Dismantling the Power Paradigm of the Academy’s Patriarchy

First, I just want to say that I really enjoyed this article – it was well researched, thought out, and most importantly, interesting.

Of particular interest to me was when he talks about how women may actually have been the genesis of the novel.  It’s such an interesting point to make. He rationalizes this claim by explaining that men were traditionally the ones to receive educations in rhetoric at schools and universities, while women, if they went to school at all, were taught subjects conducive to running an effective home or business.  So, when women start coming to the academy, they bring a completely new perspective to language and particularly writing – they’ve not been trained in traditional rhetoric, and thus it doesn’t hold as much importance for them, which is why the novel starts to rise as a legitimate form of writing; it allows for more freedom of form. You can still kind of see the echoes of this today, in that many popular or well known authors of novels are females: JK Rowling, Jodi Picoult, Barbara Kingsolver, Audrey Niffenegger, Suzanne Collins, and (*cringe*) Stephenie Meyer. Obviously, if Ong’s argument is true, then women have given to humanity a great artform.

Twilight
Twlight, a "book" by "writer" Stephenie Meyer. (Source: twilightsaga.wikia.com)

So then, it’s curious to me as to why academic institutions still favor a fairly patriarchal view on writing; non-academic writing still seems to be thought of as somehow “less” in an university setting.  In my peer tutoring seminar, we’re learning about different approaches to writing as well as how to tutor writing. We recently read an essay that applied Feminist critical theory to the idea of writing, which aims to equalize the role of tutor and the student; the practice attempts to dismantle the power hierarchy present in the traditional student/teacher paradigm, which the academy perpetuates by often times forcing students to learn “good” writing by making them conform to the abstract standard of an “ideal text” as imagined by academia. Since this “ideal text” is often a traditionally academic paper, filled with classical rhetoric, and since rhetoric is a subject that was created by men, for use by men, this ideal text is inherently patriarchal; it makes the writer conform to invisible, “acceptable” standards envisioned by men and only men years and years ago.

Ong’s text got me thinking about writing a lot more about what writing is, and more specifically, what “good” writing is.  Is it this generally agreed upon standard, or can it be something more?  Why is it so difficult to break away from the academic form instilled in writers from the time they’re taught to write? Why can’t fiction be just as effective a mode for delivering an argument? Why did I just make fun of Stephenie Meyer, if in fact, she may have written a very good piece of writing, and I’m just not seeing it fromt he correct perspective (this pains me to write, fellow writing minors; I just need you all to know that)? I’m not sure I have any answers to any of these questions, but the article definitely got me thinking about them.

 

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Despite the articles being a little repetitive, I found parts of the pieces interesting.  Obviously, writing and reading are inextricably linked to each other, as Brandt points out, “There can be no reading without writing, nor writing without reading.” But, I personally had never really considered either of the two activities in the ways Brandt presents them.  The concept of mass literacy through writing was interesting to me. It seems to implicitly make an argument for the value of effective communication and the importance of what I think Kenneth Bruffee would call “social discourse.”

In my peer tutoring seminar, we’re talking a lot about writing, what writing is, how to best learn how to write, and effective strategies for making good peer tutors, and thus, better writers.  I’m noticing a trend in these writings towards a more collaborative learning style. Advocates of this particular style of teaching cite the effectiveness of communicating with other writers, at all skill levels, about writing and the writing process, and Brandt’s piece seems to reinforce this theory. In a society that’s tending towards a mass population of writers, writers are forced to communicate with each other and, in doing so, they make their writing better. There’s a trend of moving away from defining knowledge as this abstract good to be transferred from the knowledgable (the instructor) to the ignorant (the student). More and more, knowledge is being defined in a collaborative sense, where understanding is something to achieved through conversation, according to writing scholars like North and Bruffee.

It’s then interesting to think about what Brandt says, and how she classifies reading as good, but writing as good.  If knowledge is no longer a commodity, but a goal to strive towards, then reading as the sole mean of disseminating knowledge becomes obsolete.  Obviously, I don’t think people should stop reading, but I’m tempted to say that far more emphasis needs to be placed on, in academic institutions especially, the value of writing.

Writing About Writing About Why I Write

writing, noun
the activity or skill of marking coherent words down on paper and composing text

But, isn’t writing so much more? Writing is a deeply complex relationship, between the writer and written, the slave and the master. Yes, in that order. Writing commands the writer, not the other way around.  It’s unfair, that the creator has so little power over his creation, but it seems to me a universal truth about any artistic form. The work demands the artist to render it in its own vision.  It’s exhausting and leaves the creator drained, but somehow fulfilled. A finished piece of writing brings about a sense of triumph. And, in this triumph of conquering that which so recently seemed unconquerable, I realize I am more than what I give myself credit for being. But soon, writing calls again, a beckons me back, and reassumes its position of control. I write to conquer myself, so that I may be better.

Grammar Lessons and So Much More

It’s funny that this was assigned. Over the weekend, I was asked what book changed my life.  I felt particularly apprehensive about the question, and a little embarrassed as an English major. You see, no actual book has ever really changed my life. That’s not to say that pieces of writing haven’t though; Michele Morano’s “The Subjunctive Mood” from her collection of essays Grammar Lessons totally changed my life and is the piece I’ve chosen to bring in for class tomorrow.  The essay itself deals with a number of things I really know nothing about: love, suicide, the spanish language, etc. But, through her writing, I feel like I can understand everything she’s saying; I empathize with her in spite of the definition of empathy.

