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Listen to My Voice: Reflections on a Former(?) Scholar's Post

Listen to My Voice: Reflections on a Former(?) Scholar's Post

   I spent some time recently reading through old HASTAC posts, and I was intrigued by one titled "Snobbery and Digital Literacy Education," written by Jenna McWilliams, a PhD student at Indiana University.  McWilliams writes that the intermingling of literacy and technology should urge us to reassess our notions of said areas and question: To what extent do we want to simplify (fill in the blank) processes and tell people how to think?  I would like to discuss my answer to this question and its relevance to the writing process.

McWilliams considers this matter after reading a statement made by film critic Roger Ebert on the subject of "easy readers," which Ebert believes rob a text of its implicit style and fail to challenge the reader in deciphering the author's writing process.  In this instance, Ebert is referring to easy reader editions of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  McWilliams agrees with Ebert in so far as she recognizes his concern for stealing insight from readers and the obvious overlooking of craft.

Literature is written by an author in a particular style, which McWilliams notes is what draws a reader to a book.  However, what I find most interesting about style is the way it highlights voice, and it's voice that is truly being robbed from a text when it is reformatted for light and non-intimate reading.  Voice, as defined by M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, is a "pervasive authorial presence, a determinate intelligence and moral sensibility, who has invented, ordered, and rendered all these literary characters and materials in just this way" (p. 219).  Essentially, voice is the essence of a book.  It is what readers use to distinguish one author from another.  It's what a writer uses to set her/himself apart from other writers.  Voice is what is lacking in writing instruction and curriculum.

Ebert is drawn to the original version of The Great Gatsby because of the voice Fitzgerald lends to it.  Many of us are choked up when we read the book's ending, because we feel hope, sadness, even anxiety, all of which would not be present if the story lacked voice or didn't feel like someone real was telling it to us.  After transcribing interviews that were a part of a research study completed by an East Stroudsburg University professor on children's perceptions of reading and writing, I've come to realize that we are, in a way, prohibiting students from developing voice in their writing.  Many middle school students talked about how confined they felt in having to repeatedly write five-paragraph essays.  No wonder since this structure forces students to work within a defined framework.  Even when given creative writing assignments, students are asked to adhere to a framework, or they're only introduced to poetic forms that are rigid: sonnet, haiku, cinquain.  There's no wiggle room and said forms reject self-expression.

The distribution of easy readers further agitates this dilemma.  Students write much like the writers they read.  If they read or are provided with examples of writing from easy readers, they will feel inclined to mimic similar styles when writing.  After a certain age, easy readers just might be detrimental to one's literacy.

I've never been one to say that there are right ways and wrong ways of doing things, but I do believe that the processes we choose to use in the classroom have significant impact on student outcomes and perceptions.  If the process too regularly involves easy readers, I do believe we have a problem.


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