Can Anyone Thunder? Writing Within the Bounds of One's Authority

by Louie Crew (a.k.a. Li Min Hua)

First appeared in English Record 38.3 (1987): 7-10.

© 1987 by English Record; © 2004 by Louie Crew

The writer wrote with authority.  This praise would please many writers, but how does one earn it? Can we teach students to write with authority?

Author derived from auctor, L., `originator,' which in turn derived from augere, L., `to increase,' `to produce.' Author emphasizes the internal process. Writer derived from the Indo-European base wer-, `to tear off' or `to scratch' and emphasizes mainly the physical process. One might argue that authors faithful to the etymology of their vocation, do not merely scratch out some words but originate, create, and increase.

Matthew made a similar claim for Jesus following the Sermon on the Mount: "And his teaching made a deep impression on the people because he taught them with authority, and not like their own scribes" (Matthew 7:28-29). The editors of the Jerusalem Bible footnote this passage: "These [scribes] always sought support for their teaching in the `tradition' of the ancients" (27). Jesus did not. He said, "You have heard...but I say," whereas the scribes would say, "Most commentators agree..." or "The consensus seems to be that..." or "The weight of opinion is... " or "a poll of experts shows...."

Novices, like scribes, often prefer imported judgments to their own. Ironically, to encourage students' authority, sometimes we need to direct them away from professional models:

Huo Li, you explain the myth; but your paper reads too much like an encyclopedia, without much of your own authority here. Enrich the paper with your own insights.

Tseng Lin, your narrative seems canned, as if out of a travel brochure, --prefabricated and not distinguished from several dozen others about the same subject. To compete for a discriminating reader's respect, you will always need a specialized angle, a way of seeing that vouches for your own personal authority.

Few composition researchers discuss authority directly. Neither the table of contents nor the index of any of the first 20 current texts which I chose at random from my office, names the subject; yet most stress related ideas, such as the need of writers to find their own voice and the need for writers to analyze their audience.

We can serve students better if we name authority as what's at stake in the analysis and encourage them to negotiate authority more self-consciously. Many students do not see authority as an issue until we teach them to do so.

Authority derives from a dynamic interchange of the author, the text, and the reader or readers. Stanley Fish speaks of "the authority of interpretive communities," each with its criteria for "author"izing. J. R. Searle charts many of the contextual constraints which affect the authority of discourse. The members of the D.A.R. understood the communal dynamics of authority when F.D.R. addressed them in his Hyde-Park accent as "Fellow Immigrants!" Today he would increase his authority if he emended to "Sister Immigrants!" Clearly we should not ask "Does this text have authority?" so much as "For whom does this text have authority?" and "Why?" and "Should it have?"

We teachers constitute a major "interpretive community" for students. The alert student soon learns that each teacher assesses authority differently. Some teachers grant no authority to a student's professional judgments until the student uses the discipline's jargon. Other teachers prefer that a student state the professional concepts in a fresh way to an intelligent but general audience outside the discipline. Some want the English major to target the readers of Saturday Review; others, PMLA. Some want psychology majors to pitch for Psychology Today; others, for The American Journal of Psychology.

Teachers need not agree. Our lack of consensus trains our students for the varied criteria which they will face as writers. The May 1985 issue of College Composition and Communication explores "Writing in the Academic and Professional Disciplines" and highlights many conflicting criteria. See especially the problems which Barbara C. Mallonee and John R. Breihan report in "Responding to Students' Drafts: Interdisciplinary Consensus," (213-231).

But since teachers don't agree, we might try to eliminate some of the guess work for students. We might specify the criteria by which students will establish or undermine their authority with us.

One Teacher's Experience

Authority often surfaces crucially for the English majors whom I teach at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Competing to master a rigid British syllabus, each new student has eliminated 29 other candidates for her or his university place. All rigorously adhere to received opinions. Our Writing Program attempts to wean them, to free them for their own authoring. We hope that they can write originally and competently--authoritatively--about language or literature by the end of the second year.