When the reading was first assigned to me in a class that was more or less about creative writing, I was puzzled. Why would my professor be assigning a grammar lesson? Yes, the subjunctive mood is useful to know about in some situations, but it seemed a little out of place for the class. As I started reading, I found myself perplexed. But the purpose of assigning the reading quickly became clear, and Morano’s genius blindsided me in a way I’ll never forget.

She starts out simply enough, describing the subjunctive mood, how it’s used to express things that may happen or are speculative. In contrast, she explains the indicative mood as well, which expresses things factually (“I would have paid my rent on time” versus “I paid my rent on time”, for example). Morano uses the following examples to exemplify the indicative:

I was in love.”
“The man I loved tried to kill himself.”
“I moved to Spain because the man I loved, the man who tried to kill himself, was driving me insane.”

Kind of dark, huh? She does the same for the subjunctive:

“I thought he’d improve without me.”
I left so that he’d begin to take care of himself.”

It’s clear at this point that the grammar lesson is something much more. The way she’s framed her troubles with a depressed lover who has tried to kill himself in the context of grammar is not only incredibly clever to me, but speaks to the power of language, grammar, and syntax. It’s so simple and, yet to me, so genius. Every single bit of the essay is prefaced by a subtitle that sets up the general topic for the section. For example,  the boyfriend Morano has moved to Spain to escape from visits her. When he leaves at the end she subtitles the section, “After Certain Indications of Time, If the Action Has Not Occurred.” The entire following section deals with the boyfriend’s departure, if they’ll see each other again, if they think that through the troubles and distance of their relationship, that they can make this work.  The passage is marked with a great uncertainty, which is perfect for the usage of the subjunctive mood, and the whole piece really makes me reflect on why language and communication is so important, and how powerfully it expresses.

And on a purely aesthetic note, her writing is absolutely gorgeous. A particular passage stands out in my mind. In this passage, Morano reflects on spending New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend in Spain:

“Three days before, you’d stood in Granada’s crowed city square at midnight, each eating a grape for ever stroke of the New Year. If you eat all twelve grapes in time, tradition says, you’ll have plenty of luck in the coming year. It sounds wonderful – such an easy way to secure good fortune – until you start eating and time gets ahead, so far ahead that no matter how fast you chew and swallow, midnight sounds with three grapes left.”

She characterizes her doubt and cynicism so lucidly that you almost feel her frustration with her situation with her. If I could be in love with a piece of writing, I think this would be it. This piece made me want to write. It made me stop caring about trying to find what avenue of life would bring me the most wealth, fortune, and glory. It made me think, “Why couldn’t I have written that?” In reading this, I found a goal for myself – to write as honestly and beautifully as she.

 

Outraging True Nature

“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.  Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four, I tried to abandon this idea, but did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

Wow. Right from the get-go, Orwell had me hooked. It’s like he wrote about my life and experiences with writing 57 years before I was even born. As a child, I would write all the time. I would write little poems, short stories, illustrated adaptations of the lastest episode of Power Rangers; I was always writing or thinking of stories to write. In school, I entered a number of different writing contests and, for the most part, took home first place honors.  I loved writing, and it seemed to love me back. As I grew up, I never ceased to enjoy the activity of putting words to paper but, as the years started passing by, I drifted from it. Growing up, my creativity was never particularly stifled, but I was always encouraged to pursue more readily “useful” academic interests such as math or engineering. Isn’t it a common joke, after all, that those who pursue endeavors in the arts and humanities end up serving those who made the “right choices” their lattes and whatnot? This urging towards a more technical education caused me to distance myself from the written word. In high school and my beginning college years, I suppressed my creative urges and focused on more technical, and potentially lucrative subjects.  I don’t think I could have made a worse decision, academically speaking.

I understand exactly what Orwell means when he says, “I was outraging my true nature.” It’s maddening to force yourself to do something, when every single part of you is screaming at you to stop trying to be what you aren’t. Silencing the internal voice that’s trying to so hard to push you in the right direction, to make you the person who you know you’re supposed to be, is enough a task to drive a person insane. I for one, am glad I’ve finally submitted myself to its urgings.

Later in his essay, Orwell mentions a belief in four motives aside from the need to earn a living. I had a pretty good laugh about the last part of that sentence. Fear of the inability to make a living as a writer is what prevented me from seriously pursuing writing from the very start of my undergraduate education.

Orwell’s ideas of egoism and aesthetic enthusiasm being driving forces behind the compulsion to write also stood out to me. He defines them as the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death,” and the, “perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their arrangement,” respectively. As an aspiring writer, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to write a great book that people will remember, and talk about, and perhaps even study for years after I die. But this sort of fame isn’t what I think pushes and inspires me to write. To be a well known, commercial and critical success is a seductive prospect that I definitely find alluring, but more than anything, I want to create a body of work that I can look back on and find myself impressed by, even as  I sit on my deathbed. Aesthetic significance is my priority in my personal writing, and I don’t intend on betraying it. After all, I know what it’s like to deny yourself and what Orwell would call your “true nature.” . I’d like to avoid that again at all costs.