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Monday, February 2, 2009

I fight authority, authority always wins

A few years ago, I was in a group of English faculty somewhere, at a conference or a department meeting, when the subject rolled around to What We Do in 101. We as teachers clearly all want to help our students develop into writers, but the exact outcomes of that enterprise are a little fuzzier. One of the more radical instructors said he wanted to create writers who would challenge the conventions of academic writing and break the norms. A sardonic reply came from across the table: "With all due respect, you are a tenured faculty member with a Ph.D., and it's a lot easier for you to talk about pulling down the pillars of the academy than it is for some kid who wants a job or to transfer to a university."

I felt the same tension in my own 101 class today, both sections. My students have been grappling with responding to texts, making claims, and writing in academic genres, and the panoply of decisions that come along with those activities, about voice, tone, register, format, authorial presence, audience, and so on, as the make their ways through various iterations of reflections, annotations, expositions, and analyses. Today, we were discussion the latest reading, an article by Nancy Sommers on authority.

"Authority," when used in discussing writing, isn't about legal jurisdiction or supraordination; it is not even just about writer's having confidence or being an expert; it's about claiming in your writing the right to present yourself as an expert, as someone worth listening to. We say before repeating something we believe, "I have it on good authority." Writing with authority means setting yourself up as one to be listened to.

Sommers, the author of the article at hand, is a bright light in composition studies, perhaps the high maven of revision. In 1993, she wrote an award-winning article that discussed her changing concept of authority. To a great degree, it rejects traditional academic conventions, the reliance on sources in writing and the appeal to experts to make a case, and reclaims personal experience and a more intimate voice as tools of authority, even in academic writing. The article is written in the form of personal essay with extensive autobiographical detail, even though it was published in an academic journal.

To which I can only reply: easy for you, you're Nancy Sommers. No matter what you do, you'll always have authority. So the tension is thrown into relief. Sommers's article, was, in fact, effective and insightful, and makes a lot of sense. But I am sure that were I to write an article in a similar style with a similar take on academic standards, it would never get published in an academic journal. I'm not Nancy Sommers; I still have to claim authority.

But it's not my stillborn articles that I'm really concerned about; it is how this tension affects my students and what and how I teach them. On the one hand, I want them to write with authority: I want them to claim the right to speak with confidence and conviction about the topics in front of them. On the other hand, I don't want them to understand the world only through their own experience and write only from and for their own perspective and frame. I want their responses to and their conclusions about and their evaluations of the ideas in front of us; I don't want their feelings or "opinions" or impressions. But students resist the authority I want them to take; they know, usually accurately, that they don't have as much expertise in Shakespeare or American History or Psychology as the audience for their papers has; whatever are they going to say? And they certainly do have authority on their own experience, and can competently talk about how they interacted with a text as an individual and how it made them feel, all the things I don't want to hear. No wonder they are confused.

Compounding their problem is the simple fact is that the academy - the university, even community college - has certain expectations of student writing, and as appealing as it might be for me to encourage them to rage against the machine, I think I would be remiss if I weren't at least in part preparing them for that game. The choices about what we write together are not all mine.

Students do need to learn to work with sources, but they need to engage and converse with them, not just cherry-pick and drop them in. Students do need to formulate positions and make claims, and not just say what they feel about something. Students do need to understand the power of structure in rhetoric, and not just throw all their ideas on the table in a jumble. And yes, students do need to know conventional moves, just not cliches and trite expressions.

But it's safer to build a five-paragraph essay and drop in a source supporting a disconnected point in each of the three body paragraphs than it is to try to converse with an author; it is much easier to report your experience reading an article than it is to analyze it; it is less complicated to write under pressure and just "let it flow" than it is to revise an essay for symmetry and parallelism; and it is less threatening to consider how an issue "has been considered since the dawn of time" than it is to really reflect on how it affects you as a person. So I understand the students' reluctance to claim an identity as a writer and to seize authority where it would really matter, and their desire to retreat to either the weighty but distant or the personal but trivial.

So I continue to try to walk with them through this minefield of English 101 to a safe spot where they can create authentic writing within sometimes arbitrary genres; where they can write from their hearts in an academic voice; where they can eschew the frippery of scholarly writing but meet the standards of academic discourse. And I try to do this with as much compassion and as few tears as possible.


Juliet said...

Man, learning the Five Paragraph Style is so much like learning a indoctrinating faith. You learn to trust that you and your authority buddies (writers of common credence) will get to the end of your argument... together. Ha. My English 101 essay on the National Endowment of the Arts v. Jesse Helms (ca. 1990) was as fun as my last cavity filling--it was two old fillings that had to be drilled out and refilled. I'm glad I still have my teeth.

John said...

I LOVE the new format. Thanks for getting rid of the "click here to read the rest of this article" thing.

In fact, I love it so much that I read your entire essay on teaching English 101. :)

Yojimbo_5 said...

When I wrote Sunday's piece on "Citizen Kane," I wrote what was basically a screed against Pauline Kael. I love to read her writing, but I think she did the world a disservice from taking film criticism out of the third person into the first, thus paving the way for lesser lights like Elvis Mitchell and Manohla Dargis who are only too ready to tell us how they "feel" about a film, while at the same time getting their facts wrong.

And there's the rub. Once you put it in the first person there's no argument. "I don't care, that's how I feel and don't bother me with facts."

Whereas a little research, a little truth, might lead to a stronger conclusion and better arguments. Maybe. Research gives authority. Annotation provides irrefutable authority. Anything else allows you to write white papers for the Bush Administration.

Of course, that hasn't stopped me from writing in the first, so i plead the fifth. And I ended up taking out the Kael rant.

But what you SHOULD be doing is teaching them how to write so that Johnbai reads them, as that's all-important.

Walaka said...

And there's the rub. Once you put it in the first person there's no argument. "I don't care, that's how I feel and don't bother me with facts."

I don't know that it's actually that simple. Sommers's point was that, in fact, your experience can give you as much authority as a source - not your feelings, but you experience, your critical thought, your personal apprehension of the universe, and so on. There is a real danger with the slide into feeling-based writing, but that's not all there is to the personal experience.

My students, for example, are authorities on the classroom space. Their own experience, if reasoned and presented with critical distance, has at least some validity. The question is: how do we let students seize that power without giving them tacit permission just to rant?

I think it's similar to the constant tension on Wikipedia. There are some in the inner core of editors there who apparently have a campaign to weed out all the stuff that doesn't have the equivalent of academic sources. But if we do that, Wikipedia is only telling the Official Story, just like every other reference book. What happened to the untold history, the minority report, the hidden history that Wikipedia was supposed to capture? Doesn't a regular Joe who was there have as much to say about the inauguration, for example, as an "authorized source"? Doesn't he have authority?

On the other hand, do we really want Corey Haim and Halibutron writing their own entries?

As I say, its a tension.