For their first paper students must "describe three ways to redeem each of four stale or tedious subjects by bringing to it a fresh angle--for example, How to Boil an Egg." For their second paper students write about "a book which [they] hated." The competitive culture of their secondary education made their feelings taboo. No one has ever asked them to criticize an assignment or to explore their personal experience about a book. These assignments terrify many. They do not know the new ground rules.

Soon we stress that writers can increase their authority by gathering fresh evidence. Sometimes we import techniques from the social sciences. Recently we asked the students to read Clifford Geertz's "`From the Native's Point of View': On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding." A Yale graduate in anthropology who tutors in the program then lectured on how to gather evidence. We assigned a paper:

Gather some original, specific, and candid ethnographic evidence about your own culture. When you report your findings, balance "the most local of details" with the "global structures" or "symbol systems" (Geertz's phrases) which you allege these details to serve.

I suggested eight tacks, but urged the students to carve out a topic of their own. Ninety-two percent opted for one of my eight suggestions. Thereby they threw away a good chance to increase their authority, their own originality. They have to share with me a huge portion of any "credit" for their "success" with a project which I had substantially "produced."

Others undermined their authority when they treated their data casually. Some merely stapled the data to a brief summary, and did not attempt to integrate it as a part of the paper, as if to say "I've done my research. I give you only my conclusions. If you don't believe me, you wade through the evidence as I have done." They pontificated, as if authority derives from conclusions, not from evidence. On a paper about males and females, I wrote:

As an editorial, your paper engages. As research, it offends.

Never do you cite any hard facts (closely controlled descriptions; quantified behavior, etc.), much less describe your methodology. Here you ascribe qualities to all Chinese males and females and offer your own voice as your only authority! I would not believe most trained professionals if they spoke so broadly. Most would not speak so broadly; most would stay within the scope of their special research.

Your own experience could carry you further. Why, for example, do women outnumber men in your own class of new English majors? Why do families today no longer bind little girls' feet? ..... You ignore the multiple standards by which this society classifies females and males.

One student drew from personal experience to compare two kinds of Chinese funerals:

Chinese people always made everything conspicuous and grand, even grief. However, such tradition has undergone significance change with the incoming of foreign culture. I attended a funeral last week. It was not the first time I went to a funeral but it was a completely different one. As the family of the dead person were Christians, they had invited a clergyman to preside over the funeral. The friends and relatives of the dead person were asked to say something about the dead person, usually they were words of praise and regret. The whole affair was solemn and sad.

On the other hand, the funeral I once attended was traditionally Chinese. The family of the dead person had to put on "hemp clothes" and "hemp hats." They sat by a side on the floor to receive and return the bows given to them by the comers. Several nuns were invited to the funeral. Their chanting and the funeral march in the background made the atmosphere tense and wearying.

Funeral is an incident through which the people could express their grief and sorrow about the death of another person....

The more specific the student's details (the clergyman, the litany of praise and regret; the hemp, the nuns, the bows), the more paper engages me, as an account of one person's experience. But the student never attempts the global perspectives we requested in the assignment. As a field worker, I would welcome the student as an informant, but only as one of many. I suggested a new vision of the assignment:

Instead of talking off the top of your head, why not go for higher stakes. Collect facts about some of the specific customs which you mentioned:

Of course the student would need to design his own ways to gather fresh evidence, lest he merely import my "originality."

Another student undermined her authority by getting no critical distance from the custom which she reported, that is, the Hong Kong practice of maintaining separate washrooms for teachers and students at all educational levels. She explained the expensive practice as a response to "a gap between teachers and students." The student insisted that such "physical differentiation between students and teachers is universal." The student never backed off to see that several cultures do not provide separate washrooms, and that most other colonial cultures do.... I will not withhold authority until the student adopts my own different interpretation: but she can increase her authority with me if she reviews the customs more provocatively, more "globally."

Authority in Literary Papers

Students have special problems when they try to write authoritatively about literature. Some view all analysis as an attempt to rehash canonical information and never establish any authority for their own text. Others try to state their own insights but flounder in inauthentic diction. They lack what Donald Hall calls "one of the most important features of good writing," namely "the voice of a real person speaking out of his own experience, using his own language, with a minimum of tired phrases, of borrowed clothing" (10).

