WILLA v10 - Composing as a Person: Gender, Identity, and Student Writing

Volume 10
Fall 2001

Composing as a Person: Gender, Identity, and Student Writing

Erica Scott
Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania

Feminist research and theory emphasize that males and females differ in their developmental processes and in their interactions with others. They emphasize, as well, that these differences are as result of an imbalance in the social order, of the dominance of men over women. They argue that men have chronicled our historical narratives and defined our fields of inquiry. Women's perspectives have been suppressed, silenced, marginalized, written out of what counts as authoritative knowledge. Difference is erased in a desire to universalize. Men become the standard against which women are judged.

-Elizabeth Flynn
"Composing as a Woman"

When she wrote these words in 1988, Flynn did so to suggest "directions that a feminist investigation of composition might take," advising researchers to pay fuller attention to differences in "strategies and patterns" of representations ( p. 519, 525 ). What Flynn did not propose is that we begin to essentialize men and women's writing. That is, all men write in one way, and all women write in another way. Near the end of her article, she acknowledges that the four examples of student writing cited are "rich in contradiction and complexity and defy easy illustration … the narratives themselves are as often characterized by inconsistency and contradiction as by univocality of theme and tone" ( p. 525 ). Simply put, Flynn found that writing by men and women might display certain "gendered" patterns, but these patterns were not consistent or universal. There is no such thing as "male" or "female" writing, even if writers are influenced by gendered socializations and expectations. Unfortunately, however, many well-intentioned researchers and teachers began to talk as if there were such as thing as female and male writing.

One reason for this mistaken belief was that past research often focused only on one aspect of identity at a time. Researchers would look at gender, or at race, or at class, and so on, by itself, as if one identity characteristic could be separated from all others. Such gender-only focused research negatively impacts upon teaching students to write, because it limits our understanding of student identity and can lead to the simplistic belief that women generally write one way and men another. It also negates the effects of categories such as race and class, for example, on gendered behaviors. As Susan Miller contends in Textual Carnivals, since "character is never entirely unified," people respond to the demands placed upon them by the many requirements of various settings by "taking on identities" that best maintain their positions within specific cultural situations. So, for instance, if good writing is seen as matching as closely as possible academic prose by one teacher, then most students will write academic prose to maintain their status as good writers in that class. If that prose is considered to be "masculine," then both men and women will produce "masculine" writing. But if it is understood that students, with varying levels of awareness, respond to the demands place upon them as students, as young adults, as women, as men, as ethnic beings, by "performing identity," then more equitable representations of students could be formulated. Yet, intentionally or not, many teachers continue to define students along stereotypical identity patterns.

Exploring how readers, for example, "gender" a text, Stygall designed an experiment that called for undergraduate readers to assign gender to unidentified writers. What she discovered was that both female and male readers share stereotypical gender assignment strategies. These strategies include choice of topic. To wit, women wrote about relationships, men wrote about sports. Or, women are emotional and associative; men are analytical and individualistic. Women use inclusive gender pronouns. Men use "generic" masculine pronouns. What's interesting, and telling, is how easily highly--trained and theoretically-informed researchers and teachers also apply stereotypical notions of identity categories, gender among them, many of which are based on misunderstood or misused research, such as the work concerning differences in socialization between women and men.

According to Wendy Luttrell ( 1989 ), the work done by feminist scholars such as Belenky et al., Chodorow, Gilligan, and Keller has led to a body of literature that both informs and misleads research and theorizing about how both women and men learn. Luttrell argues that while patriarchal impositions on knowledge may be said to exist, not all women [or men] experience them the same way ( p. 34 ). Believing that biological sex is what determines peoples' behavior, some readers hold the actions of female and/or male students to be either feminine or masculine, rather than products of specific cultural gender socialization. Worse yet, other readers may come to essentialize behavior even as they allow that it is acquired through socialization. They view certain behavior as being comprised of intrinsic characteristics, albeit ideologically attained, which belong to one gender or the other. For example, these readers may claim that someone is "writing like a woman" even though they understand that the category "woman" is a gender construct that is socially defined.

Like Luttrell, Gesa Kirsch and Joy Ritchie also caution against making such essentializing identity distinctions. They warn that despite composition studies moving from being genderblind to gendersensitive there remains a tendency to polarize accounts of gender differences ( p. 11 ). Kirsch and Ritchie call for an increased awareness of how composition researchers generalize about student writing and greater acknowledgment of the multitudinous ways in which people express themselves. This echoes Flynn's call for greater recognition of the variety of representations displayed in writing.

