Authentic Voice in the Age of the Online Self

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.

10 thoughts on “Authentic Voice in the Age of the Online Self

  1. I have written much more as sarcozona than as [given name]. I find it easier to explore, to be angry, to be wrong, to be vulnerable, to say the things I mean when writing as sarcozona. Under my given name, I feel very stilted and exposed. I am afraid of criticism and judgement, horrible comments from people I know, negative consequences to my career.

    I think my writing as sarcozona must seem like it’s from completely different person than my writing as [given name]. I wonder if the women you teach would find the space to be bolder if they could have their writing marked without their names attached – some sort of anonymization system?

    • I think you are absolutely right! Anonymity provides cover from judgement and allows for freer, uninhibited writing. When the students have that opportunity they do show up on the page–and I should probably have them do it more! I would love it if they could carry that bravery–not content, because as you say, anonymity can often change the content–over to their writing for an audience, as themselves. Even in these exercises in which there is no threat of judgement, however, I do find that these students take longer to figure out what they really want to say.

  2. This is a very powerful post, thank you for articulating some of these complex ideas so succinctly. This post shows the advantage of having professionals from both humanities and sciences on the same blog (thanks TSW).

    Among the several ideas here (I am still digesting them all), the one that interests me most, and which I agree with entirely, is this: “This generation’s thinking–much of which is posted via social media–is fast, surface, and subject to critique.” So I am going to discuss this angle only.

    Right now, I am part of a team mentoring young writers (aged 18-30) who are writing opinion pieces for publication on an online forum. This forum is not a blog; while it does indicate the five “most popular” pieces each day (based on behind-the-scenes determination of hits), it does not give these stats out, and it does not have any place for interaction with the audience for comments or “likes”.

    Our young writers keep asking for “feedback” – and their idea of feedback is how many “likes” their article attracts. This is at odds with our idea of feedback, which is to give them some encouraging and constructive comments on their articles to help them get to a higher plane (we will also comment on their drafts if they send them in time). We only provide this if we are asked, and only about 6 out of 85 young writers have asked. Yet they keep asking for the statistics on how many people read (and “like”) their published articles. I am now calling this a “pat on the back”, hoping to address the mis-match in expectations.

    So thank you for articulating the problem beautifully, and giving some reasons why it might be so. It is also a relief to know that it is not just our problem within our little project here in our isolated Downunder part of the world.

    Having a language for a problem is the first step in showing all concerned what the problem actually is. Armed with this, we can hopefully go on to the next step of providing the type of mentoring that is effective, and that is acceptable to the young writers. And maybe then they will stop nagging us for their idea of fast, superficial “feedback” which is really just a pat on the back.

    • Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your experience with young writers. I am struck by the need for feedback you describe and worried that it’s about more than just a need for validation. I think young writers (who are, in my opinion, young thinkers) start gearing their content/message/”opinion” to what they anticipate that feedback to be–and without making a conscious effort to do so. The “pat on the back” may be affirming but I would imagine is ultimately shallow.

      (As I write all of this and continue to think through these ideas, it is not lost on me that I am a player in this game, looking for the next view or “pat on the back”–or otherwise–for this post!)

      • Yes to all your comments, that is my point really – they are only looking for a shallow affirmation. (At least, that is what we THINK from the comments they do make, which baffled us at first but we now think it is a mis-communication due to different interpretations of the word “feedback”).

        Thank you for engaging in my discussion. I like the way you put your thoughts into words, they echo my thoughts too, but are expressed better. I really like your identification with “young thinkers” – these people definitely are, otherwise they would not be in the program as they are voluntarily writing about their own opinions. May I steal your terminology? It may help to get through to the young people that we respect their ideas, and are trying to find a common ground to help them.

        This airing of my thoughts on my own problem has been very helpful to me, thanks again.

        • p.s. I hope my feedback to you is “deep and meaninful” rather than merely a “shallow affirmation”, even if I did use the word “like” somewhere in there. ha ha. d.

          • post-script: the nomenclature of “thinkers” was rejected by a 2/3 majority of the “leadership team” of the young writers – it didn’t even get to be discussed by the senior mentors. SIGH. Not for the first time, I get the impression I am from another planet, continually getting frustrated by Earthlings.

          • I can see how the term could be rejected by that audience. Too bad; I’m not sure I’ll ever think of myself as anything but a young thinker…too much in this world to know!

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