Emotions and their link to learning have been on my mind since maybe the second year of my doctoral program. I’m sure, actually, that they were on my mind at some level before that, but it wasn’t really until then that I started considering the role they really play in how we learn, work, identify, and engage with our worlds. Still, despite the fact that I know, really know that emotions are central to this process, I get caught up every time I try to theorize them. Every time I try to accurately define terms like: emotion, feeling, emotional, emotioned, and even affect.
So, I guess below is my entrée into that work.
Two weeks ago, I started writing my presentation for CCCC—it was an idea that had entered my brain two years ago, as I was finishing up my dissertation, and thinking about the major role emotion was beginning to play in my research and in my daily work. I wanted to know: How can we theorize emotion into our academic lives? And, borrowing from Laura Micciche’s Doing Emotion, I wanted to theorize emotion in a way that made it active, rhetorical, and central, rather than some sort of secondary response. I’m just now starting to get a sense of what I mean by “emotion theory” when it comes to literacy studies and academic work.
Narrative 1 – Brittany the Fangirl
My thinking on the relationship between literacy and emotion really started 10 years ago, as I was ignoring my linguistics homework in college. It started as I lay comfortably snuggled in my extra-long, twin-sized bed in my closet of a room in Boston, Massachusetts, reading illicit-feeling Hermione and Severus shipper fics. It started with my addiction to Harry Potter fanfic, which I strove to hide from everyone. I spent an inordinate amount of time in these fan spaces, sometimes reading from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 the next morning. And I told no one, because I knew I should be getting a life—i.e. partying like a normal undergraduate—or getting to real work—i.e. focusing on my linguistics homework and planning my professional future.
But, of course, I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that all that somehow was part of my professional development. I didn’t even know what rhet-comp was at the time. But I did know that I couldn’t stop reading fanfic, or searching out fan vids. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the possible, beautiful pairings in the Harry Potter-verse. I couldn’t stop imagining little bits of story—new spells, American wizards, and time travel.
I remember it was afternoon, because it was still light out, but I don’t remember the time of year or the day of the week. I remember it seemed quiet in the campus apartment, so my roommate must have been at work at, or in class, or at a friend’s house. I was scoping out Mugglenet again, because the next book and movie weren’t due out until the next summer, and I’d already re-read each book at least twice. I’d seen every movie at least three times. I’d been reading all about Snape’s supposed “true alliances” in the fan forums. Like many fans, I believed Severus Snape was probably only out for himself…or, he was on Dumbledore’s side. The debate had energized me. I wanted more. Plus, I was bored.
I saw a link to fanfiction on the site, a word I’d never heard before. With curiosity and nervousness, I clicked on the link, and it took me all of five minutes to settle on a multi-chapter Harry-Ron slash fic. Several hours later, the natural light had given way completely to street lights, and I had missed dinner. Instead of feeling satisfied, though, I felt obsessed and desperate to keep reading. I’d spend the next few years voraciously gobbling up almost any and all Harry Potter fanfic I could find. And it only took me three or four months to begin seeing characters and scenes and plots for my own stories in my imagination—as I was falling asleep or walking to class or sitting in the laundromat. I finally began writing in the fall of my senior year, when I was deeply anxious about the whole grad school application process, and terrified of the uncertainty that post-grad life would bring.
A screen shot of my still incomplete fanfic: The Unfortunate Incident.
The only excitement and solace I found was in fandom.
I tell this story now not because I mean to celebrate myself, or because I think it has some especially profound meaning, but because it’s taken me so long to tell it. I never said much about this journey—not until I was getting into the late revision stages of my dissertation, and even then, I took out most of the emotion. I still do. Every time I try to tell this story, I add a little bit more about the emotions I actually felt. It’s no accident that this journey played an important, if backgrounded role as I started learning how to teach writing. It’s no accident that it became my dissertation. And it’s no surprise that this story is so similar to those of so many other fans—just see Larsen and Zubernis’ Fangasm, or even Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.
This narrative is the beginning of my theorizing on emotion in literacy practices—and in academia more generally. It’s a narrative I come to again and again as I consider my academic identity, my teacherly self, and my writing center director and consultant selves. I didn’t know it at the time, but that headlong plunge into fandom was how I came to rhetoric and composition in the first place, and it was an important step in seeing my writerly self, and, eventually, my teacherly self as well.
Towards a Theory of Emotioned Academic Work?
The emotions in this narrative weren’t just felt once and remembered, and they aren’t completely readable in the affective terms I used, but they are invoked and recreated in reflection upon these events, and in their retelling.
It is in the reflections and sharing of the moments we deem significant that the emotions go from what we might readily acknowledge as bodily feelings to embodied feelings. The latter perhaps seeming less mysterious and more stable. Embodied feelings maybe looking like the move from a flash of warmth in the body as excitement rises when a pair of favorite characters finally kiss, to some certainty of identity: I am a fan, and/or, I am a teacher. And it is in telling and retelling that emotions come to be emotioned, rather than strictly emotional. They come to be coded with, as Ahmed would say, the previous circulations of them in similar narratives. And they come to be useful ways we, as Micciche might argue, link ourselves rhetorically to others.
