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Changing the Subject in English Class

Changing the Subject in English Class

Discourse and the Constructions of Desires

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Marshall W. Alcorn Jr.


NLEB (Other formats: Paperback)
168 pages, 6 x 9


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About the Book

Drawing on the theoretical work of Jacques Lacan, Marshall W. Alcorn Jr. formulates a systematic explanation of the function and value of desire in writing instruction.

Alcorn argues that in changing the subject matter of writing instruction in order to change student opinions, composition instructors have come to adopt an insufficiently complex understanding of subjectivity. This oversimplification hinders attempts to foster cultural change. Alcorn proposes an alternative mode of instruction that makes effective use of students’ knowledge and desire. The resulting freedom in expression—personal as well as political—engenders the recognition, circulation, and elaboration of desire necessary for both human communication and effective politics.

Responding to James Berlin’s reconception of praxis in the classroom, Theresa Ebert’s espousal of disciplined instructions, and Lester Faigley’s introduction of a postmodern theory of subjectivity, Alcorn follows both Lacan and Slavoj Žižek in insisting desire be given free voice and serious recognition. In composition as in politics, desire is the ground of agency. Competing expressions of desire should generate a dialectic in social-epistemic discourse that encourages enlightenment over cynicism and social development over authoritarian demands.

With clarity and personal voice, Alcorn explains how discourse is rooted in primitive psychological functions of desire and responds to complex cultural needs. In its theoretical scope this book describes a new pedagogy that links thought to emotion and the personal to the social.


Marshall W. Alcorn Jr. is an associate professor of English, Humanities, and the Program in the Human Sciences at George Washington University. He is the author of Narcissism and the Literary Libido.


“[P]rovocative in the best sense of that word, . . . this book is a gift to so many scholars and students in the field who direly need its explanations and insights, [and] is of the utmost importance to our field if it is to grow and really begin to practice the self-critique that it so highly values.”—Victor J. Vitanza, editor of Writing Histories of Rhetoric