English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Language Writing Reality
Writing Language Reality
Reality Language Writing

by Dan Gremmler

Struggle as I may, I cannot avoid James Berlin’s statement: “To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality” (234). If I’m going to be successful in any academic field, in any language, there are certain conventions that I must follow, but what I say and how I think is inexorably linked to the available resources of any particular convention. For my part, I just can’t escape the confines of the English language. I see this most poignantly when I try to teach a Chinese writer how to cite sources or when I attempt to read a text in translation.

To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality, and the best way of knowing and communicating it. . . . All composition teachers are ineluctably operating in this realm, whether or not they consciously choose to do so.

(Berlin, 234)

The language in which we think, speak and write effects the meanings we are able to construct; it molds our versions of reality. One of the more famous instances of this dynamic at work can be observed in translating Sophocles’ Antigone. There is a word in the first and second lines of the Second Stasimon, popularly referred to as “The Ode to Man,” which brings this issue to the foreground. The word is deinoj [1] (deinos). It is conventionally translated as “wondrous.” Its meaning, however, is far more complex than “wondrous.” If any one word in the English language comes closest to approximating its meaning in the given context, the word is awesome. In Greek, its meaning runs the gamut of terrible, fearful, awful, danger, implying force or power for good or ill, mighty, wondrous, marvelous, strange, passed into that of able, clever, skilful [2]. It is utterly impossible to translate this Greek idea into English without somehow tempering its meaning through the language filter. If my first name were Jacques [3], I might say the (English) sign is separated from the (Greek) sign which is, in turn, separated from the signified (the existence of, in this case, an idea filtered through linguistic constructs). Fortunately, I am not a Jacques and, therefore, will not burden my audience with such a jargon-laden explanation [4].

In America, we value independence, democracy, and individuality, but these rhetorical terms are culturally defined, not universal absolutes. Case in point: the maquiladora factories south of the U. S. boarder. In the U. S., a citizen may live a relatively free and democratic existence (putting aside any issues of false consciousness), but the American citizen’s freedom and democracy belies a latent suppression of the very same “basic rights” for a Mexican factory worker who assembles Zenith TV’s at slave wages. If we take the analogy further - and buy into a little Marxist theory - the free and democratic ideals of Western Philosophy, which the U. S. embody, are the bourgeoisie of the 21st Century, and the poor Mexicans are the proletariat whom we exploit. To American citizens, then, “the Democratic way of life” represents freedom, individuality and prosperity. To the Mexican factory workers who manufacture our Zenith TVs, the Chinese workers who make our Nike shoes, the Arab refinery workers who drill our oil, Democracy represents imperialism, suppression, totalitarianism. Western notions of Democracy, then, are as exclusionary as they are liberating. In short, to teach the notion of a “Democratic way of life” is to propagandize a version of reality. This dynamic of “teaching” a version of reality is not nearly so modern a concept as we may like to believe, for we cannot blame Foucault or Derrida for that which Aristotle wrote in the third Century BCE:

The state, as I was saying, is plurality, which should be united and made into a community by education. (my emphasis, Politics [5], 290)

Well now . . . would you look at that: a state composed of plurality which is made cohesive through education. That is, education is a tool by which plurality is sculpted into oneness. At it’s philosophical core, according to Aristotle, education does not promote creativity and individuality but, in fact, suppresses it through a constant bombardment of prescriptive “education.” Education has become the tool of the polity: “The virtue of the citizen must therefore be relative to the constitution of which he is a member” (Politics, 301).

