A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Dancing with Don: Or, Waltzing With ‘Expressivism’

Bronwyn T. Williams, University of Louisville

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/dancing-with-don
(Published November 10, 2011)

I began teaching at the University of New Hampshire in the late 80s, the year after Donald Murray retired.1 Yet even to a new Master’s student TA such as myself, Don—everybody referred to him as Don—continued to cast a large shadow over all of our teaching. He was quoted, referenced, alluded to, and the first book I used in my first writing course was his Write to Learn. And Don seemed always to be around, at staff meetings or having lunch with graduate students. I have to admit I was fairly intimidated by him. Not just his physical presence, with his large build and white beard. But he was Don Murray, for Pete’s sake. I may not have known a lot about the field of Composition and Rhetoric at that time, but I had quickly picked up that he was an important voice in the field.

Not that Don seemed to be trying to intimidate anyone. My memories of him from that time are of his generosity with his time, his laughter, and of his relentless enthusiasm about writing. Whether he talked about his writing or students’ writing I always left wanting to do more, to write more, to be a better teacher of writing. Though Don had retired and it had been even longer since he had directed the Composition Program, there was no doubt that the pedagogical approaches that dominated the department had his fingerprints all over them.

We did a lot of personal writing in those courses. We did a lot of research writing in those courses. We did a lot of writing about readings too. What we did most of all was to ask students to write about the things that mattered to them. We asked students to reflect on their experiences, to make meaning from events and ideas for the reader. We asked them to approach writing as a process and to have the courage to have their work critiqued and to engage in thoughtful and decisive revision. We had individual conferences with students every week to talk about their writing. We had frequent workshops, lots of in-class writing, lessons on craft, discussions of readings.

But I never heard of a teacher at UNH assigning students essays with the goal of “expressing” their inner, authentic selves. In fact, it would be years before I would ever hear the term “expressivism.” Once I did hear it, however, I took an almost instant dislike to the term and wondered what relevance it had to the kind of writing Don Murray wanted from students.

In my years of teaching I had thought I had moved in and out of the shadow of Don Murray’s theories of teaching writing. Yet as I reflect on my experiences and ideas about writing pedagogy—a Murray-like move in itself—I have come to realize that I have never been as far from his influence as I have imagined. In part this is a result of having, like his critics, misread his work and misinterpreted the implications of what he was saying. This evolution of my writing pedagogies, along with my own writing practices, also illustrates the problematic nature of the term “expressivism,” and how ill-suited it is for the kinds of pedagogies Murray actually advocated. Unfortunately this has left Murray unread or misread over the years as solipsistic, naïve, and un-theoretical. The wide-spread use of the term “expressivism” as a pejorative has distorted important conversations that should be taking place about the personal position in writing, including questions about the value of individual experience in intellectual work, the purposes of writing beyond the composition classroom, and the ways in which experience and writing combine to help writers compose their identities in print. What’s more, such distortions have obscured the most radical and, to my mind, most important ideas Murray has about teaching writing, ideas that deserve renewed attention today.

Writer or Compositionist?

A lot of what I picked up while learning to teach at UNH could be found in Don’s work, such as an emphasis on student-teacher conferences, peer workshops, revision, working with language and voice. Though certainly these ideas were not unique to him. There was also a culture of teaching writing at UNH that valued the authority of the student writer. We believed that we should be teaching students to write well so they could communicate the things that mattered to them, and that they would do their best work about the subjects that engaged their passions. We wanted them to feel passionate about their work and find joy in their writing. It was a place where we felt like teaching mattered and where we felt we were teaching students more than simply how to write better essays for their next college course. We weren’t only teaching students to become better academic writers; we were teaching people to become better writers. Don believed in teaching people to use “written language to find out what we have to say...(to) discover how writing finds its own meaning” (“The Process of Writing” 31). Students who learned through such a process of discovery could eventually adapt it to whatever genres—from memo to job application to essay to letter to scientific paper (31)—they would encounter and be better able to communicate their ideas. “There is no way we can tell what our students will need to write in their lives beyond the classroom” (31) so we needed to help them think and work as writers who constantly need to adapt to unfamiliar situations. Don’s belief in the importance of writing, writing often, and writing well was something that became an essential part of my professional values, and is reflected in the quote from him that I have on my first-year composition course syllabus: “Writing is the most disciplined form of thinking; writing is the fundamental tool of the intellectual life. Write your life down and you can stand back and study it, learn from it...Writing is a fascinating discipline of the mind” (The Craft of Revision 9).

