University of Vermont
Early advocates of personal writing sought to use first-year composition to restore authenticity to students who must suffer a “plastic, mass-produced world” outside the classroom (Adler-Kassner, 1998, p. 218). In line with this objective, the rhetoric of early personal writing pedagogy is constituted by tropes of ownership, expression, self-understanding, and “authentic voice,” as the title of Donald C. Stewart’s 1972 expressivist textbook illustrates. Linda Adler-Kassner contends that, as a result of this goal of authenticity and ownership, expressivism “started with and centered around experience—defined as personal, private, individually felt understanding of the writer” (1998, p. 219).1 “Experience” however, was almost always framed in terms of the past. Expressivist Gordon Rohmann argued, for example, that it is in the nature of human beings to make analogies between “this experience and others” gone by; we “know anything in our present simply because we have known similar things in our past to which we compare the present” (1965, p. 111). For Rohmann and other expressivists, writing past experience—that is, composing with memory—was a means by which students could achieve the self-understanding expressivists sought.
More contemporary textbooks with calls for personal writing echo these early understandings of “individually felt,” authentic access to past experience, making it clear that the reliance of personal writing on the authority of memory persists. Robert Yagelski’s 2010 Reading our World: Conversations in Context,2 for example, asks students to write essays “based on memories of [their] childhood” or essays in which they “describe an important memory [they] have of [their] family” (pp. 80; 85). Assignments such as these often link memory writing with present identity, asking students to focus on a “particular aspect of [their] upbringing and how the place where [they] were raised might have influenced [their] sense of identity” (Yagelski, 2010, p. 85). When Yagelski asks students to write the past experience that has constituted them as individuals today, he treats experience as foundational in some way, as a stable referent students can access and articulate in order to better understand their present selves. These assignments invite the writing of narrative, chronological and linear in structure, because the memories often end up in the form of a story, bolstered by the authority of the writer’s experience.
This chapter takes a closer look at the “pastness” of the experience students of personal writing are asked to compose. When we refigure “experience” as “memory,” we emphasize the slipperiness of our perceptions of the past: the ways in which changing present circumstances reconfigure our sense of what happened. Lynn Z. Bloom explains that writing the past cannot be understood in terms of truth, except in Joan Didion’s sense of a subjective truth: the “truth of how it felt to me” (as quoted in Bloom, 2003, p. 278). But even Didion’s sense of a truth of feeling is undermined when, as Bloom puts it, “the writer’s vision varies over time and intervening circumstances” and when, “as we experience more of life and learn more ourselves and as the world itself changes, we come to understand events and people differently” (Bloom 2003, p. 286). Memory is dynamic and unstable, at odds with our attempts to grab hold of it in writing and make it permanent as a foundation for understanding our present selves. Such understandings of memory upset calls to represent experience as individual, authentic, chronological, and linear.
What becomes of expressivist writing when the pastness of experience complicates its foundational stability for present self-understanding? Rather than view the complexity of writing with memory as support for discontinuing the teaching of personal writing, I consider here how we might approach personal writing in a way that takes into account the dynamic slipperiness of memory. Writing memory with attention to its complexities is important work for students not only because they are already writing with memory in many composition classrooms but also because, as I will show, memory writing offers a unique opportunity for critical analysis of students’ social and political locations. As a feminist scholar, I offer in this paper a feminist pedagogical approach emphasizing strategies of alternative discourse as one way to address the complexity of writing with memory.3 Ultimately, by drawing theories of collective memory into conversation with feminist composition pedagogy, I hope to illustrate how this kind of memory writing might be taught and learned.
Before I describe a sequence of assignments and a course in which I attempted to put into practice my understanding of how writing with memory might best be approached in first-year composition, I will briefly articulate the theoretical perspective that informed the course. Historian and memory studies scholar David Lowenthal argues that we
select, distill, distort, and transform the past, accommodating things remembered to the needs of the present … Memories are not ready-made reflections of the past, but eclectic selective reconstructions based on subsequent actions and perceptions and on ever-changing codes by which we delineate, symbolize and classify the world around us. (1985, p. 210)
Lowenthal’s emphasis on the “subsequent actions[,] … perceptions,” and “ever-changing codes” that organize our memories underscores the elusiveness of our grasp on a pure reconstruction of our experience. But it also suggests a second, simultaneous focus for writers of experience to consider: not only the experience “itself” they wish to recall and reproduce in writing but the dynamic “codes” through which the experience becomes legible in the writer’s present structure of understanding. Historian Joan Wallach Scott’s understanding of experience resonates with Lowanthal’s. She objects to uncritical uses of experience because such uses preclude our critical examination of the ideological system in which the experiencer both enacts the experience and later recalls the experience. Instead of analyzing the workings of the system, the authority of experience reproduces the terms of the system, “locating resistance outside its discursive construction” (Scott, 1991, p. 777).
