In “Expressive Pedagogy,” Chris Burnham and Rebecca Powell review the story of Expressivism in composition studies. At the center of Expressivist theory, they explain, is the “writer’s imaginative, psychological, social, and spiritual development and how that development influences individual consciousness and social behavior” (p. 113). As a product of this approach to writing theory, Expressivist pedagogy encourages freewriting, journal keeping, and reflective writing as activities that help an individual find her voice. Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, Peter Elbow, and William Coles are singled out as the most influential proponents of a shift from emphasis on the acquisition of academic language to writing as a means to create an identity: “know thyself” (before you know the others) became the tacit motto of expressivism. However, when I read of inviting students “to use their own language” (p. 114), I can’t help wondering what language is the students’ own language. The language they use with their peers in their social groups? The language of intimacy they use with their loved ones? In fact, we are all multilingual, aren’t we? A limitation of this theory is the use of the word “language” in the singular form, the platonic idea that buried in our ego is the secret language of the unconscious, the one and only true language.
But then Burnham and Powell bring up Kinneavy’ s claim that “through expressive discourse the self moves from the private meaning to shared meaning, that “expressive discourse traces a path away from solipsism toward accommodation with the world.” The question arises spontaneously: how so? What is the path that leads from focus on the self to focus on the other? Another question is stimulated by Britton’s work: how can the expressive role mediate between the participant role and the spectator role?
Berlin’s critique appears to be grounded in a concern that expressivism privileges individualism and a detachment from the real world. Expressivism eschews the demands of a transactional society by implicitly divorcing ‘voice’ from social responsibility and political action. From Berlin’s perspective, instead of focusing inwardly on personal languages, students should study hegemonic languages and analyse the discourses by which they are defined. In line with Freire’s claim that language is a social construct always prior to individuals and that social experience both shapes us and informs the languages we use, Berlin advocates renewed focus on language understood as an agent that creates the real world.
I believe that while it is important to place emphasis on writing as a means through which we construct our identity and forge our unique voice, it is also important to recognize that the language through which we construct our identities is laden with cultural assumptions that inevitable shape every effort at identity-building. In other words, the bricks that we use to build our identity do not belong to us; rather, we borrow them from the community in which we live.
In medio stat virtus, the ancient Romans said. Perhaps we can reconcile the opposite theoretical camps (expressivism vs social epistemic rhetoric) by going back to Gramsci’s ideas on personal and social languages. Gramsci was a linguist by training.
In a letter written from prison (March 26, 1927), Gramsci recommends to his sister that she lets her son speak in Sardinian, to “facilitate his free spontaneity of linguistic expression during the first stage of his learning, without making the mistake of constraining his child’s fantasy in the ‘straitjacket’ of an inadequate Italian” (Rosiello, 2010). Gramsci’s understanding of language as a cultural product does not stop him from recommending that, before learning the language of hegemony (standard Italian) to participate to the political life of the nation, it is a good idea to let children develop their cognitive abilities by writing in their personal language. But these words must not mislead us, Gramsci also argued that if popular masses want to organize themselves to become hegemonic class, they must move beyond the sectarianism of dialects to gain control of a more powerful communicative instrument — standard Italian — an instrument through which they can exercise a new hegemony.
My questions are embedded in the second paragraph of this post.
Luigi Rosiello “Linguistics and Marxism in the Thought of Antonio Gramsci.” In Gramsci, Language, and Translation. Ed. Peter Ives and Rocco Lacorte. Lexington Books, 2010, p. 34