What is authority?

As a college student, I found Penrose and Geisler’s Writing Without Authority very applicable to my own growth and development as a writer. In this piece, the authors contrast writing on the topic of paternity by Roger, a well-versed academic, and Janet, a college freshman (who I can easily relate to). Both Roger and Janet were to write a piece in the genre of philosophical ethics, their resources being several scholarly articles and their paper objective the same: to write a paper “for an educated general audience ‘discussing the current state of thinking on paternalism'” (Penrose and Geisler 507). The authors point to many differences between how the subjects interpreted the task, beginning with the way they approached their source. In my writing, I naturally strive to be like Roger, who “seems to operate with an awareness that texts and knowledge claims are authored and negotiable,” and be aware of the complexities in texts. However, I believe I often fall under the Janet category: I often think the research and scholarly pieces I read to be true and the authors’ claims to be “definitive” (Penrose and Geisler 507).

I think the Roger and Janet approach to reading and understanding authors’ claims can be evaluated and considered in many different genres beyond academic research. I often think a combination of the two different approaches is necessary as a reader and writer. I have a keen interest in memoir, and after taking Ralph Williams’ highly recommended Memoir and Social Crisis class, I began considering how memoirists choose to represent their memories for their readers through this unique genre. In his memoir about his experiences fighting in the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien wrote, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” So is story-truth something we can rightfully challenge? It is interesting to take the Roger-approach to the “facts” or “claims” read in memoirs, challenging the author’s choice of language instead of their memories themselves. However, the Janet approach is often how one reads memoir: we weren’t there and we didn’t experience this, so who are we to judge what happened and why? Are these claims then not true? I often think about how I would write my own memoir and how I would choose to represent my memories.

Another interesting and relevant way to evaluate the Janet and Roger approaches to reading and writing is through viewing them not as two separate ideologies, but on a continuum. Often, when I write drafts, my natural tendency is still to use the Janet approach; my analysis is surface level as I just begin to engage with the texts. However, as I revise and continue to draft, I strive to draw deeper connections and challenge the points the authors make, as Roger did. I hope to eventually be at a point where I can naturally take the Roger approach.  One part of this piece that particularly resonated with me was: “…there is room for many voices. She [Janet] needs to understand the development of knowledge as a communal and continual process” (Penrose and Geisler 517). As I do more research and writing, I am continuously improving my approach towards other authors’ arguments and my analytical abilities as I evaluate them and formulate my own. I am moving from the traditional parenthetical citation of someone else’s  point that is so widely taught in high school English classes to utilizing authors’ claims to move my own argument forward and challenging those I disagree with. I strive to develop my own knowledge communally through synthesizing literature, my experiences and stories and other opinions.

2 thoughts to “What is authority?”

  1. Molly – I did not read the Penrose and Geisler piece; however, I gained a solid understanding of the article based on your summary. I can sympathize with you because I too have fallen into the “high school English” trap of citing academic articles as fact, instead of utilizing them to form my own unique thoughts and arguments. You raise an interesting point about viewing these types of thinking (reading/writing) on a continuum, rather than as two separate approaches. I think it is important for students, still in the process of forming our own thoughts and writing styles, to remain open to academic arguments and use conflicting viewpoints to shape our own opinions. This post definitely made me reconsider how I use many types of sources in my own work – great job!

  2. Hi Molly! I really like how you put Janet and Roger on a timeline, rather than considering them separately. I too tend to take the “Janet approach” to an assignment and then (through revision) trend toward something more along the lines of the “Roger approach.” I think part of developing a natural tendency for the second approach requires developing the mentality with which to approach research. By immediately responding to the texts being researched, for example your memoir research, Roger’s approach would come as a natural result. This plays into the ideas on the relationship between reading and writing addressed in the other readings for this week: that reading affects writing, and vice versa. By approaching reading with a more analytical mindset, we are able to write with a stronger opinion.

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