While much composition research is now complicating how it examines the effects of gendering writing, there is still a great need to advance how we explore all identity categories in the field of composition. If we are basing our conception of identity categories like gender on stereotypical generalizations, then we are most likely basing our conception of all identity categories-such as race, for example-on such generalizations. In "Racial Formations," Omni and Winant assert that

[O]ur compass for navigating race relations depends upon preconceived notions of what each specific racial group looks like. Comments such as, "Funny, you don't look black, " betray an underlying image of what black should be. We also become disoriented when people do not act "black," "Latino," or indeed "white." The content of such stereotypes reveals a series of unsubstantiated beliefs about who these groups are and what "they" are like. ( p. 14 )

Berger and Luckmann also contend that identity formation is a social process, maintained, modified, and reshaped by social relations ( p. 173 ). It is through language that individual identities become socially constituted. These "identity types," according to Berger and Luckmann, are "engendered" by "specific historical social structures;" they are "social products tout court [that's all] ( p. 174 ). So while these types may seem commonly recognizable, they are socially produced within specific historical and cultural contexts, and their conceptions, therefore, evolve and change just like the societies that constitute them. What it means to be a "woman" or a "man" is not the same from culture to culture, society to society or from one historical period to another.

In this essay, I contend that people meet the demands placed upon them as women, as men, as ethnic beings, and so on, by "performing identity." Judith Butler argues that identity is a performative existing among intersecting social fields, where categories such as race, class, gender, age, ethnicity converge. Identity as a performative is not a "fixed, physical thing" but rather is a discursive construct that produces certain effects. Or, as Butler asserts, identity is instituted through a "stylized repetition of acts, " which give "the appearance of substance … a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief' ( p. 270-1 ). People enact who they are based upon how identity categories are defined by the culture in which they live.

For example, if the culture defines female as weak and emotional, then that becomes the norm by which gendered performances are judged. Women are "emotional" because they are supposed to be "emotional." And female emotions are identified with weakness. That men, as human beings, are also emotional is subsumed by what Robin Lakoff, identifies as the neutrality of "maleness." Lakoff writes, "We all believe that some ideas, terms, concepts, storylines, and such are 'normal'-natural, simple, expected. Others seem more complicated, less probable, even bizarre. We are prone to consider cases of the former as neutral-not requiring defense or explanation-but we subject the latter to severe tests and often still refuse to accept them" ( p. 43 ). In our society, men are not defined as "emotional." It is for that reason that emotional acts by men, such as anger, for one, are not seen as emotional. Thus male anger is not seen as a weakness, because it is not an "emotion-it is merely a form of male behavior. Female anger, however, is judged harshly, because it is not "natural" for women to be angry. Once we understand that these categories are culturally, rather than naturally, fashioned, we can begin to examine how they are produced.

I agree with Butler's assertion that identity is a discursive performative, but in making this claim, I am not denying the existence of the various identities categories nor the systematized oppression faced by people of color, women, children, and others who do not have full membership in dominant and powerful groups. As Paula Moya maintains in "Postmodernism, 'Realism,' and the Politics of Identity," that, "while in theory boundaries are infinitely permeable and power may be amorphous," people exist in a physical reality; "they live as biologically and temporally limited, as well as socially situated, human beings" ( p. 135 ). 1 agree with Moya. Simply because identity categories are discursively produced does not make the effect of these traits less real or problematic. People are not, as some would claim, all equally advantaged or disadvantaged by who we are or are perceived to be.

Rather, I am in concord with other theorists examining facets of identity who also argue that identity categories are socially constructed, but with very indisputable consequences. For example, Omni and Winant contend that race is "preeminently a sociohistorical concept, given meaning by specific social relations and historical contexts," such meanings have varied considerably over time and between different societies ( p. 60 ). As such, the identity category of race, like other identity categories, is neither stable nor unified; rather identities come into being and dissolve depending upon social contexts and conventions, but even so such identities have very real effects on the "physical realities of our lives" ( Moya, p. 135 ).

When Butler states that "performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate 'act' but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice, by which discourse produces the effects that it names" ( Bodies 2 ), she is referring to the power of discourse to bring about, through socially sanctioned sets of conventions within specific cultural and historical contexts, identities that are perceived as real. When language, however, is viewed as a mere tool for describing a person's behavior, this view obscures the ways in which discourse constitutes such behavior, and then identity is understood to be an object, rather than a being. This perception is also created by language's ability to mask regulatory social conventions. These social conventions become what Lakoff asserts that society calls "common sense," and common sense is based on what we believe is "reality and our down-to-earth, theory-free, hardheaded observations of that reality" ( p. 48-9 ). But, when identity is understood to be a discursively produced act, i.e. a performative, this understanding creates opportunities to dispute rigid conceptions of people's identities. As Butler maintains, it is in identity's very character as performative that resides the possibility of contesting the objectified status of identity categories ( " Performative Acts " p. 271 ). Because identities come into being among such convergences, the overlap of categories creates a multitude of spaces where more equitable representations can be formulated.

