It’s Your Voice, Why Not Use It?

by Tyler TranPhoto of Tyler Tran

Tyler is an Accounting and Finance major from Stoughton, MA. Tyler felt a personal connection to the topic of his essay as he “has always been conscious of my voice in previous writing assignments, but it wasn’t until English 101 and 102 that I purposefully used my own voice in my essays.” This made Tyler want to explore the topic of “self-censorship” of students when writing. He admits that “undergoing the writing process in a remote setting was very new, but I think it helped emphasize the importance of really writing with my own voice.” While writing this essay, Tyler appreciated that he was allowed to freely choose his own topic and decide how he wanted to compose. He states that “this is one essay where I was given the most freedom.” Tyler says that he has always had a real passion for writing, but is also very interested in subjects like math and science. Outside of school, Tyler loves working on cars — a lifelong hobby that comes from his dad.

When we see any kind of censorship in our lives, we are quick to address it and make the necessary changes. But, why do we not maintain the same reaction towards self-censorship of students within the academy? The answer to this question is very complex. Self-censorship is a broad term, and it would be helpful if we defined it before exploring its involvement with students. For the purposes of this paper, self-censorship in writing is the act of students replacing their true voice, with a voice that is not entirely their own. An example of self-censorship would be a student writing specifically what they think their audience wants to hear, instead of expressing their own thoughts and ideas. Before we can determine why students do this, we must first familiarize ourselves with a fundamental concept of writing. Intertextuality, a concept developed by James Porter, is the idea that all texts are somehow and some way related to each other. There can be “traces” of previous texts in all writing, which are ideas developed from writers that influence other writers and students (Porter 34). With Porter’s idea of intertextuality and “traces,” this causes students to alter, and sometimes completely censor their voices in their own writing. Since all texts are related and contain traces of others, there are often other voices within writing, and it has come to the point where students omit their own voice from their writing and simply reword or restate what other people have already said.

Because of intertextuality, it is logical that there can only be a limited amount of originality when writing. This lack of originality will be discussed later on, but for right now intertextuality is a reason why it may be difficult for students to write using their own voice. Rebecca M. Howard touches upon this idea with a clever metaphor, where she relates students and authors to dwarves and giants. The dwarves in this situation are current readers and writers, and the giants are those of the past. We as students are always learning new information and building upon it by adding our own opinions and thoughts, so Howard points out that “‘A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself’” (Howard 789). But, in the case of self-censorship within writing, students can run into the issue of getting lost within the presence of “giants.” It is difficult for a student to understand these complex ideas and texts, but when they are tasked to add their own thinking, it is ever more daunting. This then could lead students to feel almost insignificant and “dwarfed” in their own writing. Within the academy, students are taught that they must use evidence from other authors to support their ideas, but this makes it much harder for students to find and use their own voice in their writing. Because texts and writing are so closely interwoven with each other, students are susceptible to writing with a voice that echoes others’ rather than using their own.

Intertextuality is not the only factor that plays a role in the self-censorship of students, there is another fundamental characteristic of writing that contributes to student self-censorship: the conversational model of writing. Kenneth Burke developed this metaphor that writing is similar to a conversation. He compares writing to a conversation because they share the aspect of everyone voicing their own opinions and ideas, while listening and building upon the opinions and ideas of others. In a regular conversation, someone had to start it with a fairly original idea using their own voice, and others have since then contributed their own thoughts using their own voice. Writing is no different. When one author writes down an idea and starts a “conversation,” other authors take that idea and contribute their own thoughts. But, an issue arises when students/young authors begin using a voice that isn’t theirs in the conversation/their writing. Howard brings up the idea “If there is no originality, there is no basis for literary property.” (792). Literary property is a particular person’s unique thinking that belongs to that particular person. But as we have discussed before, the concept of intertextuality makes it extremely difficult for students to write with their own voices, in turn making originality scarce. When students write with a voice that is not their true voice, it leads to a lack of originality, which then leads to a lack of literary property, as brought up by Howard. In terms of the conversation model mentioned earlier, without originality and literary property, everyone is simply restating what others have said. The issue has now expanded to students believing that they themselves as writers are unoriginal and possess no ownership over their writing. Not only do they feel insignificant and small compared to other writers, they feel as though they can only reword what writers of the past have already said in order to fit in the conversation. As this continues from one generation of writers to the next, the cycle continues and the conversation begins to sound redundant.

The most common place where we see people censor themselves is in writing. In the case of many people, we alter the language we use depending on who we are communicating with. We see this specific kind of self-censorship very frequently within the academy, especially with students. Students from all over write with voices that are not their own for assignments. Instead of inserting their personal ideas and opinions into their writing, they adopt a detached voice and write what they think people want to hear. The current pedagogical strategies used in the academy are the main reason for this problem of self-censorship, but there has been extensive research done to find possible solutions to help students struggling to write with their own voice. Rebecca Gemmell, a high school English teacher, also discusses this lack of personal voice in her students’ writing, “[Jacob] did what I call ‘robot writing’ in which he, like many students, parroted back everything I had said… I wanted to hear what Jacob had to say, but I wasn’t hearing his voice or ideas in his writing” (Gemmell 64). She also notices that this is the case for all of her students, not just Jacob. She explains “They all sounded the same, not at all like the lively, diverse group of students I enjoyed working with in my classroom” (64). A lot of students are doing essentially the same thing Jacob is: removing their voice from their own writing, and simply regurgitating information in place of it. This kind of censorship can be found in students’ writing from all grade levels. The existence of this phenomenon is backed by scholars, students, and especially teachers like Gemmell who are actively trying to mend students’ approaches in writing. The current teaching strategies that are being used in the classroom are the cause of this detached style of writing from students, which we will further inspect.

