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An Essay for the English Profession on Potentiality and Singularity

Janis Haswell and Richard Haswell

Publication Year: 2010

The postmodern conviction that meaning is indeterminate and self is an illusion, though fascinating and defensible in theory, leaves a number of scholarly and pedagogical questions unsatisfied. Authoring—the  phenomenological act or felt sense of creating a text—is “a remarkably black box,” say Haswell and Haswell, yet it should be one of the central preoccupations of scholars in English studies. Not only can the study of authoring accommodate the “social turn” since postmodernism, they argue, but it accommodates as well conceptions of, and the lived experience of, personal potentiality and singularity.

      Without abandoning the value of postmodern perspectives, Haswell and Haswell use their own perspective of authorial potentiality and singularity to reconsider staple English-studies concerns such as gender, evaluation, voice, character, literacy, feminism, self, interpretation, assessment, signature, and taste. The essay is unique as well in the way that its authors embrace often competing realms of English studies, drawing examples and arguments equally from literary and compositionist research.

                In the process, the Haswells have created a Big Idea book, and a critique of the field. Their point is clear: the singular person/mysterious black box/author merits deeper consideration than we have given it, and the book’s crafted and woven explorations provide the intellectual tools to move beyond both political divisions and theoretical impasses.

Published by: Utah State University Press


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pp. ix-ix

A special few out of the deserving many: Glenn Blalock, Tiane Donahue, Carol Scott, Sally Scott. “Knotty timber needs sharp wedges.” And for financial support and permissions: the College of Liberal Arts, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi; the Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; the Department of Special Collections & University Archives, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa.

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Introduction: English Studies and Black Boxes

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pp. 1-10

In information science, when input is known and output is known but the process that connects the two remains unknown, the situation is called a black box. This essay opens some black boxes safeguarded by the higher-education project called “English.” Education and black boxes, of course, are joined by symbiosis in every department and discipline. This is because it takes black boxes to learn about black boxes...

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1. Authoring Accepted

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pp. 11-28

Writing in 1959, the poet Ginsberg was angry at the initial reaction of literary scholars to Beat literature, especially “Howl,” and both his intemperate dismissal of their kind of knowledge and their temporary dismissal of his kind of poetry can be chalked up to the passing historical moment. Still, Ginsberg’s charge that university scholars don’t... know how...

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Interchapter: Potentiality and Alice Sheldon

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pp. 29-31

It is customary to speak of young aspiring authors as having potential, and of old successful authors as having realized their potential. But for serious writers, potential is something they can’t imagine as first having and then using up. For them, as we will see in the next chapter, potentiality is as needful to ongoing authoring as perception, words, or readers. It is a personal...

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2. Potentiality and the Teaching of English

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pp. 32-46

It is customary to speak of young aspiring authors as having potential, and of old successful authors as having realized their potential. But for serious writers, potential is something they can’t imagine as first having and then using up. For them, as we will see in the next chapter, potentiality is as needful to ongoing authoring as perception, words, or readers. It is a personal condition that bridges the most disparate parts of their life—past, current, and future. No one can illustrate this fact better than the author Alice Bradley Sheldon...

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3. Potentiality and Gendership

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pp. 47-55

When she was 18 and in Jan’s first-year composition course, Victoria wrote an impromptu essay on the topic of “your search for truth.” After the course was over she let us use her piece for an experiment. We were interested in instructional response to student writing—in particular, response as it interacts with the reader’s...

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4 Potentiality, Gendership, and Teacher Response

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pp. 56-62

The threat to a healthy writing potentiality of student writers like Victoria and Kevin, however, does not stop with the production of gendership. Because they sit in a writing course, not only do they have to turn their gendership over to the interpretive vagaries of readers, but afterward they have to reshape it. This happens when teachers ask them, as composition teachers...

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5. Potentiality, Gendership, Teacher Response, and Student Voices

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pp. 63-74

We say “voices” advisedly. Today among English teachers, the term “voice” has a hair trigger. This small word holds an arsenal of conflicting meanings, each defending critical and ideological positions in which people are often deeply invested. Stylists hear in voice the timbre of a literary persona successfully projected...

