Monday, January 21, 2019

Disclosure and the Writing Classroom: Revisiting Jill Christman by Craig N. Owens

In her recent essay “‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter’: Writing Sexual Trauma under Title IX,” Jill Christman, writing for Essay Daily's Advent 2018 calendar raises important questions about how professors of writing, and in particular personal essays, autobiography, and other forms of creative writing, ought to regard student writing about sexual trauma and sexual assault. Because many colleges and universities, following Obama-administration guidance from the Department of Education, designate faculty members as “mandatory reporters”—that is, as employees of the institution required, under law, to report student accounts of sexual assault to their schools’ Title IX officers—Christman asks, “[A]s essayists and teachers of writing in higher education, what’s our part in all this? What’s unique about our position as educators specifically charged with teaching adult students how to shape stories out of the stuff of real life?” If a student is using their writing as a means of working through the pain and trauma of assault, Christman worries that in following policies that require faculty to report these incidents, professors of writing may risk harming students who are not ready—and may never be ready—for their experiences to become subject to institutional and quasi-jurisprudential processes. How, then, can we encourage honest, authentic, emotional and personal risk-taking and vulnerability in student writing in a way that both honors students’ desires to work through their experiences in their own ways and at their own pace and also, at the same time, complies with university and DoE policies regarding mandatory reporting.
     Christman’s excellent essay raises a host of ethical and social-justice related concerns that arise when we treat student writing as a mode of disclosure. Here, I would like to address the question from the point of view of the philosophy of language in the hopes of offering an approach teachers of writing may adopt to address these issues—an approach informed by speech-act theory, particularly J.L. Austin’s notion of the “performative utterance.” For Austin, who laid out his theory of speech-acts in his slim volume How to Do Things with Words (1962), a performative utterance is a special class of utterance, one that does something beyond just saying something. Whereas a constative utterance constates, that is, posits a truth, usually based on observation, perception, or factual knowledge—“The mailman put this letter in our mailbox this morning,” for example, or “It’s raining,” or “World War II ended in 1945”—a performative utterance enacts, validates, or creates a fact. Pronouncements of marriage, the performance of a contract, the making of bets and promises,  and the enactment of a decree are all examples of performative utterances because they don’t just posit a truth: they make it true. Indeed, so different is the performative from the constative utterance that adjectives like true, false, accurate, and errant fail to characterize performative utterances. Instead, Austin opts for such terms as effective, ineffective, valid, invalid, and, most commonly, felicitous and infelicitous to describe performative utterances that either do or do not take effect.
     Key to the concept of performativity is that for a performative utterance to take effect, for it to be a valid, felicitous performance, it must meet a number of conditions to which everyday constative utterances don’t have to adhere, including the sincerity and intention of the speaker, the appropriateness of the context or situation, and adherence to an accepted formula or convention. Thus, the weddings that take place Shakespeare’s As You Like It or The Taming of the Shrew don’t result in the two actors’ having been married because a play is an invalid context for the performance of an actual wedding and the actors who utter the conventional formulas are not really intending to be marry: they are not sincere. Related to the question of sincerity is that of agency: Those who make performative utterances must be doing so freely, without constraint. Finally, the individuals involved in a performative utterance must be authorized to enact it: not just anyone can fire an employee or christen a ship or declare a state of emergency. When one or more of these conditions is not met, the speech-act fails: it’s infelicitous or invalid.
     I propose that we think of “disclosure,” the term often applied to what a student does when they report an assault to a member of a university’s faculty or staff, as a class of performative utterance; for it to be valid—for it to have operated as a disclosure for the purposes of Title IX—it would then need to meet some specific criteria. The three that are most germane for the writing pedagogy are context, convention and intention. Before we treat a student’s written account, produced and submitted in response to a writing prompt, as a performative utterance, a “disclosure,” we must establish that it has take place in a context that supports the effectuation of a performative utterance; that it follows the minimum conventions for disclosure; and that the student intends the utterance to be understood as a disclosure, and not something else. Unless we are certain that each of these conditions is met, we can’t treat the student’s utterance as a disclosure.
     To take these conditions one at a time, then: A writing assignment does not provide a context in which disclosure, as a class of performative utterance, can occur. This is not to say that a disclosure cannot occur in writing: it can. A note, and email, or a signed affidavit can all perform disclosures. But writing carried out in the creative or expressive writing classroom is always provisional, an exercise in something else, like a wedding rehearsal or moot court. It is assigned and completed as a demonstration of a particular mindset, of the mastery of a point of craft, or of a student’s ability to follow instructions. Often, especially for beginning writers, writing is a mode of imitation: A student borrows moves from established narratives and tries them out, practices them, rehearses them in the context of drafts for an assignment. These moves include not just organizational structure, diction, syntax, and the rest of what we sometimes think of as formal or mechanical aspects of a piece; they also include subject matter. Thus, the student enthusiastic about their recent encounters with the works of Tony Kushner, for instance, may well wish to practice writing about sexuality, and may do so very convincingly, as an exercise in craft, without ever “coming out” (another kind of performative). Moreover, because student writing is produced in response to requirements, there is no grounds for believing that what a student has written represents the exercise of their free will. It’s just as likely that they’re giving us what they think we want, in order to get a decent grade—indeed, that is the overwhelmingly more likely scenario. There is nothing in the writing that can prove otherwise.
