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“Felt Sense” and Expository Writing

posted: 9.24.14 by Barclay Barrios

I just finished rereading Sondra Perl’s essay “Understanding Composing” reproduced in the excellent Bedford resource Teaching Composition: Background Readings. I’m teaching Perl in our pedagogy course for new graduate teaching assistants, ENC 6700 Introduction to Composition Theory and Methodology; the essays forms part of a cluster of readings on drafting and audience.

I’ve been thinking about Perl’s use of “felt sense,” the internal, somatic feelings that exist prior to and result in a piece of writing.  Perl’s use of the term certainly resonates with me as a writer when I am writing things such as this blog.  But I am wondering how (or if) I can use it in the composition classroom for expository, academic writing.

That is, I am wondering to what extent felt sense relies on a writer’s investment in the project.  Does felt sense only come into operation when the writing matters to a writer?  Do we have to care to evoke a felt sense?  Or what happens when our felt sense in relation to a writing project involves procrastination, distaste, revulsion, disdain, or any number of non-generative emotions I imagine students in the classes I teach might have?

I’m thinking I might explore the affective dimensions of composition in my classroom, perhaps by having students follow an exercise like the one that opens Perl’s essay: recording out loud what they are thinking, doing, and feeling as they write.  It might help some students connect to the class but more importantly it might help students who are struggling identify (and then perhaps divest) emotions related to the composing process.

Have you considered the emotional dimensions of writing in your classes?  What works?

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2 Responses to ““Felt Sense” and Expository Writing”

  1. Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy Says:

    Hi Barclay,

    Really interesting stuff here. I think it’s worthwhile to study the affective dimensions of all kinds of cognitive tasks. And as someone who writes every day, I can attest to how strongly my emotions influence and are influenced by the work I’m doing.

    I would love to hear about any follow-up work you do on this. Thanks!

  2. Hilarie Ashton, CUNY Graduate Center Says:

    Hi Barclay (and Jennifer),

    I’d like to push back gently on your characterization of “non-generative emotions.” I think some of the feelings you mentioned – particularly distate and revulsion – can be incredibly generative. In addition, whenever Sondra performs or writes about her Guidelines (the questions she’s developed that unearth felt sense), she points out that people’s feelings about their experiences of the Guidelines vary widely. Some people hate them, some people love them, and both of those reactions are okay. [I highly recommend reading the Guidelines, which are available online, as well as her book Felt Sense.]

    When I do the Guidelines with my first-years, most of them don’t like the experience. This semester, only two out of a class of twenty felt positively about them. I’ll do them again later in the semester and see if anything changes, but what I care most about is exposing them to it. I’d love to keep sharing ideas with both of you about other affective dimensions and how to bring them into the classroom!