NOTES ON John D. Groppe’s “The Writing Classroom as a Spiritual Site of Composing” (1995)

NOTES ON John D. Groppe’s “The Writing Classroom as a Spiritual Site of Composing.” Paper presented at 46th CCCC (Washington, DC, March 23-25, 1995).

John Groppe, in his “The Writing Classroom as a Spiritual Site of Composing,” prefaces his remarks by saying that he came to this topic after attending the “Spiritual Site of Composing” session at the 1992 CCCC. One panel had discussed ways to help students write about “their religious experience and convictions” in an academic context, and Groppe had noticed that the audience members afterward had “tended to focus [their questions] on the students who were judged to be fundamentalists, members of the religious right” (2). Groppe adds / explains, “In the urban setting where the panelists worked, the so-called “fundamentalists” included Islamic students as well as students from a variety of Christian backgrounds. One member of the audience was there, he admitted, to learn about such students so that he might be able to help them break out of their fundamentalist restrictions” (2).  [Use in Cat 1 chapter?]

Groppe then transfers his discussion to the more broader category of religious student in general, those for whom “the academic atmosphere is, at best, not neutral but empty of teachers and classes that would encourage them to deepen their religious resources” (2).  Or academia is for them hostile. Groppe references Mark Schwen who “sees that the current academic climate is hostile to religion” and who traces that hostility back to the Englightenment (and its objectivism or foundationalism (Groppe says Schwen uses both terms)) and its desire to avoid violence.

LDM — this is interesting because 1) I just watched NT Wright (in a video of him at a Los Ranchos Presbytery retreat) in which he makes a very similar point: that religion was kicked out of academica, at least for one reason, in order to avoid war and conflict. (When was the 100 years’ war and all that?)… And because 2) this whole “religion causes conflict” idea comes up so often in my students’ synthesis papers (though that’s probably also because that is also what Rushdie and the Dalai Lama also talk about), and it comes up in, for example, Bill Maher’s Religulous. Steve (Marjorie’s Steve) was telling me Friday night (when I was there playing poker) that Maher actually asserts in that movie that without religion we wouldn’t have wars. (!)

Groppe goes on to summarize Schwen’s argument: “According to the objectivist tradition, religion is at best a group-think, an anti-intellectualism; at worst, it is a crusade seeking to become a moral majority by suppressing all opposition. Nonetheless, in the name of objectivity and the avoidance of suppression, some voices are suppressed” (3).

Groppe also brings in Martin Marty who asks academics to “recognize the genuine humanity of people in religious movements” (4).

In order to help religious students “put their experiences into a larger context without negating their experience,” we need to recognize 1) the “dynamics of religious experience” and 2) “the variety of verbal genres that embody those experienes” (4). And recognize 3) the correspondences between traditional religious modes of appropriation and expression of experience and secucular or non-religious experience” (4).

So Groppe wants to apply his thinking to both religious and non-religious students, because he believes “the same social-psychological dynamics are at work” and the “same variety of verbal forms is put to similar uses” (4) by both groups. But there’s an ADVANTAGE to studying these dynamics and forms in religious groups = “number, variety, and stability of such groups, the abundance of written sources for study, and the abundant opportunity to observe such groups in meetings of worship services and to see first hand the role of verbal forms in their communal life” (4-5).  LDM – So mainly study religious groups / students because it’s easy to?

Grope then provides an example of the variety of religious verbal forms in Benjamin Chavis’ experience becoming exposed to various religious verbal genres while he was serving time in jail. Chavis recorded his theological and ethical reflections in “several literary forms: prayers, laments, meditations, exaltations, critical interrogations, poetry, prophetic prose, doxology, and liturgy” (qtd in Groppe 5).

But then Groppe moves quickly to saying that the PROPHETIC UTTERANCE is probably the “most familiar” (5). – Shrill to many outsiders, but they forget it was the genre of the civil rights movement, as well as movements against Viet Nam and nuclear weapons (yes).  Groppe adds a nice point: “It is often the genre through which people learn of the destruction of the rain forest or the ozone hole or the dangers of population growth, sexual harassment and gender equality, or AIDS” (6).  Prophecy “has both a negative and postive side” (6).

Trick is to help students “get at [the prophetic form’s] origins and possiblities” (6).  It’s connected also to “personal testimonies or autobiographies, lyrical meditation, and songs…” … “epistles of encouragement, instruction, or admonition…” (MLK).

LDM – makes me think that really “prophetic utterance” in Groppe’s definition is like polemic, but more acceptable because 1) it’s less strident, and 2) can often be productive / encouraging.  Prophecy as light polemic? Prophecy as constructive polemic?

PROBLEM, Groppe points out, is the academics tend to privilege 1) academic discourse, or 2) creative writing (6-7).  Groppe then gives a further example of the advantage of working off campus (gains more diversity of genres, etc).  RESULT OF THIS PROBLEM: 1) Limited discourse genres. 2) We teach students to “treat pieces of discourse discretely, atomistically” (7).

By way of example, Groppe says something that really struck me: “For instance, we ask students to writer persuasive discourse and then criticize what they have produced because they have only preached to the converted and have not persuaded anybody; we critique the students because they have not found an audience” (8).  LDM Ouch. Wow, true.

Aristotle etc: Effective persuasion is based on premises between rhetor and audience.  “Effective persuasion is based on some degree of solidarity, or identification with the audience. We ask students to write persuasively, but we do not help them find community or bring more fully to mind the communities they belong to. Instead we ask them to persuade the class, with whom, from their perspective, they have only accidental relationship. We put them in a situation which can provide them no premises on which to base their arguments” (8).

Okay, then Groppe moves on to say that the “mother lode of premises” is “expressive discourse” [manifestoes, testimonies, prayers, etc] (8).  He goes with James Kinneavy’s view that “expressive discourse is, in a very important sense, psychologically prior to all the other uses of language” (qtd in Groppe 8).  Groppe then asserts that “referential and persuasive forms depend on expressive forms of discourse” (8). LDM – simply because the expressive aspect is where the connection is? the premises are? between rhetor and audience?

So, Groppe continues, we should…
1)    Not avoid prophetic utterances from our students
2)    encourage students to “recover the symbols, ideas, and experiences that underlie” their prophetic utterances (9). LDM – at least one other scholar is saying something similar to this, but can’t think of who it is. I keep thinking of Dively’s thing about getting religious students to examine their “subjectivities.”
3)    NEXT encourage students to “explore the variety of written resources within the tradition of their communities – the meditations, prayers, songs, testimonies and autobiographies, manifestoes, the full range” (9).  They get a better grasp of their own experience and confidence.  LDM – Cf. Montesano and Roen p 87 in Vander Lei.  Cf my own Mdiv experience.

ADVANTAGES TO this pedagogical strategy:
1) All students need “to find and to express the solidarity that they need to write well” and to “explore new situations” (9).
2) BUT ALSO cognitive and intellectual growth: by exploring their own “spiritual roots” (9). LDM AH HA yes.  Cf my MDiv!  Students will discover: a) “exemplary figures” (who lived their faith differently), b) “rich dialectics” – e.g., between apostolic and contemporary. “They will discover history, contingency, and divergence in a non-alienating way that will help them begin to manage the divergence and contingency” (10). YES NICE. Cf Edler.

Groppe concludes:
Religious students  their own rich and varied tradition  1) they explore and write from strength, and 2)they see “similar social-psychological, mythological, intellectual dynamics in new settings”, and 3) the classrooms “may begin to become communites of choice” (10).  LDM – which brings Groppe back to his intro where he talked about religious students expriencing a hostile environment (like Israelites in Babylon).


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