Faigley, “Judging Writing, Judging Selves”

Faigley, L. (1989) Judging Writing, Judging Selves. College Composition and Communication, 40(4), 395-412. (17 pages)

Faigley’s overriding aim is to interrogate the ways that teachers’ evaluation methods in a writing course—which often includes autobiographical essays—prompts students to construct particular conceptions of self, often functioning within Western discussions of self.

At the onset, Faigley notes that evaluation, in its etymology, points to judgments based on culturally held and shared values; as such, our evaluations will inscribe and reflect cultural attitudes: evaluation is built from ex + VALUE or “out of”/”from” value. In these discussions of shared values, Faigley is particularly interested in the ways that our evaluation methods prompt students to construct self through discourse. In the shift toward process, we have seen teachers who have been as much or more interested in “who [teachers] want their students to be as in what they want their students to write” (396); this particular notion from the process movement lends Faigley to discuss the ways the self is constructed in our evaluation methods.

“One of the most troubling ideas for the humanities and the social sciences in the last two decades is the ‘decentering’ of the individual subject from the atomic, rational consciousness of Descrates to a socially constructed self located in networks of discourse” (396). However, teachers often privilege the former sense of identity, seen through the emphasis on “authentic” or “honest” depictions of self in autobiographical essays. Faigley (being somewhat diplomatic about it) appears to value an expressive realist ideology when approaching the self: “discourses interpellate human beings by offering them an array of subject positions that people recognize” (403); however, it is often the case that people don’t always see how their subject positions are historically produced, subjected ideology. Rather, people recognize themselves as subjects in the sense of agents of free will: “the recognition, therefore, is a misrecognition because people fail to see that the subject positions they occupy are historically produced, and they imagine that they are freely choosing for themselves” (403). In autobiographical essays, students are prompted to assume an identifiable, recognizable, “true” self and express that self through discourse (and assumes you can express the self through discourse).

Faigley warns that asking students to participate in evaluations that prompt them to write an authentic self can, potentially, be harmful: “the freedom students are given in some classes to choose and adapt autobiographical assignments hides the fact that these same students will be judged by the teachers’ unstated cultural definitions of self” (410). In this way (and Faigley doesn’t go as far as to say this), teachers are designing evaluations that attempt to define the student’s sense of self while simultaneously evaluating them based on wider cultural assumptions about self. As such, teachers are performing hegemonic ideologies of self that can often appear to contradict the “empowerment” or “emancipatory” narrative of the autobiographical essay.

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