A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Performing/Teaching/Writing: Performance Studies in the Composition Classroom

Ryan Claycomb

Enculturation 6.1 (2008): http://enculturation.net/6.1/claycomb


The 2005 conference for the American Society of Theatre Research revolved around the theme of Writing and Performance, specifically:

the dialectical frictions between writing and performance. Both terms have been pressed into an extraordinary array of meanings and uses—both in the dissemination of “textuality” as a metaphor for the operation of a wide range of signifying practices and in the migration of “performance” as a critical term throughout the humanities and social sciences. (2005 American Society)

And yet while many of the sessions and papers at the conference directly addressed the role of writing in creating, archiving, theorizing, teaching and understanding performance, little to no attention was expressly paid to the ways that performance and its discourses help us create, theorize, teach, or understand writing.

However, in the December 2005 issue of College Composition and Communication, a team of investigators from the Stanford Study of Writing, including Jenn Fishman and Andrea Lunsford, offered up “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy” which lays out in compelling ways how performance is already a significant system in developing student literacy, and the ways that it already is and more comprehensively could be integrated into student writing, and into our teaching of that writing. Essentially, the Stanford team proposes the same question that stimulated my own research here. They ask, “Can we expand our curricula and our pedagogies for performance in the writing classroom?” and conclude that “performance . . . stands to reinvigorate both teaching and learning in the writing classroom” (226-27). Further, they specifically identify in performance affinities with “the tradition of critical pedagogy established by Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Peter McLaren” (232). We can locate in performance studies affinities with a Freirian liberatory pedagogy in that performance offers a site for literalizing Freire’s emphasis on dialogue, acknowledges students’ and teachers’ bodies as constrained by specific social relations, and orients learning toward action and socially resistant praxis.  Indeed, when we integrate elements of embodied performance into a Freirian problem-posing framework, a pedagogy that might otherwise conceive of critique in abstract terms takes significant steps toward a praxis that moves beyond the classroom space and into the lived experience of students and teachers.

Therefore, I’d like to explore some of the avenues by which we might leverage the notion of performance for a critical writing pedagogy, both by suggesting a few possibilities and by raising questions for further consideration. I imagine performance studies working with a critical writing pedagogy in three particular ways: as an empowering lens for students to imagine their own writing practice, as a subject of critical and anti-disciplinary inquiry, and as a tool for examining, assessing, and revitalizing our own pedagogical strategies. However, performance is hardly a clearly defined concept, and in its various senses, we may find a range of possibilities and quandaries for teachers of writing. Therefore, I’d like to identify and very briefly sketch out eight different notions of performance that already do and/or potentially could infuse our work in the writing classroom: Performance as metric; Performance as action; Performance as audience-focused; Performance as theatre; Performance as embodiment; Performance as ritual; Performance as role; and Performance as Heisenberg Principle.

            Of course the first of these, the idea of performance as metric, is the notion of performance that our students are most likely to bring to the writing classroom, and I might suggest that it is among the most deeply entrenched obstacles to a critical pedagogy in the university classroom that most of us grew up in and now work in. Ask most students what we mean when we discuss their performance in our classes, they’ll generate some response that directly invokes grading. The system in which a writing product is assigned a grade that eventually solidifies into a mark on their permanent transcript at once reduces the act of writing to a quantity and drains the radical potential of that writing even as it reifies the teacher as a power figure. In this model, performance becomes an extension of discipline, and as Jon McKenzie notes in Perform or Else, ultimately supersedes discipline as the prevailing matrix for social control in the twenty-first century. McKenzie, incidentally, locates this shift from discipline to performance in (among other places) the drive for stock market performance in the 80s and 90s, which itself seems to underscore the degree to which the notion of grade performance is already oriented toward a market-driven understanding of higher education, which imagines students as laborers-in-training, rather than citizens in training. By putting students in a position to perform in service of the demands of an increasingly corporatized higher educational system, this writing-as-quantity framework turns the act of writing into a marketable commodity rather than a tool for participating as an active citizen in a democracy.

Moreover, in many current writing systems where writing pedagogy is being put in service of disciplinary training, the act of grading writing becomes a way to enforce disciplinary structures (in both the senses of academic disciplines and social discipline), which makes the act of writing for a grade akin to the moment of confession that Foucault describes in The History of Sexuality. That is, writing for a grade, no matter how progressive the classroom framework may be, admits the student into a sort of academic subjectivity even as that student becomes subject to the power of the teacher as grader. In fact, one of the most inspiring feminist teachers of my education readily admitted that while she was deeply invested in a de-centered classroom, she feared that it masked the reality that she was the professor assigning the grade. The finality of her quantification of student performance, then, shut down many of her aspirations for a more open and transformative classroom. Without belaboring this notion overmuch, I’d like to pose the first of many questions: How might we countermand the foreclosures of student empowerment enforced by a systemic insistence upon performance as an objective and quantifiable metric of student value?