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6. Potentiality, Reading, and George Yeats

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pp. 75-90

Speaking of voices! It is the evening of April 6, 1919, around ten o’clock, in the parlor of a house on the outskirts of Dundrum, then a hamlet separate from Dublin. William Butler Yeats and his young wife George, married for less than a year and a half, are engaged in intense talk. Their dialogue might as well be...

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7. Potentiality, Life-Course, Academic Course, and Unpredictability

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pp. 91-104

Friday September 27, 1822, on the heath or commons between Tilford and Farnham in Hampshire, England, in a small dale called the Bourne. Two men are on horseback, and the horses are stock still. It is not a heroic pose. One of the men certainly should have considered himself a hero. Rural born, self-educated, he had made himself England’s best-known...

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Interchapter: Singularity and Alice Sheldon

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pp. 105-107

In the 1920s, as she is growing up, Alice Sheldon is known as a loner, one of a kind. She remains a oner all her life. At six years of age, on an African trek with her parents, she walks or is ported some 1,000 miles in search of the mountain gorilla. At nine she becomes an avid....

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8. Singularity and the Teaching of English

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pp. 108-130

We have been exploring potentiality as a nurturable and sustainable capacity that feeds authoring in many ways, from motivation to creativity, from student five-finger exercises to widely read works of expert hands. For social philosopher Giorgio Agamben, potentiality...

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9. Singularity and Narrative: Character, Dignity, Recentering

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pp. 131-155

In Reading for the Plot (1984) Peter Brooks reflects on a change in the world’s inexhaustible appetite for stories, a shift not in the appetite but in the stories. In the past, we repeated master plots, overarching Narratives (with an uppercase N). Mythically, we told stories of origin; spiritually, we told stories of fall...

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10. Singular Authorial Offerings: Lifestories, Literacy Narratives, and the Shatterbelt

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pp. 156-176

The dust cover for Melanie Thernstrom’s The Dead Girl centers on a three-quarter view of the victim’s face. Although the artist relied on a photograph of Roberta Lee, reproduced on page eight of the book, there is a striking difference between cover and photograph. Through cropping and especially through reshaping of the right eye, Lee’s Asian features are effaced....

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11. Singularity, Feminism, and the Politics of Difference and Identity

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pp. 177-193

In Chapters 3 to 6 we argue that when student writers are invited to exercise gendership as a rhetorical instrument and a means of expression and self-creation, they may discover, enact, and deepen their potentiality. True also of their singularity. For...

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12. Singularity, Self-Loss, and Radical Postmodernism

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pp. 194-212

Loss of the sense of the singular self is threatened not only in established feminist theory but everywhere, including today’s English classroom. The fact is an excuse, perhaps, for the odd mélange of topics this chapter holds: the death-camp...

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13. Singularity and Diagnostics: Disposements, Interpretations, and Lames

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pp. 213-232

In the Introduction, we noted the tendency of the following chapters to draw toward the pragmatic and the daily in the lives of English teachers. Here toward the end, in this penultimate chapter, we accelerate that drift. We explore an act that lodges very materially in English departments...

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Interchapter: Authoring and Alice Sheldon

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pp. 233-235

Interviewed by Contemporary Authors in 1982, Alice Sheldon revealed I mull over the story in my head, and in notes, until I have a complete visual-aural picture of everything; every scene, people, whether somebody hands another ...

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14 Authoring Neglected

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pp. 236-259

Chapter 7 ends with an emblem of the kind of English instruction this book defends. Two people are imaged, a novice reader-writer and a mentor reader-writer. Between them stands a piece of text—unfinished draft or widely published masterpiece, it matters not. The text is now public,...

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Envoi: Hospitality and Alice Sheldon

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pp. 260-262

We can’t take leave without noting, for our English colleagues and for their students, that socially and culturally the way authors manage both to safeguard their authorings and to relinquish them to the apparatuses of the world is through hospitality....


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pp. 263-273


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pp. 274-279

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About the Authors

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pp. 280-

Janis Haswell is a professor of English at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in British literature for the English Department and composition in the university’s First-Year Program. She is the author...

E-ISBN-13: 9780874217728
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874217629

Page Count: 279
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching (Higher).
  • Report writing -- Study and teaching (Higher).
  • English language -- Study and teaching (Higher).
  • College prose -- Evaluation.
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