When I asked my students to write about a literary work which they had understood and also hated, one began:

Literature accompanies with pains, embarrassment and flush. When you read any literary works, you have to prepare that you will get hurt. Writers will suddenly scrape out something of you which you do not want yourself or others to know. I have much unexpressible, uncomfortable and unforgettable experience in reading since I have been a English major. Heavy work load has not make me knit my brows. But the self-knowledge that literary works bring me drags me into a bitter world. The more I know myself, the more reluctant I will be to accept myself. A confounded feeling will grow inside you when you read something which make you know yourself. It composites of exclamation, confusion, affection, and hatred. Most of the time, the latter two weave together. Two contradictory emotions appear at the same time. The first time I read James Joyce's "Araby," this kind of feeling ran over me. After I finished reading the story, I uttered, "I hate it."

The student stresses what's at stake, the pain of self-knowledge, before she names the story she will discuss. I like that strategy. But she steadily loses focus, as when she coordinates "unexpressible, uncomfortable and unforgettable experience." Only uncomfortable coheres to her point about self-knowledge, and uncomfortable diminishes the original claim to pain. She seems indiscriminately to have plundered the "agony" section of a thesaurus: her course work does not make her "knit [her] brows" but "self-knowledge "drags [her] into a bitter world...."

The diction, prodigally inexact, diverts me far more than her remediable surface problems with English idiom, tense, and point of view. Because she strains, her vocabulary sounds artificial, and she forfeits some of her authority to talk about even her most genuine experiences. Ironically, those who control words well can often win authority to talk about experiences not literally their own.

Presumably the student chose these words intentionally, to try to impress me, to try to sound like an authentic English major. Master teacher Mina Shaughnessy observes:

Most writers can remember in their own writing histories a period of self-conscious emulation of the formal style, heavy with long words and stiff with the set expressions and elaborations of that style. Were writers to wait to use such words and phrases until they could manage them perfectly, they would not learn to use them at all. Learning is a sequence of approximations, some of them quite far from the intended mark, and it is not unusual for a student to sound worse before he sounds better. (194)

If we do not allow students the space in which "to sound worse" before they sound "better," we pressure them to import their language from less vulnerable sources. Joseph Williams and Rosemary Hake have documented that many teachers prefer obfuscation to clarity. If we reward best those who sound like the professionals, perhaps we have only ourselves to blame when they minimally digest articles in the learned journals and feed them back to us, with or without adequate documentation.

For 1983-84 I taught writing in Beijing to 150 senior English majors. To graduate, each had to write an extensive senior thesis, supervised by a senior faculty member in the final semester. For this project they could either translate an important essay and write a brief introduction, or they could write an original piece of literary analysis. In the first semester I tried to prod the students into an early draft of these projects, with elaborate explanations of how to use secondary materials to augment but not replace one's own authority. They stared at me with glazed eyes, convinced that they knew how to write a long paper and did not need me. More than 140 plagiarized extensively.

I responded with an open letter to the class and to their tutors: "The major problem: most of you make no attempt to distinguish between your own authority and that of your sources. Many of you do not document your sources at all.... You don't want to read a book by someone who claims great wisdom, only then to discover that the person had paraphrased that `wisdom' out of a better book without even telling you." I explained documentation and stressed that they could gain much of their authority as jugglers, but that jugglers do not impress until they manage at least three items.

In the spring I advised only three of the 150, and one of these changed advisors when I persevered to insist that she document properly and develop her own ideas. With another, who wrote about the grotesque in Carson McCullers, I feared I pressed almost too hard, especially after the second time she broke into tears:

Your outline only reviews prefabricated approaches to the novel: in it you do not address my essential criticism, namely that you have not yet established any grounds for your own authority....

I insist that you find a way to get back into the primary material, McCullers' own work. Collect fresh data from it to support a thesis of your own or a thesis which you borrow....

At the moment you still prepare to do little more than sophisticated copy exercises....

She and my other advisee finally yielded to my pressure and wrote splendid papers. The Institute hired both of them as teachers in the following year, one of the best rewards the leaders there have to give. I wish all other stories could have so happy a conclusion.

