From the Classroom
When No Answer Might Be the Best Answer
Despite sixteen years of writing syllabi for required first-semester writing courses, I continue to struggle, caught in the coils of contradictory goals. "On successful completion of this course, our students should be able to write honoring the language conventions of the academic community." "On successful completion of this course, our students should be able to establish a personal voice in their writing." So reads the handbook designed to guide all introductory composition teachers in our writing program. We are to teach our students to use language to create an academic ethos that will secure them success in college classrooms, a process that scholars, such as Patricia Bizzell (1992a) and David Bartholomae (1986), have long advocated (see Bizzell 1992b for a self-critique of this position). At the same time, we are to teach our students to use language to create a unique identity, one that manifests their personal imprint across textual experiences, harkening to the call to write the "I" in new and multiple ways (Bridwell-Bowles 1995; see also Sommers 1993). Each is a laudable goal. But combined, they catch our students and us in a double bind. The eruption of what James Britton (1982) calls the expressive function of language garners scorn, not applause, on the academic stage, especially for those marked other. Yet without some expression of a self--of what Kathleen Dixon (1995) calls the "underside of the political subject"--how can we invite our students to commit and care about their writing? How is it even "their" writing?
Caught in the trap of such a double bind is for me physically and psychologically unpleasant. A double bind, or the contradiction of logical categories, is, after all, the source of schizophrenia (Bateson 1972). We experience a double bind when the frame by which we interpret the message is violated by and violates the message. In my case, I shuttle between the contradictory context--academic language in an academic place--and the message--a personal voice. The handbook that commands me to teach to individual imprint does so in the voice of the academy, one lacking any trace of individual imprint. My responses to that double bind haven't been particularly productive. Too frequently, I practice denial. I put off until the last few minutes any effort to create a syllabus. Then, I merely throw up my hands and surrender, focusing my class on academic prose, in spite of my belief that no such animal [End Page 169] exits, or teaching writing as personal expression, ignoring the real world demands of an academic context. In both cases--denial and capitulation--I feel as if my teaching and students are the losers.
At the onset of the 1999 fall semester, I chose a different tack. Rather than seeking to resolve (or deny) that which cannot be resolved, I tried to focus on the paradox itself. I attempted to teach academic language and personal voice in such a way that they transformed each other. I wanted to help my students and myself reconfigure voice and academic language into something different, a new kind of discursive animal. Nor was I alone in my desire. Many academic feminists throughout the disciplines are seeking to effect a similar sea change in their personal and professional writing. Rather than mimicking the voice of what Nancy Mairs (1994) calls the Fornicating Old Fart (FOF), these women are blurring personal and professional boundaries and genres in their writing. They are "honey-mad," Patricia Yaeger (1988) says, mad for the good word, the word that includes a taste of personal desire.
My goals for the 1999 fall semester were admittedly modest. I wanted my students' writing to manifest their involvement in their own messages. And I wanted my students' habits of mind to shift so that they could tease out in academic writing the "private" worlds of human relationships that permeate it. This approach required three changes in my traditional method. The first thing I had to change was me. Min-Zhan Lu (1999), in "Redefining the Literate Self," speaks of the importance of putting "my self on the line so that I might stay on line with the voices that matter" (193) and of doing with equal rigor that which we ask of our students (192). Therefore, I had to enact in my "teacherly" performance the paradox I was forcing on my students. I tried to do this in two ways. I began by sharing my struggles with my own ongoing professional writing, especially that which drew on the activities of my students, such as previous drafts of this article. Next, I "put my self on the line" by offering up bits and pieces of my life, blurring the line that separates my life in the classroom from my life outside of the classroom. This border crossing was, after all, what I was asking of my students.
Beyond performing that which I was asking of my students, my traditional approach also changed in the way I addressed critical analysis. Reading and analyzing the rhetorical choices authors made has always been an integral part of my composition teaching. But my decision to dance on the head of paradox required that I add another dimension. I needed to invite my students to imagine the author's narrative desire, the personal "why" motivating a particular piece of writing, regardless of whether that desire was explicitly [End Page 170] manifested textually. I wanted to add to traditional rhetorical analysis a narrative analysis of a subtext that seldom gets written in academic prose. However, I did not present this to my students as a process of recovery, that is, as a process of teasing out the biography of the author through traces in the text. Instead, I presented it as a process of creation in which the students imagined narratives of the authors they met in their reading of a particular essay. This was a deliberate effort to destabilize the border between fact and fiction, between life lived and life written, a border rigidly, and falsely, upheld by traditional discourse in the academy. As Candace Spigelman (1996: 131) notes in "Teaching Expressive Writing as a Narrative Fiction," "the value of expressive writing lies in the recognition of its fictional potential"; likewise, the value of critical analysis lies in part in its fictional potential.