     Second, the conventions of creative writing, in a creative writing class, take precedence over other conventions that may be enacted in the student writing. Even in a non-fiction writing class, one devoted to autobiography, memoir, or the personal essay, we expect student writers to take creative license with their subject matter. Thus, timelines may be rearranged; several individuals collapsed into one character; several incidents synthesized into one; and the mundane details of reality heightened—dare I say fictionalized—to achieve an aesthetic effect. Sometimes, that aesthetic effect may be authenticity, a strong sense of the truth and accuracy of what the writer has written. But the writer—usually conceived of as a persona in their self-presentation in writing—is already a fiction in the creative writing classroom, or at least only an attenuated version of the actual individual doing the writing. Indeed, so is the reader. So, even when an essay says something as apparently straightforward as “Reader, I want you to hear it from me first, and to believe me: That man assaulted me,” the conventions of creative writing require us to accept this as a performance not of disclosure, but rather of craft for the sake of a literary or aesthetic effect. It is as much a disclosure as a Rembrandt self-portrait: believable without necessarily being true.
     Finally, to the question of intention, perhaps the most fraught of the three conditions under discussion. It is impossible for a student to express his or her intention regarding the status of an utterance as a disclosure within the frame of a written assignment, because the authenticity and accuracy of creative writing with respect to what it says about reality is so attenuated. So, a separate, complementary utterance, taking place outside the frame of the assigned writing, would be necessary. Such an utterance could be a signed statement, an email, or a spoken affirmation. It isn’t enough for a syllabus or assignment sheet to state that the professor will presume that all details reported as fact in the submitted assignment are true: First of all, such a presumption runs contrary to the foundational conventions of creative writing; and, second, the receiver’s presumptions aren’t sufficient to validate an otherwise invalid or infelicitous performative utterance. In the absence of a separate statement of affirmation, that presumption is just that: a presumption. Likewise, if we require, as a condition of fulfilling the assignment or passing the class, such a separate affirmation, we have essentially made a second writing assignment, one that is subject to all the infelicities and ambiguities of the main assignment. Perhaps, then, we might provide a written statement for the student simply to sign: but if their signing it is a requirement, then we have eliminated from the exchange the students’ free will and agency, thus invalidating even the signature as a performative utterance.
     The only way, then, that we can treat a fact or experience reported in an assigned, required work of creative writing, even if it presents itself as non-fiction or memoir, as an authentic disclosure is if the student writer, unprompted, of their own free will, informs us, outside the frame of the assigned writing, that what it recounts are, in their view, the truth. In other words, if the student, of their own accord, discloses that the writing is in fact a disclosure. This condition precisely removes the question from the realm of creative writing altogether: for the performative we are now concerned with is a disclosure outside the context of the writing classroom—precisely the same kind of disclosure a math or chemistry professor would be required to report. In short, there are no conditions under which a piece of assigned writing, whatever the genre, in whatever class, can be treated as a disclosure when we keep in mind that a disclosure is not just any saying, but a particular class of performative utterance. While I would suggest that faculty make that fact clear in their syllabi—a brief statement saying “I will make no presumptions about the truth-value of the claims your writing makes beyond the conventions of the genre in which you are writing and the constraints of the writing classroom” would likely suffice—it might be even better for departments in which writing is a requirement of their courses to put these interpretive practices into policy. After all, as experts in our various fields, including in the modes of discourse authorized by those fields and in the interpretive practices we engage in, only we can make these determinations with respect to writing we require of our students. For required writing always imposes limitations on the writer’s agency; and, as Christman points out, “by taking away the survivor’s agency to tell her own story on her own terms, [we]’ve also taken away her chance to wrest back some of the control she lost in the assault.”

Craig N. Owens teaches writing, critical theory, popular culture, and drama studies in the English department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. His work on such playwrights as George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Arthur Miller has appeared as chapters and articles in numerous collections and journals; he also writes and frequently presents on popular music, film and television, including the music of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Beyoncé; James bond films and novels; and The Big Lebowski. His opinion editorials on issues in teaching, specifically, and higher education generally have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Marsh Report, and The Des Moines Register. His full-length play Open House won Tallgrass Theatre’s 2013 Playwright’s Workshop Award. Currently, he is writing a play about a jumping cow titled Angus. 

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