Preserving Emotion in Student Writing

Innovation in Composition Pedagogy

by Craig Wynne (Volume editor)
Textbook VIII, 258 Pages

Table Of Content

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I am grateful for the hard work of all of the contributors to this collection, whose hard work made this collection possible. I wish to thank Staci Shultz, whom I consider a passionate scholar, dedicated teacher, and most importantly, a true friend. She proposed that I submit this collection, and through many conversations, we were able to shape the concept. I extend my deepest gratitude to Patricia Mulrane Clayton and Peter Lang Publishing, who patiently guided me through the process. I am grateful for Claire Giraudo's assistance with proofreading. Most of all, I am truly appreciative of the hundreds of students I’ve taught, tutored, guided, and counseled over the years; our interactions were the catalyst for this collection. I look forward to receiving inspiration from you in the years to come.

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1. Learning to Feel: Engaging Emotions, Narratives, Values, and Commitments in Composition

University of Arizona

Twenty years ago, when my dad passed away from cancer, my mom gave me the best advice I’ve heard to date: “It’s okay to cry.” For both of us, this was just one small part of the grieving process, a process that has been recursive and epistemological. By epistemological, I mean that grief often serves as a means for trying to make sense of the experience of losing my dad and what it has meant to go on in our lives without him. Joan Didion writes about grief in The Year of Magical Thinking as something that “has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life” (27). When I say grief is recursive, I mean something similar to that. It comes and goes, it ebbs and returns, requiring the griever to start over in some ways. Like writing, grief makes you return to your preconceived notions and interrogate them again and again before you can move forward.

I’ve spent much of my memorable life thinking about grief in some way, and most of my adult life thinking about writing. As a writer and writing teacher, I value the reflective practice that writing requires. In both of those roles and as a person more generally, I depend on this reflective practice in order to make sense of my experience, especially emotional experiences. When I first started teaching, I was struck by how unwilling my students were to engage with emotion in any way related to their writing. Their understanding of rhetoric is limited to logos, ethos, and pathos, with the latter being an appeal to be “used carefully in academic writing” or avoided altogether (Jensen 6). Contrary to my mom’s wisdom, my students demonstrate Western culture’s rejection of emotion. As one student stated in a conversation about ←5 | 6→determining credibility in research, we just “don’t really trust sources that come from personal experience or appeal to emotions.”

Because emotional awareness and interpreting my experiences by reflecting on my emotions have both played such a central role in my life, I’m especially put off when my students assert that we live in this bimodal world of facts and emotions. If that were the case, where do we sort values? Are values a fact, then, or simply an emotion? In this chapter, I center emotion as a key concept in a larger epistemological system about how we make up our minds about things and make sense of the world. In tracing the movements of this system, I highlight strategies for getting our students to think about themselves as fully human, as people who think with both emotion and facts as inextricable parts of our cognition. This all boils down to an analysis of how emotions shape our value judgments, expectations, motivations, and reflections.

This chapter traces the movements of this system by:

1. Considering how cultural proscriptions for emotion end up in composition classrooms and how even our own textbooks in First-Year Composition (FYC) fail us when it comes to emotion;

2. Considering how emotions shape the epistemic dimensions of our experiences, including our values, expectations, and value judgments;

3. Examining how these values and expectations influence and help us form our interests, investments, commitments, and motivations;

4. Engaging with these concepts through reflection on personal experience, which occurs in narrative. Ultimately, these strategies and behaviors are what help us make meaning.

Emotion Changes Our Behaviors and Perceptions

I define emotion as a specific, felt-response to a person or situation that makes us change something about our behavior or ways of understanding. I draw from Dale Jacobs and Laura Micciche’s understanding of emotion from its root word movere: “a way to move.” In simpler terms, it’s a visceral feeling that leads us to do something differently. I consider emotion as an epistemic tool because it shapes our knowing and changes the way we interpret our experiences to construct new knowledge.

Considering specific emotions helps us achieve two things in our composition classrooms: (1) students learn to reflect on how their emotions shape the value judgments that they form opinions with and rely on in arguments; ←6 | 7→and (2) students learn to recognize that their everyday emotional experiences are an integral part of how they think and not a distraction from how they are supposed to think.

Rhetorical studies has long recognized the value of emotional appeals, but this recognition has been overshadowed by our prevailing concern for helping students just be reasonable. Even our teaching resources in FYC reflect this concern. Most of our textbooks either do not productively discuss emotion as a rhetorical appeal, or they avoid the topic altogether. Gretchen Moon (2003) and Tim Jensen (2016) demonstrate how emotion has been mishandled in FYC in two reviews of popular FYC textbooks. Moon reviews 25 FYC textbooks published after 1998 and finds that textbook writers have “uncritically followed western culture’s binary habits, which run deep and largely unchallenged” when it comes to emotion (39). Jensen’s review of 25 textbooks published after 2010 points to specific gaps between rhetorical theory and what we actually teach first-year students: we know that emotion is valuable for composing practices but we treat emotion (oversimplified from pathos) as something to be avoided or “used carefully in academic writing” (6).

Jensen’s notable exception is Mark G. Longaker and Jeffrey Walker’s textbook Rhetorical Analysis: A Brief Guide for Writers, which includes a chapter on “Affect (Pathos Revisited)” that highlights the continuities between classical rhetoric and recent scholarship on emotion. Longaker and Walker consider emotion as a heuristic for making sense of experience, which plays in the following order: pathemata, affect, interpretation, emotion, and a change in behavior:

1. With pathemata1, something happens to incite an emotional response (consider it an emotional exigence), which leads to an affect, a “bodily disposition” or response (210).

2. Our cognition kicks in to form an interpretation of what we’re feeling, which becomes an emotion. For example, we might witness a near miss on campus during a heavy traffic time (pathemata). We gasp, feel our hearts race, our pupils dilate. These are non-cognitive, involuntary responses (affect) that precede cognitive responses.

3. We then interpret the situation: “That was a really close call,” and feel an emotion: relief. In the final “stage,” some part of our behavior changes. Maybe we pay closer attention to cars at intersections for a while, or put our phones away (or take them out to text a friend about what just happened).

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This model for considering emotion is especially helpful for students because it allows for discussion on how our interpretations of various pathemata differ and it lets us consider what underlying values or expectations influence these interpretations. The key is, to get started we have to ask students to explicitly consider what they value most and then keep those values in mind as we navigate analyzing texts and creating arguments all semester.

For example, I once had a student tell the class about his uncle’s pet deer. The deer had been injured, so the student’s uncle took him in. When this student shared this story and a picture of the deer, most of the class reacted to how cute the story was—they smiled, said “Awww,” and so on. But a few students, mostly male, smirked and shook their heads.

“Oh,” I said to this handful of students, “You must hunt, then.”

They nodded. They all experienced the same pathemata, but their affects were different because they had differing values for the story, which influenced their interpretations. It’s a small thing, but these moments provide some concrete examples of how our emotions and values shape the way we interpret our experiences and make meaning. Specific examples like this one open up opportunities for discussing values, expectations, value judgments, and needs.

Emotion Shapes Values, Expectations, Value Judgments, and Needs

Jim W. Corder’s work in “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love” creates further opportunities for bringing classical rhetoric and recent scholarship together with narratives. Corder considers the act of interpretation and meaning making as a narrative act. He writes, “Sometimes we can’t find all that’s needed to make the narrative we want of ourselves, though we still make our narrative. Sometimes we don’t see enough … Sometimes we judge dogmatically, even ignorantly, holding only to standards that we have already accepted or established” (16). In other words, it’s through the act of collecting our observations and experiences and forming narratives about them that we can make sense of things. Didion, too, draws on this line of reasoning when she writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (White Album). Corder’s “standards that we have already accepted” are our values, expectations, value judgments, and needs. His point is that we’re all narratives, and when we meet a “contending narrative” in another person, it’s tough. It’s especially tough when we care about that person, or when we’re made to ←8 | 9→work closely with them. We have to listen to other perspectives and understand the values and emotions that undergird those perspectives if we want to get along.

In my spring FYC course, I ask my students to research the emotions and values that drive and influence discourse around public issues. Instead of choosing an aspect of an issue and arguing a “side,” my students have to consider at least four viewpoints on their issue and investigate how certain values result in judgments about that topic. This semester, I had two students in one class give researched presentations on the border wall issue in Arizona. One student, who was from Nogales, which is half in Arizona and half in Mexico, went into the project blatantly opposing the wall. The other, who intended to enlist in the military after graduation, sat on the other end of the spectrum and supported the wall. The students presented on the same day, and I dreaded going to class that morning. I expected a fight. I was surprised to find, however, that the students were not only respectful of each other’s research but that they were able to find common ground in their contending narratives. The student who initially supported the wall acknowledged the severity of mistreatment of immigrants and the negative environmental impacts a wall would create. The student from Nogales recognized the complexity of security along the border and, while he did not agree that a wall was a good solution, he came to understand where the other student was coming from. They recognized the difference in each others’ values and where their narratives diverged.

Each of us thinks our own perspectives and opinions on various issues are reasonable; we believe that we make decisions that are rational, logical, and sensical, and most of us would never consider our opinions as something we form through emotion. By taking an inventory of their own values and then investigating how those values play out in public issues, students were able to at least understand how an opinion so opposite of their own could be formed.

Emotions, then, also play a central role in how we make value judgments. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes this decision-making process using five “moral foundations,” which have strong emotional resonances:

1. care/harm

2. fairness/cheating

3. loyalty/betrayal

4. authority/subversion

5. sanctity/degradation

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Moral Foundations Theory considers these aspects of human nature as they correspond to our political leanings—for example, while both ends of the political spectrum care about fairness, the left considers fairness in terms of equality and the right considers it in terms of proportionality (138).

According to the work of Haidt and other social psychologists, our moral emotions also shape how we feel compelled to act in certain ways. With Hume’s assessment that reason is “the slave of the passions,” Haidt cites research that shows that when we are presented with pressing moral quandaries, the emotional centers of our brains are the first to respond, and then our cognitive centers kick in as we articulate justifications for how we feel about the issues involved. While Longaker and Walker’s heuristic begins with affect (a non-cognitive response) and is then followed by a cognitive interpretation, Haidt’s work considers visceral responses as part of a larger series of evolutionary adaptations that allow humans to “optimize responses” to various stimuli (148). For example, Haidt explains how disgust puts us at an evolutionary advantage that helps us avoid sickness (as in with rotting foods), and concludes that emotions like this are what help us form cooperative societies. In other words, we develop culturally approved emotions and responses to varying pathemata, and we use these frameworks to make up our minds about issues or make decisions about how to behave communally. These values are confirmed and passed down by the culture we live in and form “promises we make to one another” that dictate which behaviors we consider reasonable and which we reject (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 158).