In Gender Trouble , Butler holds that "to understand identity … as a signifying practice is to understand culturally intelligible subjects as the resulting effects of rule-bound discourse that inserts itself in the pervasive and mundane signifying acts of linguistic life" ( p. 145 ). The discursive production of identity is dependent upon specific social conventions and settings for meaning, and as such, identities will vary in relation to the social contexts in which they are produced. Butler further argues that merely "listing categories along horizontal and vertical axis" is "insufficient to describe their convergences" within social fields (13). As complex, socially situated acts, identities do not come in predetermined, separate classifications. A person is never merely a man or a woman. Or a black man or a white woman. Or a middle-class black man or a working class white women. An individual's identity is never simple, no matter how many identity categories are tagged.

Instead, our identities are mediated, as Moya points out, not only by "the mutual interaction of all the different social facts," [such as race, class, gender] that constitute our social locations, but also by how these "facts" are situated "within the particular social, cultural, and historical matrix" in which we exist ( p. 137 ). According to Moya, "identities both condition and are conditioned by the kinds of interpretations people give to the experiences they have" ( p. 137 ). I would add that identities are conditioned, too, by group interactions, with the more dominant groups constraining how less dominant group members define their own experiences. In other words, more powerful groups have a greater say in what social conventions govern how identity performances should be enacted and in what enactments are seen as socially acceptable. As Deschamps affirms, "groups of children, old men, women, blacks, unskilled laborers, or workers are not equivalent to and interchangeable with those of adults, males, whites or middle-class" ( p. 88 ). Individuals are defined not only by the various groups' to which they belong definitions of categories such as race, gender, class, but also to how closely they can approximate more powerful groups' definitions. Thus the approximation is not totally under any individual's control.

Furthermore, identity is a performative not only in the dialectical relationship between an individual and the social world but also in the dialectical relationships between an individual's selves. Herman's, Kempen, and van Loon contend that "from a constructionist perspective the self can be conceived of a basically dialogical" ( p. 23 ) and can, in this respect, transcend the Western notion of the selfhood as an individualistic, centralized unity. Hermans, Kempen, and van Loon maintain that

[T]he dialogical self, in contrast with the individualistic self, is based on the assumption that there are many I positions that can be occupied by the same person. The I in one position can agree, disagree, understand, misunderstand, oppose, contradict, question, and even ridicule the I in another position. ( p. 29 )

This concept of the self is social and contextual because it not only recognizes that the I is multivoiced, but it also acknowledges that "selves are distributed interpersonally and take meaning from the historical circumstances that give shape to cultural values," which "not only order but also constrain the content and organization of the self' ( p. 29 ). This multiplicity of selves is a more accurate description of the complex ways in which people think of their own identities. It also works as a better way to conceptualize the sense of identity that students may, at times, try to display in their writing.

The question of how teachers construct student identities is important because teachers' impressions of students influence student achievement and the goals teachers have for students. It matters a great deal about "who" the teacher thinks a student is or should be. First, teachers' impressions of students influence the goals they have for students. In many composition courses, the goal of the class is not solely to improve writing but also to improve students; therefore, the criteria by which writing is judged to be either good or bad is not based on the writing but on the writer.

Faigley asserts that writing teachers have become more interested in "who they want their students to be" than in what their students write ( p. 396 ). This practice has its roots in the romantic notion of the function of great literature, i.e.; great literature makes great men. The personal history of the student did not matter because only those students who possessed the necessary inherent qualities could really avail themselves of the riches literature had to offer. This approach to the teaching of writing, with its assumptions about good writing and good students, privileges one set of cultural definitions over another and only reifies existing relations of power. Students may be judged to be incapable of meeting certain writing standards not on the basis of their abilities but on the basis of teachers' conceptions of who fits their criteria of a capable student.

Faigley argues that this practice also has roots in the Western concept of the unified, individual self. Unlike much current theory, which posits that the self represents "a composite of subject positions" which are discursively produced even as they are reproducing those very positions ( p. 403 ), much traditional theory asserts that "individuals possess an identifiable 'true' self" and that discourse merely serves to express that self ( p. 405 ). In this view, a good writer is one who is able to tap into his rational consciousness in order to produce an authentic voice in his writing. This notion of writing, contends Faigley, masks how identities are "discursively produced and discursively bounded," and it seems as if the teachers who promote the idea of "the true self' are more interested in assuring that students are aware of "the desired subject positions" that they should appear to occupy rather than "confronting the contradictions" of students' own multiple subject positions ( p. 411 ).