We might begin then, to think of a performance in its simplest terms as an action, a taking on of some act; this meaning invokes J.L. Austin’s foundational grappling with the performative in How to Do Things with Words—the linguistic verb formation of “I sing” (a la Whitman) as an utterance that actually accomplishes what it metonymically represents. Indeed, using Austin, we can easily imagine each piece of writing beginning with an implicit “I write,” a silent invocation of the piece of writing as itself an act of writing. And if writing is always an action, it is also a performance. Performance theorist Richard Schechner glosses Derrida in this way, noting that “Because writing is always contested, a system of erasing as well as composing, meaning cannot ‘be’ once and for all. Meaning is always performed: always in rehearsal, its finality forever deferred, its actuality only provisional, played out in specific circumstances” (127).  Similarly, Della Pollock argues, “At the brink of meaning, poised between abjection and regression, writing as doing displaces writing as meaning; writing becomes meaningful in the material dis/continuous act of writing” (75). To be sure, such performances are always bound up in power, and so to acknowledge writing as performance—as an act—is to acknowledge it as a political act, as one that engages, in complicated and shifting ways, the relationship of the individual to the discourses and structures of power, a fact we can and must leverage in the critical composition classroom. I suggested earlier that writing for a grade in a classroom setting admits students into a disempowered academic subjectivity, but our place in that classroom might, even must, acknowledge the potential of student writing to exceed the reach of our classroom power as teachers.

For early college writing, the notion of performance can be freeing for a student writer, particularly if we are able to pry away quantitative notions of high and low performance that tend to bind students to a product-oriented notion of writing, one that tells them that their performance on a given piece of writing is finite and measurable. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in a class in experimental critical writing, asks students “whether it is really possible, even in theory, to divide utterances between the performative and the constative . . . calling attention to different senses in which all utterances do something and at the same time say something” (106-7).  For students, this can and must underline the notion of writing as a process, that their writing becomes powerful in the act of doing, but also in the acts of re-iterating, of revising, of presenting, of re-thinking. If we initiate discussions of what writing can and does do, as a constitutive act to both reify and challenge structures of power, our students are in better positions to both interrogate their own positions within the discourses of power, and work toward re-constituting them in ways that challenge the existing discourses. Sometimes, this may be working-class students challenging corporate interests, or it may alternatively be privileged students working against their own interests for a greater social good. Indeed, we might interrogate our own writing and teaching as constitutive acts that interpellate ourselves into these same systems of power. We might just as easily use our positions of power to enable a liberatory learning experience as to reinforce dominant structures, or do one while paying lip-service to the other. By acknowledging the constitutive power of both writing and the teaching of writing as structures of and against power, we create spaces in which the structures of power might be disrupted. Let me then lead us to another question: What is it that our students’ writing does, and in what ways might we make the acts of student writing at once more visible, meaningful, and powerful? Reciprocally, I might ask a similar question about our teaching: What do our utterances in the classroom and in our written responses to student writing do, and how might an understanding of the performative value of our teaching processes change those processes? I recognize that these are questions already central to the discourse of critical pedagogy, but they bear repeating within this particular framework.

If, then, writing (and our teaching of writing) actually accomplishes something while saying something (oftentimes accomplishing something more meaningful than what it says), then the next logical question seems to be to whom? Here, we might invoke the notion of performance as audience-centered. Certainly, the presence of rhetoric studies in many writing curricula has already yielded a great deal of thought on how student writers and their teachers might attend to audience. But I’d suggest that greater attention could be paid to what sorts of audiences we and our students attend to; that is, it is a simple exercise for students to address an audience of those familiar to them, even an audience that may care about the issues they write about. But such choices don’t always accomplish much. We might think about making a shift: from asking students how to address a given audience to how to choose an audience who must be addressed, or even more radically, how to define, assemble and mobilize new audiences. In political performance, this has marked a move outward from theatres into street performance and other sorts of guerilla theatre. Students may legitimately learn from these examples by being exposed to these sorts of audience interventions as subject matter, and may duplicate these successes by considering what audiences outside the classroom, be they legislators or citizens on the streets will most meaningfully effect change.