Lowenthal and Scott’s theorizations of memory articulate the mediation of our memories, the ways in which the experience itself and our subsequent memory of it are constructed by the “system” or “codes” through which we view the world. When we bring Lowenthal and Scott into conversation with composition scholars of expressivism, the difference becomes apparent between viewing memory as culturally situated and constituted and viewing experience as “personal, private, [and] individually felt,” as Adler-Kassner (1998, p.218) characterizes expressivism. Instead, Lowanthall and Scott’s theorization of memory shows it to be necessarily social and discursive. As Scott suggests, subjects are constructed discursively through the act and memory of experience, which in turn produces (not merely records) a particular perspective on the experience. This view can be seen as a critique of the individualism implicit in expressivism because it situates the self inextricably in the social and discursive world.
Memory can be described as “collective” because, as Maurice Halbwachs argued in The Social Frameworks of Memory, “the mind reconstructs its memories under the pressure of society” (1992, p. 51). Memories hang together in the mind of an individual because they are “part of a totality of thoughts common to a group” (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52). According to Halbwachs then, individual memories are not necessarily individual; they are produced in the social milieu of the group the individual identifies with. This social memory can “characterize groups” by revealing a “debt to the past” and expressing “moral continuity” (Klein, 2002, p. 130). Taken together, the implications of Lowenthal, Scott, and Halbwachs are that, when we set out to recount past experience, we must attend to the ways in which memories are formed with others in the present as a means of connection, group coherence, and a sense of shared past and future. I see their theorizations as a call to view experience not as such but rather for the social and discursive frames through which we understand the experience and the social (which is to say, identificatory) uses to which we put the experience—the ways we shape memories to fit those we believe we share with others, as a way of cohering more securely as a group.
If students of personal writing are asked to attend to the social, discursive forces and the present identificatory uses that might shape their memories, their approach to expressivism becomes “critical.” This attention to how “personal” memories are socially or discursively shaped in service of present identifications begs questions of power and agency. In what narrative forms do the experiences we remember take shape? How are certain experiences remembered and others forgotten? The ability to use a memory and to define for others its use is fundamentally related to historical distributions of power (Connorton, 1989, LeGoff & Nora, 1977). This tension between memory and forgetting reveals the past to be a dynamic, perpetually contested site, constantly open to varying degrees of fluctuation depending on the contingent power of the group in question. Memory is a dynamic, “processional action by which people constantly transform the recollections they produce” (Zelizer, 1995, p. 218). In sum, when we reconfigure experience as memory, the task of expressivism becomes decidedly social and decidedly critical.
Though “personal” memory cannot be extricated from present social forces, composing critically with memory is not without opportunities for agency. As Nancy Mack explains in her contribution to this collection, writing what she calls “critical memoir”
should open the author to the possibility of agency through the interpretation and representation of memory. The meaning of the memoir is revised from the student’s current vantage point of an increased critical awareness and projected towards a hopeful future, thus giving the author some degree of agency in shaping identity.
When we think of memory as dynamic, processual, presentist, and very much situated in the social and discursive world, agency is made possible when such complexity is both represented and interrogated in language. While conventional personal narratives are structured chronologically with a beginning, middle, and end and often conform to familiar plots, a presentist, processual, social, and discursive understanding of memory calls for a disruption of conventional structures. Because such structures can be understood as a present “system” or “code” that produces, rather than records, the experience, adherence to these conventions of narrative inhibit the simultaneous interrogation of memory’s social and discursive construction that makes identificatory agency possible.