The MLA Handbook cogently shows ways writers can borrow to reinforce their own authority or to usurp the authority of others (19-23); but the problem goes deeper. Imported authority unimpeachably documented can still undermine a writer's authority, especially when the writer treats the imports too deferentially. Note the opening of a teacher's first version of his paper written for my graduate class in Beijing:

When I paid a visit to the teacher at his apartment on the campus on a Saturday afternoon, I happened to find a pamphlet, entitled Profile of the Freshman Class, University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, 1981-1982. The curiosity piqued by the title made me start skimming it, though I did not expect to find anything extraordinarily interesting. But something in the pamphlet did arouse my interest, and I got an idea. Why can't I use the same method to make an investigation on the Chinese freshmen whom my colleagues and I are teaching now? I did it, 91 students responded to the test, and the result really surprised me.

After conscientiously comparing the data in that pamphlet, which, written by Robert E. Mosier, not only provided the data about the students in the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, UW/SP, but also includes the data on a general survey of the undergraduate student in America as a whole, with that of the Chinese students, I almost confidently reach a conclusion that American students, and Chinese students as well, are plunging in a period of, so called, "individual ascendancy", a term coined by Arthur Levine in his When Dreams and Heroes Died (Washington, Jossey-Bass Pub., 1980)....

What has the writer discovered? Why should we read him and not Levine, Mosier, & Co.? Why does he bury us with the details of his difficulties as a writer? Does he presume to establish his authority by convincing us that he has worked hard in the face of heavy scholarly models?

Note how much more forcefully, authoritatively, the same writer begins after I raised these objections. He moves quickly to the guts of the discussion:

"I want to train for my occupation. Don't waste your time or mine teaching me easy things like `how to get along' or `how to be well-rounded.' Those are not the essential business of higher education. I want a detailed grasp of my special field so that I can compete!"

Who is speaking? A contemporary American college student? Well, yes. But also a contemporary college student in China's capital.

In the past decade both America and China have shifted priorities from broad communal struggles towards narrower, individualist goals. Both societies have emerged from a period of sustained national strife--in America, the struggles over the Vietnam War; in China, the disastrous "civil war" better known as The Cultural Revolution.

Recently I replicated on my campus in Beijing Robert Mosier's research for his Profile of the Freshman Class, University of Wisconsin/Stevens Point, 1981-82. I documented that students living half-way round the world under radically different economies and ideologies still strikingly resemble one another.

Indeed, both Chinese and American students seem to have turned from blazing idealistic and political passions to both corporate and individual pragmatism. China's government policy now heartily espouses "The Four Modernizations" (Agriculture, Technology, .....?), and Chinese students, like other citizens, welcome the return to a more peaceful life with the promise of increased prosperity for those who work hard....

Now imported experts don't drown out the writer. He cuts the Levine jargon altogether and properly credits Mosier. He writes with authority.

Teachers have our own problems when we write. My mentor James B. McMillan seized the moment seventeen years ago as we left the room after I had defended my dissertation:

Until now you have succeeded as a writer primarily by convincing your teachers that you know much of what other people know. Hereafter, editors and readers will assume that. If you expect to command their attention, you will have to say something new.

Teachers need vigilantly to prompt such mini-epiphanies.


Works Cited

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980

Geertz, Clifford. "`From the Native's Point of View': On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding." Chapter 5 in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1983. 55-70.

Gibaldi, Joseph, and Walter S. Achtert. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 2nd Edition, New York: The Modern Language Association, 1984.

Hall, Donald. Writing Well. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.

The Jerusalem Bible. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1966.

Levine, Arthur. When Dreams and Heroes Died. Washington: Jossey-Bass Pub., 1980.

Mallonee, Barbara C., and John R. Breihan. "Responding to Students' Drafts: Interdisciplinary Consensus." College Composition and Communication 36.2 (1985): 213-231.

Mosier, Robert E. Profile of the Freshman Class, University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, 1981-1982. Stevens Point, Wisconsin: UWSP, 1982.

Searle, J. R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations. New York, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Williams, Joseph M., and Rosemary L. Hake. "Phenomenology of Error." College Composition and Communication 32:2 (1981): 152- 168.


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