Thursday, November 18, 2004

the expressivists versus the poststructuralists--again

This morning I read David Bartholomae's response to Stephen North (published in PRE/TEXT in 1990). This essay/article was written in response to an earlier piece in PRE/TEXT that North had published--a piece I have not yet read but hope to get to today. While on many fronts I can sympathize with what Bartholomae has to say about North, this is probably because I am less than sympathetic to the expressivist movement, which Bartholomae deems North a part of. On my own knowledge of North (who is a faculty member in the department where I am working on my PhD) I wouldn't necessarily call him an expressivist, but this is all beside the point.

I guess the point is that this "war" between the expressivists and the social constructionists/poststructuralists has been going on within the field of composition for a long time, and the field is in need of a third party candidate--in my opinion. I mean the two end up negating each other in this weird way: The danger inherent within the expressivist paradigm is a writer who is too wedded, too close to the writing. It is a matter of the personal taking over in a way that erases difference (as Bartholomae points out) because it is all about "me." Bartholomae argues that teaching "late-adolescents that writing is an expression of individual thoughts and feelings...makes them suckers and...makes them powerless, at least to the degree that makes them blind to tradition, power and authority as they are present in language and culture." On the other hand, I have to ask if the social constructionists/poststructuralists--of whom Bartholomae could be representative--have really saved us from these dangers. Because as I see it, we are left with the dangers of a too detached and therefore too depoliticized writer. We are left with a neutralized form of the subject--divorced from agency that could potentially lend itself to political praxis and democratic society. Now this, of course, begs the question of what the purpose of academic discourse is. Is it about critical citizenship in a democracy, as I have put down here (there is that critical word again...problematic now, after the Michael Warner lecture, in its own way)? Or is it about something else (the possibilities are numerous)?

But also, in terms of the expressivist movement leaving students "blind to tradition, power and authority," I have argued elsewhere that Bartholomae does the same thing when he encourages students to "be Freire,""write like Foucault," "respond like a teacher," etc--thereby perpetuating tradition, power, and authority, without leaving students room to intervene in it in any way; without leaving students the opportunity to address the social constructedness of such writing assignments as Bartholomae gives in Ways of Reading.

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