In the 1980s, the field of rhetoric and composition produced an outpouring of research on writing anxiety, writing apprehension, and writer's block (Bloom 1984; Rose; Daly). Some notable scholars focusing on this work include Mike Rose, Lynn Bloom, John Daly, and Michael Miller. Most of us have likely heard of Daly-Miller's Writing Apprehension test, which attempts to measure and quantify an individual's apprehension toward and attitudes about the act of writing. Lynn Bloom published extensively in the 1980s on issues of writing anxiety and diverted somewhat from the likes of Daly and Miller in that she did not always equate writing apprehension with a lack of writing ability (see Bloom 1984). Mike Rose's now canonical "Rigid Rules" argued that students' conception of the rules of writing actually brought about anxiety or apprehension that resulted in block. In 1987, Susan McLeod's "Some Thoughts about Feelings" reviewed much of the 1970s and 1980s empirical work on writing apprehension and concluded quite bluntly that, "All this information is very interesting, but in the end, there is little in these studies that leads us toward theoretical enlightenment" (427). But she acknowledged that Bloom's work "help[ed] us understand the pressures that come to bear on particular writers in a particular context and seem[ed]… to be an excellent model for future research on writing" (427). McLeod ultimately suggested that we "need to know more about this state of emotional engagement with a writing task" (427).

In some ways, reviewing scholarship on writing anxiety across the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s reflects the various shifts and turns within the field itself: A shift from expressivist/individualist notions of blocks/muses/finding voice to cognitive appeals and demands for empiricist approaches to the social turn, the rise of affect studies, and constructivist, post-process approaches (for a similar mediation on these shifts, see Lotier 2016).

Contemporary attention to anxiety within the discipline of rhetoric and composition tends to be a bit more erratic, with attention paid to anxiety among WPAs (Vidali 2015, e.g.), relationships between plagiarism and anxiety (Robillard; Purdy), individual disclosures of anxiety (e.g. Macri), or a renewed interest and application of Daly-Miller as applied to second language writing anxiety (Daud, Daud, Kassim; Latif; Liu and Ni). Yet another interesting place in our field where anxiety and apprehension have more recently emerged is within discussions of directed self-placement measures, particularly in terms of the relationship between self-efficacy and diminished anxiety (see Reynolds, e.g.). Some emerging work at the nexus of disability studies and rhetoric/composition focuses on qualitative research investigating the experiences of students with disabilities in writing classrooms (Wood 2017; Simpkins 2018).

Before moving any further, however, it's useful to talk about the term itself. In psychology, distinctions are made between "everyday anxiety" and "anxiety disorders" (see Anxiety and Depression Association) with descriptions/distinctions falling along the lines of persistence (anxiety that doesn't go away), intensity and length, types of stressors, and interference with everyday life (impairment). There are several anxiety disorders and still other disorders not classified under the anxiety umbrella that nevertheless have anxiety as a symptom. In the discipline of rhetoric/composition, the three key terms typically associated with anxiety and writing are "writer's block," "writing apprehension," and "writing anxiety." In much of the scholarship (particularly those with an empiricist bent), distinctions are made between high and low experiences of anxiety. Interestingly, clinical approaches to classifying anxiety rely on a scale of Types I-III, with I being anxiety associated with environmental factors and III being associated with pathology within the individual ("Students and Anxiety").

Notably, the major discursive patterns that both rhetoric/composition and psychology seem to share when it comes to discussing anxiety are those of diagnosis, treatment, and overcoming. In the medical field, there is a desire to properly identify, provide targeted treatment, and ultimately help an individual experiencing abnormal anxiety to overcome or cope with their disordered state. In rhetoric/composition, there also exists a desire to properly diagnose (e.g. Daly-Miller certainly, but even beyond that; see Thompson; Kroll) and then administer sound treatment in the form of pedagogical interventions. The ultimate goal in both? Overcoming. The eradication of anxiety (or at least the debilitating variety, the blocking variety).

All of the above, this exploration of the discourse of anxiety, especially as it manifests in the literature of our discipline, raises the following research question: What if we unshackled our work on writing apprehension and writing anxiety from this pathological / medical framework? What might we gain?

