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Time to Move On

Computers and Writing Conference, 2007

I’m going to ask you to hold two memories in your thoughts. The first is a soft swaying song. It’s a memory from way back in the past. Use a metaphor if it helps. But don’t try sloughing off memory layers as you might with an onion or with garlic skins. The smell is not that piercing, not that compressed. Smell instead some baby powder. Oatmeal. Fresh clothes. Cradle whatever memory you have of a small child, pre-speech, breathing, curled in cotton blanket and smelling of soap and scrubbed skin. Now, layer over the song. A lullaby. Something hummed to soothe a troubled child. A floating melody woven into the long hours of the night. Stop now and take your time. Find the song and call it into memory.

Now finish the memory. A figure stands in soft light near a bedside. A father or mother, holding the child, hearing the music. The smells and the sounds take shape in reflection, but the memory becomes fixed when bundled into the arms of the figure. 

You can hold this memory as long as you like.

The second memory is a straw memory from eight years ago. It pits those who want some baby powder sprinkled over their scholarship against those who want to fix their words with rigor. It starts with Wendy Bishop asking where to stand, wondering if there is a place to do her “mixing, not to elevate genres but to intermingle them, not to venerate the poetic or belletristic but to point out that each brings us to our senses, though in different modes and tones” (17). Bishop herself gives us the image for part of this memory, the figure of the writer-teacher and teacher-writer who wants to find “a deeper understanding of the connections between thought, words, and life.” But the figure must be placed in a field. Again, a metaphor might help. 

When driving country roads in spring I’ve sometimes smelt through the car window the scent of scallions. Looking over, I see the growth in the fields has been cut and I know that the wafting smell comes from wild onions mixing with the new-mown grass. 

But imagine that on the opposite side of the road we find a field peopled with men and women carrying signs. On the signs are painted words. Intellectual. Power. Theory. Construction. Composition. And pouring in are more and more people, each “[bringing] to the field an intellectual rigor and sophistication that bodes well for the future of rhetoric and composition as an intellectual discipline” (Olson, np). But the people are trampling the flowers and wild onions. The grass is worn bare, and their feet even kick up small puffs of dust.

Now let’s complete the second memory. We drive past and scan the rearview mirror. A figure steps from the field of wild onions just as another steps into the road from the field of signs. They walk toward each other arms extended. Our car is moving forward. We steal one last glance in the mirror to see the figures approach each other; then, at the last minute, they turn away.

So we have two memories. The cradled child sung to sleep and the two figures from composition’s past approaching, and then turning away form each other. Now we have to bring the memories together. 

Let’s start by combining some of what we know about language and music. Daniel Levitin tells us,

In order to be moved by music (physically and emotionally) it helps a great deal to have a readily predictable beat. Composers accomplish this by subdividing the beat in different ways, and accenting some notes differently than others . . . When we talk about a great groove in music . . . we’re talking about the way in which these beat divisions create a strong momentum. Groove is that quality that moves the song forward, the musical equivalent to a book that you can’t put down. (166)

Peter Elbow in his recent essay finds a similar pull in written language, a pull Elbow aligns with the “itch and scratch” of musical prose. But for Elbow, this pull does more than create an engaging groove. The pull takes us into an experiential world with a psychic payoff based on pleasure. Citing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high), he points to “the concept of flow [to describe] the experience of complete absorption in a task where time passes almost without awareness” (640). It’s the same awareness Greg Ulmer discovers in electracy, the sting of recognition that brings with it a sense of something more, an experiential magic that occurs “when you are being productive (at anything) and enter into the state of “flow” (298). 

But such pronouncements only take us so far. Or, rather, they take us too far. Like right-clicking the magnifying tool on an image editor, our conceptions expand from words and sounds into spiritual charges felt ineffably in creational flows. We zoom out and away from the tangible surfaces of writing with every mouseup.

So let’s go back down to the compositional surface. Left click. Zoom in. Magnification 300. Even zoomed in, there’s energy flowing through words and sounds. Elbow asks us to be “open to experiencing a different kind of organization . . . an energy-based organization derived from the kinds of time-binding qualities [found] in music” (631). Forget outlines, Elbow tells us; “they promote a visual ‘perspective’ on organization—they try for the bird’s eye view rather than the ant’s eye view” (634). Zoom in instead to the sounds of the words and their “energy-based organization” which flows just as “melodies, melodic motifs, and rhythmic motifs” (635) flow through music.

Elbow deliberately pulls apart the spatial and temporal to highlight what he sees as “the visual bias in our understanding of organization” (651), a bias that Elbow believes 

leads to problems. The most obvious is simply the neglect of other dimensions . . . Hearing--the modality that works in time--reaches an older, deeper, and more instinctual part of the brain than sight. Rhythm and movement reach inside us. Eyes tell us about the surface of things, but sound tells us about the insides of things. (651-2)

Elbow turns toward music and the sounds of words so that we might “experience the inherent temporal and even aural dimension of any text” (656). 

Knowing now that language can be musical, we might want to wheel the car around and head back to the scene of composition’s memory, to our field full of agents and signs on the one side and the freshly mown flowers and grass on the other. Let’s pull over and talk with the figures on either side of the road. We find Wendy Bishop standing among the stalks of cut grass. “What are you thinking about, Wendy?”


“What’s that?”

“Good question. It’s hard to say. We don’t get to hear much from expressivists these days.”

“I thought expressivism was all about feelings. You know personal writing. Not really much use in school, though.”