Haidt makes the connection between culturally acceptable emotions and responses clear: “We feel pleasure, liking, and friendship when people show signs that they can be trusted to reciprocate. We feel anger, contempt, and even sometimes disgust when people try to cheat us or take advantage of us” (136). In the case of my students who researched the values and emotions shaping the debate on the border wall, their sticking points came from differences in Haidt’s care/harm and loyalty/betrayal foundations. The student who supported the wall believed that building the wall was a matter of protecting Americans (care) and putting Americans first (loyalty to nation). The other student, in contrast, believed that we had a responsibility to welcome immigrants (care) and saw building the wall as a rejection of this responsibility (loyalty to humankind).

When I ask my students to think about the connections between emotion, expectations, values, and behaviors, I tell them to think about emotions as discrepancies between reality and expectations. If something happens that makes us feel frustrated or overwhelmed, we know there’s something going wrong with how we expected something to go and how the world is actually ←10 | 11→working. For example, in most English departments we experience joy when a student asks a tough question in class because we value critical thinking and willingness to engage with the material. If we valued authoritarian, lecture-style learning, we might instead experience frustration that a student interrupted the flow of the class by asking a question.

These expectations—which are similar to Corder’s “convictions”—shape our priorities, or what we find is worth spending our time and energy on. I often try to remind my engineering students, for example, that just because traditional “emotional arguments” do not seem present in the work of an engineer doesn’t mean engineers are not guided and shaped by their emotions. “If you’ve ever talked to an engineer who has created something really cool or innovative,” I say, “You’ll hear all about how emotion drives their work. The passion, interest, and motivations are right there.” Students demonstrate this example all the time when I ask them about previous writing experiences that stand out to them in their memory. It’s always the same: writing experiences are memorable when students are excited about their topics. It’s very common for me to get early reflective posts that say, “I was really excited about that paper because I got to choose the topic I was researching,” for example.

Emotion and expectations are wrapped up with our investments and attachments, which also determine how much we are willing to engage with a task or person. Laura R. Micciche writes that emotion is “central to how we become invested in people, ideas, structures, and objects … [it] generates attachments to others [and] to world views” (Doing Emotion 6). By considering emotion this way, we can start to think about how emotion enacts change—in our behaviors, our decision-making, and how we engage with the world. This is important for writers especially because it allows us to interrogate the lenses we use to consider issues. Micciche writes that even “how we think about what constitutes evidence and grounds for an argument—indeed, how we come to decide that an issue deserves to be ‘argued’—is already shaped by our emotional investments in how things ought to be” (Doing Emotion 3). In other words, emotion shapes how we prioritize what’s worth our time and intellectual engagement. This means asking our students (and ourselves) to think critically about how they can adapt their workflows in ways that makes them interested.

Emotion Influences and Helps Us Form Interests, Investments, Commitments, and Motivations

Shari J. Stenberg further expands on how the investments we form based on our emotions play a role in how we approach the world and build our ←11 | 12→narratives. She argues for a “pedagogy that values emotion as resource [and] considers how our emotional investments determine what we choose to see and not see, listen and not listen to, accept or reject” (60). This kind of pedagogical framework is only useful, though, if we can consider emotional investments in terms of our positionality, in how these investments “color the lenses through which we see the world” (61). The implications for this work are at least twofold:

1. Critically considering how our emotional values shape our investments and commitments allows us to identify gaps in our thinking and uncover opportunities for further growth as thinkers and writers. In other words, we find where we have more to learn.

2. Knowing how these values influence our investments allows us to reflect on how to make things that we don’t inherently find interesting (like writing, work, relationships, etc.) worth our time and investment.

These are important moves in the epistemological system I trace because they give us opportunities to engage—to create meaningful connections, to solve challenging problems, to forge lasting relationships. It’s not all about the writing; this is also human work.

If we frame emotion and writing in terms of values, attachments, and investments, we start to see how emotion is not only a rhetorical strategy or appeal, but a tool for engaging in ideas (as in writing), a means for reflection, and an experience that can be drawn from in order to form new interests and investments. Much of this work involves unpacking how our educations have shaped what we consider acceptable ways of thinking or approaching learning tasks. We do this by reflecting on previous writing experiences that tell us that personal experience is not a valid way of approaching arguments in writing or try to simplify emotion to pathetic appeals.

In one candid class discussion about Stenberg’s chapter, my students brought up the fact that it’s no wonder they do not know how to use personal experience in their academic writing, or how to use emotion effectively as epistemic tool. One student said, “One of the big emotions I kept coming back to [in Stenberg] was anger—on page 59. Anger as a need to defend one’s investments in the values of the dominant culture. I think we’re always told that anger is bad, so we never learn how to handle it or think about it.” In a similar discussion a student connected to a line from the introduction of Micciche’s Doing Emotion: “emotions have been schooled out of academic discourse” (5). He explained that “a lot of our writing in high school never ←12 | 13→focused on emotion; we just looked at the tone of the paper. We were never really taught to include emotion in our writing to make it better.”

These previous experiences with writing reaffirm cultural stereotypes that personal experience is not evidence. Students tell me that their teachers “always told us not to use ‘I’ in our papers.” They’re supposed to be objective instead, and let their research pass through them, as though their personal experiences and values don’t filter this research. These kinds of conversations allow students to “examine how our emotions have been schooled and how and why we respond emotionally to the world, [and] gain an opportunity for deeper reflection and insight” (Stenberg 43). That way, we can start thinking about emotion as not just an inevitable part of experience that requires taming or managing, but as an indication that further reflection might be needed in order to better understand our experiences and learn from them. I open up opportunities for this kind of reflection by engaging students with how their daily personal experiences influence their engagement with my class.

At the start of each class meeting, I ask my students to rate how they’re doing on a scale of 1 through 5 (5 meaning great, 1 meaning terrible—probably a 1 wouldn’t show up to class) and provide a quick reason. They’re pretty good at this: “I’m a 2 because I almost got into a car accident on the way here and I’m still recovering from that a little,” or “I’m a 5 because my parents are coming into town this weekend.” I’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback on this exercise because students feel like I better understand their needs and can cater the day’s activities accordingly. In other words, I consider their emotions as an epistemic tool to adjust my teaching. Unfortunately, as soon as I ask them to do this in their academic writing, they’re not sure what to do. Writing from personal experience or with emotion is reserved for fiction or for personal essays, not research and analysis. Even though most of the students in my spring courses have written a literacy narrative the previous fall, they can’t quite seem to see how personal experience fits into academic writing.

I can’t blame the overt avoidance of emotion in schooled writing on educators or academia specifically because these patterns just imitate cultural norms. As Stenberg points out, there are relevant social factors in play which “result in seemingly natural ways of categorizing emotion” and these social factors dictate whether we see emotion as appropriate to certain situations or not (49). In school, though, it’s often safer to sweep emotions under the rug, rather than carefully analyze their rhetorical properties. “Just don’t do it,” seems to be the prevailing theme, even though we know that emotions are part and parcel of human experience and we know that emotions shape how we interpret these experiences.

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Emotion is Necessary and Inherent to the Work of Writers (and to Ourselves)

Writing is inherently a meaning-making activity, which means we have to think about all the ways in which we know things in order to write effectively (Naming What We Know). We have to start asking ourselves why we find certain kinds of writing (or other activities or relationships) compelling, and we have to interrogate how our values and commitments filter these priorities. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves which kinds of emotions drive our behaviors or influence our understandings. We have to engage in reflective practice, and we have to be able to weigh and mindfully consider how our emotions and values frame our approaches to writing (and all things, ultimately). In the composition classroom, this means asking students to continually bring their emotions and values into the conversation, instead of checking them at the door as they have been asked to do most of their educational careers.

In my rhetorical analysis assignment, I ask my students to consider how emotions influence their interpretations of the rhetorical situation in question. In response, more than one student has written something along the lines of, “My emotions did not influence my understanding of the situation or change the way I approached the writing because I could not relate it to my own life.” When these students claim that emotions do not play a role in their writing experiences but they mention frustration at writing or being bored by their prompts, they disengage from their education because they don’t view negative emotions as tools for changing their interpretations or behavior. It follows that when I ask students what their exigence is for writing—their problem or need to be solved by communication—the most common answer I hear is, “I was just writing it to get an A.” This disengagement prevents reflective practice and allows students to go through their entire education without ever figuring out what’s worth getting up in the morning for, or, as one of my mentors says, finding “where the jazz is.” We have to ask our students to engage in this reflective practice in order to help them make meaning, both in the classroom and out.

Beyond education, Micciche considers this need for reflective work on emotion as an essential practice for situating ourselves in the world and engaging with it. She argues, “Without a framework for understanding emotion’s legitimate role in the making of meaning and in the creation of value in our culture, we impoverish our own and our students’ understanding of how we come to orient ourselves to one another and to the world around us” (Doing Emotion 1). It’s through these critical engagements with our orientations that we become better thinkers, writers, and people who have to ←14 | 15→sometimes engage with contending narratives. We should help our students make themselves better, too.


I recently held a conference with a student who really grasped rhetorical elements and did nice critical work on audience, exigence, and constraints in his rhetorical analysis. He chose to write about a letter he had once written in order to make a complaint about a faculty member infringing on student privileges at his previous school. The notion of rhetoric as an activity that mediates action was very clear to him, but figuring out the role of emotion in this piece took some further thinking. “You mention some frustration and anxiety in your process of writing this letter,” I said, “But I’m wondering how those emotions specifically impacted your decisions. What did you do about that frustration? How did it inform how you approached writing the letter?”

That got him thinking more, and this reflection ultimately ended in some further conversation about why thinking through rhetorical principles matters for a pre-business student who won’t take any more writing courses after mine in his undergraduate career. “So this emotion and audience stuff is like, how I figure out what my financial advising clients need and care about then, right? I could use some of this to build better relationships with them?” He asked the right questions, and if we can keep getting ourselves (and our students) to think about how values and investments play a role in these interactions, we’ll be that much closer to emotion as epistemic tool.


1. According to Longaker and Walker, pathemata is essentially something that can be used to appeal to pathos; or anything that elicits an emotional response. Pathemata can be anything; it just depends on the values and expectations of the audience.

Works Cited

Corder, Jim W. “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 3rd ed., edited by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs, Bedford St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 600–18.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, et al., 1961.

———. The White Album. Simon & Schuster, 1979, pp. 11–48.

———. The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage, 2005.

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Estrem, Heidi. “Writing is a Knowledge-Making Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State UP, 2015, pp. 19–20.

Haidt, Jonathan. “The Moral Foundations of Politics.” The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, 2012, pp. 128–54.

Jacobs, Dale, and Laura R. Micciche. A Way to Move: Rhetorics of Emotion and Composition Studies. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2003.

Jensen, Tim. “Textbook Pathos: Tracing a Through-Line of Emotion in Composition Textbooks.” Composition Forum, vol. 34, 2016. http://compositionforum.com/issue/34/. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.

Longaker, Mark G., and Jeffrey Walker. “Affect (Pathos Revisited).” Rhetorical Analysis: A Brief Guide for Writers, Pearson, 2011.

Micciche, Laura R. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2007.