My contention is that work within disability studies provides the most useful means of innovating our response to this question. Scholars within disability studies have a rich history of critiquing the dangers of overcoming. Disability activist Simi Linton articulates several common interpretations of this rhetoric: the individual who overcomes in no longer limited by their disability and has "risen above society's expectation for someone with those characteristics" (17). The common deployment (and subsequent internalization/interpretation) of overcoming as it relates to an individual with a disability is troublesome for Linton because it is often psychically impossible to overcome a disability (17). She writes "An implication of these statements is that the other members of the group from which the individual has supposedly moved beyond are not as brave, strong, or extraordinary as the person who has overcome that designation" (18). The reproduction of a rhetoric of overcoming places all responsibility for change in the individual with a disability and seeks an eradication of disability as the ultimate and obvious goal.

Amy Vidali's work has been especially helpful in my recent thinking on anxiety. In her analysis of the relational discourses surrounding basic writers and students with disabilities, she "emphasizes that people with disabilities accomplish their goals with their disabilities, rather than by overcoming or conquering them" (46). In her WPA piece, she writes, "Engaging the rich scholarship on overcoming in disability studies helps identify the damage that triumph-over-adversity tales pose for disabled WPAs," and she invokes Paul Longmore's assertion that, "In order for people with disabilities to be respected as worthy Americans … they have been instructed that they must perpetually labor to 'overcome' their disabilities," which involves "continuous cheerful striving toward some semblance of normality" (221). Vidali and Longmore both work to point out the ways in which such pressures for overcoming are rooted in "nondisabled interests and values" (221). I myself have written about the dangers of assigning personal essay assignments in FYC classrooms that have a tacit reward for adhering to the overcoming script ("Overcoming Rhetoric").

In addition to their troubling of the overcoming narrative, disability scholars have also done a great job of pointing out the voyeuristic, often ableist, often condescending desire for diagnosis, spotting the disability in order to help treat. How do we talk about writing anxiety without talking about diagnosis, treatment, cure, or overcoming? This is precisely where Dolmage's theorization of métis becomes helpful. As he puts it, "developing the concept of métis [allows] teachers of rhetoric to show how embodiment forms and transforms in reference to norms of ability…" [and] provides a theory of embodiment that centers disability rather than marginalizing it."

  • How might performances of métis be a better way to think about the ways students experience anxiety as it relates to writing and communication?
  • As teachers and administrators, can we design classrooms, curricula, and spaces that provide hospitable conditions for performances of métis?

Scholars often point out the negative effects of anxiety, but some have pointed out that anxiety can be useful. McLeod, for example, writes, "emotions can be enabling as well as crippling" (428). Her unfortunate use of language reveals the association that researchers often take as a given: the connection between anxiety and being "crippled" in some way— between anxiety and dis-ability. Rose's article "Rigid Rules" concludes with a "note on treatment," suggesting that the anxiety associated with writer's block is—like a disease or illness—something that teachers must "treat." Continued research on writing apprehension needs to account for the value and complexity of disability, investigating anxiety as it is experienced by students with disabilities, and, most importantly, how students' experience of anxiety might (or might not) be an issue of access. In some of my previous work, I've argued that students' anxiety might be alleviated through increased flexibility, avoiding rigidity, and lowering the stakes of writing (particularly in the beginning stages of a course). Such tips focus not on how the student should adapt but how instructors should. Rather than working to eradicate the anxiety our students may experience, how can we shift the conditions of our classroom spaces/curricula in ways that allow for sideways movement, for adaptive and flexible approaches to drafting, revising, communicating ideas, sharing ideas, testing and expressing them to an audience?

