Know Your Theory! – Expressivist Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogy and part 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom.


Although I’ve written multiple blog posts about Peter Elbow’s work, I didn’t realize the intensity of my inner expressivist until reading this chapter. Although I worshipped at the altar of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray, I never bothered to fully name what I was doing. I just assumed it was a stylistic choice. While this is certainly true, every choice we make in the classroom is guided by theory. This brief pedagogical journey has already helped me reframe, reevaluate, and alter many of my instructional practices and beliefs. Many staples of the composition / English Language Arts classroom, for instance freewriting, revision, and peer response, developed out of the expressivist movement. This post attempts to provide a brief summary of the field.

The Anti-Textbook
Expressivism began in the anti-textbooks of Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, Peter Elbow, and William Coles. Each author offered counter-approaches to the current-traditional paradigm of composition pedagogy. The Current-Traditional mode of composition (dominant in the years between World War II and the Vietnam War) emphasized a type of academic writing rooted in ‘formal’ grammar, empiricism, and the notion that language exists to record a priori reality.

In the holy trinity of expressivist anti-textbooks, Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing, Macrorie’s Telling Writing, and Elbow’s Writing without Teachers offered a composition pedagogy antithetical to Current-Traditionalism’s central claims. Students were encouraged to eschew formal, academic English and to write from their unique individualistic voice. Expressivists saw writing as much more than a mere medium for observable phenomena. Instead they argued that the very act of writing was itself essential to growing and developing an idea. An author ‘grew’ their writing by operating in the dialectical space between their evolving intentions for the piece and an audience’s sustained reaction to it. Ideas weren’t thought of and then written; they were inseparable from the act of creation. Expressivism is a pedagogy of invention and inward discovery.

A Theory of the Personal
Expressive theorists place great emphasis on the personal. Peter Elbow’s early works established voice as a central concern. Voice becomes the primary mechanism for interacting world the world and constructing meaning. Like Elbow, Murray contends that the process of making meaning through writing is a continuous dialectic between opposing impulses: exploring/clarifying, collecting/combining, and reading/writing. By engaging with these antithetical forces a writer is able to grow their piece in a recursive process of generating, structuring, and evaluating. For expressivists the writing process does not and should not follow any sort of linear process.

James Britton’s Composition Taxonomy
The theoretical origins of expressive writing pull from the work of British academic James Britton. In the 1970s Britton developed a taxonomy of language based on function. Composition, he argued, had three main modes: expressive, transactional, and poetic. Expressive language was the language of the self. It reveals as much about the speaker as it does the topic. Friends, teachers, and trusted adults comprise the audience for expressive writing. When writing in this mode the author is a spectator, stepping outside of daily politics to reflect on what’s going on around them. Transactional writing, on the other hand, is the language of the participant. This includes writing for school, civics, journalism, courts, etc. Writing transactionally means writing to convey information. The third mode, poetic, is the language of art. Poetic compositions treat language as an object to be manipulated for aesthetic purposes. Writing that exists for its own sake.

For Britton, all writing developed out of the expressive/spectator matrix. His research found a severe lack of expressive writing at the college and university level, where faculty saw personal writing as low-brow pabulum. To ignore expressive writing within the classroom, Britton contended, was to do a disservice to students. He argued that any piece of successful writing must straddle the lines between expressive/transactional and spectator/participant.

Reception, Critiques, and Defenses
Scholars from diverse theoretical fields have critiqued expressivist pedagogy as atheoretical, indulgent, and rooted in a progressive impulse that, however well intentioned, does a disservice to certain populations of students. Scholars like Lisa Delpit discuss the disconnect between expressivist practices (peer review, journaling) and the need for students of color to learn and master the language of formal academic discourse. Students of color are already fluent in their own vernacular, she argues. Asking black students to spend class time journaling, giving peer feedback, and locating the center of gravity for a piece would be better spent on the direct instruction of how to think, speak, and write for a white academic audience. She persuasively argues that children of color must learn to navigate the racialized, classed, and gendered codes of power that fuel our society. In his book Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, Scholar-practitioner George Hillocks critiques what he refers to as the “natural process.” Hillocks takes expressivism to task for its abdication of direct instruction.

Neo-Expressivism and Contemporary Issues of the Field
These attacks led expressivist scholars to develop and refine their pedagogy. For example the works of Byron Hawks and Paul Kameen attempt to frame expressivism (now referred to as neo-expressivism by some) as a powerful tool for combining the personal with social justice issues of race, class, and equity. Karen Surman Paley’s work  praises contemporary expressivism as an effective method for blending personal and academic discourse. Self-assessment, a popular trend in education for as love as I’ve been paying attention, also draws on expressivist notions of writing to learn, reflection, and personal growth.

Moving Forward
To enact expressivist pedagogy as originally outlined during the 1970s would be unethical. But to ignore the advances and refinement in the field would be to miss out on a powerful and influential body of theory. Many of today’s neo-expressivists use the self as “a site of invention and a catalyst for change.” Regardless of your pedagogical orientation, there is much to gain from promoting activities that process and construct reality through the prism of the personal.

In order to help myself understand Britton’s functions of language I consulted James Britton and the Pedagogy of Advanced Composition by Karen Pelz and Cross-Disciplinary Writing Programs: Beginnings by Randall Freisinger.



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