’s blog about this class and these issues here.)  This position definitely appealed to me. I’ve written several times and places in the past about the motivations of pleasure in writing (and so many other things we do voluntarily) and how much of what students do outside of the classroom with writing and reading happens because they find pleasure in it. I don’t just mean a sensual, immediately gratifying pleasure, but the pleasure of craft, the pleasure of accomplishment, the pleasure that comes with engaging a challenge and then accomplishing what you set out to do – what one of Irv’s students called “hard fun.” The thing is, this kind of pleasure is so often predicated on having some control over the challenge, over the goals you’re trying to reach. It’s why students who talk of hating writing when they’re inside school having to complete assignments for which they see no purpose or relevance, will spend hours writing fan fiction.

An interesting thing happened on the WPA email list after Irv made his post, however. The responses very quickly became about whether writing courses should allow for “personal” writing or only be about more “academic” genres. Besides being reductive about those categories, what I found fascinating is that very few people bothered to talk about fun, about pleasure. I think, in part, people took the discussion that direction because they mistakenly conflated pleasure as only possible through personal experience and displays of emotion. But I also think that it probably made some people uncomfortable to think we should be thinking about teaching as, in part, creating the conditions for enjoyment, for pleasure, for fun. Those concepts just strike some people as, by their nature, to lack rigor, or intellectual engagement, or “value” in terms of writing in the academy and beyond. Pleasure and enjoyment are inaccurately (and unfortunately) conflated with ease. Yet, as the research I’ve been doing recently – the observations and conversations I’ve been having with students – shows me is that perceptions of agency are dependent in part on emotional dispositions that include a sense of control and the opportunity for the pleasure of craft and accomplishment. If we want students to embrace writing (and we do) then we ought to be thinking, and not shrinking, from conversations about how to create opportunities for them to enjoy writing.

Everyone understands the pleasure of accomplishment, of craft, of “hard fun” in some area of their lives. Writing teachers feel it too, in their writing and their teaching. Even when people complain about the hard work of writing and teaching (and it’s really not that hard) they also know the pleasure of accomplishment in teaching well or finishing a writing project. Emotion is important. Pleasure and enjoyment help create perceptions of agency. Yet so many schools and teachers, at every level, still insist on taking control out of the hands of students, of reducing their perceptions of agency, of conflating pleasure with ease, lest the schools be considered soft and without rigor.  In many ways I know I’m not saying anything new. Freire and Dewey both understood that you have to start from what matters to people and engage those concerns to create a space for learning. Don Murray argued for this too. In one of my favorite quotes Don wrote:

The writer’s basic job is not to say what he already knows but to explore his own experience for his own meaning. His experience may be in the library or in the pub, but at the moment of writing he uses the tool of language to discover the meanings which exist in his experience. As he uses his language to try to put down on the page what he thinks he means he keeps changing the words—he thinks. As his writing develops under his hand his words reveal his meaning, an order evolves as his mind uses language to expose what is significant in his experience.

Discovering the meanings that exist in experience – wherever that may be – involves control, agency, pleasure – fun.

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.