From a pedagogical vantage point, as well, we might think (as many of us already do) about how the positionalities of our students might be best challenged and mobilized for social action. This issue implicates not only individual classrooms, but the institutions in which they are housed, and the individual students who comprise the class. That said, in virtually every writing classroom in a U.S. institution of higher education, students are often operating from positions of power relative to the majority of the global population. In some cases, the mere acknowledgement of this fact is enough to disrupt an easy entitlement to privilege. But at the most elite institutions, the necessity of challenging students’ positionalities as deeply complicit with the operations of social dominance is as crucial for a liberatory curriculum as mobilizing those students for social justice. For example, Bruce McConachie suggests using Augosto Boal’s invisible theatre, a foundational theatrical methodology for challenging economic, political, and symbolic tyranny, as an heuristic for engaging privileged students. I am left here thinking, then, about three questions: in what ways might we teach students to move beyond simply addressing audiences to strategically choosing audiences to engage? What can we learn (and teach) from radical theatre about how such strategies might arise? And how might we as teachers leverage that attention to audience in engaging our students?

Having raised the image of what Schechner terms art-making theatre itself, I think we might usefully look to that corner for ways that performance’s theatricality might invigorate the writing classroom. I am not necessarily advocating the sort of tap-dancing teaching that, poorly used, turns into mere edutainment (although when skillfully used, this may be a useful set of pedagogical tactics). [1] That said, the traditional higher education classroom, and the writing-intensive classroom in particular, often pays close attention to written and verbal language while ignoring other expressive modes as keys to the kind of critical literacy we hope to prompt in the acts of writing we assign. In their survey of the often ambiguous and contradictory concept of theatricality, Tracy Davis and Tom Postlewait define it as “characterized by histrionic actions manners and devices, and hence a practice” (1). They continue by locating in theatricality the concept of excess, or surplus, which is linked in conscious and unconscious ways to the kind of psychic excess that Judith Butler identifies as a particular key to dismantling and denaturalizing codes of normative behavior. And given that denaturalization and desocialization are key to a critical pedagogy (particularly as espoused by Ira Shor), we might look to ways that the excessive, the spectacular, and the theatrical might help us invigorate our teaching. For example, educators such as McConachie and Jody Norton work from guerilla theatre tactics toward something of a guerilla pedagogy. Norton specifically uses a co-teaching process where he and his co-teacher stage oppositional viewpoints in order to dislocate “the traditional univocal authority” of the professor, proposing the co-teacher as “provocateurs and interrogators—instigators not didacts” (292) who, in staging dialogue, offer avenues for students to find ways to disagree and to articulate their own positions.

In my own teaching practice, using theatricality and spectacle as subject matter has been be a uniquely denaturalizing case, often pointing out the exposed beams and trusses of ideology in a range of cultural productions students know all too well. In my Spring 2005 course on the rhetoric of spectacle, I asked students to break down the degree to which shock-and-awe tactics (in Iraq and at home) contribute to the rhetorics we may already identify. In a semester with an inauguration, a Super Bowl, an Academy Awards, and a (muted) set of IMF protests, students had ample opportunities to pick apart the underlying ideologies of the spectacles in which they regularly participated as spectators. The more difficult question for me that semester (and still) was asking students themselves to engage in a rhetoric of excess, given the conventions of restraint that often govern students’ sense of the classroom. The kind of writing that happens in this sort of class needn’t be purely academic, purely expository. It can, and perhaps should, take on excessive forms. I often present my students with a quote (taken from a diagnostic prompt once proposed here at GW) from T.S. Eliot, who writes “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." Whatever we might call excellent writing (which is different from “good writing,” I’d say), it often derives from risk, and risk and excess go hand in hand. Therefore, we must continue to ask ourselves: How can we suggest student excess through assignments, model theatricality in our classroom manner, or promote spectacle in ways that spill out beyond the boundaries of the curriculum?

Of course, the risk inherent in a writing pedagogy that is not only performance-focused but also overtly theatrical derives in large part from the degree to which it invokes the bodies of the teacher and student alike, and so thinking about performance as embodiment is a natural extension of this line of thinking. On this issue, Fishman, Lunsford and company have already begun to theorize that “the embodied practices dropped out of composition’s regular curriculum in the nineteenth century [recitation, speechmaking etc.] become significant tools for working powerful classroom transformations.” In doing so, they cite Pollock, whose writing pedagogy “challenges students to incorporate time and space as well as the corporeal body into the activity of writing,” and Sedgwick, who asks students to riff on the relationship between physical voice and writing voice. However, these examples come from graduate writing classes, where students are exercising critical faculties that they are already assumed to be using, and therefore, as the Stanford team suggests, we still need to think about how to map these pedagogies of embodied performance into early writing classrooms as well.

