Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Who's in Control?

This semester, I took a linguistics course called the Politics of Language. On the last day of class, the instructor split us into small groups and prompted us to think about how language is political. The overlying idea of my group was that the political-ness of language lies in the idea of power. As our discussion progressed, we began talking about writing, and the strict parameters set forth by high school instructors. I found myself tying the conversation to the Writing Center, because my last consultation for the semester ended with a conversation between me and the student I was working with about this very thing. She expressed the difficulty she had in college writing because those strict guidelines were not there. So, going back to the linguistics conversation, this came into play. But that was where it turned interesting.
One of the other students in my group asked an interesting question. He said something along the lines of, "Isn't the Writing Center essentially reinforcing those guidelines? I mean, isn't the Writing Center based around the idea of getting students to write better? And if they are there to get students to write better, doesn't that mean that there is a standard of writing that they work from? I found myself instantly on the defensive. I did not want my precious Writing Center to be looked at as institutional. By this, I mean that I didn't want to have my work in the center looked at as some sort of control over the way students write. But, in a sense, even the most organic of centers, even the ones that revolve around the idea of being student led, are in some ways institutional.
As the semester draws to a close, I have been thinking a lot about agency in writing. I have felt throughout my college career that I have a fair amount of agency in the writing I do, but to my disappointment, I have come to a sad realization. The writing I have done, though mine to a degree, is really the product of a system. It belongs not only to me, but to a host of other people and ideas as well. The most obvious is the fact that academic writing is based on a set of guidelines set forth by the instructor, so of course it would follow that the instructor has claim to an extent. But it goes further. Language itself is a system, and there are rules that govern its use. Though we can manipulate them to a small extent, the rules that are involved in the use of language have to play a part in the creation of written works, so that means that language itself has some ownership. As well, we can look at semiotics. For each word, there is a meaning that goes along with it. Even though each person may have a slight deviation of the meanings, there is a basic idea that is universal. So, there goes another chunk of the pie. I think you all get the point here.
I realize this may sound a bit ridiculous to you, but it begs the question, how much of our own writing do we own? This has been an incredibly tough concept for me to grapple with, and I figured maybe some of you would have some insight that would help.

1 comment:

  1. Sam--I have struggled with this idea, and continue to struggle with this idea, every time I write something. Not so much semantics, but more of the prescription idea. For some reason, I've always fought against the "correct" way to write something--quite often my grades suffer for it.

    When I don’t, they suffer worse…

    Last semester I took a literature class from one of the toughest Profs. that I ever had. She wasn't tough in the sense of how she taught--she was tough in the sense of what she desired your lit papers to look like. I'd

    Paper after paper, I got C's. I got C's because I was terrified to step outside of her "prescription" box. I wrote every paper, except the last one, with her expectations driving the way I wrote my papers. Her expectations even drove the way that I read the literature for the class. It was a nightmare--I needed a good grade. It became clear, when I went to write my last paper of the semester, that I had a solid C in the class. I became so angry about the entire semester. Truth is, I cannot write for someone else, and the fact that I had put so much time and energy into writing for her--only to get C's--really pissed me off.

    I wrote my last paper my way. The entire paper was my thoughts, written my way. I took the most obscure, odd, creative way into a poem. It was the first time that semester that I'd gotten excited about a paper. I had a page and a half of works cited (it wasn't supposed to be a research paper). Although I was terrified when I turned it in, I felt pretty good about myself.

    I got an A!

    I'd like to think that if I was to throw that paper into the mix of ideas, it would be a little brighter than the others--it'd be my own.

    I believe (we talked about this a bit in our workshop group) everyone has the potential to uncover something truly original; yet, many never discover it because they write for someone else, not themselves.