Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing
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Pedagogy 4.3 (2004) 419-437



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Breaking into the Conversation:

How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing

What is an author's "authority," and where does it come from? Expertise, an air of confidence, reliability, and trustworthiness—all contribute to what we think of as a writer's authority, yet each of these traits obscures how writers acquire their authority by focusing unduly on the character of the author. Authority, I would contend, is less a characteristic than a relationship that a writer has with other authors, measuring how powerfully his or her work affects theirs. In a field such as literary criticism, writers gain authority only when they can relate their arguments to those of other critics and show how their arguments participate in, and extend, the work these critics have done on the writers' topic. An argument may be solid and interesting, but it will lack authority until its author clarifies its contribution to a larger critical community. [End Page 419]

When I discuss authority this way, it may seem that I am taking it wholly out of the reach of undergraduate students. What authority do they have as writers in our classes? Apart from some little firsthand experience, not much; and when they write on a subject they are just learning—as they do in my expository writing class, when I assign an eight- to ten-page essay on Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and insist that their arguments respond to the criticism of the novel—authority would seem to be the last thing one could expect students to achieve. Yet it is through such assignments that I ask students to develop their authority as writers. At stake here is how students use sources in their writing, as well as how they relate their writing to scholarship. Because student writers come to the field of criticism with virtually no authority, they must look to the work and reputation of professional critics to underwrite their own; whatever authority they achieve will come to them metonymically, through the association they form with scholars who already have it. In what follows, I will discuss how I help my students do this by having them "make room" for their arguments in the conversation critics have had about Hemingway's novel. As students develop their own arguments about this book, they also develop a rhetorical relationship with professional critics. No longer bystanders, students become scholars by participating, with their essays, in a scholarly debate.

The Rude Awakening: Introducing Students to the Malthusian Universe of Criticism

The essay assignment that I will be describing here—a multiple-source essay on Hemingway's novel—represents the third, and longest, essay that students compose in my class; it is also the first time in the semester that I ask my students (all first-year college students) to deal with professional criticism (or "secondary sources") in their own writing. In previous essays, we have either avoided sources (by conducting a close reading of an isolated primary text) or have worked with something we might call "primary" sources (by reading a novel in light of historical and biographical material). Only now do I ask students to address scholars' interpretations of the primary text, and I make them responsible for quite a bit of criticism: twenty-four articles (or pieces of articles) about The Sun Also Rises, from which they eventually select at least three to incorporate into their essay. The overriding purpose of this assignment is to show students how to produce a genuine scholarly essay—one that is both aware of and responsible to the criticism about Hemingway's text. This means that students cannot simply express what they think about the novel apart from what other critics have said about it, nor can they simply [End Page 420] report on the views and claims of these other critics without adding something of their own. They must instead devise an "original" argument about the novel that has importance in the field—or at least when measured against the backdrop of...