Min-Zhan Lu's influential piece "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone" targets student anxiety as one of the two major concerns guiding her inquiry. She writes:

Because [the teacher] recognizes the burden on those at the fringe of having to 'prove' themselves to those at the center by meeting the standards set by the latter, she cannot but take seriously students' anxiety to master 'correct' usage. Nevertheless, she is aware that instead of helping them to overcome such an anxiety, her teaching strategies risk increasing it, as they may reinforce students' sense of the discrepancy between their inability to produce 'error-free' prose and their ability to come up with 'good ideas…' 443

Lu suggests that certain pedagogical approaches—in their efforts to help students overcome anxiety—may actually exacerbate such anxieties by reinforcing multicultural students' distance from "the center" (443). This parallels experiences of "helping" students "overcome" writing anxiety. In our efforts to help students adhere to "normal" patterns and processes in writing classrooms, instructors may further alienate students. Moreover, such efforts may inadvertently deny students access to their own métis movement, their own métis performance (the strategies they themselves have devised to work with and through anxiety, not beyond it).

We should aim to help students identify what types of adaptations are helpful in their own writing processes, specifically as it relates to writing anxiety, writer's block, and writing apprehension. If we understand métis as "adaptive intelligence" perhaps one approach to anxiety in writing classrooms is not to diagnose and to help overcome, but rather to cultivate "adaptive intelligence" among students. Or perhaps rather than working to cultivate it, we simply try to make deliberate room for it to occur in our classrooms and to learn from our students when they enact such performances.

In his book Academic Ableism, Jay Dolmage shares some of his own teaching strategies aimed at reducing the anxiety that some students may experience. In sharing his technique of using note cards as an option for students during class discussion, he states that, "This strategy also creates 'equitable use' in that it recognizes diverse abilities….The raise your hand modality isn't the best way to allow all students to show what they know ….there is more space created for quiet, more time given for students to process and compose their thoughts, and less emphasis on exchanges that can be anxiety producing for some students" (120). Melanie Yergeau's new book Authoring Autism invokes métis in her theorization of thereness and lying. She writes, "Métis, then, holds multiple location resonances, signifying the unruly unfixity of those who are racialized, disabled, and queered…" and she works to root out the "many valences of thereness and lying as they pertain to autism—and how autistic people themselves figure and literalize their thereness, even in the midst of being clinically and rhetorically figure as absent" (41). She goes on to critique "rhetoric's privileging of linear or developmental trajectories, of a social symbolic, and of a normatively brained means and motives" (41). When we talk and write about block, we assume the necessity and goodness of a type of thereness, a particular type of being. Yergeau's work challenges readers to upheave the most entrenched notions of rhetoric there are: invent and deliver. Her provocation and disruption of the absence/presence binary forces a new examination of writing anxiety and writer's block. Drawing on disability scholars such as Dolmage and Yergeau invokes new lines of inquiry for investigating experiences of writer's block, apprehension, and anxiety:

  • Is there a way to revisit writing anxiety that doesn't rely on outdated, simplistic cognitivist approaches?
  • Is there a way to address writing anxiety or block that doesn't require a normalizing reliance on the normative, social symbolic that Yergeau disrupts?
  • Can métis, as a theoretical framework, help us uncover, understand, and appreciate student performances of communication (or noncommunication) in our classrooms?

One glimpse into such possibilities can be found in the collection Affective Disorder and the Writing Life, edited by Stephanie Stone Horton. Most of the authors within this collection disclose and discuss their experiences of mental disabilities, most particularly depression, mania, and anxiety. Many actively resist overcoming and recovery narratives and instead work to articulate their sideways movement in their writing processes. Many of their strategies and stories highlight a search for understanding themselves and their unique approaches to writing, to time, and to coping. Although they don't name it as such, métis performances abound in many of the stories shared throughout.

As a final note, I want to give a nod to my title, rock and a hard place. This saying suggests a situation where there are two outcomes, neither of which are desirable. When it comes to anxiety, our field seems to have two suggestions to offer: remain blocked or overcome. Theorizing métis performance may yield productive new insights on the presence of anxiety in writing classrooms (and beyond).

Works Cited

  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). "Understanding the Facts." Anxiety and Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety
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  • Lotier, Kristopher. "Around 1986: The Externalization of Cognition and the Emergence of Postprocess Invention." College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 3, 2016, pp. 360-384.
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  • Selfe, Cynthia L. "The Composing Processes of Four High and Four Low Writing Apprehensives: A Modified Case Study." Diss. University of Texas-Austin. 1981, ERIC Ed 216 534.
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