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The Importance of Making Meaning

Most post-process theorists have their own respective journeys and experiences on both the process movement and how post-process theory can be applied to writing and [sometimes] discourse and pedagogy. In "I Was a Process Theory Baby," Nancy DeJoy shares the encounters that she had through her own education and her teaching. Her dissatisfaction with the applications of process theory as she experienced it and, later, her ability to dictate that dissatisfaction and turn it into praxis is, from her perspective, what led her to post-process.

John Clifford and Elizabeth Ervin co-wrote "The Ethics of Process," outlining their experiences with post-process theory and their unique perspectives on "the process movement; on the evolution of composing studies; on the influence of ethics and postmodernism; and on the status of public intellectuals" (1999). Both Clifford and Ervin ultimately came to the conclusion that composition studies have emerged as its own entity against studies of rhetoric and literary theory.

Clifford begins his narrative in the late seventies, when he was teaching at the City University of New York. It was around this time that, he states, discourse on composition theory was rapidly expanding and taking form as a discipline. He states that Ken Bruffee's idea that student's learn better when they can help each other through composing was, while something that could be seen as common sense, something that influenced him.

Right away, his ties to what we understand about many post-process theorists' become evident, primarily the social and communicative aspects that are a natural part of a composing process [or at least should be]. He explains that adding the social and communicative adds ethics where teaching purely based on mechanics does not always.

His interactions and experiences prove a theory of mine, that post-process theory and constructive planning are somehow linked. He does this by showing that a lot of what we see in more traditional methods of composition are so highly edited that the process can become invisible within it or, otherwise, it can discourage conversation. However, what I'm specifically referring to are those pieces for which process in terms of how a rhetor got to a specific conclusion should be clear. In addition, he sees them as too authoritarian, they deal in too many absolutes. One step within constructive planning is to keep any prior drafts or any discarded ideas as they are, regardless of their relevance to any plan that comes after, a part of the process and can be essential in tracing those steps.

Clifford does place himself among those that saw process theory as insufficient and he states that, particularly in the eighties, the classroom was moving beyond certain instructors as the social aspect of learning became more recognized among students. Particularly, he cites Kenneth Burke who encourages writers to better understand their identities and what that means for them. Further, and most importantly, everyone possesses an identity and their own culture, sets of values, and biases. Clifford states that acknowledging those and allowing mindfulness of identity to be a part of the writing process can help writing to be an "ethical agent of change." In other words, the social is essential.

Clifford is also influenced by postmodernism. Here's a short excerpt. "I certainly want to act on postmodernism's insights about the decentered self, the power of discursive interpellation, its distrust of metanarratives and epistemological absolutes, and especially its rejection of the modernist belief that knowledge can be free of situated persuasion and power" (1999). Remember for the purpose of this that by "situated," we mean that the knowledge has to come from somewhere. He also brings up the conversation regarding the pitfalls of the idea of mastery. Essentially, the classroom is meant to open thought and encourage its progression, not to open thought upon entry to the classroom and close it upon leaving. More specifically, the conclusion [provided one is reached] shouldn't be the sole takeaway from a classroom discussion as the progression towards that conclusion or given endpoint is just as important.

He describes an exercise he gives to his students that explores pieces of identity specifically as it relates to double standards. He assigns Barry Hannah's "Water Liars" in which a man reflects on the idea of sexual freedom and how [the narrator] perceives the concept. He asks his students to respond to it in writing and encourages them to discuss each other's works. In that discussion, he asks that his students reflect and examine their own values based on the information given by the narrator and how he chooses to interact with the world based on his encounters with people, sexual and otherwise and to reflect on what their peers believe.

Ervin's experience with post-process theory, she states, also had a great deal to do with the social, with the way that awareness of our identities can help rhetors to be more mindful of the kinds of conclusions they draw and their methods. She spoke of attending a conference and presenting a paper of hers, but she was advised that the parties that followed the conferences were like "hidden conferences" where all the deeper discussions were held, but she found that she didn't feel she could participate in them at length.

Ervin explains her rationalization of this by stating that aspects of the conversations she felt she was engaging in regarding composition and its applications to critical theory and modern discourse in her own work were things that she passively accepted as a fact. She didn't see it as new, revolutionary, or exceptionally engaging despite the fact that it could have been. Having this awareness and being a part of this height of discourse meant, to her, that post-process was somehow always a part of composition for her.

