Thoughts on . . . achieving writing agency?

In “A Cultural Studies Agenda” Marilyn Cooper writes, “what they [tutors] know about institutional constraints is true and important, they also need to help students understand that if they are to achieve agency in writing, they must learn how to challenge these constraints productively in the service of their own goals and needs” (MS 59).

At the conclusion of my literacy narrative, I had imagined that, in the sixth grade, “I learned that whatever your argument or perspective is, the right format can allow you to express it.”

Even if this were true, students often don’t have a lot of choice regarding format. At times, the challenge is to express yourself within someone else’s chosen format. Even when the assignment is fairly open to interpretation, it can be difficult to do just that. As a student you ask not only, “What do I want to say and how can I get my point across?” but also, “How can I complete the assignment most effectively?” (That last question includes concern for achieving the best grade.)

As I was looking through old assignments to submit a writing sample to Mike, I remember thinking, “These essays would have been so much better if I had just written what I really thought.” But they had still been a good exercise in writing. Perhaps you have to know the rules before you can break the rules? Can you ever really successfully break the rules in academic writing? Maybe you can manipulate them, or work within them to serve your purpose? I could critically examine what I’d written then and contemplate what I’d write today that would still meet the requirements of the assignment. It hadn’t even been the format that had stifled me, it was just that I was overly conscious of what I thought my argument was expected to be.

I can also remember having a conference over one of those essays with the professor, in which he asked thought-provoking questions, which I deftly dodged until he firmly said, “This is what you need to do . . .” It was what I needed to do, given my approach, but the whole approach was insincere. It wasn’t really my point of view and that’s why I was having that resistance. It wasn’t a matter of cultural differences, but of personal ones. When you come up against resistance in writers, how far do you question that? (Do you assume that they just don’t understand the requirements of the assignment and what they “need to do”?)


  1. "Know the rules before you can break them" is a good thought and holds up to some scrutiny. But the idea of grades and evaluation create a line beyond which the rules cannot be pushed.
    But then, which 'rules' are we talking about? If the assignment states to write an essay, a poem would be out of line, but a creative non-fiction piece may not. Playing with semicolons, dashes, and colons is different from changing order words the of.
    Some rules are inherent to writing simply to make cogent statements. To assign a grade some rules, guidelines at least, are needed. But instructors and consultants can help writers learn which rules are set by the class, which be ignored outside that setting; which rule are required for understandable writing, which can only be ignored in poetry; and which rules can be pushed to allow for voice and style to develop.

  2. Although I haven't had the opportunity to participate in a consultation yet, I have encountered these issues with myself and with others in workshops. I've even encountered this "need to do" issue with family members and friends that have asked me for advice on their own writing.

    I really try to refrain myself from telling someone how I feel they should approach a subject, and I've found that by simply talking to someone, asking questions in a personal way is a great way to find out what they're interested in--"what they think" is important to convey within the boundaries set for the piece. I even do this with myself--sometimes out loud, but don't tell anyone, okay?

    I had to "look at" my best friend's resume once, and hmmm...lets just say that I felt like shaking her and saying "you need to do this," but instead I just talked to her and found what she wanted to convey and what areas of her resume SHE felt were important. Her resume turned out great, professional and personal. It was in the standard resume format, but in the end, her confidence (that perhaps was fully realized in our discussion) gave it a personal stylistic flare.

    I think that this can be true with writing as well. Like Zach said, "To assign a grade some rules, guidelines at least, are needed. But instructors and consultants can help writers learn which rules are set by the class, which be ignored outside that setting." Perhaps, the best way to discover what rules are rock solid and what rules can be bent is through honest questioning and conversation.


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