Academic Writing: Conformity and Individuation

Mastering Academic Writing: Conformity and Individuation

I believe that mastering academic writing requires students to make, not just a cognitive step, but a psychological one as well.   I want to illustrate this point by referring to a peculiar piece of student writing that I received under odd circumstance.  I was the head TA supervisor that quarter, and when one of the TAs I had trained had to drop out for personal reasons, I was asked to take over her class.  I first met the class in the second meeting of the third week.  They had been going over a unit called Obedience to Authority, and I was surprised to see that some students were well along in their paper for the unit   But what I saw of what they wrote was way too much summary; so I gave them a crash course in my pedagogy and asked them if they could to find a way to respond more personally to the readings.  I gave them examples of course.

            The papers having come in, I was reading along in one paper that I thought was pretty good, not very thoughtful, sort of thin, but decently put together, and as I was thinking maybe A, I turned the page to see that the paper had concluded quite abruptly.  It was too short.  But then I saw another page, as follows:

Can you believe this paper? Though it is written in train of thought, it has structure, new paragraphs for each new idea and topic sentences. The paper has an introduction, a progression throughout the body and a conclusion. I wrote it for someone who would analyze everything about this paper but the true depth of thought behind it. I wrote this for a Writing professor.

As I read back over this paper, I am embarrassed of it. Being the perfect little intelligent blond girl all my life has produced in me the almost unconscious skill of kissing ass. You can see it in the way I write, do assignments and generally interact with my “superiors”, most often teachers. I think it has something to do with my innate selfishness and self‑centeredness. I want certain things for myself in life (or have been brought up by society from an early age to want certain things for myself), and though experience have found that acting and performing in a kiss ass manner will get me what I want. To me, it is almost like using people has become an art. Is that my fault for being weak or society’s fault for producing such experiences? I don’t know. I just don’t.

The one thing that I really worry about now is not that I am being unoriginal, but that I am being unoriginal in order to reach a goal that may not be what I truly want. I need to decide what I want to do with my life, to have a true goal to reach for. At this point, I am just sick of doing things for reasons that I am not even sure of. I want to lead a happy life in pursuit of goals that fulfill me. That, in a nutshell, is my main struggle with the influence of others.

So what prompted the perfectly intelligent little blond girl to break character and write this?  To get to the answer I wish to propose, I need to back up and little and quickly outline the psychoanalytic theory of D.W. Winnicott.  Winnicott argues that every individual has a true and a false self.  The word “false” sounds bad; but Winnicott makes clear throughout his writing that the false self is absolutely essential for social functioning. Not having any false self would be pretty bad.  Parents teach their children to say thank you; they even teach their children to say it like they meant it.  In other words, parents teach their children to be false in certain social situations.  The child may not want to say thank you and he may certainly not mean it, but he does so anyway.

The true self is the self related more to the needs, desires and wants of the particular individual self.  It is rooted in the deepest levels of the psyche, the psyche as it existed in the infant, a psyche that was unable to recognize any distinction between itself and the world, a psyche that experienced itself consequently as omnipotent.  In the course of a normal development in an appropriate fascilitating environment, the infant begins to learn that a world of objects exists outside of itself and beyond its control.  With appropropirat e response from the environment, however, the infant self, without too much damange, will relinquish its sense of omnipotence and recognize its limitations.

If however the environmental provision is less than adequate one may go through life experiencing an intense conflict between the false self and the demands of the social situation and the true self that may feel crushed or pinched by the constraints of the false self.  The individual may break in two ways.  One may become completely false and lose all touch with the enlivening and vitalizing force of the true self; or one may become complete true, break contact with the social, and retreat into an imagined world.  If however one has received an adequate environmental provision, this conflict will over the course of a normal development disappear.  The hors of the dilemma Winnicott says becomes the horn of the unicorn.  But Winnicott stresses the tension between the true and false selves is frequently most evident in the stage called adolescence.

            The perfectly intelligence blond girl was an adolescent and her two papers may be explained by reference to Winnicott.  The first paper, the one I felt was almost an A, had probably been written more for the TA I replaced.  The second was written more for me as the teacher who had stressed the importance of what I call “the subjective response.”  The first appears the work of the “false self,” and the second appears the work of the “true.”  The self of the second paper calls attention to the falseness of the first paper.  I quote: “I wrote it for someone who would analyze everything about this paper but the true depth of thought behind it. I wrote this for a Writing professor.”

            The student did not write the first paper to express her self or to expose the true depth of her thought.  She kept these things back and gave the writing professor what he wanted.  She says, “The paper has an introduction, a progression throughout the body and a conclusion.”  The first paper had been a response entirely to the formal requirements of papers written for writing teachers.  They must have such things as thesis and topic sentences, beginnings, middles and ends.  By writing in this way for the Writing professor, the student feels she has been false.  Thus her embarrassment at the writing; from the perspective of her true self she had by writing this paper been false to her truth.  And the analytic material suggests that one may even feel ashamed at experiencing one’s self as having been false to one’s truth.

            Writing the first paper seems to have made her acknowledge that she has long been false.  She has developed she believes a perhaps “unconscious skill for kissing ass.”  This phrase alone seems to express a conflict: between the idea of a skill, usually a positive thing, and the idea of this skill being the ability to “kiss ass.”  But she kisses ass she says to get what she wants.  So kissing ass, while false, serves a positive purpose.  But while the ability serves her in some way, it comes from her innate selfishness and self-centeredness.  Here the student may allude to her relatively archaic infant sense of self as creator of the world.  Her expression of the truth of her self in the second paper puts her into a destablizining conflict with the very vitalizing energies that felt the false of the first paper.  That this may be the case is suggested by her rather extreme and perhaps grandiose self-condemnation as a person who is selfish, self-centered, and manipulative.