To help our students think as writers meant we as teachers had to think as writers ourselves. The idea of “a writer teaches writing” was more than just the title of one Don’s better-known books. Though not universally the case, many of us teaching at UNH, particularly among the instructors and other non-tenure-track faculty, thought of ourselves as part of a community of writers teaching others what we loved to do, rather than scholars consigned to a job that others didn’t want. We wrote fiction and poetry and essays and talked about our own writing as well as our students’. I wager that many of the people I taught with during those years—Sue Wheeler, Becky Rule, Bruce Ballenger, Brock Dethier, Lad Tobin, Ann Williams—still think of themselves as writers as much as teachers or scholars. And those composition scholars in charge of the program at UNH at that time—Tom Newkirk, Pat Sullivan, Cindy Gannet, even the skeptical Bob Connors—were graceful and committed writers who valued craft in their work and the work of their students. As Wendy Bishop has written, “I teach writing precisely because I love these two intimately connected activities. 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” (14). She goes on to note that Murray and Peter Elbow are representative of these two different approaches to being writer-teachers, but that for many in composition, and certainly for many that I knew at UNH “the two co-exist in the same paragraph, classroom, teaching life” (14).

I still think of myself as a writer and a teacher before I think of myself as a scholar or theorist, even though I may be a better scholar than writer. Like Don, I came to teaching writing through journalism (though, I want to point out, without the Pulitzer Prize) and that no doubt influenced how I identify myself professionally. Still, “a writer teaches writing” appeals to me because it is emphatically not “a compositionist teaches composition.” I still don’t get people I’ve taught with who tell me they don’t write or don’t like to write. The rational part of me acknowledges the possibility that they may be able to teach the content well. But for me there is another, more intangible question, that goes beyond the preparation of pedagogy. Like a swimmer who doesn’t like the water or a chef who can’t stand the kitchen, if you don’t like to do it, how can you possibly expect your students to? One potential answer to that question is even more disturbing to me: They don’t expect their students to enjoy writing. When I think about such a position I find myself hearing Don’s voice again. Sure, writing can be hard and frustrating work. But the secret is that writing, and the teaching of writing, is entertaining, surprising, filled with wonder and discovery – in short, it is fun (A Writer Teaches Writing 6-8).

What Happens to Disciples?

It would be pleasant to gaze back at those days of teaching at UNH and surround myself in the nostalgic glow of a harmonious group of writer-teachers, inspired by Don Murray, working cheerfully to make our students better writers. There were, of course, struggles that took place—over adjunct pay, teaching loads, course goals, and so on—that would be familiar to anyone who has been around a first-year writing program. And certainly not everyone thought of themselves as writers, or thought that students should be taught anything but “academic” writing, or saw Don’s ongoing influence on the program as positive (for there was always Bob Connors to go harrumphing down the hallway bemoaning the lack of training in classical rhetorical strategies).

What was distinctive, and more troubling to me at the time in ways I could not have clearly articulated, was how some of Murray’s ideas filtered through some teachers into their classrooms. I listened to fellow teachers talk about pushing students toward assignments and writing that seemed to reward the essays that revealed the most traumatic incidents. I listened to others talk about the need to use writing as therapy. I listened as teachers talked of the best student essays as being the ones that showed that the students “learned” from their experiences, reflecting the rewarding of a kind of psychoanalytic “turn” that Thomas Newkirk notes is often implicitly privileged by writing teachers (12). In short, I could walk the halls and encounter practices worthy of the complaints that have been laid at the door of “expressivism”, of being a pedagogy that panders to solipsistic, intrusive, writing and naively romantic conceptions of student writers.

