A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Hannah J. Rule's Situating Writing Processes

Turnip Van DykeUniversity of Texas at El Paso

(Published September 14, 2020)

How I wrote this review had to change because of the environment outside of the book itself. I prepared the review during the spring of 2020, as public health measures were being implemented around the world in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. These measures led to school closures and the rapid development of emergency remote pedagogies at all curricular levels. As a result, my writing became a more isolated act. I ended up making a practice of writing from a makeshift desk in my own apartment rather than going to the usually lively university library building a few blocks from me. I wrote in the same space I eat most of my meals and spend most hours. As Hannah J. Rule shows, such material changes cannot be accounted for by traditional writing process models (universal ones with general principles that apply to every author in every situation). I am grateful that Rule provided me with a framework that insists on the metamorphic physicality and responsiveness of writing—one to help us all understand the current, yet ongoing, re-situating of writing.

In Situating Writing Processes, Hannah J. Rule asserts the need to map out writing processes on a continuum—from one extreme of a localized “picture” of writing taking place in an embodied or situated scene, to another of a zoomed-out, postprocess view of ecologies of writing. Rule advocates for situating writing processes as a way forward from postprocess scholars’ concern with writing’s unteachable nature, and acknowledges that writing is always locally dependent on bodies and changing situations. Situating writing processes blurs postprocess and process thinking for Rule. She provocatively demonstrates that this situated blurring is a necessity, arguing that scholars’ conception of postprocess thinking as a break from process has been unsuccessful. Rule questions “any broad cancellation force associated with postprocess as it has at once failed to undo process in the discipline and in classrooms and, simultaneously, held it frozen in place” (Situating 17). She proposes that writing teachers should work with students to research both how writing is emplaced and how writing is both transformative for and responsive to rhetorical situations. The book concludes by unexpectedly delving into improv theatre pedagogy as a method for situated writing pedagogies. Situating Writing Processes is of interest to composition instructors, feminist theorists, and rhetoricians for its consideration of the materiality of writing in the context of two of rhetoric and composition’s most enduring lines of inquiry: process and authorship.

I recall discussing Rule’s book early in the spring of 2020 with my mentor Lauren Rosenberg; she commented that it was exciting to see a scholarly return to process. She reminded me that we had read Eli Goldblatt’s 2017 essay entitled “Don’t Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a ‘Tacit Tradition’” together last fall. Similar to Rule, Goldblatt contends that composition’s supposed turn away from process-oriented teaching models was less of a clean break from process and more of a maturation under other names. Rather than follow Goldblatt’s focus on expressivist values, Rule explicitly crafts a contemporary theory of process informed by postprocess criticisms. Making use of Sidney Dobrin’s scholarship, especially Postcomposition, Rule argues that Dobrin poses a dilemma for writing pedagogies: writing is unteachable because it is always embedded in irreconcilably different moments. Drawing from her understanding of writing’s situatedness as a persistent through line in composition studies, Rule describes “situatedness [as] a continuum, not a choice” (Situating 57). This continuum of scale resolves the unteachability dilemma facing writing pedagogies: we can accept the dangers of universalizing writing approaches by working with students to situate their writing among competing demands and forces. My laptop, my deadline, my sleep habits, and my whiteness all have a say in how I write.

With such a localizing approach, writing can be treated as emplaced, influenced by the objects and relations that constitute both the scene of localized writing and the ecology of writing writ large. My attempts to write while sunlight is in my window or with a full glass of water are part and parcel of my writing as much as my citation practices. Rule reflects on how a research participant created a relationship with a chair that she never writes in:

[T]he chair shapes the moves that are possible within the writing environment and, in turn, every hesitating, jerky movement the writer enacts add to the force of the chair . . . genre, readers, prior histories, memories, conversations, domestic dynamics, and economic anxieties are among the larger forces perhaps felt too through the surface of the chair. (Situating 97)

My own makeshift writing table (too tall) and old chair (too short) have worked with me to write this review, complete with pinched shoulders and a lot of stretching. These writing accomplices help generate the localized meaning that situates writing work, rendering that work un-generalizable.

To push Rule’s thinking further, I argue that the history and memory of those accomplices also situates our writing—a matter of power and identity as much as a matter of composition. Writing’s situatedness is influenced by a writer’s identities, or is in some way amplified by them. Rule does not address this phenomenon, but in reading her book I was reminded of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, which fleshes out an identity-oriented approach to the physicality of writing.Closely reading Edmund Husserl’s descriptions of a world unfolding from his writing table, Ahmed leverages feminist criticisms of that space to claim that the racialization of space and gender acts as a “bodily orientation, a way in which bodies get directed by their actions over time” (Ahmed 60). Race and gender become habituated manners of navigating the world. My experiences as a white, genderqueer person in part determine the spaces I write in and how I act to use those spaces. For example, I live in a city on the Mexico-U.S. border. In my classes as a doctoral student, we have had to consider internet connection speeds and discrepancies in Mexican and American infrastructures for video calls. My classmates in Mexico have had different levels of access to Zoom class discussions and online Blackboard posts (primary sites of interaction for us during the pandemic). These issues stem from local consequences of nationality, race, and class.