Thus, writing with memory compels alternative rhetorical strategies to conventional personal narratives. My considerations of alternative discourse are inspired by Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie’s critical reading of Dorothy Allison’s creative nonfiction piece, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure. Ronald and Ritchie see in Allison’s memoir a “model for how to use language to survive and change one’s reality” (2006, p. 7). Allison’s work takes an unconventional form for writers to imitate, a “method of unfolding and holding on to the paradoxical relationships between fiction and fact, silence and speaking, certainty and doubt, cultural norms and taboos” (2006, p. 7). That is, for Ronald and Ritchie, the rhetorical strategies Allison employs allow her to accomplish seemingly improbable contradictions in the same text, which I reread here in the language of memory: to show through memory writing what is remembered and forgotten, what “was” and what present circumstances reconfigure, and to situate these potential contradictions in the context of “cultural norms and taboos” (that is, how they align with cultural expectations and where they transgress). The use of alternative discourse in writing memory may accomplish what Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford call “crimes of reading and writing,” the upsetting of normative conventions with the goal of facilitating “transformative agency” (2006, p. 17).
Taking my cues from these feminist pedagogues, I set out to design a pedagogical approach through which students might be taught to read for the rhetorical strategies used by writers of memory who employ alternative discourse, in order to then selectively imitate the strategies in their own personal writing. How do memory writers like Allison, or Susan Griffin, or Gloria Anzaldua, for example, grapple and rhetorically represent their past experience in the context of larger social and historical discourses? What do their particular choices in language allow them to think through that more conventional personal narratives do not? What alternative sentence structures do they employ? How do they position themselves vis-à-vis others, vis-à-vis “history,” vis-à-vis their memories, in language?
To examine how this work played out in my own classroom, I will describe how this project was undertaken with Susan Griffin’s creative nonfiction/memoir chapter, “Our Secret,” published in her collection Chorus of Stones (1993). “Our Secret” is a complex, fragmented essay, amalgamating and juxtaposing interpretations of Griffin’s memories of her family life with her interpretations of Heinrich Himmler’s family life. Himmler was the chief of the SS under Hitler during the Second World War—clearly an unlikely candidate and cultural context for a contemporary American writer to situate her own memories among. But Griffin does so in order to ask larger questions about where rage comes from, how it emerges and manifests culturally, and how acts of rage disseminate and influence others across time and place. Her inquiry into her own past unearths and analyzes the source of her acts of childish rage against her grandmother and leads her to compare own family’s strict childrearing practices to Himmler’s context of rigid, almost torturous German childrearing. She asks questions akin to more traditional expressivist writing: she wants to learn “how it is” that people—herself, Himmler, others—”become [them]selves.” But she does so in a complex mélange of personal and historical pasts, using her own memories to better understand larger historical happenings and vice versa.
In the classroom, I sought to help students see Griffin’s strategies for engaging with and problematizing the past. I designed discussion questions and writing assignments that asked students to attend to her particular rhetorical strategies for identifying and disidentifying with a larger cultural past. We read Griffin’s essay for the textual cues of her unique rhetoric of memory—her radical disruption of chronology, use of uncertain speculative language, and strategic shifts in perspective that emphasize the intersections of personal and cultural pasts. As a class, we looked for what “pieces” constituted Griffin’s fragmented essay and found it to be an interweaving of interviews; readings of diaries, photographs, and art; scientific facts; and her own familial memories into a tapestry of emotion, tragedy, and perhaps hope.
Looking more closely at particular paragraphs and sentences, we looked for textual cues that indicated how she represented the relationship between individual and collective memory. Students saw fragility and incertitude in her readings of others and her own pasts, revealed in particular choices of language that disrupted any sense of historical accuracy. For example, we focused on a passage in which Griffin describes an interview with a woman who witnessed the aftermath of a German concentration camp as a young child. In her description of the woman’s memory, Griffin’s language is initially assured, employing jarring imagery of concrete things: she saw “shoes in great piles. Bones. Women’s hair” (1993, p. 114). But immediately the woman’s memories are called into question: “She had no words for what she saw. Her father admonished her to be still. Only years later, and in a classroom, did she find out the name of this place and what happened here” (Griffin, 1993, p. 114). Students saw the certainty of the woman’s experience, represented by lists of objects, threatened by her inability to capture it in language; they saw, through careful close reading for rhetorical strategies in representing memory, that it was only through the later safety of sterilized classroom history that the woman could “understand” what happened.
