Olivia Neal

Writing and Driving by Mike “Dakinewavamon” Kline is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Expressivism (sometimes called expressionism) is an approach to the teaching of writing that gained popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s and focused on the individual’s writing and the writer’s transformation of self. Expressivism stems from the elitist rhetoric of liberal culture where writing is viewed as a “gift of genius,” yet has democratized over time. Charles Deemer represents expressivism in his article “English Composition as a Happening” as a means of reforming English composition to “aim at preserving independence and impulse” for students (Deemer 122). Years later, James Berlin included expressivism in his taxonomy of the three major rhetorical ideologies in the writing classroom present in the late 1980s: cognitive, expressionist, and social-epistemic. Eli Goldblatt’s “Don’t Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a ‘Tacit Tradition’” describes a decline in the use of expressivist rhetoric as the theory lost prestige in the field of composition and rhetoric in the 1990s. In short, theorists abandoned expressivism on the notion that it was “too individualist, too lacking in a political analysis of the composing situation in schools” (Goldblatt 440).

Important Contributors

Charles Deemer, Peter Elbow, Geoffrey Sirc, Eli Goldblatt


Expressivism emphasizes the individual writer and deemphasizes communal and social influences. In “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” James Berlin defines expressivism as “an art, a creative act in which the process—the discovery of the true self—is as important as the product—the self discovered and expressed” (484). According to Berlin, expressivism also presupposes the “inherent goodness of the individual, a goodness distorted by excessive contact with others in groups and institutions” (484).

Expressivism Today

Despite the loss of status expressivism experienced in the 1990s, scholars can still identify expressivism’s influence on current trends in rhetoric and composition. Expressivism has left a lasting mark on the National Project Writing movement, which heavily influences writing instruction in K-12 classrooms nationwide. Yet, according to Goldblatt, “college writing and composition/rhetoric graduate programs have not been as hospitable to expressivism as the schools have been” (441). Theorists are currently finding ways to reinvigorate expressivism to strengthen the core of the English composition course as the global literacy scene is faced with various social, administrative, and intellectual challenges.


  • Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” College English, vol. 50, no. 5, 1988, pp. 477–94
  • Deemer, Charles. “English Composition as a Happening.” College English, vol. 29, no. 2, 1967, pp. 121–26.
  • Goldblatt, Eli. “Don’t Call It Expressivism: Legacies of a ‘Tacit Tradition.’” College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 3, 2017, pp. 438–65.


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