October 28, 2007
Journal Entry on Nancy Sommers’ “Between the Drafts” (The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook 279-285)
I had skimmed this article last spring. Then I thought it was stating the obvious: that, of course, we all need to find our own voice/authority, that we cannot disappear behind authorities, and even that we must get used to uncertainty and complexity (both/and as opposed to either/or). I don’t think I realized, until this reading, how well Sommers brings out the problem of finding one’s voice/authority. It’s harder than it seems. And in this article, Sommers is pretty masterful at showing, by way of her own experience, that “between the drafts,” the writer needs to do more than change the text, she must also learn to change her sense of self and authority. And if even a well-established composition scholar struggles with a sense of authority, it must be harder to attain that most of us realize. And if it’s that hard for some of us, how hard must it be for our students.
Since I’m researching the question of what role personal writing should play in writing classes, for my major project, I was especially interested in Sommers’ comments about personal writing. I laughed out loud at how she characterized the view of those who feel that a writing program should be “the welcome wagon of the academy, the Holiday Inn where students lodge as they take holy orders” (285). That’s hilarious. These scholars, she says, are afraid of allowing students to do anything but academic writing in the writing classroom because, if they allow something else in, they worry a “great red-legged scissor-man will cut off [their] thumbs” (285). She may have been playing with hyperbole there, but it seems a little extreme to characterize their view as motivated by fear of authority. On the other hand, I can imagine some truth in her other complaint about them: that their fear of personal writing in the classroom may be motivated by fear of the academy becoming too uncertain, too loose, too uncontrollable. That is interesting.
Finally, I have been thinking about how Sommers herself learned to write with her own authority. On one hand, I found myself agreeing with her that personal writing can help students “claim their stories as primary source material and transform their experiences into evidence” (285 cf. Matalene). That makes a lot of sense. But, on the other hand, that statement itself is couched within an essay about the journey Sommers herself has been on to find her own authority. And she nowhere mentions finding her voice by using personal writing. She describes finding it by struggling with her own professional writing in the context of an academic community. So doesn’t that beg the question of whether Sommers is advocating one pedagogy but herself is the product of another? In other words, if she finally found her voice mainly by struggling over the years with her own professional writing and teaching, who is to say that method is not effective for helping students find their own authority? Maybe it just takes time and struggle. Of course, it could be that using personal writing in the classroom speeds up a student’s process of finding her own voice. But it’s an interesting, and difficult, question.