In close-reading passages like these, students saw a kind of dual representation and interrogation.4 The woman’s memory is of a time when she had no words to understand her experience. The experience, as she can access it, is not foundational because it is only later in school when she realizes what happened—a delayed realization that becomes the foundation for her response to Griffin’s interview, and which may be understood as a “system” or “code,” in Scott and Lowenthal’s terms, through which the experience is constructed legibly. My students began to see the slipperiness of experience because Griffin sprinkles her tapestry with reminders that, though she speaks of and through various historical figures (from Himmler to her grandmother), it is always mediated through her own memory. The aforementioned interview, a form of evidence collection often validated by its claim to direct experience, is called into question when Griffin writes, “I give [the interviewee] the name Laura here,” (1993, p.114) suggesting that it is Griffin who controls the representation of “Laura’s” memory and that ultimately, it is Griffin’s memory to share. In-class close reading practice helps students see how individual memories are constructed retrospectively in different social environments, and that it matters how we represent memory in language, because to do so critically is to interrogate how memories get made and what present needs they serve.
In order to get students close-reading these kinds of rhetorical moves so they could later put them into practice in “personal” writing, I asked them to write an analytical essay first, in which they examined and evaluated the rhetorical strategies Griffin used to “write the past.” One student5 wrote that
Griffin keeps herself in the story as an ‘imaginer’ that tries to see how an event transpired. Perhaps this gives her an opportunity to include her own stories of childhood in comparison with Himmler’s. For instance, she details Dr. Schreber’s [German, WWII-era] advice on childhood parenting: “Crush the will, they write. Establish dominance. Permit no disobedience. Suppress everything in the child.” She then compares the childrearing acts with what she had gone through with her grandmother. She too was suppressed: “When at the age of six I went to live with her, my grandmother worked to reshape me … not by casual example but through anxious memorization and drill.”
This student is noticing how Griffin is able to incorporate her personal memories into a larger collective past: by remaining in the story always as an “imaginer” who looks through the same lens of inquiry at historical pasts as she does her own memories.
Another student wrote of rhetorical moves that allow Griffin to evade talking about the past “as though it had actually occurred” and instead allow her to “state them in a way that they were possibilities, using qualifying cues such as ‘did…?,’ ‘must have,’ and maybe,’ etc.” Between seemingly straightforward, traditionally historical statements garnered from interviews, photographs, art, and science, this student noticed that Griffin interjects with her own memory’s “I.” After definite claims like, “it is 1910. The twenty-second of July,” he noticed that Griffin extended into the imaginary, speculating that “his father must have loomed large to him. Did Gebhard lay his hand on Heinrich’s shoulder?” (Griffin, 1993, p. 118). “I can see him,” Griffin writes of the long deceased Himmler, but it is always, ultimately, herself she sees: through Laura, through her grandmother, through the mélange of fact and fiction that constitute her exploration and generation of the past. The student thought that “the fact that she has produced her own stories” formed a “biased view of Himmler and his childhood” but one that “generates a different perspective on the war and her relationship to it.” The student, in other words, was noticing how Griffin’s rhetorical strategies for writing the past produced something that other, more traditional strategies could not, despite the accompanying loss of “objectivity.” Griffin writes her memories but employs stylistic strategies to perpetually question the certainty of the claims to memory she makes. She situates herself in different perspectives and historical moments, destabilizing herself as a unified, prediscursive self with unmediated access to experience even as she interrogates the larger sociocultural structures that would make the events she remembers (the Holocaust, childhood abuse) possible.
After my students wrote essays analyzing the rhetorical strategies with which Griffin writes her personal past and situates it in a larger cultural/historical context, they were tasked with a project like hers: to write an experimental essay in which they situate and interrogate their own memories in relation to other historical figures and histories. I see this assignment as enacting what Toni Morrison calls the “willed creation” of memory writing (1984). Morrison’s use of the term “willed” juxtaposed with “creation” emphasizes how rhetorical choices in representing the past are inventive and painstakingly strategic, rather than a mere record of the past as it was. As Morrison suggests, “there may be play and arbitrariness in the way a memory surfaces but none in the way the composition is organized, especially when I hope to recreate the play and arbitrariness in the way narrative events unfold” (1984, p. 216). The writing of the analytical essay prior to the composition of the more “personal”/experimental essay helps students see that the rhetorical choices we make in writing the past facilitate or inhibit the critical expressivist work we can do.
