Conflict 5 meet Conflict 6: Two views of language in writing

First, I need to state that I may have read the wrong essay by Peter Elbow.  The edition of Cross-Talk in Comp Theory contains only “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic” by Peter Elbow.  However, in class blog posts, I am reading about Japanese and Turkish writers; adventures in writing – it all sounds very exciting but quite dissimilar to what I read…which is entirely my fault for not purchasing the most recent edition or verifying which essay by Elbow was assigned.

Mea culpa aside please realize I will be quote extensively in order to build context.  In “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic”, Elbow discusses the distinction between being a writer and being an academic by identifying eight conflicts arising from differences between writers and academics.  Of course, the primary conflict as Elbow often alludes is that many people assume the writer and academic roles, but they tend not to assume the roles simultaneously  – hence the eight ‘sub-conflicts’ of the essay.

I want to concentrate on the fifth and sixth conflicts.  The fifth conflict is a matter of how to interpret the failure of language to capture knowledge.  From the writer perspective, “writers testify all the time to the experience of knowing more than they can say, of knowing things that they haven’t yet been able to get into words” (Elbow, 494).  That is, writers as the creators of knowledge feel a tension when language does not serve a communicative function.  I am reminded of students who visit the center: they can explain in diagrams and short phrases concepts, but the act of writing involves a singular mode of communication (words strung into sentences) so the writers struggle and, often, feel enfeebled.  Given my limited vocabulary in Chinese and experiences working abroad, I can empathize.  On the other hand, from the academic perspective, “If you can’t say it, you don’t know it” which is “to celebrate the doctrine that all knowledge is linguistic” (Elbow, 494).  This stance makes uncomfortable sense for me.  Uncomfortable because strict linguistic dogma (if you know it, you could write about it) is a prominent function of academic life – and by extension all facets of existence that course through academia.  Yet a simple reflection reveals many concepts defy language.  In pedagogical terms, “the main thing that helps writers is to be understood; pointing out misunderstandings is only a second need.  Thus – and this is a crucial consequence – I assume that students know more than they are getting into words” (Elbow, 494).  Language falters when language users really need a precise system; and academics as Elbow defines them presume there is a precise system, yet they should know better based on their own experiences as writers or, at least, from their developments into academics now able to write what they know.

As if the complexities of ‘Conflict 5’ were insufficient to perplex us, Elbow advances in the sixth conflict the paradox of whether or not language is trustworthy.  For academics, no, language is not trustworthy.  “If my goal is to get [students] to take on the role of academic, I should get them to distrust language.  It is a central tenet of academic thinking in this century [20th] that language is not a clear and neutral medium through which we can see undistorted nonlinguistic entities” (Elbow, 495).  That is, we as instructors want our students to recognize that ‘language is loaded.’  However, we also want writers to trust language.  “But in my desire to help my students experience themselves as writers I find myself in fact trying to help them trust language – or at least not to question it for long stretches of the writing process” (Elbow, 495).

And thus I find Conflict 6 and Conflict 5 interplaying with one another.  Academic realization that language has limitations yet inability to articulate a concept indicates a lack of knowledge.  Writer realization that language is trustworthy yet often fails to relay concepts in a desired way.  The tension is great.  I find, in some way, comfort in an insight mentioned by Adam in class regarding raising children: there are lots of theories, competition among theories, but in the end most kids ‘turn out fine’.

I think, though, Elbow has identified an interesting instance of what I refer to as the ontological stack.  The ontological stack involves a person assuming several definitions of being; these definitions are placed on top of one another in such a way that we might shuffle them depending on circumstances – sometimes we choose a way of being appropriate for the situation, other times we fail, and often we do not have a clue what is appropriate so there is experimenting when possible.  The distinguishing characteristic, though, is one way of being receives privilege during a given interaction.  The ontological stack has its origins in — wait for it — computer science.  A computer user selects a program to use in several senses of the word ‘use.’  One sense is that the computer user can direct attention toward one program per input — so, I have MS Word open with a draft of this posting but I edit the posting in Google Chrome accessing WordPress; I can write only in one or the other, not both (yes, there are special programs, I know, I know).  Another sense of the word use is the literal hardware resources allocated to a program, so the CPU cycles, the memory, the disk space, etc.  Whatever program is active, receives the majority of those resources; in fact, a quick way to detect intruders is sudden diversion of hardware resources toward tasks “happening” without your choice (a phenomenon perhaps present in academic experiences as well).  No, I am not suggesting the mind is a computer.  But I am suggesting computers try to accommodate their users, and one accommodation is building the ontological stack.  At times, the writer ontology has command; other times, the academic ontology has command.  For some, neither the writer or the academic ontologies is a factor — they majored in engineering for love of numbers and eagerly await their departure from academic life.

Question: how does the perception of language as trustworthy shape a theory of composition?  How does the perception of language as lacking trustworthiness shape a theory of composition?

Question: Elbow ultimately sides with the writers in the essay but class for a re-visiting of the terms.  “I suspect that if we could be more sensible about how we create and define the roles of academic and writer in our culture, the conflicts might not be necessary” (Elbow, 499).  This statement returns me to a discussion from (possibly) the first day of class: what do we assume to be true about writing?  After reading this essay by Elbow and presenting on “Inventing the University” by Barthalomae, I might think we should add, what do we assume to be true about the academy?


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