Moon, Gretchen Flesher. “The Pathos of Pathos: The Treatment of Emotion in Contemporary Composition Textbooks.” A Way to Move: Rhetorics of Emotion and Composition Studies, edited by Dale Jacobs and Laura R. Micciche, Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2003, pp. 33–42.

Stenberg, Shari J. “Feminist Repurposing of Emotion: From Emotional Management to Emotion as Resource.” Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age, Utah State UP, 2015.

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2. Leveraging Student Emotional Motivations in Effective Classroom Writing: A Model-Based Approach

Sandra Stanko

Why do you write? When students are posed this question, they most often respond with a typical “Because I have to” or “I want to get a good grade.” These responses, however, can be said to more closely reflect answers to what the student hopes to be the end goal of the writing or how this goal might be achieved. Addressing the why of the writing process requires more individualist, intrinsic mining to identify the deeper motivations underlying the writing process. These motivations are often latent and emotionally based, below the surface of consciousness, but are, nevertheless, powerful contributors to potentially effective writing.

Drawing from learning theorists, including Murray, Dewey, Vygotsky, and Bruner, as well as the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation, this chapter will explore the intrinsic, emotional motivations underlying why students write and what they hope—even unconsciously—to gain from writing. The chapter will also make recommendations to stimulate this type of meaningful and effective writing within the classroom and will offer a specific tool, a Linked Value Balance Model, and a complementary worksheet to help students to meaningfully connect classroom writing with specific, identified emotional motivations for writing rooted in elements of personal value.

Why Do Students Really Write?

Focusing on the why of writing as opposed to the what reflects focusing on writing as a process rather than as a product. When writing is examined as a process, it becomes a conduit of discovery through language. It can even be argued that all forms of writing tap into the universal desire to share stories and experiences, where people want to exchange their narratives—stories, ←17 | 18→excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing—to organize experiences and memories and make sense of different aspects of their world (Bruner 4). Through narrative stories, people use “language or another symbolic system to imbue life events with a temporal and logical order, to demystify them and establish coherence across past, present, and as yet unrealized experience” (Ochs and Capps 2). Dewey described this coherence of one experience building upon another in creating new experiences as being “continuity” or “the experiential continuum” (Experience and Education 28). Similarly, Bruner described how narratives can be cumulative, what he calls “narrative accrual,” saying that narratives “are eventually converted into more or less coherent autobiographies centered around a Self acting more or less purposefully in a social world” (18).

This type of organization and discovery through writing, said Murray, “is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world” (4). This process of discovery and sharing can yield a variety of related benefits, which can mirror a student’s deeper potential emotional motivations for writing. Ryan and Deci found that these emotional motivations can involve the psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which reflect the essence of human thriving and can help to predict the wellness and vitality of an individual (Self-Determination Theory 5). To address these emotional needs, a student may consciously or unconsciously use writing for the personal benefits of healing, empowerment, self-development, problem-solving, and social connections.

Deliberately connecting the writing product with these personal, emotional benefits rooted in emotional motivation can yield a more fruitful and effective writing process, as well as product, for students. These emotional motivations and related emotional benefits from writing will be discussed in the following sections.

Writing for Competence and New Learning

Ryan and Deci described the emotional motivation of competence as being a person’s need to feel masterful of topics and situations in their lives, evident in an inherent striving for knowledge and new growth (Self-Determination Theory 11). The degree to which a person experiences competence is reflected in their self-efficacy, which is the self-belief that one can identify, organize, initiate, and execute a course of action with a desired result (Bandura). A person is more likely to engage in behaviors where the promise of success is more likely (Ormrod 146). Because writing as process can result in new learning, ←18 | 19→it can build competence and support self-efficacy, yielding personal benefits such as healing, empowerment, and self- development. These benefits are possible essentially because this type of writing involves new learning through new perspectives and discoveries about a situation.

Dewey and New Learning

The process of discovery through language begins with personal experiences. Dewey asserted that learning originates from an individual’s personal experiences, emphasizing the continuity of experience in which each experience affects the quality of future experiences. Dewey said, “The principle of continuity of experience means that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after” (35). Dewey believed that every experience is a moving force, which has value based upon what new experiences it is moving the person toward or into (14). In terms of self-efficacy, if a person has experienced success in a given activity in the past, he or she is more likely to expect similar success with the activity in the future; conversely, failure in a past activity may lead to an expectation of failure in the future (Ambrose et al. 78). Thus, the nature of an experience is determined by the individual and his or her interaction with the environment (both internal and external, past and expected future) at a given point in time (Dewey 43).

Writing for Healing

According to Dewey’s theory, writing can result in new learning because of the continuity inherent in the process of writing about the experiences, one experience building upon another. The translation of experiences from abstract, prewriting concepts into more concrete, verbalized concepts in writing forces a kind of structure not only on the words but also on the experiences themselves. Elbow referred to this as the “germ event” in writing, where a person moves from abstract felt meaning into a piece of language (Writing With Power xviii). Tapping into Dewey’s continuity of experience, Elbow recommended letting the writing process determine the outcome (Writing With Power 53), the writer using metacognition—thinking about thinking (Ormrod 364)—to generate new associations. As these new associations are made, the writer also makes new discoveries about the topic, experiences new learning, and gains new knowledge.

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Writing for Empowerment

Just as writing can lead to new discoveries about both the syntax of the writing itself, as well as the writing topic, the new knowledge and perspectives that a person can gain through writing simultaneously provide the person with power (Foucault), which also gives the person a sense of control and ownership of the topic or situation. In this way, writing can lead to a sense of symbolic control over what may have appeared to be previously uncontrollable circumstances. Freire said that shifting this locus of control helps people to help themselves, “plac[ing] them in consciously critical confrontation with their problems,… mak[ing] them the agents of their own recuperation” (12). Empowered, the writer then becomes the agent for his or her own change, healing, empowerment, and self-development.

Writing for Self-Development

Writing has the ability to establish links among language, meaning making, and development of the self (Burnham 24–25). Writing can contribute to self-development because writing has been found to be a safe space for self-reflection, self-expression, and self-exploration.

In the process of writing for self-development, a person is expressing and developing his or her own voice. Just as each person has a unique speaking voice, with a unique “voice print,” like a fingerprint, Elbow said that each person has a unique writing voice that mirrors the unique timber and range of his or her speaking voice (Everyone Can Write 194).

Similarly, Vygotsky said that a person’s voice or written speech can be said to be a reflection of his or her inner speech, the internal dialectical dialogue he or she engages in when writing (Thought and Language 182). This inner voice can simultaneously shape and be shaped by social relationships and interconnectedness (Vygotsky, Thought and Language). Vygotsky described the concept of inner speech as having roots in experiences from a child’s social development (Thought and Language). What begins as “external speech,” essentially mimicked speech devoid of reasoning, evolves into “social speech” (speech for others) and “egocentric speech” (speech for one’s self); egocentric speech then evolves into “inner speech” (Vygotsky, Thought and Language 228).

Inner speech specifically has a role in learning. While social speech is the “turning of thoughts into words, their materialization and objectification,” inner speech is the reverse, as “overt speech sublimates into thoughts” (Vygotsky, Thought and Language 226). Through inner speech, learning ←20 | 21→occurs as words become “saturated with sense” (Vygotsky, Thought and Language 247), uniquely concentrated for the individual.

Writing for Autonomy and Evaluating the World

As was discussed previously, writing can be a way in which a person can build competence through new learning and the development of new perspectives about a situation. While competence focuses on the individual’s perception of success in completing a given task, autonomy is an individual’s ability to control or self-regulate one’s actions (Ryan and Deci, Self-Determination Theory 10). This self-regulated learning can include learning strategies that involve setting goals, self-evaluation, self-reflection, and controlling one’s motivation and emotions, among other activities (Ormrod 367–68). When a person experiences autonomy, he or she can experience pleasure in engaging in a task, willingly undertake challenges, and think meaningfully about problems, wanting to control what happens to themselves (Ormrod 451–52).

An aspect of autonomy is controlling one’s decisions and actions through problem-solving. Writing for problem-solving is similar to writing for healing in that resolving the imbalance between the demands of a situation and a person’s coping abilities through writing is essentially a problem-solving process.

Writing for Problem-Solving

Problem-solving through writing can involve seeing the writing process itself as being a “thinking problem” (Flower and Hayes, “Problem-Solving Strategies” 450). People have a set of problem schemas stored in their long-term memory, which includes knowledge about solving certain types of problems in specific ways (Ormrod 414). Writing as a process lets knowledge develop, so as the writer continues to write, he or she uses continual and more conscious guided guessing to recall what is known and to make new associations. Moreover, as the writer writes, he or she can alter goals as knowledge changes, adjusting where he or she wants to go in terms of writing based on the learning that is happening through the writing process (Flower and Hayes, “A Cognitive Process Theory” 290). Through this process, the memory schemas stored in long-term memory can change, creating new ways of presenting or framing an experience or problem, which can lead to new insights and solutions to problems (Flower and Hayes, “A Cognitive Process Theory”).

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Writing for Relatedness and Communicating with Others

Murray said writing as a process can enable people to communicate about their world and connect with other people. This psychological need for social connections can be described as relatedness (Ryan and Deci, Self-Determination Theory 11). Writers and researchers have used different images and metaphors to describe how writing can connect one person to another:

Progoff used the metaphor of individual, personal wells all drawing from the same universal underground stream (34).

McAndrew referred to people’s “underlying webs of interconnectedness” (38).

Elbow used the metaphor of a string to illustrate how one’s writing is cast out “to connect yourself with other consciousnesses” (Writing Without Teachers 73).

Woolf said that everyone is connected together by art, of which all humans are part: “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art” (17).

Britton, referring to Gordon Pradle, said that people are engaged in “the conversation of mankind,” which he said can also lead to “ ‘the dialogic imagination’—the creative possibilities of cooperative talk” (182).

These interconnections made possible through writing can result in personal growth for both the writer and the reader.

Writing for Social Connections

The collaborative nature of writing enables writing’s social connectedness. The writer experiences relatedness in being able to share personal narratives with others. At the same time, the readers benefit from sharing in the writer’s story. “Other people’s stories send us scrambling through our own story looking for correlations, similarities, or different possibilities,” said Baldwin (125), insights which Progoff said can then be assimilated into the people’s own lives (34). Through the process of engaging with another’s narrative, the reader interacts with the narrative in a personal way, treating “the occasion of a narrative recital as a specialized speech act” (Bruner 17). Bruner described how the reader views the narrative through the lens of his or her own personal experiences and background knowledge, the writer’s words ←22 | 23→being filtered through and interpreted by the reader’s own internal voice and inner speech.

Nature of Motivation

This chapter thus far has focused on how writing can help to meet a person’s psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Ryan and Deci, Self-Determination Theory) through yielding benefits related to healing, empowerment, self-development, problem-solving, and social connections. Whether or not a student is able to realize the end benefits of writing, however, is dependent upon one important factor: motivation.