I will close by describing one student’s response to this assignment, for which she was tasked to read her own memories through the art and life of a historical figure, as Griffin did with Himmler and other figures. My student, Dylan Gallagher, was to use the past of a historical figure to raise questions in inquiry into her own past, and to represent this inquiry experimentally: to use unorthodox form and “crimes of writing” to subvert conventional modes of historiography (Ede &Lunsford, 2006). She was to take seriously our discussions of Griffin’s stylistic subversions of form and the ways in which Griffin’s textual cues undermined historical (and memorial) accuracy in favor of a different project: a complex merging of history and personal writing, a powerful connection between the personal and the political, and a simultaneous interrogation of personal memory and cultural history.
Dylan chose her own unorthodox writer to read her memories against and through: e. e. cummings. Inspired by the visual of Griffin’s fragmented, italicized layout, Dylan incorporated images and fragments with her own inventive and imitative twist. She emulated a childhood letter from cummings to his mother that was handwritten with columns, horizontal and vertical writing, and hand-drawn pictures. Dylan replicated cummings’ visual layout, typing in columns and interweaving excerpts from his poetry and biography with analysis of her own memories. The strategies of speculation and sentence fragments she learned from Griffin stand out to me: buried in an opening paragraph of seemingly straightforward biography of cummings’ early life, she writes “I can picture his mother, Rebecca, looking at one of his letters and laughing at the lopsided drawings of elephants and dinosaurs and planets. At his scattered writing.”
But later strategies are of her own invention, inspired by cummings. Using the close reading strategies she learned in her analysis of Griffin, Dylan reads cummings, interweaving interpretations of his poetry with her memories. I quote her at length:
He did not shy away from writing about death or sex. Death has always been an uncomfortable subject for Many People. Many People refuse to acknowledge death and worms and ceasing to exist. But ee does not. He asks and answers the hard questions through a simple arrangement of words …
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. I like what it does,
i like its hows …
and possibly I like the thrill of
under me you so quite new (cummings 218)
The first time I had sex I was terrified and uncertain. I was full of questions, about how sex works, how it alters the relationship between two people and also about who I was. But more than that, I was excited. It was thrilling, losing my virginity. Independence is an odd thing to gain from sex. Often, I hear people feel an inappropriately strong attachment to the person with whom they lose their virginity. I experienced no such attachment. As ee describes. An initial attraction to a body, loving perfections and flaws, loving bones and skin, wanting to touch feel, know their body. The physical act of sex. The thrill. And afterwards,
From Griffin, she learns to play with visual form (unorthodox layout and fragments), and she learns to amalgamate diverse materials to get at her own memory (she looks to letters, poetry, and biography).
But more importantly, she learns to read cummings’ history and work through her own memories, which has an apparent transformative effect. From Dylan’s own experience with cummings, a poet who is himself a part of the memories of her upbringing, she learns to play with the combinations of words, capital letters, and punctuation because something about the way he puts words together speaks “her”—but not a unified or static sense of self. The excerpt above implies that at first she was terrified, and then through the experience of reading cummings, she articulates a new memory, one that replaces vulnerable emotion with a detached tactile physicality she finds empowering. Afterwards, when the man’s body has left her side, she feels nothing and she fears nothing of the nothingness, unlike “Many People.” The past she arrives at is arguably subversive: using cummings’ life and work, she arrives at a memory that defies larger sociocultural expectations for what she, as a young woman, should feel. She rejects expectations for sentimentality and attachment through a “crime of reading and writing,” subverting conventional sentence structure and spatial layout. I read this as a kind of identity work with a feminist edge. She is putting pressure on the expectations of “Many People” and revising her memory from her initial recollection of “terror,” which Many People would expect, to a sense of detachment that might protect her from retrospective and future feelings of fear and dependence.