And while both of these examples invoke what Elyse Lamm Pineau describes as “the performing body,” we must also consider what she calls “ideological bodies” in play, in the ways that students’ corporeal identities come to bear. In a 2003 writing course on performing identity, I asked students to read Judith Butler on gender performance, and several others on performing race, and then (under the umbrella of a traditional definitional essay) asked them to map out the territory of what constitutes their own performance of a specific identity category. This is merely one way that we might call attention to the ideological body in the writing class, and many others are certainly already in practice, each, in a certain way engaging what Peter McLaren calls “enfleshment,” the corporeal processes of repetition and habituation, where teachers and students physically internalize the dominant power structures in the classroom, but which teachers and students may also use to enact liberatory responses to those structures. While there is plenty to discuss here—whole articles, books, even—I will simply pose these admittedly huge questions for further thought: How are our own bodies on display and what does this have to do with teaching writing? How are students’ bodies in play not only in the classroom itself, but also outside the classroom during the act of writing? How might we imagine an embodied liberatory pedagogy of writing?

As McLaren’s 1986 Schooling as Ritual Performance indicates, the idea of performance as ritual comes to bear on these discussions, not only in liberatory ways, but also inasmuch as classroom performance and student writing are already ritualized. Randi Kristensen (in this issue) suggests some of the ways that we might think about integrating the work of theorists of ritualistic performance into our pedagogy, and instead of spending too much time on this point, I’ll let her work bear some of this out.  Perhaps what is most compelling about the ritualistic potential of schooling is that, quite in contradiction to many stereotypes of theatricality, the notion of ritual performance is imbued with a sense of efficacy, that what happens matters and transforms those who participate, even if their participation takes the form of mask (playing a role) or of self (with potential consequences to the self).  I think we can think about this issue from several vantage points, which prompts the following questions: In what ways are students’ classroom performances and writing performances ritualized, efficacious, and transformative, particularly in terms of entrance as citizens into public participation in a democracy? What does the metaphor (or actuality) of ritual reveal about our teaching, particularly in the roles we play as transformable participant or masked guide? What might a focus on ritualization as subject matter offer, particularly as a way of desocializing processes and systems students see as natural?

While the efficacy of ritual can be a transformative lynchpin in the meaning-making and knowledge-making of an early college writing classroom, ritual performances also remind of us of the importance of play and of masks. In this way, I have found that the notion of performance as role-playing can be particularly freeing. We know all too well that students are frequently caught up between an anxiety that what they write is a reflection of some essential self, an anxiety that they must conform to what the teacher wants, to “sound smart,” and the lessons (positive and negative) that they’ve learned about writing. Students often feel bound by these anxieties. They rarely feel that they have access to an authentic voice. Though the notion of a student’s authentic voice has at different times garnered a good deal of attention in the study of writing pedagogy, a performance-oriented understanding of student writing suggests that an attention to, even fetishization of, an authentic voice is limiting, both stylistically and rhetorically. That said, role-playing experiments with students hardly prepare them for the academic writing they will confront in later courses, nor does it prepare them to powerfully enter the democracy that as young adults they have legally already entered. Here, I integrate a performance pedagogy with more traditional rhetorical approaches, particularly in the neo-Aristotelian appeals, and especially in the notion of ethos. While students typically have no trouble understanding what it means to build a strong logos, and can identify a pathetic appeal a mile away, the notion of crafting an ethos is often obscured by uncritical adolescent notions of writing as mere self-expression, coupled with a secondary school insistence on good writing as “objective” third-person prose. While some assignments might ask students to try on the voice of the “Other,” an attention to crafting an ethos in a more traditional argument asks them to think about “another” voice for themselves, one that is tailored to the role they are assuming. That role may be citizen, constituent, insider in a specific community, or simply the role of an interested and informed researcher, as a student who must claim authority (and acknowledge a lack of authority) from the weeks of reading, researching and writing she’s performed. How then, might we help students to imagine their own writing as a role-playing performance: that every piece of writing is already a pastiche of other writing, and that by playing a role, they can break out of the no-man’s land of typical composition student anxieties?