Identity and power physically manifest concerns that affect writing, but perhaps due to her rejection of universalities in order to understand writing as locally situated, Rule does not consider these phenomena at length. Rather than explore identity implications, Rule uses the theoretical grounding she carved out with a reconciled process- and postprocess-thinking to explore classroom emplacement and process pedagogy. I am particularly interested in her repeated use of in-class drawing activities. These drawings complicate students’ articulations of their writing processes by prompting them to reflect during a writing project on how they envisioned their writing process. Rule achieves this by incorporating drawing exercises into peer review processes as a way to discuss draft history. She cautions against adopting these methods wholesale, drawing the conclusion that “teaching writing, like all rhetorical and composing processes, is always ambient and emergent and thus local and improvisational” (Situating 107). Her anti-universalism, raising its head again here, seems uncontroversial—why yes, writing teachers should account for their specific student populations, cultural backgrounds, and resources as part of their pedagogies. What is more novel is Rule’s interest in improv theory as a way to prepare students for the unpredictable messiness they will all encounter in writing.

Rule frames improv theory as a parallel thread to composition theory, operating with a compatible logic. She explains:

Through improv, we see that writing can never be arbitrated between just teacher and student, no matter how dialogic that relation may be. Writing and its instruction is simply more collaborative than that: players (students and teacher-directors) inhabit, describe, and dialogue together with the given situation in which play unfolds, working to discern the dynamics of scene, genre, audiences, tools, discourses, purposes and so on. Writing in its situation is the guide. (150)

Rule traces improv theory through the work of Chicago-based theatre educator and artist Viola Spolin. In Rule’s application of Spolin, the teacher positions students as fellow writing researchers and thus becomes a fellow participant, evoking a Freirean pedagogy. The improvisational nature of writing processes made more sense to me in light of the slapdash way I had to create my daily pandemic routine. It felt overwhelming to try to find working answers to questions I never had before. Rule’s weaving of improv theory into composition shows that all rhetorical situations pose new questions, even when they are hiding among familiar ones. There are always events we cannot anticipate that change not only what we write, but also where and how we write it.

We need to follow Rule’s lead and commit to engaged interdisciplinary scholarship in order to make use of improv theory in rhetoric and composition studies. For example, Rule focuses on a group of writers, professional comedians, who have not been drawn upon in composition studies. Writing scholars can further investigate Spolin’s improv theory by weighing the history of Spolin’s work in segregated Chicago neighborhoods against the predominantly white world of comedy today. In June of 2020, the CEO of Chicago’s largest improv comedy organization, Second City, stepped down due to criticism of structural racism (Haring). Comedy writer Dewayne Perkins excoriated Second City on Twitter, asking: “Remember how 3 white directors have said the n-word to me with ZERO repercussions. Remember when I said I felt unsafe touring because I was black and gay and you told my touring company it’s was MY fault they we’re losing money? Remember that?” (@DewaynePerkins). Perkins’s experiences demonstrate situated writing in a markedly different way than Rule’s envisioned use of improv pedagogy in the classroom to help students make use of prior and seemingly contradictory writing practices. But Perkins’s rhetorical moves can be analyzed as a powerful example of counterstorytelling, a strategy of “writing in its situation” (Rule, Situating 150). Composition and rhetoric scholars can (and should) continue to reckon with matters of identity and power, especially as they train themselves to academically focus on more and more ways that writing happens not only broadly, but in messy localized ways, too. Rule demonstrates that writing is material and emplaced and expansive. It remains social as well.

Situating Writing Processes is in line with Rule’s existing scholarly interest in the materiality of writing studies, as evidenced by her recent article “Writing’s Rooms” in College Composition and Communication’s February 2018 issue, and her co-authored article “Composing Environments: The Materiality of Reading and Writing” in The CEA Critic’s March 2016 issue with Kelly Blewett and Janine Morris. In Situating Writing Processes, Rule works with theory to further ground the materiality of writing with(in) the body. I find her scholarship connective and generative. She proposes a theoretical reconciliation between postprocess and process pedagogy that can renew writing process scholarship. Rule accomplishes this by building avenues for new scholarship—studying comedians as writers and using improv theory for writing classroom pedagogy. Writing processes can be materially-focused, messy, and idiomatic, and Rule shows these qualities to be the strengths that they are. 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Blewett, Kelly, Janine Morris, and Hannah J. Rule. “Composing Environments: The Materiality of Reading and Writing.” The CEA Critic, vol. 78, no. 1, 2016, pp. 24-44.

@DewaynePerkins (Dewayne Perkins). “Remember how 3 white directors have said the n-word to me with ZERO repercussions. Remember when I said I felt unsafe touring because I was black and gay and you told my touring company it’s was MY fault they we’re losing money? Remember that?” Twitter, 4 June 2020, 2:55 p.m., https://twitter.com/DewaynePerkins/status/1268617511831875587.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Postcomposition. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.

Goldblatt, Eli. “Don’t Call it Expressivism: Legacies of a ‘Tacit Tradition.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 3, 2017, pp. 438-465.

Haring, Bruce. “Second City CEO Andrew Alexander Steps down after Accusations of Institutional Racism.” Deadline, 7 June 2020,  https://deadline.com/2020/06/second-city-ceo-andrew-alexander-steps-down-institutional-racism-1202952995/.

Rule, Hannah J. Situating Writing Processes. WAC Clearinghouse, 2019. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/situating/.

---. “Writing’s Rooms.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 402-432.