Affect in the Writing Zone (Susan McLeod)

It must be recognized that affect (that is, the noncognitive aspect of mental activity) plays a large role in writing and in learning to write. Most models of the writing process are based either on cognitive psychology (“embrained” cognition) or a social constructionist approach (embedded cognition)—and ignore affect (embodied cognition).

This is a problem in—and of—the governance of the supposedly “excellent” (transnational, transcendentally capitalised, technobureaucratic, programmatic) university (“U 1.5”) in which we find ourselves, I would suggest, because the calculative or quantitative measurement of processes from above in terms of throughputs and outcomes does not reckon with affect, except insofar as it can be registered on rating scales and in repeat business (essentially measures of customer satisfaction)—not that it was registered particularly well in the old national university (“U 1.0”), which was captured by a reductive Enlightened model of rationality. The “exploded” (nodal, glocal, technoimaginary, programmable) university (“U 2.0”) must take account of the media that do manifest affect from below—like Facebook, etc.—and embody a new orality beyond literacy (the term was coined by Ong in the ‘seventies [see 136-37]).

So, to understand the writing process more completely, Susan McLeod suggests that “we need to explore how cognitive, affective, and social elements interact as people write” (n.pag.).

(Note that though I use three terms—embrained, embodied, embedded cognition—I’d say that the first is not, in fact, separable from the second, though it is often seen that way, the corollary being that one cannot, except in theory, split the cognitive and affective elements of the writing process.)

This, then, is a ecological reading of the writing zone, a description/decryption of the living relations that are at work—and at play—there (ecology: from Greek: οἶκος, oikos, “house, household, housekeeping, or living relations”; -λογία, -logia, “study of”).

Affect in the writing zone manifests itself, for example, in

  1. anxiety in the face of the secret codes (cryptograms) of the university and at the failure of autodidactic codes (idiograms)—what I call fumblerules—to adequately encode their own writing. Alice Horning calls this the “climate of fear” in the classroom that becomes a “Filter” [sic] between the teacher and the learner (65). Elsewhere, in the context of L2 research, Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt describe an analogous process by which “the [L2] learner constructs, internally and unconsciously, the system of rules and principles by which a language is governed” as filtered by “affective delimiters” (1977, 99), there being four key ones: the learner’s personality, anxiety level, peer identification, and motivation to learn (1982, 72).
  2. aspiration, which begins with writers bringing their humanistic assumptions about learning to learn in the university (in particular, that learning will be passively received and mimicked in return) and then becomes mimicry of these secret codes in an attempt to propitiate the university
  3. a background awareness of the dissonance of space and place (the global and the local), which to a degree work at cross purposes (thereby generating the glocal site we actually inhabit)

And . . .

Teachers are not unaffected: they are anxious about the process (about the contract, assessment, revealing themselves, their writing, and their likes and dislikes); they aren’t objective about either their students: McLeod describes a “Pygmalion effect”—students becoming better because the teacher believes they are—and the more common opposite, a “golem effect”—students becoming less capable because their teachers view them that way (108-09), or their writing: see Elbow on liking.


Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt. “Remarks on Creativity in Language Acquisition.” Viewpoints on English as a Second Language. Ed. Marina Hurt, Heidi Dulay, and Mary Finocchiaro. NY: Regents, 1977. 95-126.

Heidi Dulay, Marina Burt, and Stephen D. Krashen. Language Two. NY: OUP, 1982.

Alice E. Horning. “The ‘Climate of Fear’ in the Teaching of Writing.” Teaching Writing: Pedagogy, Gender, and Equity. Ed. Cynthia L. Caywood and Gillian R. Overing. NY: SUNY P, 1987. 65-81.

Susan H. McLeod. Notes on the Heart: Affective Issues in the Writing Classroom. Carbondale: SIUP, 1996.

Walter S. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 1982. NY: Routledge, 1988.


2 thoughts on “Affect in the Writing Zone (Susan McLeod)

  1. Pingback: WRITING - The Crusades Of Writing -
  2. Pingback: A Tennis Lesson About Learning To Learn Tennis! | The old good tennis

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