Let us turn our attention to the Chinese writer who I must now convince is guilty of plagiarism. This person may lift whole paragraphs from someone else’s work and not provide a single citation. In her culture, she might be considered the single greatest writer of her generation. At SUNY Albany, she’s guilty of plagiarism and in danger of expulsion. I tell her that these are not her words. She says she knows that. I tell her she cannot use someone else’s words in her paper; it is stealing. She has to cite it. She asks why? She says she is paying the highest tribute to this author. She says it would be a desecration for her, the student, to alter the wording, the ideas of the master. Who is she to do such a thing? Is that not an insult to the author? No, I explain to her, the highest tribute you can pay to others is to give them credit for their own ideas when you use them. But I am giving him credit, paying him tribute, she says. I am paying him the highest honor. I am not corrupting his most beautiful prose with my vulgar manipulation of it. I shake my head. What can I say? No. That just isn’t right. I tell her she must change the wording, break up the quotation, explain it in her own words, make this paper her own, not the master’s. She sighs. He just doesn’t understand. Why can’t he see that the master’s words are the best words to explain what I’m trying to say. Why can’t he see that to alter the master’s words is tantamount to sacrilege? How can he not see that to do that would be to insult the author I’m trying to celebrate? These aren’t my ideas. These ideas existed before me and will exist after me. I did not create them. Why should I tell a lie and pass them off as my own? Does he want me to invent a new language? I didn’t create any of these words that I use.

The Chinese writer and I have reached an impasse. Two philosophies, two ideologies, two linguistic structures have come into conflict with one another. Which one is “correct” depends on the individual person - and culture - to judge. Clearly, the correct ideology is the epitome of subjective [6]. But the above was a “foreign” example. What does this have to do with an English teacher teaching a native English speaker how to write an effective five paragraph essay? What does this have to do with writing a scientific analysis versus a literary work such as a novel? The same principle holds true when the translation is not between languages, but between genres. Meaning embedded in a haiku will never be the same as meaning embedded in a requisition request at Johnson & Johnson. In a haiku, the meaning, the message, is purposefully sublime and ambiguous. Conversely, meaning in a requisition request is intentionally explicit, quantitative and devoid of ambiguity. Would it even be possible to write a requisition request in the form of a haiku? Probably. Would it serve the same purpose, convey an identical meaning, as a conventional requisition form requesting the very same materials? Probably not.

A caveat on the comma

“The dismay students display about writing is, I am convinced, at least occasionally the result of teachers unconsciously offering contradictory advice about composing…. Writing teachers are perforce given a responsibility that far exceeds this merely instrumental task” (Berlin 234-5). A simple but disturbing case in point is my own experience with comma usage in a simple list. In the beginning, the rule was simple: place a comma after every item in the list and an “and” between the last two items in the list. It couldn’t have been more simple. Then I graduated to junior high. All of a sudden, Jack London wasn’t using commas before the “and” in his lists. “Mr. Bellows! Mr. Bellows! Jack London is a bad writer! He forgot the comma before the ‘and’!” Mr. B. gave us a spot-lesson on comma usage. Apparently, the comma between the penultimate item in the list and the “and” was superfluous. The “and” was a more powerful punctuation than the comma. OK. That actually makes more sense than the original rule from third grade. And it worked for four or five years, but then I went to college and was reprimanded for it - twice! I’m from the Hemingway school of writing: the mark of a good writer is how much he can throw away. Obviously, to anyone who has read my writing, this is more of a ideological stance than a writing practice. In the Hemingway vein, however, it makes perfect sense to get rid of a superfluous comma at the end of a list, just be consistent about it. Apparently, that wasn’t a very good strategy either. My 10-page paper on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was a monument to the ideal academic essay - according to my professor’s feedback - save for one glaring exception: three times in my paper, I made simple lists with commas, omitting the final, superfluous comma each time. And three times, my professor inserted a crimson red comma in its stead. OK, I’m an adult now. If he wants a comma, I’ll give him a comma in the future. The pattern repeated itself in a lower level History class. A History TA had the audacity to tell me, an English major, I needed that insipid little comma. And this time, he lowered my grade for it - I used simple lists more frequently in that paper than in the Hemingway paper. Nevermind the difficulties of applying this “academic formula” outside of the classroom. It doesn’t even work between classrooms.