In a nutshell, “motivation produces,” said Ryan and Deci, and concerns the elements of energy, direction, persistence, and equifinality (“Self-Determination Theory” 69). Bruner also asserted that effective learning includes, among other elements, a desire or motivation to learn. In addition, Bruner spoke about the role of motivation in narrative writing, saying that “some measure of agency is always present in narrative and agency presupposes choice—some element of ‘freedom’ ” (7).

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) categorizes motivation as being either intrinsic or extrinsic. SDT defines intrinsic motivation as being “the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn” (Ryan and Deci, “Self-Determination Theory” 70). The roots for intrinsic behavior are within the person, and the rewards are internal as well, often in the form of personal satisfaction. Ryan and Deci characterized people who experience intrinsic over extrinsic motivation as having more interest, excitement, and confidence, which is manifested as enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity, as well as a heightened sense of vitality, self-esteem, and general well-being (“Self-Determination Theory” 69). These intrinsically motivated individuals may also experience “flow,” which is characterized as being “a state of complete absorption, focus, and concentration in a challenging activity, to the point that a learner loses track of time and completely ignores other tasks” (Ormrod 442).

Conversely, extrinsic motivation focuses on behavior directed toward external outcomes. SDT differentiates between four types of extrinsic motivation, differentiated by the source of their roots and whether or not the roots are value-based: integrated regulation, identified regulation, introjected regulation, and external regulation (Ryan and Deci, “Self-Determination Theory” 72)

The second two forms of extrinsic motivation (introjected regulation and external regulation) can be said to be “controlling” forms because the root ←23 | 24→is external; these forms of extrinsic motivation have been associated with negative effects on psychological functioning, academic performance, and well-being (Garn et al. 264). In terms of self-efficacy, if a person attributes success to external or uncontrollable causes, the perception of future success diminishes (Ambrose et al. 78).

The first two forms of extrinsic motivation (integrated regulation and identified regulation) can be said to be “internalized” forms because the root is internal; like intrinsic motivation, these forms of extrinsic motivation have been associated with positive psychological functioning, as well as positive academic and well-being effects (Garn et al. 264). In terms of self-efficacy, the person with this type of motivation sees that success is attributable to internal and controllable causes, so future success is expected (Ambrose et al. 78) (see Table 2.1).

Table 2.1 Effective Forms of Personal Motivation

In this vein, a Linked Value Balance Model is proposed that is intended to activate and leverage the most effective types of student motivation to generate more personally meaningful—and academically effective—classroom writing. This model, along with the accompanying worksheet can be used in the classroom to increase student motivation for writing and to enhance learning.

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Linked Value Balance Model

The Linked Value Balance Model puts into action the benefits of writing for new learning and perspectives, increasing the potential for realizing personal growth benefits through writing. The Linked Value Balance Model is comprised of five steps: identify life challenges, identify emotional needs, identify elements of value, engage in freewriting, and develop personal writing goals.

At the end of this chapter, a resource titled “Developing Your Meaningful Writing Process Worksheet” based on the Linked Value Balance Model is provided, which can be used within the composition classroom to engage students in the writing process prior to beginning a writing assignment. The teacher can guide the student through the steps of the model, providing supplemental guidance as needed (see Appendix).

The five steps of the Linked Value Balance Model are described in more detail below, along with specific references to exercises in the worksheet that support each step of the model.

Step 1: Identify Life Challenges

As has been discussed, stories are the webs that interconnect individuals, and each person has several to tell. The first step of the Linked Value Balance Model asks students to identify the life challenges which comprise the current life stories that they want—and need—to tell, selecting the most pressing life challenge. This step is reflected in Exercise 1 of the worksheet. Life challenges typically can involve the following areas: work, family, health (physical, mental, or emotional), home environment, spirituality, and finances.

Step 2: Identify Emotional Needs

Going hand in glove with a life challenge is an underlying emotional aspect that needs to be addressed, which will likely involve meeting the general psychological needs of competence, relatedness, or autonomy (Ryan and Deci, Self-Determination Theory). These can also be the inherent personal benefits that can be realized through writing that have been discussed, including healing, empowerment, self-development, problem-solving, and social connectedness. The second step of the Linked Value Balance Model asks the students to identify these needs and then narrow them to the most important emotional need. This step is reflected in Exercise 2 of the worksheet, along with self-reflective questions to help the students to consider what emotional needs they may have.

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Step 3: Identify Elements of Value

Just as every person has life challenges, every person has elements that he or she values the most. In the third step of the Linked Value Balance Model, students are asked to list their top elements of value, the things that are most important to them right now. From these, they should select their most important element of value. These activities are reflected in Exercise 3 of the worksheet, including examples of the elements of value. By focusing on the elements of value, the Linked Value Balance Model is tapping into those sources of motivation with an internal root (intrinsic, integrated regulation, and identified regulation), which are the most effective forms of motivation (Ryan and Deci, “Self-Determination Theory”).

Step 4: Engage in Freewriting

In considering the areas of challenge and related needs, along with the elements of value, the students are asked to engage in freewriting in the fourth step of the Linked Value Balance Model, using these identified foci collectively as a springboard for new insights, what Elbow also refers to as loop writing (Writing With Power 61). Four brainstorming techniques are provided in Exercise 4 of the worksheet, which range from the most structured to the least structured: sentence stems, lists, clustering, and freewriting (Adams). The students should then circle the most meaningful words, phrases, or concepts which emerge from the freewriting exercises. These are the important connections that the students have made among the elements, which form the emotional basis, or scaffolds, upon which writing goals will be developed in the fifth step of the Linked Value Balance Model.

The student can use any or all of the brainstorming techniques. Using these techniques to make associations among needs and value elements is using Dewey’s idea of continuity in layering previous knowledge onto new knowledge, which can ideally result in new associations and new learning. Because freewriting involves writing whatever comes to mind pertaining to the element of value and accepting the words that arrive (Elbow, Writing With Power xvi), the freewriting activity specifically can also tap into a student’s inner speech (Vygotsky, Thought and Language) and enable these associates to emerge in his or her own unique voice (Elbow, Writing With Power).

At this point, the instructor can explain how the needs that the students identify (healing, empowerment, etc.) can be addressed through the process of writing. Using Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), where the ZPD identifies those functions that are not yet fully developed but are instead in an “embryonic state” (Mind in Society 86), the instructor can explain how the connections among the elements become the scaffold which assists in the development of the person’s personal writing. ←26 | 27→As the individual works with these personally established connections, he or she also learns how that element is related to the writing process, potentially increasing the person’s value of writing through this associative relationship.

Step 5: Develop Personal Writing Goals

What should have emerged from the exercises so far are raw associations among life challenges, elements of personal value, and emotional needs, the latter of which can be benefits of engaging in writing as a process. This step in the Linked Value Balance Model is where the student introduces structure to these concepts, writing one or two goals for the classroom writing process through Exercise 5 on the worksheet. These goals should take the form of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals. These goals can then be used collectively as a purposeful guide for the student, imbuing the required classroom writing with personal value.

The proposed Linked Value Balance Model can potentially result in an increased motivation for the writing process, as well as increased personal benefits from writing and an increased environmental/life balance, ultimately resulting in more meaningful and academically effective classroom writing (see Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1 Linked Value Balance Model of Writing


Students who enter the composition classroom are often carrying burdens related to work, family, health, home environment, spirituality, and finances, but they fail to see the connections between those and the writing activities of ←27 | 28→the course. This chapter has explained how connections can be made among a student’s life challenges, elements of value, and the potential writing benefits using the Linked Value Balance Model. Specifically, the model can help to show how writing’s inherent benefits related to healing, empowerment, self-development, problem-solving, and social connections can simultaneously help to address the identified life challenges. By approaching classroom writing through the personal interests of the student which have the most value for the student—and will provide the most personal motivation—the instructor can help to ensure that the greatest number of students can realize the academic and professional benefits of writing as a process, as well as help to maintain balance between the various elements of a composition classroom and in the personal lives of the students.

Appendix: Worksheet Complementing the Linked Value Balance Model

Developing Your Meaningful Writing Process Worksheet

Exercise 1: Identify Life Challenges

What life challenges are you facing right now? These challenges can typically fall into these broad categories: work, family, health (physical, mental, emotional), home environment, spirituality, and finances.

What are your current life challenges? List them below and circle the top challenge.

Exercise 2: Identify Emotional Needs

Your specific life challenges can generate emotional needs for you, which can generally fall into the categories of competence (feeling confident in what you do), autonomy (feeling that you are capable of doing what you want to do), and relatedness (feeling connections with others). These needs can cause you to feel associated needs for:


Do you feel that you need to recover from something physically, emotionally, or mentally?


Do you feel stripped of power in a specific situation? Do you feel overwhelmed by a situation, person, or other element?


Are there areas in which you feel you need to grow? Do you feel lacking or inferior in a specific situation?

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Are you facing specific problems in your life right now? What problems do you feel that you need to solve?

Social connections

How do you feel about your relationships with others? How is this area lacking in your life?

What emotional needs are most demanding in your life right now? List them below and circle the top emotional need.

Exercise 3: Identify Elements of Value

Elements of value comprise what is most important to you, which can usually fall into the same broad categories as life challenges: work, family, health (physical, mental, emotional), home environment, spirituality, and finances.

What is most important to you right now? What do you value the most? List these below. Circle the most important element of value.

Exercise 4: Engage in Freewriting

What are your answers from the previous three questions? List them below.

From Exercise 1: What is your top life challenge? _______________________

From Exercise 2: What is your top emotional need? ______________________

From Exercise 3: What is your top element of value? _____________________

For this exercise, you will reflect upon the results from the previous three exercises through engaging in freewriting. Freewriting is just writing without thinking or worrying about what you are writing, which is intended to tap into the creative, emotional right brain while quelling the analytic and critical tendencies of the left brain.

Consider all three of your responses in completing any or all of the freewriting exercises below, which range from the least to the most structured. What connections can you identify among your most important elements? Circle the most meaningful words, phrases, or concepts.

Sentence Stems

One of the easiest ways to generate new ideas is to complete a thought or concept with what comes first to mind. Incomplete sentences are provided for you to fill in the blanks.

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In my life right now, I am facing __________________________________________________.

This challenge makes me feel ____________________________________________________.

I value ______________________________________________________________________.

This valued element is related to my life challenge in __________________________________.

My life challenge makes me feel like I need _________________________________________.

Writing about ________________________ makes me feel __________ ___________________.

I will believe ______________________________________about myself following my writing.


The listing technique invites you to jot down words in a list form that come to mind as you consider your life challenges, emotional needs, and elements of value.







Clustering is an associative way of generating ideas, where you write down one idea and draw a line to a new, related idea, forming an interconnected web of ideas among your life challenges, emotional needs, and elements of value.

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Freewriting is writing in long form anything that comes to mind as you consider your identified life challenges, emotional needs, and elements of value. Write without stopping and without thinking about what you are writing. You may also consider giving yourself a time limit for your writing, such as three, five, or even ten minutes.

