Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Who is "the reader"?; or, What you get for prohibiting the word "I"

It must be exasperating to be a composition student. I am not saying this sarcastically; I mean it. At Cal, I'm blessed with smart, high-achieving students who got where they are today by following rules. They showed some imagination, but not too much imagination, and assiduously followed rules, and thereby got high marks and other official stamps of approval. This wasn't simply a matter of following stated rules, although that was part of it; often they also had to negotiate unspoken codes of comportment. They learned "test-taking strategies," a term that openly acknowledges that standardized tests are a game that can be won through generalized test-taking maneuvers; if the tests were truly effective as tests, then the only possible strategy would be to possess the appropriate depth and breadth of knowledge. They learned rules, sometimes explicit rules and sometimes rules that had to be figured out the hard way. They figured out at an early age that if they failed to follow rules, they could be punished all their lives. And they were not told which rules could be broken safely, or when.

I know exactly why high school writing teachers prohibit the use of the word "I," and if I were in their situation I'd do the same thing. It's a fence around the Torah; it's the blinking "don't walk" signal long before the oncoming cars get a green light.

But now my students truly don't believe that they are allowed to use the word "I," even in the context of assignments for which they clearly need it. They know intellectually that "I" is not the real evil, but the years of training have done them in.

So now it's "the reader," a fictional character by means of which we can obfuscate the difference between "I" and "everybody." Alas.

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