Back to business

So here I am, the product of contradictory advice about composing (comma lists), trying to mold the articulation patterns and, by doing so, the thinking patterns of this Chinese writer. I am imposing my freedom, my democracy, my ideology, my commas on this writer. Have I learned nothing through my own experience? Am I not perpetuating the status quo? Even though I believe it to be wrong? Did those commas interfere with the transfer of information? Did I just write another sentence fragment? But alas, I do this writer a disservice if I do not force her to write, cite and, in doing so, think a particular way. If I do not convince her to view words and ideas as a commodity to be owned, purchased, borrowed and bartered - I will not us the C-word here. I will not use the C-word here [7] - then am I not, myself, condemning her to failure? Western ideology does not value such things as circular reasoning and holistic healing; it either works or it’s broken. Academic writing distinguishes itself as a discourse that excludes certain languages, certain modes of thinking, in the name of political correctness and objectivity when, in reality, it is engaged in an imperialistic battle for hegemony over the available modes of discourse, ways of thinking, versions of reality.

A decades-long academic war is being waged between the universal and the personal. Those in favor of the former have pushed for hegemony of academic discourse as authorially objective and logical. On the other side of the debate is the I, the individual, the personal. Early on, native English speakers are trained to dispose of the first person, the I, in their writing. It is not objective and, therefore, not applicable to the outside world. This, I believe, is a - not the - underlying tension in Delpit’s article. Many of the teachers she interviewed believed their voices were suppressed by the codes and conventions of academic discourse. They were told their modes of thinking were somehow flawed and invalidated, not unlike my Chinese tutee. Today, the first person is fighting back. The decades of struggle have paid off, and the first person is gaining validity in many academic discourses. However, the case of this I is only a microcosm of larger issues involved in the teaching of writing and cultural power that effect what we think by limiting what we can and cannot say and how we can say it. A difference [8] exists in this world, a difference that all people experience. As poststructuralist English instructors are all-too-willing to remind us, the sign can never - ever - completely represent the signified. Words elicit feelings completely unintended by their authors all the time. Should writing - and the teaching of writing - work toward the elimination of this difference or the celebration of it? For that matter, are these the only two alternatives available?


1. E. F. Watling translates the line “Wonders are many on earth, and greatest of these is man.” H. D. F. Kitto translates it “Wonders are many, yet of all/Things is Man the most wonderful.” David Grene translates it “Many are the wonders, none/is more wonderful than what is man.” Clearly, the ambiguity of the Greek meaning is lost in these translations. For a general introduction to linguistic and cultural problems of Greek translation, see J. P. Vernant, “Greek Tragedy: Problems of Interpretation” in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. ed. R. Macksey & E. Donato. 1972. [Back]

2. From Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon: Abridged Edition. Claredon: Oxford. 1996. [Back]

3. Derrida or Lacan: flip a coin. [Back]

4. oops! Do you actually read these things? [Back]

5. Politics, Book II, Section 5: Criticism of Plato’s theoriesThe Pocket Aristotle, trans. Benjamin Jowett. Unfortunately, line numbers are not preserved in this edition, so I am relegated to providing page numbers. [Back]

6. This refers to the “common” or “vulgar” usage of the term, which has taken on a far more specialized sense in English studies. For my purposes, the definition is as follows: particular to a given person; personal; specific to a particular; not universal. [Back]

7. It’s capitalism. sh. [Back]

8. “Something that gets lost, or at least diluted, in the English translation of Derrida is the subtlety of his punning. Derrida puns on the French word differer, which means both "to differ" and "to defer." The result is differance, which is a misspelling of 'difference.' Since words are only signifiers and have no inherent meaning, there is a distance between the signifier and the signified. The meaning is deferred. And since words are identified by what they are not, their meaning is defined by difference. Hence, differance. When spoken in French, differance sounds no different than difference, a clever subtlety that, again, is lost in the translation. Derrida is no doubt aware that the two words sound the same, a fact which exhibits a weakness in spoken language” (http: Please note that the author didn’t define this term in his paper because the author has taken a decidedly anti-academic-jargon stance in so far as he can never actually stand. [Back]

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