NOTES ON Janice Neuleib’s “Spilt Religion: Student Motivation and Values-Based Writing” (1992)

Finally, I’m posting something. Messy notes. But notes, nonetheless.  And I’m typing while standing up — ’cause my hip bursitis is irritated big time — and probably from too much sitting over the last two or three weeks, writing papers and preparing my course.  So I stand. Here I stand.  I can sit no other. ;)

In “Spilt Religion: Student Motivation and Values-Based Writing,” published in Writing on the Edge in 1992, Janice Neuleib suggests that writing instructors would do well to learn how to respond to religious values-based writing from their students in such a way 1) that encourages the student’s self-knowledge / awareness of the sources and implications of her values, 2) that encourages students to tap into the “flow” and “peak experience” that writing about deeply-held values can provide (and which gives power to writing and thought), and 3) that helps students discover the values that “evoke [their] passions and those of [their] readers” (49). Neuleib discusses Csikszentmihalyi (on flow and optimal experience), James Porter (on need for revival of classical notion of ethos), and James Zebroski (on the power of personal values / experience to be used to doubt and question “those above us in the system”) in order to differentiate between more purely philosophical or rational writing/thinking and values-based writing/thinking. They both produce “flow,” but the latter produces “a different level of intellectual excitement” (45).

Basically, Neuleib is saying that we ought to encourage value-based (religious / spiritual) writing in our students and we ought to learn how to respond well to it, because: 1) that kind of writing is where the power is — the power to understand one’s OWN thinking / feeling and the power to tap into one’s audience’s own thinking / feeling, AND to have the strongest impact on the world.

In other words, if we just stick to the “disappassionate and logical” we are “dispossessed of the necessary connections with the compelling experiences that focus and motivate our writing” (46). Cf Crowley.


AP exam essay readers wanted to give essays using religious language “very low score[s]… for lack of reasoning ability” (42). But for Neuleib, religious knowledge (using words such as “Bible” and “sin) = self-knowledge. “When I asked the readers to try submitting language like “through greater self-awareness we can learn about our own responsibilities for the evils that befall us and others and can become depressed by that responsibility, feeling grief and sorry.If, however we take that self-awareness one step further and forgive ourselves our past errors and indiscretions, we can learn to live happier and more fulfilling lives, making use of our sorrows,” they were startled at their decreased irritation” (43).

LDM — if I understand Neuleib correctly, she’s taking a student’s religious conversion narrative — e.g., “I was lost and now I’m found for God saved me” (or somethign like that) — and translating it to say, “I was lost and now I’m found because I figured out how to save myself.” It’s hard to say whether I’ve got her meaning exactly right, though, because Neuleib doesn’t give an example of what she’s translation; she just gives the “translation” (as in the one above).

But this translation method does seem like Neuleib’s effort to enable writing instructors to see beyond what they might disagree with (different values? or different religion? or different language?), in order to see the ideas and reasoning and writing ability of their students.

She continues, “… so we must find approaches that enable us to negotiate the differing terms in which we phrase our values. Though my redefinition of terms might have offended the young writers who wrote passionately of their religious convictions [yes, it probably would], their readers were able to accept the phrases I substituted whereas thsoe readers before refused to consider the socially and politically charged expressions of what to them seemed naive and immature thought” (43).

LDM — well, isn’t one better solution then to enlighten teachers so that they can see mature thought in thought that is not like their own? or to see mature thought in language that is not like their own?

cf. Crowley. …”To be dispassionate and logical is to be dispossessed of the necessary connections with the compelling experiences that focus and motivate our writing” (46).

Neuleib draws on Jim Porter’s call for revival of ETHOS [“Values are rooted in experiences and our interpretations of those experiences. The writer / rhetor can only discover and interpret those values by writing through the issues that deeply move and motivate and, i would add, by doing so invigorate the writing experience itself”] and James Zebroski’s “six ways in which he continues to interrogate his own teaching… [doubt, resistance, skepticism, “study up” anthropology, literacy and power as public issues, and narrative]. Neuleib describes her experience being a “table leader” at an English examination, the way her graders wanted to grade down students who used religious language [to a question that ask a basically religious question! in this case], and the way in which her advice to them to translate the students religious language / phrases with “self-awareness” and “personal knowledge” enabled the readers “to see the writer as a person with an idea that might qualify for a middle score” (43).

RELIGION, EMOTION, and FLOW. Neuleib draws on Csikszentmihalyi’s to remind us of the importance of emotion in good writing, in “flow” (44).  “He found that writers in English classes unfortunately do not often epxerience such conditions [wherein self-consciousness disappears, concentration intsense, excellent flow…]. I would speculate that the rules against emotionally-packed expression in school might inhibit students’ discovery that writing can produce optimal experience” (44).  Neuleib then goes on to distinguish between the flow produced by philosophical and value questions, the latter providing a “different level of intellectual excitment” (45).

“VALUES VERSUS VISIONS”.  “I think that the readers at my table responded negatively to student AP writers who talked about Jesus because both the readers and writers had confused rules with values and routine with ritual, perhaps because we are unsure of our values and have so few really effective rituals in our culture.  To return once again to Csikszentmihalyi, optimal religious experience tends to be lacking in our culture, except perhaps at rock concerts, symphonies, or among the few mystics experiencing the mythic power of ritual. Since we have little experience of the ritualistic ecstacy, Csil.. describes in other cultures, we tend to see religion either as keeping the social order or as comforting (or boring, depending on one’s perspective) repetition” (46).  […] “I want to meet students where they stand on values but move them toward a perspective that can enrich both their writing and their ability to articulate the sources of their values” (46).


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