As a teacher of literature, I am often examining with my students the idea of voice in a piece of writing. What is it? Where is it? How is it produced? What is our reaction to it? How does it interact with content? How might the voice employed intersect with the cultural concerns or historical events of its time? Though often a challenging exercise that requires much prompting and directing from me, I often think the voice of a work of literature acts as its consciousness, so to neglect it is to bypass important tenants at the core of the humanities: examining what it means to be human and examining the power of words among others.
As a teacher of writing, (which I am for the remaining half of my courses), I don’t stop there. I challenge my students to develop their own voice in their writing. This is a nearly impossible task as the majority of my students enter my classroom with stilted college preparatory writing skills and they are, on the whole, mediocre at that. To them, writing has always been an act in service to something else. A paper is a product for assessment–a recitation of knowledge rather than a new opportunity to learn. The voice of the paper is nonexistent, accidental, or, worse, an audience-less and purposeless imagination of what they think their teacher expects. While students can often get by with this, and sometimes even do well in the “right” class, for my mid- and upper-division writing courses, I want my students to not only develop a voice, but one that is authentic.
I would argue that the idea of voice is particularly difficult to impart to this generation of students. Writing is thinking and ultimately knowing not only your subject but also yourself. Writing is accessing areas of your consciousness, knowledge, and curiosity that had not before been connected. Writing is thinking beyond the minute or the hour; it is an extended rumination. This generation’s thinking–much of which is posted via social media–is fast, surface, and subject to critique. Is it surprising, then, that a student has difficulty cultivating a personal, authorial voice? Is it surprising that a student cannot produce “authenticity” on the page when in the digital world in which they live, one can live multiple identities, so how is one to determine the “authentic” one? And in a world in which various online selves are so ubiquitous, what is authenticity anyway?
Five weeks into my fifth year of teaching on the tenure track, I find myself particularly unsettled by the fact that my female students especially struggle mightily with finding their authentic voice in their writing. My university has at least a 2:1 female to male student ratio. This semester, I have 66% females across my five courses. They are less assured in their writing, less free, more willing to change, more likely to be uncontroversial and safe than their male counterparts. This is troubling to me. The female voice in my classroom sounds diluted, if it makes a sound at all.
Young women are now subject to different venues for patriarchy, where appearance is everything on Instagram and advertisers are still flaunting female flesh on Facebook. The difference between these digital media forms and previous print forms is that young women are active participants and make appearances in a way that contributes to the shaping of their identities. If they get “Likes” by posting the most flattering photos of themselves, that is the beast that they will continue to feed and the image they will work to project. (And it is work; nearly all of us craft our social media selves to some degree.) Social acceptance and approval has always been a powerful force in the formation of identity, but in this age it seems more than a force; it seems a necessary step.
What does this have to do with writing with an authentic voice? Everything. The authenticity of expression has to do, in some ways, with the author’s intention. The concept of intention when creating an online self has so much to do now with a somewhat fickle social media audience that intention cannot be seen as separate from the approval of the crowd. With young women putting so much energy into constantly weighing one’s online stature, they lose the ability or desire to discern their own reasoning and rationales. Furthermore, how can we expect women to be able to cultivate authenticity if we are not fully allowed to be free in our thinking and behaviors? As a woman who works at an institution founded by women religious and dominated by women cabinet members, administrators, and faculty, there are still an unacceptable number of instances in which my voice as a woman is dismissed by men. Or when a statement I make is “bitchy” but is considered “assertive” from a man.
I began this post with a mention some of the concerns at the center of the humanities: examining what it means to be human and examining the power of words. My hope for my female students is that they can see past their constructed selves into their humanness, and in so doing discover a voice that is untainted by the instant gratification of a Retweet or Like.