Posts Tagged ‘definitions of writing’

Respectful Aggression?: Reconciling Polarized Definitions of Writing

By Gretchen Panzer - Tuesday, October 18, 2011, 8:03pm

I keep thinking about David Bartholomae’s definition of writing as “an act of aggression disguised as an act of charity” (407). Because of this, I responded a bit cynically to the section regarding “Respect for the Reader” in St. Norbert’s “General Writing Policy” as it appears in the 2001-2003 St. Norbert Catalog:

Students should demonstrate that they respect the values and concerns of their readers. Thus written work should address the needs of its audience, which includes an intelligent, coherent, and grammatically correct presentation of information; a use of unbiased language to avoid sexist or other pejorative rhetoric; and an awareness and tolerance of alternative viewpoints. (qtd. in Pennington and Boyer 92-93)

First, I don’t understand what grammatical correctness has to do with respecting the “values and concerns” of one’s audience. Will my reader really feel as if I don’t respect his or her values and concerns if there’s a comma splice in my introductory paragraph? Second, if we are to believe Bartholomae as well as the individuals who composed St. Norbert’s “General Writing Policy,” writing is a contradiction in terms: a respectful act of aggression, an attack that is unbiased, non-pejorative, and tolerant of other viewpoints.

How do we reconcile these two very different views of writing? John Pennington and Robert Boyer, in their discussion of St. Norbert’s WAC program, follow Sandra Stotsky’s example in viewing “writing as a moral and intellectual behavior in all disciplines” (92). If writing is indeed an inherently moral behavior, Batholomae’s claim that it is an act of aggression simply doesn’t fit with our cultural assumption that aggression is immoral. There is a direct opposition here, which gives us three options:

  1. to reject Bartholomae’s definition of writing as an act of aggression and to accept Pennington, Boyer, and St. Norbert College’s definition of writing as a moral act;
  2. to accept Bartholomae’s definition and to reject that of Pennington, Boyer, and St. Norbert College; or
  3. to create a middle ground between these two opposite definitions.

I’m curious as to whether any of you have created your own middle ground, especially since I don’t have a clear vision of what mine would be yet. What characterizes the space between writing as aggression and writing as moral behavior? What particular challenges did you face when navigating this middle ground? Do you think this is a tension that will ever be resolved on a larger scale, or will there always be a debate regarding the nature of writing?


Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” An Anthology of Essays. 403-17. Web.

Pennington, John, and Robert Boyer. “A Reflective Strategy for Writing Across the Curriculum: Situating WAC as a Moral and Civic Duty.” The WAC Journal. 87-100. Web.

[Note: I apologize for the incomplete citations—I accessed these articles through Moodle and was unable to find complete citations in my web research.]