Second, as research shows, teachers' impressions of students influence student achievement. If a teacher feels that a student will do well in class, then it is more likely that the student will do well. If a student is expected to do poorly, then she more likely will. For example, Ray Rist ethnographically investigates a group of students from kindergarten through the second grade, observing how their teachers interact with them, and with the other teachers in the school, and examining the wider context in which teacher expectations are formed. He documents that the school he studied is situated in a neglected urban area, that both students and teachers are black, and that 55% of the students receive welfare, while most of the teachers are middle class and do not live in the neighborhood in which they teach. He also notes that teachers are privy to a great deal of information about students, such as the financial status of families, medical records, whether the child lives with one or two parents, and that teachers share information with each other, talking to one another in lounges or passing on reports from one grade to the next.

What Rist discovers is that the value system of the predominately middle-class teachers influences the ways in which they interact with students. Not surprisingly, those students whose own social class statuses closely match the teachers' receive the most positive attention and feedback. In fact, many of the "disadvantaged" students are ignored and/or more often are penalized by the teachers. Rist writes that certain criteria became indicative of expected success and others became indicative of expected failure … the criteria upon which a teacher would construct her ideal type of the successful student would rest in her perception of certain attributes in the child that she believed would make for success.

To understand what the teacher considered as "success," one would have to examine her perception of the larger society she perceived as successful ( p. 239 ). To be unable to conform to middle-class definitions of status meant certain failure for many of the students in the classroom of a teacher who is considered to be exemplary. What Rist observes are not teachers who use commonplace knowledge to type students, but teachers who remain ignorant of how their own identities shape their judgment of students. While he does not suggest that all teachers exhibit the same behavior, Rist does call for a recognition of the extreme intercomplexity of the organizational structure of institutions and of individual behaviors within societies.

Rist's study emphasizes the importance of understanding how teacher identities influence student identities in the classroom and underscores the complex nature of that interaction. Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont stresses the importance of integrating an understanding of the social contexts in which teaching takes place into research studies of teacherstudent interactions. She argues that "within the school institution, pupils and teachers interact according to more or less tacit social 'constructs' that define their respective social roles, the form of their encounters, and the content of the communication" ( p. 334 ). Although teachers' expectations of students influences the learning that takes place in the classroom, teachers often have little, if any, idea of the manner in which their ideological predispositions influence the ways they perceive and interact with students. Instead, teachers may believe that they can maintain a neutral or objective view of students.

Clark and Jensen hold that what is gained through claiming to be an objective teacher is the authority to decide issues in place of students whose interests and desires are subsumed, because it is believed that the teacher's impartial view takes into consideration all possible perspectives. Students are then held accountable for their success or failure in classrooms where teachers have decided what is best for all students based on teachers' own unexamined subjectivities. And these subjectivities remain unexposed because, all too often in composition studies, teachers are have been treated as neutral surfaces, which only reinforces a false sense that they can provide academic objectivity. When it is assumed that teachers bring nothing into the classroom with them, then it becomes easier to claim that their expectations concerning students arise solely from behaviors observed there, and the ways in which the teachers' expectations affect their construction of student identities go unexamined.

To a greater extent than most teachers realize, who students are in the classroom depends upon how teachers define them. If students speak in multiple voices, then so do teachers. If students need to pay close attention to their own locations, then teachers must also. All too often, however, the teacher is represented as little more than a classroom facilitator, a seemingly neutral figure who directs the students in their studies. I contend that even as teachers are helping students to understand that they speak in multiple voices, teachers are also determining, implicitly and explicitly, which of these voices will be heard. As Kirsch and Ritchie ( 1995 ) remind us, in order to avoid speaking for and essentializing students, composition teachers should reflect on how their experiences are shaped by ideology and culture and, by doing so, recognize their own multiple and often unknowable identities. Teachers need to better understand the complexity of student identities and the role they play in shaping what is considered to be an acceptable identity for students. Identity construction does not take place in neutral settings-multiple social forces permeate the walls of classrooms, like everywhere else, to structure the productions of knowledge. In the collaborative negotiations between readers and writers, instructors need to acknowledge that there is no such as "female" or "male" writing and that both students and teachers simultaneously assume different roles. Both teachers and students need to understand that they are "performing" various identities as they read and write.

Works Cited

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Rist , Roy C. (1986). Student social class and teacher expectations: The selffulfilling prophecy in ghetto education. In Martyn Hammersley (Ed.) Case studies in classroom research , p. 231-64. Philadelphia, PA: Open UP.

Stygall , Gail. (1992). Rhetorical crossdressing. New Directions in Portfolio Assessment Conference. Oxford , 2 October.

Reference Citation: Scott, Erica. (2001) "Composing as a Person: Gender, Identity, and Student Writing." WILLA , Volume 10, p.17-22.