It's interesting to me how, no matter which classes I take in a semester, topics tend to tie together in unexpected ways. For example, I'm working on a presentation on Voice in Creative Writing, and the first article we are reading this week is "Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries" by Peter Elbow.
Personally, I appreciate a strong sense of natural, authorial voice in writing. For example, if I were to be given a passage by David Sedaris, without knowing that he wrote it, I'd probably be able to guess, because Sedaris has a distinct voice. It is my opinion that this kind of voice gives flavor to an author's work. However, I had never considered the negative reactions to voice-- "it's misleading," "sincerity is not a useful goal for writing" (1)-- nor had I considered that the voice debate goes as far back in history as Plato and Aristotle. Recently, the discussion has quieted down quite a bit, which is also interesting. Have we tired of the debate? Elbow certainly doesn't want this to happen.
In terms of recent discussions regarding voice, Elbow examines Theodore Baird's approach in his classroom in the mid 1900s, which had a significant impact on many who came into contact with it-- including many great thinkers in the field. Baird's approach focused on the importance of voice, however did not see it as reflective of the author behind the pen. They define "self" in writing as being "continually made and re-made by language" (3). Personally, I'm not a huge fan of this approach because it reminds me very much of New Criticism which I have very mixed feelings about, because I don't think it gives enough credence to the presence and experience of an author entering into his or her own text.
Even though we don't acknowledge it now as much as we used to, voice is still very much alive in our modern world, perhaps even more so now than ever before. Voice has become all the more important in this new digital age, when a text message can be interpreted in many different ways. Ever heard of the many different ways to read the sentence, "I never said I stole her money
"? The voice behind writing becomes all the more important as the world of "text" takes over.
I like the difference that Elbow highlights between "text" and "voice," establishing text as literal words on the page, just the words, without any external meaning attached to them-- rather like numbers in a math problem. Voice, on the other hand, is less like the mathematical equation of text, and is instead likened to the personal handwriting of each individual person-- warmer and unique. In my opinion, this is establishing voice as the soul of the piece.
It takes time for a writer to establish and become comfortable with his or her voice, in fact, it is a lifelong process. In the classroom setting, it becomes the teacher's job to gently guide students into finding their own voice in the midst of handing out assignments on strict deadlines-- much easier said than done. I agree with Elbow that an understanding of voice can come through reading and understanding that voices of authors they enjoy, and then using those examples to try to better understand their own. I know this certainly worked for me.
Interestingly, Elbow, also mentions some of the cons of voice in writing, for example, in some instances it may be best to overlook voice, in order to find meaning in a work. For example, one might not enjoy a certain writer because of the voice in his or her work, but that does not mean that he or she does not have something important to offer. A teacher might not automatically connect with a student's voice, but the student might just have an entirely different style. There are instances in which looking beyond voice, although hard, can be greatly beneficial. I enjoyed Elbow's article because I think he offered a fair perspective both for and against voice in writing. No matter which side you fall on, the discussion is far from over.
Our next article, "Responding to Student Writing" by Nancy Sommers, doesn't quite tie in with the first, but it does tie back to a topic we have discussed in extensively in class, that is, the most effctive ways of responding to student writing. Despite a teacher's best efforts, a student may simply not connect with their teaching approach because teaching is not one-size fits-all. For this reason, it is important to be prepared to have different strategies for dealing with different kinds of students.
Responding to student writing takes a long time-- Sommers estimates about 20 to 40 minutes per student, which adds up greatly considering the amount of students and periods one teacher has total. This is a lot of time to dedicate to an effort which may or may not be appreciated by the students, and it's hard to say whether or not it is. As we have discussed in previous classes, some students respond well and some don't care at all, which can be incredibly discouraging to the teacher trying his or her best.
As I read through this piece I felt a strong sense of déjà vu, and I found out why pretty early on, as Sommers cites Lil Brannon and Cyril Knoblauch as other thinkers in the field. Brannon and Knoblauch wrote the article I covered last week, "On Student's Rights to Their Own Texts," which covers similar ideas of placing emphasis on the student's work. A major conclusion that Sommers comes to is that often a teacher's comments on a paper are much like that of a computer, "arbitrary and idiosyncratic" (3) which, as has been concluded, can draw the student's attention away from their own purposes in writing. Commanding students to "expand" and to think more about certain parts of their writing may be done with good intentions, but it may also defeat the purpose of what the student is trying to convey.
I certainly think that teacher comments can be nitpicky. Sommers talks about students becoming frustrated because the comments on their papers seem like they could have been copied and pasted from one to the other, especially in cases when something like "be specific," "be precise" is said over and over. However, in some cases, comments like this are totally warranted, and I think it all depends on the relationship that is built between teacher and student which makes all the difference. If the student knows that the teacher cares and is on his or her team, they're going to be more likely to question a comment, rather than be discouraged.
In regard to our final project, I'm excited about our spin on Genius Hour and passion projects! Genius Hour was birthed by Google, one of the current most powerful companies in the world, and I think it's an incredibly empowering exercise. The original idea is that for one hour, once a week, students are allowed to take class time and work on their personal "passion projects," which they will present at the end of the year Passion projects are cool because they give students the ability to learn and work on a project that is important to them, outside of a class syllabus. I think that these passion projects will be a great way of workshopping our individual ideas, and will serve as a way for all of us to gather together and collaborate on all of our different ideas. The unifying strand that runs throughout all of our work will be the hashtag #WhyIWrite, which is a big question for anyone involved in our field.
Personally, I began writing because it gave me a voice in ways that my own voice failed me. I was a painfully shy child who struggled to speak to anyone about something as simple as the weather, let alone about serious matters. However, even though I couldn't speak up, I could write. In time, teachers noticed that I wrote well, and encouraged me to write more, and on different subjects. Through positive responses to my writing, I learned that I did have something to say and it gave me the courage to speak up. Now, I write because it allows me to think through complex ideas and outline theories, and come up with my own new concepts that I would love to introduce to the world of literature. Now, I write for the sake of research.
For my passion project, I like the idea of compiling a few lesson plans that incorporate theories and techniques we have learned about in class, in order to come up with a curriculum that might help other students to love writing. I would especially appreciate our group time for this effort, because of all the teachers in class who could advise me in the practicality of my plans. I like this idea because it could turn #WhyIWrite into #WhyWeWrite.