Generally, she was dissatisfied with how she was being taught in her doctoral program and that attitude affected how she was perceived in the classroom. She states that one of her professors invited her to do an independent study and drop his courses, but that she declined the offer, opting instead to rebel against the syllabus, making the social aspect of composition more of a part of her studies in every sense. She received sexist comments on her work, but was able to contextualize them in her study of feminist political theory, specifically Dorothy E. Smith's assertion about how the bodies of men are perceived in literature and how those depictions add to their credibility while the bodies of women appear to demean them. That's just one example.

She states, "The ethical implications of [the practice of challenging established rhetoric] seemed obvious: when we begin to challenge traditional assumptions about who has the authority to know and what counts as knowledge, we create new possibilities for epistemological and discursive agency" (1999). When Ervin challenges the sexism rather than falling in line with it, she asserts that she has credibility and that she is also allowed to possess knowledge and identify what counts as knowledge for herself.

However, another problem arose for her when word processors became more popular. It was more difficult to ascertain her students' process and method of thinking, even when her students printed drafts of their work for her to review. Furthermore, it was easier to plagiarize. Then, she found that teachers for students who needed additional accommodations were rewriting those students' papers for them despite them being capable of producing their own work. First, one's idea of what process is becomes obsolete and less of a process than a production. Second, people's agencies and personal authority are being taken from them.

I would argue that these are problems that continue to arise not solely with the development of technology. The idea of process as we know it is outdated because the methods by which to expedite process could be prized over the value of what a person's individual process could yield. I would also argue that those who have need for accommodations are often treated like they need everything done for them or otherwise treated as lesser just because their brain operates differently and that difference can be identified. Treating a rhetor as though they cannot compose based on the way their brain operates is not ethical. Neither of this issues, keeping in mind that this was published in 1999, have been adequately fleshed out or rectified. This isn't to state that these issues are equal, just that neither of them have been fully resolved.

Ervin cites Susan Wells who states that academics constantly view a unitary space as one that is always available, but has defined and secure borders, arguing that this has become a consistent problem in writing instruction. We're beyond that, but might not realize it. She says, as a form of open-ended resolution, "It is also where praxis--with its emphasis on obligations and agency, actions and consequences--might assist us in contemplating a post-process future for our discipline. A praxis orientation to composition studies need not be limited to public discourse, but neither should it be limited to student writing, academic writing, or even teaching writing" (1999). These ideas appear to echo DeJoy's sentiments, but also simplify them.

A unitary space, then, does not have to have borders. Composition instruction by means of process theory alone can help people learn how to write within a system, but this method does not take into account how people work. If a writer should ideally plan in accordance to how their mind works, why shouldn't an instructor in composition teach based off of how people authentically operate?


Thank you to all of those who have given me feedback on past Purposeful Prose posts and all of those who have made suggestions on avenues I can pursue in the future. Anyone can become a member of Purposeful Prose and, with your membership, you can further engage with my posts through "liking" and commenting and you can make use of my forum. I look forward to further discussions and will continue to experiment with different types of writing and engaging with this information.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Clifford, J., & Ervin, E. (1999). The ethics of process. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm, 179-97.

Hannah, B. (2010, December 20). Excerpt - Long, Last, Happy - By Barry Hannah. The New York Times.

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Aug 27, 2021

Very interesting to read about how these theorists arrived in their own ways at a rejection of certain aspects of process. As you know I was very much a process teacher but never was fully satisfied that it really worked for students. In the end, a student’s writing never improved unless they became fully invested in trying to convey something that mattered to them personally. And process didn‘t get them there.


Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Aug 27, 2021

Thank you for taking us through this journey! I was struck by the phrase "mindfulness of identity" which is so crucial when reviewing a text along with the "progression" towards a conclusion being just as important as the conclusion itself. While both of things can be seen as mutually exclusive, each one can reveal a meaningful depth to a writer's work that would otherwise go by the wayside. Yes, all minds do not operate the same but that should not be a measure of intelligence or ability. So thankful for the determination of people like Ervin! Well done!!!

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