Exercise 5: Develop Personal Writing Goals

Up to this point, you have been brainstorming elements related to your life challenges, elements of value, and emotional needs and have explored connections among these elements through freewriting:

Taking into consideration that emotional needs can be met through the latent benefits of writing, this exercise guides you in creating personal writing goals which can help to direct and guide your writing. These goals are typically short-term goals that can help you to have personally meaningful and relevant, as well as effective, classroom writing. Thinking of these goals in terms of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals can help to ensure that the goals are most effective. These questions can help you in constructing a SMART goal:

Specific: What writing goal do you need to achieve? What life challenges, elements of personal value, and emotional needs are involved? What connections have you identified among these elements?

Measurable: How will this goal be measured or quantified?

Achievable: How is the goal able to be met?

Relevant: How is the goal relevant to the situation?

Time-bound: What is the target due date? When will this goal be met?

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Using the information and insights you have discovered through the freewriting exercises, write one or two goals for your writing that are SMART goals. Below is a template to help you in structuring your SMART goals.

I will complete _____ by doing _____ [Specific writing goal] by the deadline of _____ [Time-bound aspect]. This activity relates to _____ [Specific life challenge] and _____ [Specific element of personal value] by addressing _____ [Specific emotional need] through _____ [Specific connection(s)]. This goal is relevant to my classroom work and personal life because _____ [Relevant aspect]. I will know that I have achieved this goal by _____ and _____ [Measurable, Achievable aspects].

Goal 1

Goal 2

Works Cited

Adams, Kathleen. The Way of the Journal. The Sidran Institute Press, 1998.

Ambrose, Susan, et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Baldwin, Christina. Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story. New World Library, 2005.

Bandura, Albert. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Freeman, 1997.

Britton, James. “James Britton: An Impressionistic Sketch: A Response.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 41, no. 2, 1990, pp. 181–86.

Bruner, Jerome. “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 1, 1991, pp. 1–21.

Burnham, Christopher. “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice/Theory, Theory/Practice.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, edited by Gary Tate et al., Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001, pp. 19–35.

Dewey, John. Experience and Education. Touchstone, 1938.

Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. Oxford UP, 2000.

———. Writing With Power. 2nd ed. Oxford UP, 1998.

———. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. Oxford UP, 1998.

Flower, Linda, and John Hayes. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” Cross-Talk in Composition Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed., edited by Victor Villaneuva, National Council of Teachers of English, 2003, pp. 365–87.

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———. “Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process.” College English, vol. 39, no. 4, 1977, pp. 449–61.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977. Pantheon Books, 1977.

Freire, Paulo. “Education as the Practice of Freedom.” Education for Critical Consciousness. Edited and translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Continuum, 1974, pp. 3–83.

Garn, Alex, et al. “Parental Influences on the Academic Motivation of Gifted Students: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective.” Gifted Child Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 4, 2010, pp. 263–72.

McAndrew, Donald. “Chaos, Complexity, and Fuzziness: Science Looks at Teaching English.” The English Journal, vol. 86, no. 7, 1997, pp. 37–43.

Murray, Donald. “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” Cross-Talk in Composition Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed., edited by Victor Villaneuva, National Council of Teachers of English, 2003, pp. 3–6.

Ochs, Elinor, and Lisa Capps. Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling. Harvard UP, 2001.

Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis. Human Learning. 7th ed. Pearson, 2016.

Progoff, Ira. At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability. Penguin Putnam, 1992.

Ryan, Richard, and Edward Deci. Self-Determination Theory. The Guilford Press, 2017.

———. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68–78.

Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, edited by Michael Cole et al., Harvard UP, 1978.

———. Thought and Language. Translated by Alex Kozulin, The MIT P, 1986.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being. 2nd ed. Edited by Jeanne Schuleind, Harcourt Brace, 1985.

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3. “Dull Feelings of Just Getting By”: Advanced Assistant Professor Experiences of Impasse and Mentorship


Information science and communication scholar Steven Jackson explains that times of repair and maintenance in any act of innovation often go unnoticed or discarded. Having spent years of studying the work of mobile phone repair workers, Jackson developed a theory of the “broken world,” which asserts that the idea of repair, or the condition during which “screens and buttons fail, firmware is corrupted, and the iPhone gets shipped back” deserves as much attention as the phase that typically characterizes production or creation of something new (226). Unfortunately, he says, such work is rarely visible in any meaningful or thrilling way. Although Jackson specifically critiques the obsession with innovation or innovators in technology and media, his thoughts may arguably now apply to the life of a professor teaching writing. The emphasis in universities now is one of innovation, deliverables and futurity. For example, professors may be asked to deliver a certain number of graduates who earn their Master’s degrees in writing studies. Instructors of composition may be asked to submit just how many freshmen have withdrawn or failed first-year writing classes in order to study retention. Freshmen learn revising techniques in the first-year writing classroom in order to experience writing as recursive, yet the completion of assignments, despite decades of emphasis on processes rather than products, remains the typical goal.

In the material world, scholars and students alike still adhere to a linear model of time, and this model often limits how the process of writing takes place. Deliverables and futurity neglect the phases of production that may typify what writers, professors, and students regularly experience in terms of impasse. If, as Laura Micciche famously says, many central ideas in composition come from “emotioned ways of seeing our work,” then feelings of stagnation, maintenance, and listlessness have a role to play in how we perceive ←35 | 36→ourselves. Not only do such feelings have a role to play, but time, as I will discuss later, is often “cripped” or “queered” in the writer’s mind, thereby rendering traditional models of production unhelpful. Although both crip time and queer time possess different histories and contexts of usage, both call for new ways of experiencing the material world, ways that depart from the normative schedules or habits of those in power.

Debra Hawhee, in her work on the body and rhetoric, argues for a “transdisciplinary” approach to problem-solving, one in “favor of a broad, open, multilevel inquiry” that goes beyond cross-listing certain courses in a college catalog. I take such an approach in the forthcoming pages. Drawing from feminist, disability, and affect theories, Jackson’s “broken world” concept, and the narrative of a recent popular culture text, this chapter argues that perceptions of impasse, more commonly and perhaps reductively known as writer’s “block,” need not be negative. Additionally, I suggest that composition as a field rely less on notions of futurity and more on what concepts of atemporality offer students and ourselves. As Hannah Rule argues, by engaging intimately with work by Susan Wyche, Jody Shipka and Paul Prior, and Brian McNely et al. (411–17), the theater, or scene, of writing production has received new focus over the past two decades although notable scholarship on this topic occurred prior to twenty-first century. Linda Brodkey, for one example, troubled the notion that the “scene of writing” has always been a “romantic” one, where the writer composes frequently and productively in a cloistered space, perhaps a garret (397). She stressed the importance of instructors dispelling such images in order to teach composition more effectively.

This infatuation with the writer’s immediate space and the production happening within it has sometimes resulted in a naïve approach to materiality, one where the human controls the props on her stage of production and, as Brodkey critiques, isolates herself to access her genius. Because recent humanities scholarship has now embraced a material turn, or a focus on the nonhuman agents involved in rhetoric and daily life (Bennett, Barnett and Boyle, Grant, Rickert), nonhuman agents like coffee shops, ambient music, and even the arrangement of letters on a laptop have often come to signify more than just props in a scene. Still, what happens when the coffee served to us is weak or the music experiences a glitch? How does the flawed material world intersect with writing production, and what role do temporal constraints play in such a world? Ann Cvetkovich, extending Lauren Berlant’s ideas, explains that a state of writer’s block, or impasse “suggests that things will not move forward due to circumstance—not that they can’t but that the world is not designed to make it happen.” In turn, she also argues that today’s ←36 | 37→society requires “better ways of talking about ordinary life, including the dull feelings of just getting by” (159). The comment about the world’s design intersects with Jackson’s concept of maintenance. It may be time to consider “the possibility that slowing down or not moving forward might not be a sign of failure and might instead be worth exploring” (Cvetkovich 21). This concept requires that we spend time understanding how time might operate differently in the world of impasse.

Affect theorists would remind us that intention is difficult to untangle from the “many bodily (and mental) processes [that] take place subliminally, below the threshold of awareness” (Leys 456). Human intentionality may take us to a certain point, but it fails to deliver us at certain pressing moments in our careers and mentoring work. Often perceptions of futurity intervene here. Many writers hold fast to the belief that the world itself does not support their production in a specific place and time; therefore, they must wait until the rain stops, a study cubicle becomes available, or a difficult home situation resolves itself. This is not to say that such beliefs are always false. Graduate students writing their master’s theses repeatedly informed me that they will be able to work on their stalling projects “this summer” because of various reasons—summer, in a sense, ceased to exist as a season and became the ideal space and time to reverse unproductivity. However, once summer became the stage upon which productivity was set, the pressure to fulfill that goal would become too immense. The very things they imagined would be inspirational became hostile—the sun was too hot, the coffee too weak.

Graduate students also confront more serious problems in the form of personal challenges. I found myself frustrated at my lack of counseling skills at various times when a student experienced a tiring custody battle with a recalcitrant ex-husband. I was tempted at several points to remind this student, perhaps inappropriately, that there may not be an “optimal” time to finish a degree, that such battles in life (translation: such impasses) persist for years. Even though I told this student that completion of degrees did not matter in the face of such stress, I still reminded her that it might be better to drop her program or continue the project but not allow herself to get stuck “in the middle,” paying for courses and graduation fees when she had no clear path to finishing. This advice stemmed from my own insecurities regarding numbers of graduates in my program and my own narrow vision of how academics measure time and effort. Donald Murray has argued that writers need to be “accepting” about the “doing nothing” phase of their work. Some delays, he argues, are “essential” to finding the right “information, insight, order, need, [and] voice” (720). Still, Murray’s advice often goes unheeded by those of us bound up in administrative promises to graduate more students, or produce ←37 | 38→more output. A capitalist system requires that students be part of that output in order to make the degree a viable one.

Likewise, the desire for material comforts limits our openness to such phases of work and also tempts us into purchasing goods in exchange for better outcomes, such as more caffeine, a better lamp, or a more ergonomic chair. Bruce Horner, years ago, countered voices like Murray’s by cautioning writing teachers that the work of writing instruction is always bound up in a materialist culture that seeks “commodification” and that some reactions to this state of things entail a naïve focus on process to the point of denying a product’s use value (209). After all, graduate students will need to defend their thesis projects eventually. They require diplomas and credits and deadlines to move into their future careers.