That’s the problem with disciples. They lose nuance as they gain fervor. This hasn’t only happened to “expressivism” but can be seen in the bizarrely reductive and simplistic ways people have adapted other influential theorists in their local pedagogies, Paulo Freire for example. What’s more, disciples, once convinced they have figured out the truth, the one best way of teaching, often stop reading the person they’re sure they are following. If the teachers I knew who pushed too hard for trauma narratives had read A Writer Teaches Writing they would have found that though Murray acknowledged that writing about painful, intensely personal, subjects can be “necessary and therapeutic” he followed that by pointing out that as a teacher:

I do not encourage my students to use writing as therapy, and certainly do not assign or encourage personal writing, but neither do I avoid or prohibit it when it occurs, for I have found that my students learn best when they feel strongly about a subject. Many times the subject they feel strongly about is objective and distant from them. It is not personal, and that is fine too. Some writing courses seem to stack the cards against the student who is unwilling to make public confession (217).

Although I understood this about Don’s pedagogy at the time, and tried to reflect it in my own, the criticisms of his approaches to teaching did resonate with me in many ways. For example, I found Lisa Delpit criticisms of the monocultural, middle-class assumptions of much process-writing pedagogy most persuasive and provocative. Similarly I found compelling many of the arguments behind critical pedagogy, about the need to address issues of discourse, culture, and power in any discussion of writing and identity. I had long been influenced by Freire and the idea that education should be connected to social justice. That and a growing realization that I enjoyed being a theory wonk began to draw me toward cultural studies and critical pedagogy and away from thinking about what Don Murray had to say about writing. I began to wonder if Don’s ideas and the concepts of cultural studies were not particularly compatible. (My discomfort with some of the excesses of critical pedagogy and cultural studies disciples is grist for another time and another essay.) In fact, I began to find Don’s work a bit embarrassing. Maybe it was too sentimental and solipsistic. Maybe it didn’t deal enough with culture and postmodern ideas of identity. Maybe Don was beginning to sound a bit like an Old Testament prophet, thundering away on his ideas about teaching writing, but sounding rather antique and out of touch with the postmodern, ironic world. As a graduate student returning for my Ph.D. with gray already in my beard, the last thing I wanted to be was out of touch as well.

What’s Wrong with Us Now?

Even as I drifted with the winds of cultural studies and postmodernism, I was shocked when I first hit the hardcore critiques of “expressivism.” I read James Berlin’s charge that “expressionists” maintain a “conviction that reality is a personal and private construct. For the expressionist, truth is always discovered within, though an internal glimpse, an examination of the private inner world” (145). Such an approach “prevents these expressionists from becoming genuinely epistemic in their approach” (153). I read Lester Faigley’s argument that “expressivism” represents “a turning away from the relation of the individual to the social world” (“Competing” 531) and that it “asks students to write authentically about the self (and) assumes that a unified consciousness can be laid out on the page” (Fragments 127). And I read Alan France’s complaint that the “expressivist practice of introductory college writing instruction serves to reproduce a kind of self-reflexive conformity at odds with the tradition ideals of a liberal education” (594).

We were doing all that? How could anybody hope to draw on the ideas of Don Murray in the face of such damning critiques?2 Yet something seemed off as I read such articles until I realized that the critiques could only be damning if they were accurate. So I did what I had not done for quite some time; I went back and reread Don Murray. Not just “Teach Writing as a Process not Product”, which is where most reading of him stops today, if it happens at all. But I wanted to read his work at length.