“No. That’s a caricature. No doubt expressivism is about a person writing, a voice. But it’s not personal in that touchy-feely way. A lot of scholars have missed the point. They pretend 

that "expressivists keep students in a state of naiveté, don't prepare them for the languages of the academy, abandon them to the forces of politics and culture. . . ." (648). (11)

“Okay, so expressivism isn’t necessarily naive. But what is it about?”

“It’s really about finding “a place to write from, [it’s about] a writer’s identity; as a teacher I need to ask students to question the self they are constructing in their physical texts and in the actual classroom” (22).

“I think I get the point. I’m going to cross the road and see if I can recognize any of these ideas on all those signs.”

We say our goodbyes, look both ways, and then head across the road and step into the crowd carrying signs, looking around for words that echo Wendy’s. There’s one, a fellow carrying a big poster with words painted in bright red—Liberatory Pedagogy. “Hey there. What’s on your sign?”


“I know it’s paint. What does it say?”

“Can’t you read? It says liberatory pedagogy.”

“I guess I mean, what does it mean?”

“Well I can’t tell you that. You have to figure it out for yourself. Otherwise it wouldn’t be liberatory. See?”

“Oh. Maybe you could give me an example so I can get a better feel for it.”

“Well, I don’t really have any examples. But I can tell you ‘the pedagogical scene is often one in which power is used and abused, where students suffer in the name of being "taught," where well-intentioned teachers can reinscribe sexism and racism.’”

“Hey, that sounds a lot like the message I got on the other side of the road, something about students questioning their constructed self and the classroom. Good to know, you’re both on the same page.”

Let’s pause this memory. I’ve got to get back in the car and get moving. I’m on my way to work. We’ll drive into town, find a parking place, head across campus, and into the English building. Walk with me into my classroom. I have to collect some playlist assignments. We wrote stories using arrangements of songs and excerpts of lyrics. Let’s ask Adam what he thought about composing a playlist.

This was probably my favorite assignment so far in this class. It was great for me because I love music and I always think about things like the composition of CD’s and the hidden messages of songs . . . It was an especially intense experience for me because the story I told was autobiographical and had a lot of personal meaning to me.

Wow. That sounds great. Let’s ask Danielle what she thought.

This playlist tells the story of a young girl named Monica who struggles with obstacles in life. This topic was inspired by close friends of mine and even a little from my own life. My mother grew up as a single mother and raised my older brother and [me] on her own. Relating the story was easy for me because I felt like I was telling the story of my own mother and friend.

Nice. Seems like Adam felt a sense of identity and Danielle was able to reflect on social concerns. Let’s head out to the roadside again and report back. We’ll think while we drive. Let’s use our zoom tool again, too. Left click and explore what makes the assignment go. Discussing the connection between music and pleasure, Levitin reports that music activates areas of the brain “involved in arousal, pleasure, and the . . . production of dopamine.” He also tells us that, “music appears to mimic some of the features of language and to convey some of the same emotions that vocal communication does . . . but far more than language, music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward, and emotion” (191).

So, there’s more to music than meets the ear—it brings pleasure, goes way back in brain time, and (educators take note) is linked to motivation and rewards. And, language shares a good deal of these qualities. But we need to zoom in one more time. Music is also physical. Again, Levitin reports

that in every society of which we’re aware, music and dance are inseparable . . . [I]t has only been in the last hundred years or so that the ties between musical sound and human movement have been minimized. The embodied nature of music, the indivisibility of movement and sound . . . characterizes music across cultures and across times. (255)

It’s good that we’re almost back to the roadside now, because we’re also back to memory number one. It’s the movement that ties the physical knot between what we hear intellectually and emotionally and our memory of the child and the song. Come on. Picture the darkened room again. The mother or father picks up the child, inhales, and eases into the lullaby. Can we even pretend they don’t start to move gently back and forth as s/he starts to hum? No.

Let’s tell Wendy. “Hey Wendy. Remember when you said that ‘mixing brings us to our senses . . . in different modes and tones?’ We just found out that music does this physically. The toe-tapping syndrome. We can’t hear without moving.” 

“Yes. That’s really the answer to your question. That’s the self-actualization of expressivism. That’s why we talk so much of the voice or the emotions. They’re the instruments of sound and movement.”

“Thanks, Wendy. We’ve got to cross the road and tell the others.”

So, we turn, ready to explain what expressivism means and how its related to new media like music, but looking across the road we see the fellow with the Liberatory Pedagogy sign in deep conversation with someone carrying a sign saying Agency. We start to cross the road, but then notice something strange about the two figures as they talk. They seem to be rocking back and forth. It’s subtle, they’re not dancing, but no doubt there’s something going on. Now I don’t think there is any need to interrupt. I think I see them starting to sway.

Works Cited

Bishop, Wendy. “Places to Stand: The Reflective Writer-Teacher-Writer in Composition.” College Composition and Communication. 51.1 (Sep. 1999), 9-31.

Elbow, Peter. “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Composition.” College Composition and Communication. 57.4 (June 2006), 620-66.

Olson, Gary. “The Death of Composition as an Intellectual Discipline.” 16 May 2007 <>.

Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain On Music : The Science of a Human Obsession. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin Group, 2006.

Sherman, Adam. Web Interview7 Dec. 2006.

Ulmer, Greg. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman, 2003.

Veal, Danielle. Web Interview. 7 Dec. 2006.