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College writing and the resources of theatre

Timothy John Doherty, University of Massachusetts Amherst


My dissertation explores an approach to the teaching of college writing that coordinates expressivist and social constructionist pedagogies. An expressivist orientation, usually associated with Peter Elbow and Ken Macrorie, foregrounds individual experiences of invention, sensitizing teachers to the nuances of students' motivations and creativity. A social constructionist orientation, which enjoys wide consensus in contemporary composition studies, foregrounds the ways in which the oral and written practices of discourse communities, and the broader contexts of power in which they occur, construct identity and knowledge, so that the solitary writer's text is actually dialogical because of the social nature of language. In my dissertation, I turn to theatrical metaphors and practices in order to coordinate these orientations. From the works of Kenneth Burke, Mikhail Bakhtin, Victor Turner, and a variety of feminist theorists, I borrow a dramatistic rhetorical approach that values the dynamic interdependence of individual and context. This orientation guides my teaching, and helps me explore the results. I turn to theater practices themselves, such as role-play and dialogue, in order to provide writers a range of oral and textual experiences, in a way that allows for group inquiry into what Burke called the "scenic" or contextual, cultural dimensions of communication. To establish a context for my work, my Introduction traces parallel tensions in both composition and theatre about the nature of agency and identity, represented in the works of Peter Elbow, David Bartholomae, Bertolt Brecht, and Constantin Stanislavski. Chapter One seeks a solution to these tensions in contemporary community theatre and solo performance art, which provide both metaphors of transactional agency and dialogic identity, and actual practices adaptable to a college writing context. My remaining chapters explore in more detail various teaching approaches predicated upon my introductory, theoretical material. In Chapter Two, I narrate and analyze three classroom events of role- and voice-play, and conclude with a larger view of composition, role-play, and student and teacher roles. Chapter Three considers the social and interpersonal dynamics of a dialogue written by two students, analyzed according to the "interpretive theme" of adversarial and non-adversarial argument. In Chapter Four, I try to maintain a productive tension between expressive and social dimensions of one student's writing by sharing ideas about voice with her in a tutorial setting, especially Bakhtinian ideas about dissonance and negotiation. And finally my Conclusion attempts to enact or "perform" the very tensions I have explored throughout the dissertation, through a playful, multi-voiced dialgoue on dialogue. In effect, this dissertation tries to open a conversation between theory and practice, and between composition and theatre disciplines. My main thesis, which I explore through practice, is that college writers can benefit from highly contextualized, expressive play.

Subject Area

Rhetoric|Composition|Higher education|Language arts

Recommended Citation

Doherty, Timothy John, "College writing and the resources of theatre" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709590.