So, how can we effectively theorize these emotions?
On the one hand, this narrative seems so ordinary, so obvious. On the other hand, when I try to more accurately define feeling, emotion, emotional labor, or emotioned work, everything becomes tricky. The dizzyingly complex networks of knowledge and ideologies and available actions that we somehow just know, just do, emerge as a veritable thicket of: emotions as bodily response and reaction; emotions as mysterious body states; emotions as expected and acceptable actions; emotions as relational; emotions as landscapes; emotions as discursive acts; emotions as language; emotions as highly circulated objects (Ahmed 2015); emotions as rhetorical tools (Micciche 2007); and more
I’m still working to honor yet untangle that thicket. I want to see where each branch leads, not to prune them. But there are a few things I do absolutely know
- First, the key to better understanding writing and how to teach it lies in theorizing these emotions.
- Second, and even more importantly, the key to creating and maintaining more ethical labor practices is to name and theorize our emotioned work, not as something base, or just expected, or something unique to our so often feminized positions. The key is to theorize this work as challenging labor that takes years of training and study to do well. To theorize this work so we can show that it deserves enough time to do it (smaller class sizes, and fewer overall duties), and fair remuneration.
- And, finally, I use emotion rather than affect as a political positioning, and not because I see no difference in the terms, or the usefulness of the distinction between them. By using emotion, I mean to highlight its central role to learning and working. I mean to normalize it in academic discourse. I mean to expand the argument that Micciche made in Doing Emotion, that, “Without a framework for understanding emotion’s legitimate role in the making of meaning and in the creation of value in our culture, we impoverish our own and our students’ understanding of how we come to orient ourselves to one another and to the world around us” (2007, p. 1).
The biggest challenge in doing so is that I have to work against years of socialization to “manage” my emotions, to “leave them at home,” to not be “too emotional,” especially as a young woman who wants to be taken seriously. And I have to work against my academic training to be objective and dispassionate and reasonable. As if not absolutely everything I do happens in and through my body and my emotions.
From my obsessive reading of fanfic, to my early learning about rhetoric, to my response to my student—all of these not only include but shape and are shaped by emotions. They are all emotional moments. And they are all emotioned as I take them up, again and again, in identifying myself and my work. As I tell and retell my stories. As I marshal these memories and identities in my daily work—my daily choices about what article I will read, what activity I will do in class, what comment I will leave on a paper, and what conversation I will have with a student or a colleague. When I will work out in the gym. What I will tell my partner when I get home.
Our emotional lifeworlds weave in and around everything we do, whether we count that as part of the “private” or “public” realms of our lives. And this weaving—the rest, the conversations, the things we encounter—informs our learning and thinking and writing. Now…if I could just get a handle on how this manifests in my writerly self, in my teacherly self, and in my writing center director self, maybe I’d really have something.
Ahmed, S. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. London: Routledge.
Barrett, L.F. 2009. “Variety is the Spice of Life: A Psychological Construction Approach to Understanding Variability in Emotion.” Cognition and Emotion no. 23 (7):1284-306.
Chaput, Catherine. “Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy.” Philosophy and Rhetoric.43.1 (2010): 1-25. Project Muse. Web. 8 July 2015.
Cooper, Marilyn M. “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 3, 2011, pp. 420-449. http://search.proquest.com/docview/848924648?accountid=11668. 31 Oct. 2016.
Dweck, Carol. 2001. Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development London: Taylor and Francis.
Fleckenstein, Kristie S. 1991. “Defining Affect in Relation to Cognition: A Response to Susan McLeod.” Journal of Advanced Composition. 11.2 (1991): 447-453. http://jstor.org/stable/20865808. Accessed 14 Sep. 2016.
………. “Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies.” College English, vol. 61, no. 3, 1999, pp. 281-306. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/379070. Accessed 14 Sep. 2016.
Micciche, Laura R. 2007. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Moje, Elizabeth Birr and Allan Luke. 2009. Literacy and Identity : Examining the Metaphors in History and Contemporary Research. Reading Research Quarterly, 44. 4. 415-437.
Newkirk, Thomas. 2002. “Sentimenal Journeys: Anti-Romanticism and Academic Identities.” In Writing with Elbow, edited by Pat Belanoff, Marcia Dickson, Sheryl I Fontaine and Charles Moran, 21-33. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Peckham, Irv. 2015. Four Rules for Teaching Writing. In Personal Writing in the Classroom. http://personalwriting2.blogspot.com/
Scherer, K.R. 2009. “The Dynamic Architecture of Emotion: Evidence for the Component Process Model.” Cognition and Emotion no. 23 (7):1307-51.
Wetherell, Margaret. 2012. Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding. London: Sage.