             I don’t think this student is typical.  But her writing does make me wonder how many students feel a conflict between the true and false self when they write for the writing teacher?  How much may this conflict be responsible for the listless and enervated papers we sometimes receive?  Even worse, perhaps, may be those students who feel no conflict because they have decided, based on previous experience, that writing for the writing professor (or any professor for that matter) is simply an exercise in social falseness.  And this falseness is worth it, if it gets one the grade one hopes to get.  And how much is this and the conflict with the true the cause of students’ belief that mostly what they write is “bullshit.”

            I point here to issues that arise if one takes a developmental perspective.  I don’t think that everyone in writing theory sees the problem in this way.  David Bartholomae for example in his classic “Inventing the University,” writes consdescendingly of the elements of development in the writing as process model.  But in rejecting the idea of self-development Barthomae goes too far to the other extreme.  How does the student move from the naïve codes to the more sophisticated codes of academic writing?  Bartholomae writes:

            It may well be that some students will need to learn to crudely mimic the “distinctive register” of academic discourse before they are prepared to actually and legitimately do the work of the discourse, and before they are sophisticated enough with the refinements of tone to do it with grace or elegance. (*=98)

And of his own learning practices, Bartholomae writes:

            I can remember when, as a graduate student, I would begin papers by sitting down to write literally in the voice—with the syntax and vocabulary—of the strongest teacher I had met.

How does one get from the naieve to the sophisticated codes?  By it would appear through mimcry and imitation.

            This was something that I as a student was constitutionally incapable of doing.  I remember sitting in what people used to call the stacks, laboring over a paper, with books stacked hither and thither and paper all over the place, when a fellow student came by and asked me what the heck I was doing.  I tried to explain.  He said, “Look Nick, you are looking for the truth.  All they want is a gracefully written essay.”  I thought about what he said.  I respected him because he was, I knew, the son of a college professor; he should know what “they” wanted.  What they wanted appears to be what Bartholomae wants—the distinctive register of the academic voice, gracefully rendered.  But I was no more capable of imitating my strongest teacher than I was of following my friends advice.

            I think that I had more than one reason for this, but one I feel of particular importance is my working class background.  I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from college.  I was, at the small liberal arts college I attended, surrounded by people who had done things I had never done. I didn’t know what a profession was and I certainly had no idea what becoming an english major meant.  I struggled constantly with a sense that I was playing a game I really didn’t understand.  Even when I won or did well, I felt somehow defeated.  This feeling, as well as my inability to mimic my professors, arose from a strong tension between my true self, as rooted in my working class background and the false self I would need to utilize and somehow develop for the purposes of mimicry.

            Richard Boyd, following the work of Rene Girard argues, re: Inventing the University that any pedagogy that relies upon mimcry is necessarily authoritarian.  Further, the attempt to emulate the model being offered up for imintation may lead one towards disdain for one’s own self.  This may be a particularly perilous move for working class person’s who in disdaining their selves, as inadequate to the model, may also disdain their particular class and the stabilizing that an identification with that class affords.  I think, indeed, that the word emulate is too kind.  I did not as I said attempt to emulate models (partly because as a working class student I didn’t know enough to understand these people were worthy of emulation).  Rather I experienced the model thrust upon as an authoritarian gesture.  What I was being told to do was “conform” or else.

            I experienced “authority” this way, as a threat, because, again, of my working class background.  Authorities (aside from the authority of one’s church perhaps) are quintessentially bosses.  Over and over again, studies of the working class and working class schools suggest—while of course there are exceptions—that working class children are raised and educated primarily to take orders.  I saw my teachers as bosses and perhaps because I felt I was being threatened, I struck back.  In fact, two high school English teachers told me they would have me kicked out of their classes if I did not stop writing the things I was writing (personal attacks on the teacher and overly original responses to assignments).  One of them said, I was a rebel without a cause and for my own benefit should cease and desist.

            I belabor my case because the conflicts, tensions, and possibilities of psychological destabilization are, I think, most dramatically visible in the case of the working class person as he or she enters the university.  But my student, the perfect intelligent little blond girl, was middle class         and she too was experiencing some form of self-destabilization upon entering the university.  She writes: “The one thing that I really worry about now is not that I am being unoriginal, but that I am being unoriginal in order to reach a goal that may not be what I truly want.”  The idea of being unoriginal if as I believe the idea of being original or unique is perhaps the last refuge of one’s childlike though vitalizing narcissism.  Certainly, the student has not given up on the idea that she might be original or originary, but she is worried that she is putting her energies in the wrong direction.  What she wants to find is a goal that is true to her original self—that psychological self that goes along as Winnicott might put with the “idea that one is the creator of the world.”

            What then to do, I must say quickly, miminize the teaching of writing as the teaching of formalities, of thesis statement, different forms of arugment, or compare and contrast.  Have them engage a meaningful content and let them know you, the teacher, are interested in and wish to understand how they do or don’t respond to that content.  Let them know that you know about their subjectivities.  Tell them that being objective does not mean pushing yourself out of the picture but of establishing with the “real” a particular form of psychological relation.  Through a teaching of this kind students may come to understand the methodologies and theories that inform the ideology of academic writing.