English, Department of


Date of this Version

April 2001


Published in Readerly/Writerly Texts 9.1 & 9.2 (Spring/Summer 2001 & Fall/Winter 2001), pp. 9–24. Copyright © 2002 Readerly/Writerly Texts. ISSN 1066-3630. Used by permission.


Composition scholars recently have begun to call for a re-imagined role for compositionists as public intellectuals who participate in the public sphere. At the same time compositionists are increasingly advocating writing pedagogies that ask students to investigate and participate in the public sphere—via service learning projects, community-service writing, “real-world” writing for businesses and non-profi t agencies, and so on. Susan Wells, Elizabeth Ervin, Peter Mortensen, and Ellen Cushman all, to varying extents, have argued for compositionists to use their rhetorical expertise in public arenas. Wells, one of the most prominent advocates of writing in the public sphere, describes four ways that composition classrooms might be organized around public writing: 1) as a public sphere itself; 2) as a site for analyzing public discourse; 3) as a forum for producing public writing; and 4) as a site for examining how disciplinary discourses intervene in the public sphere (338–339).

In this essay, I’d like to suggest one way to re-imagine what “public” writing might look like. in the composition classroom. In order to do so, I draw upon compositionists who locate their work in cultural studies and who focus on “lived experience” and history as a cultural and social production. I argue that such a turn helps to disrupt the boundaries between public vs. academic/ personal writing that I see underlying current calls for public writing, thereby opening up possibilities for deeper understandings of what the term “public sphere” can and might mean in students’ lives. I propose a pedagogy that I believe can help students see in concrete ways how their lives are, already, connected to the public sphere in historical and social ways: In this essay, I draw upon a course that I taught during the fall of 1999 in which students were asked to investigate their social locations via family and community history. After describing some of these students’ projects (and some of the tensions that arose in their production), I conclude with a discussion of how these projects spurred me to re-conceptualize what it means to teach writing in and for the public sphere.