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.