Making Authority Personal

In class, I had to read an article by Penrose and Geisler called, “Reading and Writing without Authority,” in which a college freshmen, Janet, was asked to do the same writing assignment as Roger, a much more advanced student. Within this article, Penrose and Geisler observe the difference in their writing processes and give implicit directions for ways of improving student writing.

I feel that there are a few things that set Roger and Janet apart as writers, and it is more than just experience within the genre of ethics and paternalism. Roger has had more exposure to academia. He has had feedback from his professors on earlier papers, he has learned what is expected in his paper as far as rhetoric and style is concerned, and he has the confidence that he has mastered these aspects of writing in his field of study, as is evident by “Roger [knowing] how to write as an authority inside the conversation of ethics” (506). Janet, on the other hand, is new to the discourse pattern of college, being a college freshman whereas Roger is a studying “completing his doctoral work” (506).

Janet found herself in an academic realm in which she had no experience writing, and chose to deliver “a more traditional information-transfer model” (507) of paper writing which, in essence, is a style of paper where students ingest information and regurgitate it onto a page without adding any opinion of their own to the discourse taking place. Janet’s lack of familiarity with discourse patterns found in college rhetoric left her ready to “set out to align herself with one of the positions already available” (512) instead of finding a voice and opinion of her own.

I do have a few years of experience as a writing tutor at Fullerton College, and I have to say that I see students like Janet all the time. They are lost and confused in the world of academia and they are not ready for what is expected of them. High school prepares students to write poorly; there is no way around that fact. When a student writes an essay for class they regurgitate the same five-paragraph-structure with a three-point-mapping-thesis the student has been taught to write since junior high school. When it comes to SAT prep courses, students are taught to use big words they may not always know the definition of and think that a higher diction equals having a better paper. There is no instruction given outright on how to analyze a paper, how to structure a paper, how to have an opinion within your own paper (outside of an “I think” or “I feel” opinion found in a personal prompt), or how to research and use authority properly within their own work.

Students like Janet need instruction. It’s not that they aren’t willing to learn or that they don’t know how to research or structure an argument, Penrose and Geisler observe that “on close examination, Janet’s reading strategies were more “expert” than we would have…these strategies were used haphazardly, but what is more striking is that none of this rhetorical sophistication was reflected in Janet’s writing” (514). What students like Janet need is more instruction on the rhetoric expected of a college student, or how to become an “academic insider” (517). Becoming an academic insider, or having a functioning knowledge of more advanced methods of analyzing, structuring, arguing and properly using outside authors to support or dispute claims, is how students like Janet will succeed in their classes and find themselves engaged with the discourse of their classes instead of finding themselves overwhelmed with readings and ideas they don’t know how to put on paper.

I was lucky in that I skipped the college prep courses when I was in high school because college was never my goal. It’s a happy coincidence that I ended up in college, and it was after having real-world experience as a writer and photographer for a magazine. It was through that experience, outside of academia, that I developed my first real taste of style which became my writing voice. I had confidence in words and my ability to use them, so as a student I was never worried about my style or how to structure a paper. I followed the prompt and wasn’t afraid to disagree with experts. I’m sure some of my early papers were still information-delivery systems, but I at least had fun with my diction.

Previous articles on academic writing that I’ve talked about in this blog, like Sommer’s “Between the Drafts” shows an awakening of her personal authority. Likewise, Murray, in his article “All Writing is Autobiography” pushes for personal authorship to be used within classrooms as well. I feel that personal authority, while it can give a sense of confidence to students who are unsure of their authority on other writing topics, can also, in my opinion, stunt a writer’s growth. While student writers maybe shouldn’t be engaged in ethics and paternalism, like Janet finds herself as a college freshman, going completely internal with an assignment and making it all about the self doesn’t encourage much growth outside of become more secure in a self-analytical model.

Assignments I see students at entry-level and below English courses is usually a mix of personal authority and some comparison or analysis to an outside source. Earlier today at my job in the Fullerton College Writing Center, I had a student come in that was writing paper on whether Avatar or Star Wars Episode 4 was the better movie, in his personal opinion. He used things like the acting, effects, character development and setting to explain his personal opinion that Avatar was a better movie. Assignments like this allow students to engage in analysis while not fearing the use of authority, but it also pulls from the outside realm and doesn’t make analysis purely about one’s self.

– Amanda Riggle

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