When I began to reread his work about the teaching of writing I was struck by two things. Far from being solipsistic and a-theoretical, he was a pragmatic and often subtle theorist whose critics had misread him, willfully or not. Also, such misreadings had obscured some of what was most radical about Murray, both then and today.

To read the sentence “A writer is an individual who uses language to discover meaning in experience and communicate it” (8) around which he builds the essay “The Interior View: One Writer’s Philosophy of Composition” is to be struck by how little it sounds like someone obsessed with a writer expressing a “private inner world” or “unified consciousness.” Indeed, in the essay itself there is more evidence of constructing ideas through language and of testing and revising those ideas in contact with an audience (for those social constructionists out there) than there is of promoting emotional purging on the page. He writes that “the student’s conclusions must be tested” by the readings of others leading to a “continual process of revision, refinement, definition, and clarification” (13). Again, there is little here that would support the idea of writing pedagogy as simply expressing inner thoughts, inner immutable truths to make oneself feel better. In the sentence “a writer is an individual who uses language to discover meaning in experience and communicate it” (8) there is indeed an individual, but that individual is not writing in isolation.

It also puzzles me to read a quote like the following one from the same article and not see the theoretical foundations, such as phenomenology, on which Murray is building his philosophy and pedagogy.

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 (10).

The concept of “experience” and how we make sense of our experiences through language, to ourselves and to others, is a dominant and fundamental part of Murray’s work. He is continually interested in experience and epistemology. How do we create knowledge, create significance for ourselves, out of the events that happen to us? How do we make meaning from experimentation, mistakes, testing, and revision? What are often considered mistakes in writing courses should instead be seen as “evidence of language being used to lead the mind to meaning. Therefore they are not mistakes in the conventional sense but merely experiments that didn’t work, but which may have beneficial side-products” (13). That he does not cite theorists and write at impenetrable length about his debt to theories such as phenomenology does not mean such work is not theoretically informed or serious. There is a theory of writing here that cannot be dismissed as the cheap pop psychology of individual expression by the likes of James Berlin. Unfortunately, however, too many scholars in our field seem unwilling to believe that theory can unfold in narrative and elegant writing, and so Murray is dismissed as a-theoretical.

As I re-read the preceding paragraph, however, I sound as if I am perhaps protesting too much. Like so many of my “expressivist” friends—not a one of whom does not detest that word—I feel as if I am fighting on someone else’s terms to have someone like Don Murray taken seriously again. We have so often been derided and dismissed, in Wendy Bishop’s splendid phrase “centrifuged back to the margins” (22), for supposedly being intellectually naïve and simplistic that we find ourselves always arguing for the intellectual rigor, social nature, and theoretical sophistication of what we believe. It is a defensive position, marked by attempts to re-label ourselves, qualify our statements, maintain that we are not “merely or simply expressivist,” (22) and, yes, argue that Don Murray’s work is based on theoretical assumptions that have not been adequately recognized. For our efforts we get lightly dismissed, like bright young children who don’t yet understand how the world really works.

I realize, though, that Don doesn’t need me to defend him or explain him or reinterpret what he has written to make it more palatable for the “field” of rhetoric and composition. I would like to think that he would find my efforts amusingly misguided, rather than insulting and presumptuous.3 He doesn’t need me to defend him; he just needs people to read him rather than just using him and others like Peter Elbow as “game markers—argumentative tropes in the play of composition positioning” (Bishop 22). Like all academic disciplines we have a tendency to look for the next big thing and attach ourselves to it, while dismissing too many old texts and articles as dated and irrelevant. I do the same thing far too often.

What is true is that Don’s work is consistently and deeply humanistic. He clearly believes that each person has distinctive ideas that are worth hearing. His writing is infused with a respect for the ideas and integrity of individuals and the absolute belief that their lives will be fuller if they engage in writing to make meaning from their experiences. Humanism is not particularly fashionable these days. But it is inspiring, maybe even what gets us from one night to the next day.

Whose Knowledge Gets Into the Classroom?

