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  • Beyond Argument: Essaying as a Practice of (Ex)Change by Sarah Allen
  • Megan Cannella (bio)
Sarah Allen. Beyond Argument: Essaying as a Practice of (Ex)Change.
Anderson, SC: Parlor P, 2015. Pp. 157. $24.

Sarah Allen’s Beyond Argument: Essaying as a Practice of (Ex)Change is required reading for anyone who teaches composition—perhaps especially if rhetoric and composition is not your home discipline. Allen urges readers to reevaluate how we teach and value arguments. Although written a few years ago, Allen’s call “to teach and to practice a different notion of subjectivity” could not be more timely. She explains, “We need to make [subjectivity], to cultivate it. To my mind, the way to cultivate it is through privileging other [End Page 108] kinds of writing—kinds of writing in which writers would be empowered to practice different ways of engaging with ideas, with texts, with each other” (7). To this end, Allen suggests a turn toward what is often seen as a polar opposite of the argumentative essay: the personal essay. In her pro–personal essay efforts, Allen traces the shortcomings of the argumentative essay taught in many composition classes and its continued cultural legacy:

Are we really surprised by the highly ineffectual sound-bite arguments in presidential debates and short rants in blog posts that are responding to complex, high-stakes sociopolitical issues, when the academy, itself, teaches students to produce the kind of argument that can be captured in a single statement [. . .] and that can be mapped out through the listing of evidence, but with very little work to explore the complexities of any particular stance (thank you, five paragraph essay)?


Allen asserts that there may be a less divisive, polarizing way for students to approach argument, a way that fosters “connection, negotiation, and change” (9)—that way of course being the personal essay. The shift that Allen is championing is not necessarily one of structure, so much as one of modes of engagement: “I discover a mode of engagement that enables productive debate, a mode of engagement that isn’t about argument but is about exploring ideas, a mode of engagement in which writers take seriously the texts of others, of themselves, and are effected by their engagement with them” (15)—essentially asking instructors and their students to cast off the prosaic and formulaic.

The first two chapters are dedicated to identifying both the real self and the constructed self, as they present in the personal essay. In chapter 1, “Meeting the Real Self in the Essay,” Allen discusses “three major conventions of the [personal essay] genre: freedom, walking, and voice” (21) in order to address concerns that the personal essay will simply foster a narcissistic, consumerist relationship between student writers and the page. Allen also explores the importance of discourse communities in helping to build the “social self,” which is the focus of chapter 2. Allen explains that in her classes, over the course of the semester, students “learn the conventions and practices of engagement (both oral and written) within an essay class, within a writers’ workshop and within an essay” (45). She carefully facilitates learning to recognize how conventions and practices of various discourse communities influence a student’s understanding and construction of self—“how the conventions and practices involved in reading and writing essays both enable and limit their engagement with the genre, enable and limit what shows up in their own essays, as well as how the coursework both enables and limits the ways in which they function as individual identities in the classroom and on the page” (46). [End Page 109]

In Allen’s final three chapters, where she focuses on pedagogical approaches to teaching the representation of self in both the essay and the classroom, she asks, “[H]ow can we, teachers of the essay, empower student essayists without asking them to practice the impossible, transcendent move that is enabled by a belief in an essential self or a socially constructed self?” (53). By removing the expectation that an essayist’s self must be fully defined and unwavering (impossible for most to achieve in a lifetime, let alone a semester), she creates space for students...


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pp. 108-110
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