Don’t Tell Me What To Do

What is authority? In Reading and Writing Without Authority, Ann Penrose and Cheryl Geisler toss around this term [authority] that is complicated. In short, the essay covers the academic lives of a first-year college student named Janet, and a Ph.D. student, Roger. The research, “[was] particularly interested in how the lack of authority shapes the writing and reading practices students adopt.” Janet, being an outsider in the academic field, was expected to have fundamentally different [worse] ways of interacting with academic texts. And the research found this to be somewhat true.

-Back to my question-

When I think authority, I think about my boss at the pool. “You better be done scrubbing that whole scum-line by the end of your shift.”

“You got it,” I reply without hesitating. He has authority over me. So I do what he tells me to do.

Or the TV show cops. Police do what they want. Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.

Geisler and Penrose bring up the idea that authority can also be a personal thing. In the case of their research, I realize that I have authority over the way I write. I never thought about it that way. It’s obvious, but I was taught more like Janet: “The approach [that’s] consistent with a more traditional information-transfer model in which texts are definitive and unassailable.” In the past when writing research-papers, it was exactly that. I literally found facts and plopped them on the page.

This brings me to my last question: Am I Janet or Roger? And after writing this whole thing, I’m thinking my answer is neither. I’m in between. Roger has found his authority in academics, while Janet appears to have not even thought about it yet.

As Geisler and Penrose point out, “[there are] four epistemological premises which seem part of Roger’s worldview but not Janet’s.

(1) Texts are authored – I understand this, finally.

(2) Authors present knowledge in the form of claims – Now that they put it this way I can be more aware of it.

(3)Knowledge claims can conflict – Ehhh.

(4)Knowledge claims can be tested – I guess I don’t agree with things that authors say sometimes, but I tend to take everything literally, even though as a writer I don’t usually do that.

I find it interesting that they use the word worldview because authority does shape my perspective of everything around me. Whether it’s as simple as having authority over a fellow coworker or as complex as having authority in my academic life, authority is somehow part of it. As a high school soccer player, I had authority over my own play and getting better. That was after twelve years of playing the game. That ties in with what Geisler and Pensrose say, “confidence in one’s own authority is assumed to increase generally with age.” As I said before, they toss this word around a LOT in this essay. And there is so much to dig into; that’s the point I’m trying to get across. What is authority? I’m not exactly sure, but it dominates many aspects of our lives, especially as writers. Having what Roger has [his mindset] is something that all writers should desire. Authority is significant. Authority is complicated. And most importantly, authority is a part of life.



2 thoughts to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”

  1. Joe, I love that you dedicate this post to thinking about what “authority” actually is/means in various situations, and I also really appreciate the way you position yourself somewhere between Janet and Roger–and the way you spend some time on your relationship to each of the four premises in the article. I’d even be interested in seeing you develop a sense (not definition, exactly, but sketch, maybe?) of how you understand your own authority as a writer/reader now, and where you’d like to go with it. I’m also curious about the “ehhh” response to the third claim–do you mean you’re not sure you buy it, or you’re not quite there yet, or something else? Nice work here!

  2. Joe,

    The way you engage with the complexity of authority was very eloquently done. Having you explain your interpretation of authority forced me to reflect more seriously about my own post regarding this article. Like the freshman student in this article, I felt encouraged to take a side never thinking for a moment that my opinion or “how I write” could indeed be independent, and situated somewhere in between.

    Thank you for your insight.


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