As a writer and a teacher I still go back and re-read Murray’s work, and I find that what may be the most radical position in his writing is given little attention. For what is most radical in the work of Murray, Elbow and others is not the idea of writing from experience, but turning the focus of the writing classroom toward student knowledge and writing. In perhaps his best known essay Don wrote, “The text of the writing course is the student’s own writing.... The student finds his own writing. It is not the job of the teacher to legislate the student’s truth. It is the responsibility of the student to explore his own world with his own language” (“Teach Writing” 16). Students were encouraged to see their ideas and experiences as valuable and to see their writing as connected to themselves, their identities, as opposed to something that was detached and impervious to personal responses or experiences. There was a shift in the perception of student identity: Rather than regard them as students to be filled with the teacher’s forms of writing, we were encouraged to regard them as writers first, and to engage them with their struggles to communicate their experiences, and by extension their identities, on the page.

Teaching as listening, as the valuing of individual experience, is the real critical pedagogy. If you look at the writing and work of Freire, of people engaged in Participatory Action Research around the world that is enacting real social change in people’s lives4, it begins with the fundamental principal that people’s knowledge of and reflection on their lives and experiences is both valuable and necessary to enact democratic and sustainable social change (Brydon-Miller 78-79). It is more radical, more democratic, and more difficult, to teach a course where students choose their own topics, choose their own voices, and work out the meaning of their experiences for themselves, whether through personal writing or research, than it is to teach a course where students are regarded as cultural dupes who must be enlightened about their oppression. Paolo Freire wrote that “people have a universal right to participate in the production of knowledge which is a disciplined process of personal and social transformation” (xi). Yet the academy works on the epistemological assumption that maintains the only legitimate knowledge comes from certified “experts” working through the positivist model of experimentation and analysis. The pedagogical implication of this assumption is that students can only gain legitimate knowledge through their expert teachers. Certainly many composition classrooms, both critical and traditional pedagogy, work on this model. As Patricia Sullivan has noted, composition teachers

regard students merely as learners, not knowers, who stand to persuade or educate us.... Students are defined by their lack. They lack the status of speaking, knowing subjects. Whatever they write, however they write it, their writing has no intrinsic value or social import. It acquires value by being processed in the ten or fifteen weeks students spend in our classrooms (45).

To argue instead that knowledge can be generated by students exploring and reflecting on the meaning of their experiences and ideas in writing runs counter to the epistemological mainstream of the academy. This does not mean simply writing about what happened to you and how you feel about it. It requires that writers—and for Don Murray students are writers—must make connections from their experiences that help them come to new knowledge and understanding.

We must discriminate, select the information that is significant, build chains of information which lead to meaning, relate immediate information to previous information, project information into the future, discover from the patterns of information what new information must be sought. The connections we make force us to see information we did not see before. The connections we are making also force us to seek new, supporting information; but, of course, some of that information doesn’t support—it contradicts. So we have to make new connections with new information which in turn demands new connections. These powerful, countervailing forces work for and against each other to manufacture new meanings as we live through new experiences (“Writing as Process” 22).

Throughout Don’s work there is the consistent belief that writing should be concerned with the exploration of ideas and meaning. “Writing is the most disciplined form of thinking; writing is the fundamental tool of the intellectual life.”

In this way Don is an essayist in the truest form and wanted his students to be as well. Writing should be an exploration of ideas, an attempt at making meaning, not an inflexible, pre-formed argument. In such an approach the student’s integrity and authority and knowledge are respected even as they are challenged to expand and make new connections. It is not a matter of fulfilling the teacher’s ideas, keeping the teacher safely ensconced as the expert to be pleased. It is working with the student so she can teach the teacher. When it works well the student learns about writing; the teacher learns about what the student knows and thinks. My students always seem surprised when I tell them how much I enjoy reading their work—because they think no one will—and because I tell them how much I learn about the world, their world, their ideas, their experiences. It is a humbling position to take and requires a rock-hard belief that I am not smarter than my students. I know I can learn from them and that they can challenge my thinking. Do I challenge theirs? Yes. But I am there to help them make their writing serve their ideas, not mine. Such an approach requires a genuine respect for students as writers. But it also helps me know, in the days when I am frustrated or confused or weary, why I do what I do. In reflecting on the same questions Don’s words never fail to rally me:

I read their papers and share their surprise in their own diversity with them, and I know that I will never burn out, that I will never lose my excitement at my own and my students’ explorations of our world with the writing process. I hope that your students will teach you—as mine have taught me—why you have to continue to learn to write and teach writing (A Writer Teaches Writing 248).

So Where is Don?

In the last few years there has been much talk about the “return to the personal” in Rhetoric and Composition. Prominent journals have run special issues (like this one), new books have come out, creative nonfiction is now the hot concept. Yet with all this return to “the personal” there has been very little attention paid to Don Murray’s work. He remains just a name in a list that writers place after Peter Elbow. That name, whether for good or ill, is supposed to have a particular meaning that is readily understood. Murray and Elbow are, as Wendy Bishop wrote, “raised and dismissed, treated as fatherly Macy’s...parade balloons, floated through critiques as unitary and non-representative figures whose simplified positions can be quickly—via synecdoche—argued against” (11). Murray does not even get the attention that Elbow continues to get; no one has put together a Writing with Murray anthology, though perhaps we should. Of course Murray retired longer ago and in his later years stopped writing in the journals in the “field” and turned to writing for a broader audience, no doubt knowing where the real pleasure remained for him.

Perhaps Murray does not get read or discussed today because there is the sense that he is old news. We all respect students now, right? We all believe in student-centered classrooms, right? We all understand that individual experiences vary by race, gender, culture, class and that that we need to allow people to make meaning from their experiences, right? When I read current scholarship on literacy narratives or creative nonfiction or personal writing or teaching ESL or any number of issues I often can trace the echoes of Murray’s work, even though few writers have bothered to read or cite him. But I think there is the sense that whatever he had to say has been long since settled, one way or another, so he is not relevant to read except for historical purposes.

The other possibility is that Murray doesn’t get read anymore because what he advocates, particularly in terms of who generates knowledge in the writing classroom, remains too radical for rhetoric and composition. With so many first-year composition programs still focused on “academic writing” and the teaching of argument, often through themed courses or standardized syllabi in which students have limited choice about what they write, there is little sense of classrooms that are truly “student-centered.” More than a few composition teachers talk in the hallways about the need for student-centered classrooms, but run courses in which there is no doubt that authority and expertise remain with the instructor. Frankly, I have been and can be as guilty of this inconsistency as anyone. I like being in charge and I often push students toward writing about subjects that I think will be more beneficial to them. Of course Murray isn’t saying that teachers shouldn’t know what they are doing; just that students have knowledge and expertise too that we need to bring into the classroom.

Respect for the knowledge and literacies people possess outside the classroom seems to have been a greater part of the conversation in literacy scholarship in other countries where the weight of first-year composition does not alter the path of every discussion.5 Scholars such as David Barton, Mary Hamilton, Brian Street, Michele Knobel, Colin Lankshear, Mary Kalantzis, Bill Cope, Pippa Stein, Denise Newfields, Kate Pahl, Jennifer Rowsell and many others have focused on people’s everyday literacy practices and the vernacular literacies formed by such practices. Their work reinforces the argument that literacy is not simply an autonomous skill but exists in diverse and overlapping domains of life. And that people employ such literacies often to make meaning of their experiences, identities, and places in the larger culture. That such vernacular and everyday literacy practices are often overlooked or disdained by educational institutions is little surprise. But these writers, like Murray, argue persuasively that for our work to become meaningful for students, both in and out of the classroom, we have to consider and respect the literacies students bring to class. As Patricia Sullivan argues we must reconsider:

An approach to composition studies and teaching that begins with the assumption (or presumption) that critiquing dominant culture is the starting point and prized goal of college literacy rather than the articulation of the lived experience of dominance in its own vernacular, in other words, an approach that begins with the overdetermined theories and ideologies of instructors rather than where she is—in the materially oppressive content of her everyday life (44).

