Sunday, April 27, 2008

How Identity Shapes a Writer: A Review of Literature

John Dunbar

Upon first glance, the process of writing a paper for a class, or an article for a paper appears to be predetermined and executed with a universal set of rules applied by the writer. This disproved notion is what has been the driving source for researchers who want to know more about the deeper, inner workings of writers from students to those in the workplace. The goal is to find a method for teaching writers to adapt to particular situations, while at the same time trying to understand what has made them the writer that they are. Over the years, teachers
have tried different tactics to engage students in the writing process, and one of the main factors is being able to relate to a student’s background in writing. A writer’s identity is what drives the individual to write in a particular way and if this can be understood then the potential for improvement is drastically improved.

A writer’s identity is formed and molded from a number of different sources. During the time that a writer is learning how to write, whether it is at an early age, such as high school, or throughout their college career, there is a need for adaptability and an expansion of what they have previously learned. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of writers in English speaking schools with English as their second language (ESL), which affects their writing style and/or how they understand the writing process. Some other issues that have created a need to understand a writer’s personality is the increase in technology and what kind of examples students are following when writing for a specific purpose. The issue of individuals’ identities in the classroom and the workplace is a pressing concern for professors who are trying to establish good writing and writers in a number of various fields.

As hard as it is to come into a new environment and a new discourse community imagine the added pressure of having to understand the process that is being taught in a foreign language. Learning the rules alone is a challenging experience, but having to convert those rules from the training that has already been learned in the writer’s native country is another challenge all by itself. These two cultural differences can be described as an ideological identity, meaning a system of values that have been acquired from social and cultural backgrounds, and a logical identity, using the natively learned way of organizing and expressing thoughts (Shen 459). Addressing an individual’s past is the first step in understanding their identity as a writer. This usually starts within the home and the interactions that occur based on family experiences, as well as early impressions about writing made in the schooling of an individual. A general definition about second language writing can be defined as such, “the study and teaching of writing done in a language other than one’s mother tongue—or perhaps better, one’s mother hand” (Leki; Silva 5). The relationship of schooling and family influence on writing can also be explained as a crossroads between composition studies (schooling) and applied linguistics (language learning and teaching based on schooling/family/cultural influence) (Leki; Silva 1-5). Knowing the connection between these two identities is the goal in establishing the identity of an individual, but the problem lies within the fact that these two identities have the ability to pull the writer in two separate directions, which ultimately leads to finding epistemologies that will compensate for these different styles of learning and understanding (Leki; Silva 10). These studies have shown that the connection of individuals’ writing identities to cultural influences is very strong, and ultimately must be confronted by the students to progress in the writing process and gain an understanding of the discourse community in which they participate, whether that is a university or in the workplace.

Studying the necessity to teach English as a second language has made significant progress in the composition field. Not only have these studies had an impact on ESL, but they have also encouraged some studies on the effects of location within the United States. The cultural differences throughout the US are vast and therefore lead to more writing based conflicts within the classroom. Understanding these conflicts as a teacher is a necessity, but understanding as a student is an added bonus that can help clarify some of the expectations of the professors. With the advancements in technology and the Internet over the last 10-15 years, an opportunity for cross-cultural integration has been very helpful in letting students communicate with each other. Through the writings of students on the west coast of the US in California, and the east coast in Pennsylvania, students have been able to communicate with other ethnicities and this has helped encourage an active role in discovering an identity (Fitzpatrick; Rankin-Brown 1). By engaging ESL students with other ESL students is a very productive method for understanding the English writing process and the more experience with the process the more successful a writer can become (Fitzpatrick; Rankin-Brown 5).

This cross-cultural experience for the students is not only a learning curve for them in terms of language barriers, but also in regards to the American culture they are exposed to during their time here. Looking at the culture of the youth of America (both ESL students and American students), from grade school up through college, a number of their influences come from the media that is circulated within their cultures. This is an important aspect for understanding what kind of exposure students have had to different types of writing. Based on above premise, it is important to address how “circulation materializes contradictory social relations and how the contradictions between exchange value and use value might be taken up in writing classrooms to expand public forums and popular participation in civic life” (Trimbur 188). When students have more of global understanding of how they fit within a culture or society then they are able to actively seek out their identity. The problem with this is that with all of the mediums of media and the different sources of how they are circulated causes biases based on what is being read by whom, and who is the one addressing the issue being read about (Trimbur 196). The biased approach to writing and those who read based on what they are interested in causes a burying effect of an individual identity into one that exists only within the group or circulation that one interacts with. This coincides somewhat with theory or ability to write within and across genres while maintaining an identity based on individual beliefs (Pare 57).

So much attention is focused on the trying to get the student to understand their identity when it comes to writing and the identity of the teacher is a factor that needs to be taken into account as well. Creating interest in students is a big part of helping them to find their own identity through writing (Elbow 73). Conflicting goals arise when there are a number of lessons and theories to be taught in the little amount of time that a professor has with the students and filtering out what is necessary and what is helpful is a battle of sorts. Not only are there conflicts internally, but also trying to guide a student to adapt to the academic discourse community (Pare 59).

Technology has opened gateways to achieve a better understanding of cultures, which provides academic institutions an opportunity to try and use that to their advantage much as was seen with the study if students in Pennsylvania and California. A cross-cultural experience in writing is a very challenging thing to take on, I can only imagine the struggles an ESL student must have since I have grown up in the United States and only spoken English my whole life. These studies show there are uses and needs for students to interact with other cultures, ultimately creating a system that could benefit not only the students, but also the professors who teach them. An understanding of a student's culture helps relate to the writing they have been exposed to and provide them with references that will catch their interest, encouraging them to explore their identity in writing. Technology has also caused problems based on the fact that there is so much short handed, unpunctuated, unintelligent writing that young students are being exposed to that it can damage the production made in the classroom. A college atmosphere is beneficial for the time spent on campus, and knowing how to write and teaching how to write can only improve.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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