While Dylan’s and my other students’ writing was not “perfect” and while there were certainly some students who could or would not break out of conventional modes of personal writing, Dylan’s and other students’ essays revealed the ways in which writing memory with complexity is something that has the potential to be taught. Students can learn to write with memory to reveal a discursive self in motion, an understanding of a self as always shifting and multiple depending on the memory texts the writer comes into contact with and the present circumstances in which she finds herself. For Griffin, it was through representations of “Laura” and Himmler and so many others; for Dylan, it was through representations of cummings and his work. In the process of examining and imitating cummings’ life and work in unorthodox ways, she articulated a transitioned understanding of her own past—against dominant narratives of what a young woman should feel during and after physical intimacy. I want to suggest that Dylan’s work be read as a feminist memory, written through feminist means, in a way that does some justice to the complexity of writing with memory.6 Dylan uses cummings to write herself to an empowering memory of physical intimacy, simultaneously showing us her transformation such that we know this memory is not stable and foundational. It is something to be generated and used for strength in this moment, perhaps to be revised again and again as she continues to find herself in new present circumstances.
When we bring collective memory studies into conversation with feminist composition pedagogy,7 it becomes clear that memories sit in the intersection between the personal and the social, a location that is always political with real implications for individuals’ sense of their relationship to the world. This chapter has contended that memories’ location in the intersection between the personal and social is something that can be rhetorically represented and simultaneously interrogated, in such a way that students are called to attention to the role of pasts in their present lives and cultural locations. Unorthodox “crimes of writing” have the potential to help students represent the self that emerges from memory work as one that is as processual and collective as memories themselves and one with the critical potential to challenge the social and discursive frameworks that might be constraining their present senses of self. This chapter is a call to complicate experience, to disrupt traditional, narrative approaches to personal writing, and to help students learn to read and write for a more critically expressivist understanding of the intersections between personal and collective memory and identity.
1. Like Adler-Kassner, Wendy Hesford finds in expressivism a point of view that reads “autobiography … as a doorway to the apprehension of an original experience or an unchanging essence” (1999, p. 65). Instead, she advocates autobiographical acts that attend to the “social signifying practices shaped and enacted within … ideologically encoded” social and historical forces” (p. 64).
2. Yagelski’s is representative of textbooks that do not forefront personal writing as their central pedagogy but nonetheless incorporate assignments that ask students to write with memory, indicating expressivism’s subtle but enduring legacy.
3. I want to underscore that feminist pedagogy is only one way to approach the complexity of writing with memory, stemming from my own investments in feminist studies, which have, as the chapter will show, led me to experimental and alternative discourse. Feminist pedagogy and experimental writing may not be, I believe, the only way to address the problem of memory’s over-simplification, but they are the methods that inspired the assignment sequence I describe later in this chapter.
4. Students’ simultaneous attention to representation and interrogation resonates with Min-Zhan Lu’s problematization of experience. Lu argues that uncritical uses of experience, even in the pursuit of feminist goals, can work to subsume differences and essentialize gender as distinct from other cultural- or identity-based vectors of difference. Instead, she advocates a use of personal experience that works on both experiential and analytical levels to disrupt a “false notion of ‘oneness’ with all women purely on the grounds of gender” (1998, p. 242).
5. I cite three students in this essay. All three were from a recent first-year composition course at the University of Pittsburgh; the first two have allowed me to reference their work but preferred to remain anonymous, while the last, Dylan Gallagher, permitted me to use her full name.
6. Ronald and Ritchie write that a feminist pedagogy “locates theory and practice in the immediate contexts of women’s lives,” helping students move toward a “resistant, critical stance toward monolithic descriptions of discourse and gender” (1998, p. 219). Writing, through a feminist pedagogy, becomes an act of constant awareness of one’s particular location, working “among and between” analytical, experiential, objective, subjective, authoritative and local strategies. I’m contending that Dylan’s transformed memory does indeed take a “resistant, critical stance” toward expectations for her age and gender in its very movement “among and between” analytic and experiential, subjective and authoritative strategies: she is analytic and authoritative in her use and reading of cummings and subjective and experiential in her representation of a transitioned memory.
7. Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith attest to feminism and memory studies’ shared concern with the reception of a version of the past in the context of larger society forces. As Hirsch and Smith put it, “feminist studies and memory studies both presuppose that the present is defined by a past that is constructed and contested. Both fields assume that we do not study the past for its own sake; rather, we do so to meet the ends of the present” (2002, p. 12).
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