Again, it is not that I want to somehow glue on to Don Murray’s work currently fashionable ideas and theories that don’t really fit. Instead I see his work connected into more recent scholarship in ways that helps both illuminate and challenge all sides in intriguing and useful ways.

What are the New Steps?

I’m still a theory wonk and I still groove on cultural studies. I still believe in social justice and interrogating issues of power and privilege. And I still believe that students have knowledge that counts, and emotions that count. Like Patricia Sullivan, I see the alleged conflict between writing on experience and reflecting on culture, power, and identity as reductive and contrived. To me theory offers interpretive lenses that help me rethink my experiences, and I believe it does that for my students as well. Reading Murray and reading theory requires no particular intellectual contortions from me.

But I am teacher too and Don was that as well. His legacy in his writing and in his work at UNH has been to challenge and inspire teachers there and others across the country to respect student knowledge, to respect students as writers. I don’t feel any embarrassment anymore to be considered one of those “writer-teacher” types from UNH. I am fortunate to teach in a place where some of my colleagues are receptive, or at least tolerant, of my Murrayesque heritage and beliefs while others as willing to see me as pleasant enough, if rather odd. I don’t even mind being called “Murrayesque,” if people have read his work. So, all these years later, I am still dancing with Don. Still battling against the term “expressivist” because of its use as pejorative and because it is such a limited way of thinking of talented writer-teachers like Don Murray and Peter Elbow and Wendy Bishop. I’m still wishing that people would just read his work.

Different writers, scholars, and theorists give me different things I can use when I teach writing. Some make me reconsider discourse and power, others make me rethink genre, others make me connect writing to culture. What Don Murray’s work does is remind me that writing can be transformative. It can transform our sense of self. It can transform our sense of the world. And it certainly can transform our sense of identity when it conflicts with dominant cultural forces. But to have it work in the latter way often requires that we engage our experiences, and reflect on their meaning to ourselves and in communicating with others. Dancing with Don reminds me that writing is also about the voice of a single person who wants to communicate the meaning she finds in experience. That is why I write. That is why I teach. That is why I dance.


1 I wrote this essay before Don Murray died in the winter of 2006. With a couple of exceptions I have decided not to change the language or tenses in the work to reflect his passing because I prefer the emphasis of the essay to be on the living nature of his work. Although I knew Don, I did not have the close relationship to him that many had. Even so, his death was deeply felt by all who had met him. I dedicate this essay to Don and to all those who carry on his commitment to teaching writing.

2 These, and many similar and ongoing criticisms, have been responded to at length and depth by scholars such as Sherri Gradin, James Zebroski, Thomas Newkirk, Karen Paley, and Wendy Bishop, and, given the focus of this essay, I will leave such responses to their thoughtful work.

3 I did, in fact, send a copy of this essay to Don before he died. He was, as always humble and generous in his reading, deflecting my praise of his work and offering me some perceptive suggestions of where I could tighten up the writing.

4 There is a diverse and important body of work that describes Participatory Action Research that has been largely ignored in Rhetoric and Composition. For one overview of its relevance to our field see Williams, Bronwyn T. and Mary Brydon-Miller. “Changing Directions: Participatory Research, Agency, and Representation” Ethnography Unbound: From Theory Shock to Critical Praxis. Ed. Stephen Brown and Sidney Dobrin, Albany NY: SUNY Press. 2004

5 For a further discussion of the often limited view of Rhetoric and Composition toward other related disciplines, see. Williams, Bronwyn T. “Seeking New Worlds: The Study of Writing Beyond Our Classrooms.” CCCM 62.1 (2010): 127-146.

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