Tag Archives: Emotion

Rewriting the Future

A recent article in the The New York Times (“Writing Your Way to Happiness”) talked about the research by psychologists such as Timothy Wilson who maintain that writing can lead to changes, not only in mood, but also in our perception of self. There has, for a while, been research to indicate that if we write about how we’re feeling, there can be a benefit to how we handle trauma, or just our daily emotions. But the work of Wilson and others argues that, in addition, if we reshape the story we’re telling in our writing, that can have positive effects on our perceptions of self. To quote the article:

“The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.”

The article discussed several studies in which people, after thinking and writing more positive narratives of particular circumstances, ended up with more positive experiences and outcomes than those in control groups who did not do the same kind of writing.

As a writing and literacy teacher, I thought immediately about the literacy narratives that are often assigned to students in both K-12 courses and in universities. The goals of these assignments vary, but often consist of having students reflect on the events that shaped their identities as writers and readers. I’ve assigned these kinds of essays in a number of different courses (and tweaked them for different purposes, sometimes including criticism of cultural constructions of literacy and institutions) and have found the stories students told sometimes reassuring, sometimes disheartening, but always endlessly fascinating.

But what the research by Wilson and others made me think about was a new way of conceiving approaches to revision with literacy narratives. Rather than simply work with students to help them make the draft more focused, more coherently organized, etc., is there value in having students rewrite the drafts in ways that retell the stories about their reading and writing experiences? The point is not to have them create fictions about their past. But what if they considered alternative explanations for what happened? What if, rather than seeing themselves as the victim of experiences that have consigned them to the identity of a “bad writer” they re-interpret those experiences? Or, what if, in addition to the literacy narrative about the past, they write one about the future that tells a different narrative in which they regard themselves as effective writers? Can we have an effect on the confidence of student writers in this way?

How do narrative, memory, and emotion work together to shape our perceptions of agency as readers and writers? (Still working on that one…)

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.

Rashomon for Researchers

One of the great gifts this spring has been the opportunity to sit down and talk with brilliant, insightful people and just have the time to explore ideas together. Last week Cathy Burnett generously made time to talk with me and I learned so much in our conversation together. We were talking about student literacy practices, but particularly about how factors of embodiment, emotion, technology, community, physical space, institutional power – among other things – all swirl about and figure in to how people read and write (or don’t read and write). We kept coming around to two particular questions. We can know that all of these factors – and more – shape literacy practices and perceptions of agency at any given moment, yet how do we understand which of these factors is most at play in that moment? What’s more, even if we begin to understand what is happening, how do we write about it?

Both questions are ones I have been struggling with this spring, but the second one was one Cathy and I were particularly wrestling with. The problem with writing about research is that it so often flattens out the multiple phenomenon taking place into a singular, straightforward narrative. One reason for this is that the research itself can sometimes be focused fairly narrowly. But, even if a researcher is trying to take into account multiple forces and multiple perspectives in a setting and set of events, the linear nature of writing tends to peel away the multiple possibilities and imply a focused, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for what is being written about. As Gunther Kress and others have noted, the nature of print literacy, by moving us through one work after another, pushes us toward linearity, toward cause-and-effect thinking.

Is there a way to disrupt the way writing about research pushes us toward this way of thinking, or representing events and people? Could the affordances of digital media help us to create multimodal texts where video, image, sound, and words can reflect more fully the multiple factors at play? Should we be creating installations more than writing articles? But, then, how are those texts or installations available for people to access? Or to store? Or, can we write from multiple perspectives, multiple theoretical stances, about the same moment, perhaps even coming to different conclusions that disrupt an inclination to come too easily to simply, linear explanations for what we see? Would writing in multiple genres, as Tom Romano has long advocated, help us disrupt singular arguments and encourage us to pay attention to gaps in thinking, to emotions, to contradictions? Is there a Rashomon for researchers that will help us do for writing about research what such approaches have done for literature and film? And what does all of this imply for how I’m going to approach writing about my current research?

Thanks, Cathy. All this and so much more to think about.

Stay tuned.

How Does it Feel to be Literate?

In the work I’ve been doing this spring I keep coming back to questions of agency. What allows – or constrains – people from engaging in literacy practices. And more precisely, as part of this larger project, I’ve been thinking about how perceptions of agency figure into to the factors that determine agency. When do we feel as if we can participate, or that we can’t?  As Lalitha Vasudevan said at a presentation last year, “How does it feel to be literate?” Although perceptions of agency are shaped by many forces, including power, technology, rhetorical awareness, and material conditions, I’ve been focusing this spring in thinking about how embodied experiences and the emotional histories created through such experiences are often powerful influences on how people understand their abilities to engage in reading and writing. I see people who are empowered and engaged in one setting, suddenly become reticent and unable to participate in another, before anyone has even told them they can’t.

The focus of much research in literacy studies in recent years – including my own – has been on the social and institutional factors that shape literacy practices. This has been important work and I am not in any way writing against this scholarship. Yet while we’ve learned a great deal about literacy works as a function of culture and power, we’ve been less willing to engage in questions of how individuals perceive – and feel – a sense of agency in writing situations. The perception of agency, as opposed to measurable skills, is important in terms of how people respond to writing situations. In particular we have not explored emotion as much in terms of agency. I think people like Marilyn Cooper and Laura Micciche have done important work on emotion and agency (work I will discuss more in a coming post), but I think there is still more work to be done. The emotional histories and the emotional stakes for students in the classroom, for example, have a direct influence on students’ perceptions of agency, and consequently on their ability and willingness to engage in any writing task.

Talking about feelings, even if we call them emotion or affect, tends to make academics nervous. We can’t really measure them and we fear getting dragged off into the sentimental or irrational if we bring them up at all. Tom Newkirk has written persuasively about how emotion makes us nervous, and how that anxiety leads to particular ways of conceiving of writing and responding to students. And certainly in all the writing I have done on issues of literacy and identity over the years I have been more comfortable writing about social factors such as class or race or gender than I have about emotion. Yet every experience, every decision, every perception, is filtered through emotion. Every action has an emotional component that is social and rhetorical – even if it is the display of detachment and rationality (also embodied emotions). As I have talked about this work this spring, I have found the responses of people to be thoughtful and generous and lead me to believe that I am moving in a productive direction.  So my posts in the near future (if I keep my promise to myself to write more posts) will be exploring these ideas about emotion, embodiment, transformation, community, and perceptions of agency (among other things). Stay tuned.