The third change I enacted was a more concerted effort to shuttle my students along the expressive/transactional spectrum of language functions. At different times in their writing, I asked students to stop the formal writing of their academic papers and to return to the stories, spoken or unspoken, that permeated their papers. In "Stabat Mater," Julia Kristeva (1986) aligns in two columns a formal, critical analysis of the Virgin Mary in Western culture with a poetic response to her own activities as mother, thereby highlighting gaps and inconsistencies in both accounts. This was the spirit I followed in twisting narrative and traditional academic writing, although I did not require Kristeva's formal alignment. I merely requested my students to write their stories, stories that reflected their desire to write this particular paper, as they wrote their papers, even if the story they wrote was that of a student coerced into writing by teacher and course requirements.
Like the approach itself, my students' performances were paradoxical, contradictory. I found some limited success in the texts that my students created, especially if I considered not merely their "final" texts but the array of drafts they crafted on the way to that final text. I had hoped that my students' writing would resonate to what Muriel Dimen (1989: 35) calls a "third voice," one that interweaves the personal voice, "saturated with feeling, values, and political protest," with the "received patriarchal [academic] voice." And at times that heterophonous voice echoed in their writing as they struggled with topics such as absentee fathers, HIV testing, outing, entitlement, and the one pure moment of athletic or social fame. Many, though, blocked. They could navigate their stories or they could navigate academic discourse, but they could not juxtapose the two, "retaining the personal power of the first and the intersubjectivity of the second" and thereby opening [End Page 171] the window "on as yet unimagined, ungendered possibilities for speaking, knowing, and living." Like me with my struggles with past syllabi, many students would give up the struggle and produce as a final text either a "story" or "academic-ese."
I also fear that this approach effected only cosmetic changes in students' habits of mind. Regardless of the textual manifestations of a "third voice," whether that voice surfaced in preliminary or final drafts, I sometimes wondered if these textual choices were, in fact, superficial, made in response to the dictates of a teacher to ensure a desirable grade. The implicit story permeating the class for many students was "do the work, get the grade." Evidence of this erupted in students' comments on their anonymous evaluations written at the end of the semester. Here, I was counseled to talk less about my children, make up my mind what I wanted, and, for heaven's sake, teach the course instead of asking them to teach it. I fear that at the end of sixteen weeks together, too many students reduced voice to a stylistic flourish, a trope, rather than a way of materially positioning themselves in a rhetorical act and in the world.
Part of that resistance I trace to the dominating presence of the "university" itself. My students understood about writing for self, and they understood about writing for school. Their drafts illustrated that understanding clearly. Their resistance was to neither. Instead, their resistance was to the crossover of writing for self and writing for school. In a university setting, in the material context of a residential campus, in a college classroom taught by a woman who, although she might speak of her children, did so always formally dressed in a business suit and heels, students were ensconced in an environment that whispered to them to eschew crossovers. Their thirteen years of successful schooling taught them to heed this voice, leading them to affirm not a process of discovery implicit within blurring genres, but a process of obtaining a particular grade for a particular course. And I ruefully suspect that I, in my own first semester of college, would have had the same response, experienced the same resistance, written the same story.
Now, at the end of a spring semester, after sixteen weeks spent reflecting on my fall semester of paradox, I still have no answers. Instead, I am left with the troubling conundrums and paradoxes with which I began. But perhaps I need to listen to my own stories, my own desires, the ones that murmur beneath the surface of this essay; perhaps I need to listen to the third voice weaving through my syllabus, as well as through my professional writing. It could be that I have returned to paradox and conundrum because that is [End Page 172] where I should be. "We shall not cease from exploration," T. S. Eliot (1971: 145) writes in Little Gidding. "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." In this case, no answer is the best answer for my students and myself, leaving all of us open to the possibilities of change.
Kristie S. Fleckenstein teaches writing at Ball State University. Her long-term interests include emotion and imagery in reading and writing. She coedits the Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, a publication that features nontraditional approaches to teaching and learning. She can be reached at email@example.com.