Although Jackson stresses the importance of the fixer/maintainer/repairperson to contribute to the greater good, I would stress that the broken world he describes cannot be controlled or truly fixed, for, as he mentions, the world’s nature is “to break.” In the years preceding my tenure application, the position of department chair rotated three times, new provosts, chancellors, and deans replaced old ones, and the composition program underwent a major overhaul. Replacing and reinventing the proverbial wheels of governance reminds a faculty member just how uncertain daily work conditions may be. The same conditions that lend a spirit of precarity to faculty work also impinge on graduate student work. The graduate student faces her first group of freshmen writers when she signs up to be a teaching assistant, often in the second year of master’s study. Brock Dethier, in his clear and brief advice to such new teachers, warns them that if they wish to pursue their own writing at the same time they teach, they will always feel as if they are “steal[ing]” time from their students and the course preparation in which they engage. He even concludes with a comment that new teachers should not “worry about trying to get the next chapter written this semester” on top of their other responsibilities (160–61). Christine Casanave explains that a “lack of tenacity” in finishing a graduate thesis may be due to an inability to articulate why the student has started a graduate program in the first place. In this sense she refers to the insights that the past, or an originary moment/starting line may provide. Several of my graduate students had both problems: a new set of freshmen to mentor in the present and reasons for pursuing graduate study they had failed to articulate at the starting point.

Linear structures of time, particularly ones featuring optimistic or optimal endings, often fail to provide comfort to the professor as well as the stalling graduate student. Family and friends often told me that as soon as I finished my tenure application and my book manuscript I could find release from stress. This is and was hardly the case. Being mired in these two projects ←38 | 39→was not contingent on the relief I would feel when they ended; rather, I felt the impending completion as just another hurdle. I feared the “what now?” moments of succeeding at both endeavors and being left directionless, no matter how carefully I orchestrated a new line up of research projects for my forthcoming years. The images or metaphors I associated with production were bound up in analogies where impasse was a gap or detour that hardly deserved acknowledgment. The train was always supposed to leave the station or the caterpillar was supposed to transform into the butterfly.

There were always fewer words on both global and local levels to describe the phase of metamorphosis connected to maintenance or repair and to the acceptance of a broken world. For instance, because my department had recently adopted a focus on transfer in the composition program, words like “future” and “bridging” peppered the meetings I attended, and consequently, I became immersed in a language of predictable deliverables, all while listless and uninspired by my own work and watching graduate students stall in theirs. Additionally, in filing state level reports to justify the need for a new Master’s program, my predecessors promised that a certain number of students per year would graduate. This would offset the starting costs of investing in a new tenure-track hire (my own). Bound up in this plan was the fear of losing my job since it was created in part by this very report. As a result, I failed the student in the custody battle who needed my emotional support during a difficult time.

Redirecting my perception of impasse was made easier by an example from popular culture during the summer before completing my tenure application. Most people born in the 1970s and early 1980s are familiar with the 1984 film The Karate Kid. In this narrative, the underdog teen with a chip on his shoulder, Daniel LaRusso, manages to unseat the reigning teen karate champion Johnny Lawrence, a boy who has also begun bullying Daniel for flirting with his former girlfriend. During this film, Johnny embodies what Daniel is not: his family has money, he is a leader both in school and in his karate class, and he has a large cohort of friends. In contrast, Daniel’s main friend is Mr. Miyagi, a maintenance man and karate expert who works in the run-down apartment complex where he and his mother live. The original movie ends with Johnny’s comeuppance and his admiration for Daniel who, thanks to Mr. Miyagi’s mentorship, wins the tournament with an iconic crane kick to Johnny’s face. Despite the pain and embarrassment, Johnny hands Daniel the trophy and says “you’re all right, LaRusso” in a moment of great sportsmanship.

However, the new streaming show Cobra Kai rewrites a section of that ending. In launching the new YouTube premium streaming episodes, the ←39 | 40→showrunners play back the final tournament footage where Daniel defeats Johnny. This is, in part, a sequel that reveals, piece by piece, the new adult lives the characters inhabit and how they were affected by the tournament. Although the outcome of the 1984 tournament is the same, the camera zooms in on what happens when Johnny receives Daniel’s surprise kick to the face. The original film shows Johnny recovering after a moment. He stands, gives the trophy to Daniel, and makes amends. In this iteration, the camera’s bird’s eye view shows Johnny remaining face down, his body splayed like a corpse that has received a fatal gunshot wound. Because the showrunners focus on this moment, it enables them to construct a graphic match between that embarrassing fall and Johnny’s body in 2017. In Cobra Kai’s first episode, Johnny sleeps on his bed alone in the same exact position, the table beside him littered with junk food and alcohol. In creating this match, the writers make clear that Johnny has been at some kind of impasse, that he has been, in fact, so changed by the loss that he refuses to get up. Decades have passed, and the visual the audience receives about Johnny is one where he has remained suspended in time, deflated and immobile, a person who peaked in high school and cannot recapture his golden days of youth and confidence. Even as Johnny the adult appears physically different from Johnny the teen: the man eats and drinks like a teenager, fixing spam with ketchup for breakfast and buying slices of pizza from the corner mart. He eschews social ties and gets fired from his odd job as a maintenance man for the San Fernando Valley upper class—one of the teen characters mocks him in the pilot with the proclamation of “You’re the guy who cleaned my dad’s septic tank!”

What happens next is the story of how he gets back on his feet. Johnny eventually opens his own karate studio, attempts to reconcile with his prodigal teenage son, and later comes face to face with Daniel LaRusso only to have one of his students defeat Daniel’s sole student in a similar competition to the one the men fought years ago. What makes this rather pat ending work is the twist: Daniel’s student loses, yes, but this student is actually Johnny’s son Robby, a boy who sought revenge against his father by seeking out Johnny’s former high school nemesis. In this sense, Daniel still walks off with the real prize, a relationship with Robby, while Johnny’s students cheer and hold their trophy high.

What is so effective about this outcome is it stresses the way impasse persists despite positive changes in material circumstances. All of Johnny’s efforts to improve himself, both physically and economically (he now exercises, cuts back on his drinking, and finds enough students to pay the rent on his dojo and support himself) has still kept him mired in a broken relationship that ←40 | 41→mirrors Jackson’s “broken world.” In watching and understanding Johnny’s journey, I identified with him. Johnny had earned his trophy by the season’s end, but he still felt discouraged. I had a book contract that year and ample material to “show off” my first five years as a professor, but I still felt let down by the system that pushed me to design marketing plans and social media content that would somehow increase my numbers in the graduate program. I felt success in my book project, but a month after I submitted the manuscript, a colleague wrote a Facebook post, denouncing publishers whose work did not include a commitment to open source materials and scolding scholars for allying themselves with such publishers. Likewise, linear time ceased to comfort me as promises of completion simply multiplied my anxieties. After my submission of tenure materials, I had to wait for months for the decision. It was like existing between two frames of reference: the assistant and the associate level of academic work. Graduate students must feel a similar tension between their roles as students and teachers in their second year of graduate work. We all confronted the strange, inexplicable nature of impasse and felt shame that the flow of material goods (in my case the book and the tenure application) did nothing to inspire us to move forward. Moreover, nothing in our surroundings like summer sunshine, pets, or strong coffee offered solace.

In this case, literacy scholar Bronwyn T. Williams (like Hawhee in her emphasis on transdisciplinarity), would recommend that composition seek out new fields and avenues of study in order to find answers to problems like the kind described above. Scholars in disability studies and queer theory have found innovative ways to bypass time’s linear structure and explore how events move sideways, forward and backward in our experiences even when time passes according to the calendar. In this conception of time, it is also common to experience “time stopping” completely, as illness or queerness separates the bodily experience of one person from another’s bodily experience. Such scholars refer to nonstandard views of time as “queer” or “crip” because of this structure. This designation may be helpful in exploring, in a less judgmental way, what blocks or stalls writers like ourselves and our students. Ellen Samuels explains how she connects crip time with the work of writing:

If I were to write a best-seller, though, I think it would be about vampires … Because crip time is vampire time. It’s the time of late nights and unconscious days, of life schedules lived out of sync with the waking, quotidian world. It means that sometimes the body confines us like a coffin, the boundary between life and death blurred with no end in sight.

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Writer’s block, or impasse, works similarly; the writer exists “out of sync” with the production of deliverables. Again, pop culture provides a visual that resonated with me in this period of my career. In Cobra Kai’s pilot episode, the camera zooms in on Johnny’s body sprawled atop his covers, and this notion of late nights and unconscious days, all merging into decades of impasse, rings true. Indeed, that impasse begins with a punch that causes him to fall flat on his stomach in 1984. His choice to stay there queers time and keeps him figuratively “stuck” for decades. Alison Kafer draws on images of “falling” and “tripping” as key to the experience of losing control of place and time and failing to hide one’s disability or queerness (36). Although Johnny’s character experiences no visible disability or queer leanings, his inability to move past his fall disables him and, at least visually, connects him to Kafer’s images. It still does when he, as an adult, finally wins a trophy for his dojo.

Still, Kafer suggests that crip time and queer time need not always keep us figuratively and metaphorically down. She explains, “Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based in very particular minds and bodies” (27). Lessons of cripping and queering time may help us mentor students in ways less confined to capitalist structures. A refusal to participate in what Jane Bennett calls the “hyperconsumptive” tendency of Americans to collect “ever-increasing numbers of products” (5) to comfort ourselves in times of impasse might also help. The desire to control writing’s rooms and the events of impasse paradoxically hides what Bennett refers to as “the vitality of matter” around us (5). Constructions of queered and cripped time also fall into this category; for, as Christopher Lee explains in his study of jet lag as an object, scholars have often studied time in connection with a “range of moods, sentiments, and anxieties.” More to the point, Lee argues that “time is not structured by past, present, and future alone. It is also organized and defined by emotive states and cultural habits of living” (21). This concept will become central to the writer and teacher who must also accept the world’s nature to break and seek repair. Phases of repair and maintenance, existing both inside and outside of traditional frames of time, are necessary for both teachers and students to accept the impasses they confront.

More research is needed on how queer or crip versions of time might aid the field of composition, if only to offer emotional resonance for those feeling “out of sync.” The internal struggles and maintenance tasks of writers often remain invisible or misunderstood, perhaps because they remind us too much of the broken world of which Jackson speaks. University administration and ←42 | 43→even composition administration’s new focus on futurity keep us mired in material goods and services in the form of deliverables. With all of this bad news, it is no wonder most of us would rather focus on what we believe we can control. Still, in the midst of impasse, important reparative work may take place, and facilitating some of that work should be part of our work as leaders or mentors, even when the “dull feelings of just getting by” affect us most of all.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2009.

Boyle, Casey, and Scot Barnett, editors. Rhetoric through Everyday Things. University of Alabama, 2017.

Casanave, Christine. “What Advisors Need to Know about the Invisible ‘Real-Life’ Struggles of Doctoral Dissertation Writers.” Supporting Graduate Student Writers, edited by Steve Simpson, et al. University of Michigan Press, 2016.

Cobra Kai. Directed and written by Jon Hurwitz, performances by William Zabka and Ralph Macchio, 2 May 2018, YouTube Premium, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rB36UGoP4Y.

Dethier, Brock. First Time Up: An Insider’s Guide for New Composition Teachers. Utah State UP, 2005.

Grant, David M. “Writing Wakan: The Lakota Pipe as Rhetorical Object.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 1, Sep. 2017, pp. 61–86.

