Friday, March 2, 2007

Authorship and Teacher Comments

Gail Stygall argues that Foucault's concept of the author is important to how we treat basic writers. Basic writers (and for that matter, writing students in general) aren't afforded the same charitable interpretation that we give to "authors." Authorship (authority) is part of literature, but not student writing or anything else not viewed as literature. According to Stygall, "If an author writes a passage that is unclear or that is not obviously related to what came before it, then readers assume there is a reason for it, embedded in the author's intent or milieu" (189). A writing teacher, however, tells the writer that the paragraph is off-topic and moves on. That's not entirely fair, of course. The more time that I work with students in the writing center, the more I realize that even the weakest writers do everything for a reason. (Occasionally practical reasons like being unsure of the grammar of particular expression.) But those reasons are hard to figure out without a face to face meeting. Otherwise, what more can we do than point out that the paragraph seems off topic and should be removed or have its importance clarified?

Along with this, Stygall points to research that indicates that "teacher commentary often appropriates and redirects the student's texts" (189). It's too easy for the teacher to assume that they understand what the student means and then express it in the teacher's terms. (This also implies a meaning that transcends expression, not an uncontroversial concept.) Mina Shaughnessy does this!! A student wrote, "However, I don't believe that a student whould determine whether or not he will to attend college chiefly on the basis of financial, but that of the importance of obtaining a qualified educational background, and the services he could be to his fellow men" (45). Without additional commentary, she translates it as "A student shouldn't go to college in order to earn more money but to learn more and help others" (45). Now these have approximately the same meaning, but certainly there are shades of meaning that are different--Shaughnessy doesn't mention the importance of "educational background" itself. Further, if an experienced writer had composed such a sentence, the form would have figured into the meaning. We'd've assumed the wandering quality was intentional, perhaps to reflect a life journey. Who knows what justification we can come up with if we already believe the writing is good?

Works Cited

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Stygall, Gail. "Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucault's Author Function." 1994. Landmark Essays in Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2001. 185-203.