Ideas on Academic Writing
Revised 11-29-07.

 

In reading Bazerman’s essay on academic writing I started thinking about how sometimes the voice of authority is feigned. And how as students and teachers we must exercise a certain amount of caution not to become too schismatic in our own critical writings. I found Bazerman’s essay to be especially pertinent as it related to some of my own experience within doctrinaire literature departments and, as a student who has taught in the past and will, most likely continue to teach.

As a tyro literature Undergraduate, I had a strong tendency to agree with most critical writings that were introduced in the class. Unless I could find some glaring error in the way the critic was reading a particular work, I did not feel I had enough background knowledge to question the omniscient critical voice. In most of my early survey courses, like most of the other students, I had very little prior knowledge of the texts being studied. Even as a curious and inquisitive student, most critical responses seemed as fact to me. To this day I still hold a certain amount of what the Norton editors have to say as true-- almost automatically. But perhaps only because I’ve grown so accustomed to the form: that friendly recondite voice whispering history to me from the page.

In reading a critic who writes with an idea of his or her audience a certain amount of sentimentality is evoked, and it becomes much easier to read right over what may be glaring examples of pathetic fallacy. As a result, I have often find myself nodding while reading the scant critical sections provided in aforementioned Norton Critical Editions, without really thinking much about them. I am fully aware while I’m reading that the author may have a bias, but my bias for the presentation of the information occasionally overrides this. As Bazerman writes, this phenomenon is more than just an “arbitrary swing… of cultural fashion” (21). I have such an attraction to the text because it has assumed a great many things about me, its reader, and this will inevitably tint what is expressed therein. Though Bazerman notes that his method of viewing language “gives no firm evidence about the actual intentions of the authors and the actual understanding of the reader,” he does mention that as readers we can easily infer the attitudes, types of persuasion and the structuring of the argument within the text (24-25).

From my personal example as a Undergraduate, it becomes clear how Hartman is able to write an essay that does nothing more than “prepare the reader’s sensibility to relive imaginatively the Wordsworthian sensibility” (41). In a sense, Hartman succeeds in pigeonholing the acceptable aesthetic definition of the poem. His use of legerdemain would be nearly imperceptible for novice students and even worse; I imagine there are probably a large number of high school teachers out there who would be unable to see how it is not an informed study, especially if they have any kind of interest in the material and are lured by the siren call of the critic’s appealing language.

Essays like Bazerman’s are helpful for beginning teachers, especially in a field like English where arguments have a tendency to become turbid very quickly. In order to avoid complete indoctrination of students, as teachers we should pay careful attention to language and how it works differently depending on the text and the bias of the author.