Hawhee, Debra. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. U of South Carolina P, 2009.

Horner, Bruce. Terms of Work for Composition: A Materialist Critique. State U of New York, 2000.

Jackson, Steven. “Rethinking Repair.” Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie et al., MIT P, 2014, pp. 221–60.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.

Lee, Christopher J. Jet Lag. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Leys, Ruth. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 3, Spring 2011, pp. 434–72.

Murray, Donald. “The Essential Delay: When Writer’s Block Isn’t.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies, edited by Susan Miller, W.W. Norton, 2009, pp. 715–20.

Micciche, Laura. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Boynton/Cook, 2007.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.

Rule, Hannah. “Writing’s Rooms.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, Feb. 2018, pp. 402–32.

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Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2017, http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/5824/4684.

Williams, Bronwyn T. “Seeking New Worlds: The Study of Writing beyond Our Classrooms.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 1, 2010, pp. 127–46.

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4. Emotion in Teaching and Administering Writing: An Ethics of Care for Writing Teachers


In this chapter, I argue both that emotion is a significant source of knowledge about the work we do which can be productively interrogated and that using emotion in this way can guide us as writing teachers and administrators to more ethical decisions. In particular, I suggest the ethics of care, a feminist moral philosophy, as the ideal moral theory for evaluating the ethical decisions inherent in our work. Too often the ethical decision-making we face as writing teachers and administrators is invisible or merely implicit in our research. Adopting an ethical framework—and, importantly, one that values and interrogates emotion—as a heuristic for guiding our actions from an ethical perspective not only provides a consistent framework for such decisions, it reaffirms and makes explicit our field’s commitment to people.

The realization that emotion is undervalued both in academia generally and our field specifically is not new. Laura Micciche argues that “emotion [is] a valuable rhetorical resource” that is “central to how we become invested in people, ideas, structures, and objects” (7). She uses theories of emotion from Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion to jumpstart her work revealing the ways emotion already underlies much Writing Studies pedagogy and scholarship (Micciche 8–9). Additionally, Writing Studies historian Jacqueline Jones Royster’s avowal of her personal connections to—or emotional investment in—her historical subjects in Traces of a Stream, as well as her work with Gesa Kirsch in Feminist Rhetorical Practices, stresses the validity of emotion, intuition, and human relationships/relatedness as research tools. An ethics of care shares many of these values, particularly the idea that emotion is a valid form of knowledge devalued in patriarchal, logo-centric epistemologies.

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An ethics of care emerged as feminist moral philosophers from Amanda Baier to Michael Slote to Virginia Held responded to and complicated psychologist Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice. While previous theories of moral development argued women tended to remain stuck in “lower” forms of moral reasoning (in Kohlberg’s famous hierarchy of moral development, for example, those who remained focused on how their actions affected or would be perceived by others were stuck in level 2 and failed to reach the “highest” moral reasoning associated with “an objectively fair or just resolution” found in level 3), Gilligan posited that girls were showing an alternative model for making moral decisions rather than a lower, less desirable level of moral reasoning (21–22). Ultimately, Gilligan saw girls’ persistent concern with other people not as a juvenile obsession with societal approval, but as a moral reckoning for the ways self and other are always connected (In a Different 2). Feminist moral philosophers used her observations to jumpstart critiques of existing moral philosophy—often focused on abstract principles and the individual divorced from other human relationships—by “embracing emotion” as a tool to develop a moral theory designed for the complexity of unique, interrelated human contexts (Held, “Taking Care” 59). An ethics of care can provide new insights into why emotion in our work as writing teachers and administrators matters and what we can—and should—do with emotional reactions both to our work and to that work’s effect on others. Is it ethical to put students in uncomfortable emotional situations? What is the moral value of preparing students to see writing as an emotional process? What kind of moral considerations should guide the advocacy of Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) for contingent laborers in their programs? While I will not develop detailed solutions to specific questions like these, I will demonstrate how an ethics of care contributes to understanding the emotion inherent in our work through a moral lens. Our work as writing teachers and administers is obviously and unavoidably emotional. What do we do about this reality? When and why does it matter if we feel good or bad about the work that we do? How can naming, confronting, and analyzing our emotions guide us to be more ethical writing teachers and administrators?

A Personal Accounting: Where Emotion Gets Me (and Where It Doesn’t)

The value of personal experience as research tool comes not just from Writing Studies embrace of Feminist Rhetorical Practices but also from feminist interjections in other fields like psychology and moral philosophy. In Writing Studies, Royster and Kirsch argue that expressing the personal experience ←46 | 47→of one’s place or emotions enriches research (Royster and Kirsch 94–95). In other words, what we bring to our research in the form of our experiences, ethical commitments, and embodied experience is just as important as traditional forms of scholarly knowledge-making. Similarly, Gilligan argues that responding to emotion within psychological and moral research—which requires naming and acknowledging that emotion—has moral “integrity and validity” (In a Different 3). In short, scholars in a variety of fields have demonstrated the scholarly value of owning and articulating personal situatedness. To this end, in the conclusion to their collection Ethics of Care: Critical Advances in International Perspective, Barnes et al. note the importance of narrative accounts to this work: “Fundamental to the processes of change [in how we acknowledge and respond to our personal positions and power in our research] is the embodiment of personal, professional and political insights. It is notable that a number of scholars working in this tradition incorporate personal narratives [… in] their arguments” (236). In this vein, I include the following narrative to highlight my own personal situatedness, emotional reactions, and embodied experiences and how these elements have shaped this research.

Recently, after participating in an interview with PhD Candidate Kate Highfill about the role of emotion in my work as a WPA, I received a follow-up email. The email read, in part, “If you have a minute, could you answer a follow-up question that has arisen as I go through the transcripts: What are things that you’ve done that you don’t believe in? i.e. How have you had to compromise your ideals/ethics/morals in order to keep your job?” The question, while a logical extension of our conversation during the interview, felt like a bit of gut punch. I experienced the tell-tale physical signs of a deep emotional reaction: my stomach clenched; a tight feeling settled in the center of my chest; I could feel my shoulders tensing.

I replied:

That’s a tough question. […] While I’m never the one actually making the decisions I think are unethical […], I don’t think that means I’m in the clear morally. It’s easy to look at the crummy stuff happening everywhere and say (accurately!) that I simply didn’t have the power to win this or that battle. But I don’t think that absolves me. The more I think about it, that is a tactic that is purposefully used to “get things done” […] No one, it feels like, has the power to do things better. And it feels like that is by design.

There are so many small lines getting crossed all the time. For instance, when our course caps went up without additional compensation (so more labor, same pay); I didn’t make that call but I am the one enforcing and explaining it to the people most affected by it. So my labor does several things that don’t feel so great: I protect those making what I think are bad decisions (for students and ←47 | 48→teachers) by serving as a kind of buffer obscuring some of the human costs of these decisions, I make decisions like this as tenable as possible by still continuing to support and expect excellent teaching no matter the labor situation, and even when I’m doing my best to advocate for faculty I’m always having to make strategic decisions to let some things go to argue for others. […] All of these things are literally what my job exists to do. […] I really don’t know what to do with this, especially because I love my job. I’m still trying to decide if there is a way to do this work ethically in the current reality. I want to think there is and I’m thinking hard about it, but the little voice in my heart is pretty pessimistic about the whole thing. […]

Ugh—Sorry! I think you got some messy emotional sorting-through that might be beyond what you wanted. I guess I’m in a place where I love my job, but the labor conditions surrounding that job (for other people in my program, people I have some authority over) make me wonder if doing this work is immoral. I want to say that sounds defeatist … (if everyone who can do what we do were to quit, would that get us anywhere better?) but I’m also feeling really gross about how much better compensated my work is than other people’s. Everything in me says it’s wrong. And what am I doing about it?

After I sent the email, I remember taking a deep breath. I got up and took a walk around campus; I felt less anxious, but more wound up. Though brimming with energy, it was the uncomfortable and charged energy I feel when faced with a problem I have no idea how to confront. Sitting down to plan professional development, revise committee documents, prep class, or think through my scholarship felt impossible and inauthentic at the moment. I wanted to do work that would matter, in terms of the moral quandary I had described, but I had no idea how that might look.

Though I had already submitted the proposal for this chapter before that exchange, it’s a moment I keep coming back to when working on this project. That afternoon, I was able to articulate a handful of important things that have occupied me intellectually ever since, but I was only able to do that because I was paying attention to and consciously voicing an emotional reaction. In my quoted reply, I used some version of the word “feel” four times. By stopping to describe my feelings of guilt, frustration, and growing pessimism I began to consider the ethics of my employment in ways that I had not done, consciously, before. And the I reason I’m confident that these issues matter, while strengthened by my analysis of my experiences and my familiarity with scholarship on labor and WPA work, is because these issues feel important and uncomfortable. My feelings are why I’m writing this chapter.

And yet, in many real ways, there is little room for this kind of an insight in our discussions of teaching and administrating writing. Not only am I articulating emotions—those slippery, feminized, stand-ins for “irrational” conclusions in our cultural shorthand—I am linking them to moral ←48 | 49→propositions. The majority of researchers in the field no doubt believe the knowledge they generate contributes to something good in the world, but how often do we talk explicitly about morality? Part of this, I suspect, stems from the good we want to do: rather than forcing our moral understanding of the world in ways we’ve come to critique in the history of colonialism and other enterprises of domination, we lean on ideas about “objectivity” in order to avoid these pitfalls. Yet, by allowing moral judgments to lurk unstated in nearly every call to action we make, we seldom articulate the moral principles and reasoning that shape why we believe in our work and hope others will be influenced by it.

The above email exchange and my emotional response to it led me somewhere important. I worry my work is unethical—actually doing more harm than good in the world—because of current labor conditions that I feel largely powerless to change. Emotion got me here, but then what? If we take seriously the call of feminists to honor our emotional connections and motivations to our research, what does it mean when those emotions suggest that the work we are doing is either morally flawed or, more hopefully, could be more morally productive? Articulating my emotions helps identify tensions and problems that matter. But how can it help me solve them?

An Ethics of Care: Emotion and Connectedness in Morality

For a long time, I would have rejected the idea that moral philosophy was a tool for pointing us toward next steps as I was scarred by a negative experience. That experience began during my PhD coursework, when a literature professor reviewing one of my drafts remarked that I kept making claims about “ethically unconscionable” labor conditions without explaining the philosophical system I was using to make these claims. At first, the reply shocked me. I had assumed that the behaviors I was calling out—exploiting contingent laborers, demanding more work for the same, or less, compensation—were obviously “wrong.” It felt like a waste of time to develop an extended literature review to support those claims. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood his point. If my moral reasoning was unarticulated, how could it help me wade through the messy applications of morality that happen constantly in life? My emotions might persuade me that something was “wrong” but, since I wanted to do something productive about that wrongness, I needed to be able to articulate how and why I was recommending some actions and not others. In short, as I began to think more seriously about my future as a WPA, I realized that making “ethical” decisions would be neither easy nor natural and that moral philosophy could be ←49 | 50→a tool for dealing with this. But, beyond a single undergraduate philosophy class over a decade ago, I had no explicit philosophical training. Worse still, my memories of that class were hazy at best. My solution was to start small, with a handful of popular books on philosophy written to general audiences.