The freedom afforded by role-playing raises the last sense of performance that I want to explore, and it is the one that I find most invigorating in exploring this particular topic: performance as a discursive Heisenberg uncertainty principle—elusive, oppositional, and perhaps unusually amenable to an anti-disciplinary critique. Of course we know that the popular explanation of the Heisenberg principle is that we can never know where an electron is and where it is going at the same time, that in short, the electron is impossible to fix in time and space. Performance, with its ephemeral ability to disappear as it is happening and its essential difference from its own artifacts, is particularly resistant to discursive control—we cannot censor that which has already happened; what we discipline when we discipline performance is only ever a trace of that performance. Peggy Phelan, writing about performance, argues that “the after-effect of [its] disappearance is the experience of subjectivity itself” (148). Under such a theoretical paradigm, we might suggest that we witness our students’ entrance into subjectivity only after it has happened, in the performances of writing about which we can only guess at, armed only with traces of the performance. If we allow it to do so, this notion can radically decenter the power structure of the classroom, identifying the moment of doing as being under the control of the student and not the teacher. Indeed, many of us have experienced the difficulty of grading live performance, either in non-traditional assignments or in-class-presentations; while perhaps a mundane instance of performance’s elusiveness, this nonetheless testifies to its greater radical potential.

We might, for example, suggest opportunities for performative writing, which Pollock describes as evocative, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational, and consequential. “An itinerant in the land of good writing,” she argues, “it travels side by side with normative performances of textuality, sometimes even passing for the same, but always drawing its energy from a critical difference, from the possibility that it may always be otherwise than what it seems” (97). Beyond the classroom, such performances and performative writings can empower our students to craft the sort of elusive radical interventions that we ourselves often strive for. They are powerful in their elusiveness, resistant, even challenging, to disciplinary conventions (which themselves govern texts far more rigorously than they can govern performances), different from normative writing while hiding the subversive potentiality of passing as “good writing.” I’d like then to offer these final questions: How might we identify systems and codes that seek to wrest student performances into fixity? What sorts of writing might we suggest to enable students to elude those institutional efforts? How might our own pedagogies perform against power in ways that are at once difficult, effective, and elusive? And finally, how might the other senses of performing / teaching / writing discussed here be leveraged in service of an un-fix-able critical engagement?

To be sure, many of the elements and ideas of a performance-based writing pedagogy that I’ve all-too-briefly touched on here are already in play in writing classrooms around the country—those that are overtly striving to enact a liberatory critical pedagogy, and those with no such aspirations. What I have sought to do here is to pull together and constellate some of those notions and practices. And obviously I’ve asked a lot more questions here than I have offered answers, if I have offered any answers at all. That said, this particular moment seems perched on the outset of a thoughtful, complicated and thorough exploration of what we might find at this particular intersection of performing, teaching, and writing. I hope therefore that future work at this intersection—by Fishman, by the work of the Stanford Study of Writing, by other scholars beginning to explore this confluence, and by readers—can take up these questions and individually and collectively fashion answers to them in our classrooms in the future.


Works Cited

“2005 American Society for Theatre Research and the Theatre Library Association Annual Conference.” 10 Nov. 2005. American Society for Theatre Research. 8 Sept. 2006. http://www.astr.org/conference2005/ASTRConference.html

Davis, Tracy, and Thomas Postlewait, eds. Theatricality. Cambridge UP, 2003.

Felman, Jyl. Never a Dull Moment: Teaching and the Art of Performance. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Fishman, Jenn, et al. “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy.” CCC 52.7 (December 2005): 224-252.

McConachie, Bruce. “Theatre of the Oppressed with Students of Privilege.” Teaching Performance Studies. Eds. Nathan Stucky and Cynthia Wimmer. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. 247-260.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else. London: Routledge, 2001.

McLaren, Peter. Schooling as Ritual Performance: Towards a Political Economy of Educational Symbols and Gestures. London and New York: Routledge, 1986.

Norton, Jody. “Guerilla Pedagogy: Conflicting Authority and Interpretation in the Classroom.” Beyond the Corporate University: Culture and Pedagogy in the New Millennium. Eds. Henry A. Giroux and Kostas Myrsiades. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. 287-307.

Pineau, Elyse Lamm. “Critical Performative Pedagogy.” Teaching Performance Studies. Eds. Nathan Stucky and Cynthia Wimmer. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. 41-54.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Pollock, Della. “Performing Writing.” The Ends of Performance. New York: NYUP, 1998. 73-103.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Teaching ‘Experimental Critical Writing’.” The Ends of Performance. Eds. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane. New York: New York UP, 1998. 104-115.


[1] In Jyl Felman’s Never a Dull Moment: Teaching and the Art of Performance, (New York: Routledge, 2001) the author explores and narrates the potentialities and (sometimes unintentionally) pitfalls of this sort of pedagogy. Recognizing that such a pedagogy is not universally applicable for all personalities, I’d submit that theatricality can be useful in the classroom when handled judiciously, and importantly, with an eye toward disrupting its propensity to re-center the teacher.