I started with Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, which is also where things started to go south for me. At one point Singer, supporting abortion rights, analyzed abortion debates until he ended up questioning several premises underpinning different positions. Eventually, he unpacks these premises until he arrives at the conclusion: if “… the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either” (Singer 151). He uses this to reason that newborn babies can be ethically killed in a variety of situations and, in evaluating these arguments, claims “in attempting to reach a considered ethical judgment about this matter, we should put aside feelings based on the small, helpless and—sometimes—cute appearance of human infants” (152). In addition to resenting the implication that having an emotional reaction to a claim like this means I’m swayed solely by “cuteness” (discounting the possibility that my emotion might be connected to more “mature” or “appropriate” evidence), the truth is I was viscerally disgusted with his claim. Yet, it wasn’t my disagreement or disgust that bothered me most; I understand the value of the logical exercise and playing out conclusions to their ends. What bothered me was that, for him, the fact that I—and others—felt this position was wrong was simply irrelevant. The way emotion was surgically removed from his moral reasoning process, and was taken for granted as an obvious good, was far from helpful; instead, it was like a willful ignoring of what human beings, emotion, and life are actually like. I struggled to imagine how anything from such a philosophy could be useful or do the things I wanted a moral philosophy to do—to help me understand and account for the impacts of my actions, including emotionally, on the people around me. I tried reading a few other moral philosophy texts but came across the same basic problem. As far as I could see, philosophy was a kind of logic game in which human emotion and the complicated connections between people were “removed” to discover “universal” truths. The problem, for me, was that without attention to emotion, these “truths” seemed worthless. These were not principles I was interested in using to do things and the constant (sometime explicitly stated) suggestion that my response was clouded by my “irrational” emotion was frustrating. I admit that my reactions were partly emotional, but by using the fact I acknowledged my emotional response to discount and my label my response as “irrational” meant I was cut out of the conversation. My viewpoint was welcome, but only ←50 | 51→if I could strip away its emotional components. But those emotional components were—if not entirely my viewpoint—a vital part of it.

Suffice it to say I did not embed moral philosophy into my chapter revisions. Mentally I wrote off moral philosophy writ large as intellectual masturbation, convinced that—whether the problem were with me or with the theory—it wasn’t something I cared to use.

Years later, working on an article on embodiment and labor, I came across theories of “care labor” that referenced “an ethics of care.” Following the trail of citation I eventually discovered Virginia Held’s article “Feminist Moral Inquiry and the Feminist Future.” According to Held, “Moral theories […] should give us guidance in confronting the problems of actual life in the highly imperfect societies in which we live. We need moral theories about what to do and what to accept here and now” (Held, “Feminist Moral” 153). Despite the alignment between Held’s goals for moral philosophy and my own, I remained suspicious. After all, I imagine that Peter Singer and his ilk believe their moral theories have this kind of application, though I would disagree. But Held continues:

Traditional moral theory is frequently built on what a person might be thought to hold from the point of view of a hypothetical ideal observer, or a hypothetical purely rational being. Morality is to reflect what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” A hypothetical moral being is thought able to distance himself from the particular self interests and distorting passions of actual, embodied human beings, located in particular social and historical contexts. Feminists have often been critical of these attempts to ignore the reality of embodiment. As Susan Bordo puts it, the view from nowhere embodies the ideal being of everywhere, and the individual who is everywhere is necessarily disembodied (Held, “Feminist Moral” 159).

This critique, a much smarter and more sophisticated articulation of my dissatisfaction with moral philosophy, encouraged me to reconsider my earlier dismissal of the field and immerse myself in the scholarship and debate surrounding an ethics of care.

As mentioned earlier, an ethics of care was moral philosophy’s response to Carol Gilligan’s research on the different moral reasoning observed in boys and girls and her argument that these differences represented not inferior moral reasoning on the part of girls but a different ethical framework for discussion-making. Ultimately, the inescapable links between humans is the bedrock of the ideas about care she sees expressed by the girls she observed:

The “detachment” championed by most Western moral philosophy was, understood in these terms, deeply flawed. It was Nel Noddings, an American moral philosopher, who first proposed an entire moral system around these ideas. For Noddings (and at least initially Gilligan), these findings suggested an inherent gendered division in moral reasoning that has since been critiqued as essentialist (Noddings 23). While the claim that this style of moral reasoning is unique to women has been complicated greatly (and today is rejected by most philosophers working on an ethics of care), the recognition that patriarchal ideas about men and women, as well as logic and emotion, can help to explain why this moral system has been associated so strongly with women. Additionally, the idea that “traditional,” or justice, ethics and an ethics of care are mutually exclusive is also challenged, both by Michael Sloat and Virginia Held, though in different terms. Like all philosophical and theoretical models, an ethics of care is not uncontested or completely formalized.

However, while many important debates about the applications and definitions of an ethics of care exist, consensus has emerged around several principles. First, an ethics of care is committed to exploring how our relationships to people and situations impact our moral obligations. Held states emphatically that “It is the relatedness of human beings, built and rebuilt, that the ethics of care is being developed to try to understand, to evaluate, and to guide” (“Moral Feminist” 59). Second, an ethics of care is interested not only in the ideas and emotions associated with care but also with care as physical, embodied experience (Held, “Moral Feminist” 60). Bodies, physical sensation, and labor matter to an ethics of care. Third and finally, “In the epistemological process of trying to understand what morality would recommend and what it would be morally best for us to do and to be, the ethics of care values emotion rather than rejects it” (Held, Ethics 10). These three principals—close attention to the relationships between people, an awareness of the embodied experience of caring, and an openness to emotion as a valid site of knowing and knowledge-making—make an ethics of care valuable to Writing Studies. The work we do, both in the classroom and as administrators not only affects real people, engaging in that work has real emotional and ←52 | 53→physical consequences that matter as we consider what our labor ought, and ought not, to do.

Next Steps: Toward Action and a “Better” Future

Moral philosophy should help us do things, and do them well, in the world. An ethics of care is such an attractive moral framework to me, in part, because its responsivity makes it particularly useful in these terms. Held encapsulates care’s dual role as a pragmatic tool we can use both to do things and as a morally complex concept we can use to understand the world by talking about care as “both a practice and a value” (“Moral Feminist” 69). Practice refers to actions we take while value refers to the moral mean-making we use to arrive at and evaluate those actions. In both cases, the goal of care is to “express the caring relations that bring persons together, and [to] do so in ways that are progressively more morally satisfactory” (Held, “Moral Feminist” 69). My professor in graduate school was right to suggest that in order to critique existing systems, some kind of a heuristic—something one can apply, adapt, and respond to—is useful. Without it, many are left where I was the day I responded to Kate about her question on whether I had done things I thought were morally wrong as a WPA: dissatisfied, angry, and ready for change but struggling to not only articulate those feelings but also to translate them into sustained and organized action.

But now that I’ve articulated care as an ethical framework for addressing this issue, what—if anything—has changed? What can I do that I couldn’t do before? I think the answer is twofold. First, having established the suitability of an ethics of care for Writing Studies, we can begin to conceptualize what this would look like, in more concrete terms, for us as teachers, scholars, and administrators. This, in turn, will allows us, as a field, to advocate for practices that support “progressively more morally satisfactory” next steps on issues from labor exploitation to social justice to the gatekeeping function of the FYC course.

As a WPA currently struggling with the limits of my authority, an ethics of care has made me ask important questions. Who is my “care” supposed to be responsive to? While much of our scholarship assumes care for students as our reason for being, as an administrator, I feel both a moral responsibility to care for teachers in my program and pressure to direct my caring energy away from individual people and toward the institution as a whole. When asked to do specific things, like review retention data for FYC courses to suggest programmatic interventions, what happens when directing my care toward students and teachers puts me in tension with caring for the needs of ←53 | 54→the institution? Relatedly, I see struggles over what, exactly, is it that we (as individual teachers, a field, and within institutions) want Writing Studies and specially FYC to do in terms of caring labor. For example, there is a disconnect between the caring labor described by administration (requiring faculty to use early alert software, requesting pedagogies that intervene for at-risk students, and expecting teachers to give meaningful personalized feedback to each student) and the labor conditions they insist are necessary (larger classes, higher teaching loads, less paid professional development). I’m also reminded by an ethics of care that care is embodied, by which I mean that caring labor is physical labor that requires effort and expertise. Thus, to promote caring practices in my program, I need to take seriously the question of what kind of physical and intellectual conditions are required to support this effort. Being able to theorize these “caring” behaviors as labor that is not only important but to some degree specialized may also help to articulate their importance and value, especially if care for students is truly the goal of administration.

If nothing else, forcing these conversations should help the reveal the real priorities of both Writing Studies teachers and scholars and the administrations we labor within. Even if this leads me to conclude that my role as a WPA, as understood by my university, is not to care for students or teachers but to care for the administrative and fiscal needs of the university, this would be useful information. Bluntly put, the needs of university administrators (in terms of protecting university systems and resources over student and teacher needs) are not the things I value and if I cannot align my values with my institutional role, then I need to reassess my career path. In short, having clarity about our role in the system, good or bad, empowers us, as individuals and as a field, to make moral decisions.

Works Cited

Baier, Annette C. “The Need for More than Justice.” Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, edited by Virginia Held, Westview Press, 1995, pp. 47–58.

Barnes, Marian, et al. “Conclusion: renewal and transformation—the importance of an ethics of care.” Ethics of Care: Critical Advances in International Perspective, edited by Marian Barnes et al., Policy Press, 2015, pp. 233–44.

Gerdes-McClain, Rebecca. “Re: Transcript.” Received by Kate Highfill, 28 Jan. 2019.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Harvard UP, 1982.

———. “Moral Orientation and Moral Development.” Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, edited by Virginia Held, Westview Press, 1995, pp. 31–46.

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Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global, Oxford, 2006.

———. “Feminist Moral Inquiry and the Feminist Future.” Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, edited by Virginia Held, Westview Press, 1995, pp. 153–76.

———. “Taking Care: Care as Practice and Value.” Setting the Moral Compass: Essays by Women Philosophers, edited by Cheshire Calhoun, Oxford Press, 2004, pp. 59–71.

Micciche, Laura R. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching, Boyton/Cook Publishers, 2007.

Noddings, Nel. “Caring.” Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, edited by Virginia Held, Westview Press, 1995, pp. 7–30.


VIII, 258
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 258 pp., 24 b/w ill., 7 tables.

Biographical notes

Craig Wynne (Volume editor)

Craig Wynne is currently Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of the District of Columbia. He has published in a variety of journals, such as Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Journal of American Culture, and Spark: A 4C4 Equality Journal.


Title: Preserving Emotion in Student Writing