The current pedagogical strategies that teachers use in schools now are largely responsible for students removing themselves from their writing, and instead substituting in a voice that is not entirely their own. This issue of students’ detachment from their writing stems from the idea that there is a “right” or “correct” way to write. Strict guidelines and rubrics create a very rigid environment that allows little to no freedom when it comes to writing. Valerie Kinlock takes a closer look at this constructed concept that students must use “Standard English” when writing in the classroom, making it the “correct communicative form” (Kinloch 84). This communicative form that Kinlock mentions is the way most students are taught to write. They must use formal language (no slang and proper sentence structure) and always support their claims with strong and appropriate evidence. Students are taught that this is the correct way to write their essays, and methods other than that specific way are considered “nonstandard practices.” Since students are graded upon their execution of these Standard practices, it encourages them to write with a voice that is not entirely their own. Classifying anything but Standard English in writing nonstandard practices reinforces the feeling that students’ voices have no place whatsoever in their own writing. So, when students are forced to follow the practices of Standard English, it leaves them little room to voice and express their own ideas and opinions. As they continue to do this assignment after assignment, essay after essay, it becomes the only way they know how to write. In order to counter this, Kinloch also offers insight on a solution that includes “upholding the need to affirm the rights of students to their own language varieties” (90). Kinloch touches upon the idea that students should not be forced to conform to “Standard English” because it goes against their right to their own language. In my opinion, teachers should instruct their students in adapting their own “language varieties” instead of completely abandoning it. By modifying students’ own language instead of forcing them to totally adopt Standard English, they can write with their own voice and style, while also following the necessary conventions of Standard English practices. This approach to mending student’s way of writing is one of many that teachers should be utilizing instead of the current pedagogical strategies in place in order to promote students’ use of their own voice in their writing.

Since students are taught to believe that there is only one correct way to write from the beginning as Kinloch mentioned, it is difficult for them to break this habit. When a criminal is released from jail, it takes a certain amount of time for them to adjust to living in the free world. While this seems like an extreme comparison, there are similarities between a recently freed convict, and a recently liberated writer. If a student is suddenly told to write an essay that includes their own voice and opinions, there is bound to be confusion and hesitation. Gemmell, who wrote about her students’ own experiences with this, observed that “many students resisted this new focus” (Gemmell 65). It is surprising that these students were not openly joyous about being able to write with their own voice, but it is understandable. For years and years they have been taught to write from a detached, evidence-based position. Now, suddenly they are being required to do the complete opposite. The students hesitated because “they didn’t want to think that hard” and wanted to be told exactly what to do because it was easier and what they were used to. It shocked me to read that the students “didn’t believe it was OK to express their opinions in an ‘academic’ essay” (65). Like Howard, I presupposed that students would jump at the opportunity to write with their own voice finally, but they actually had the opposite reaction. This goes to show that students’ voices have been academically imprisoned, and when presented with freedom they are unsure what to do with it.

As students slowly regain their freedom and get the hang of using their voice again in their writing, there are some methods that assist during the process. One activity that is especially helpful is creating a writer’s notebook or journal. By allowing students to write without the pressure of being graded, it lets them exercise their newly attained freedom. We can see this in effect in a real classroom setting through Gemmell’s execution of it. She believes that “writing OPs and sharing them aloud helped create a sense of community and sparked discussion in their classrooms, exactly the kind of ‘social, conversational act’ academic writing is meant to generate in the college class” (Gemmell 66). The reference to writing as a conversational act is an idea developed by Burke, which we discussed earlier. The importance of writing in a conversational manner allows students to write with their own voice, which makes it more natural for them to build upon the ideas of others. Besides using their own voice, a writer’s notebook and similar activities make it easier for students to explore new ideas. This creates a writing environment where students can become more familiar with their newly acquired freedom and contribute to the “conversation.” When students are allowed to engage in writing as a conversational act, they can more easily find and use their own voice in their writing.

Only recently have I personally found my voice in my writing. Like most students, I had removed my own voice from my essays because of how my teachers in the past have taught writing. It wasn’t until I took English 101 in the fall did I realize the importance of my own voice in my writing. Something that helped me learn how to really write was finally being able to use “I” again. This is a very direct yet effective approach to teaching students the importance of our voices. It helps us regain our confidence in our own opinions and ideas. The biggest reason for students no longer using “I” in their writing is because we were taught that we must use “strong” evidence from other authors to support their claims. The issue with this method is that it shows students that their ideas are not good enough even for their own writing. Students are encouraged to incorporate their own voice in their writing when they are given the ability to simply use “I” in their writing again.

Student self-censorship in their own writing is an ongoing issue that we must all actively try to prevent. The evidence that supports the existence of this problem are ideas such as intertextuality, as well as the current way in which students are taught how to write “academic” essays. Teachers tell students that their ideas should be backed with evidence from other authors because personal anecdotes may not be sufficient. But, the methods teachers utilize to accomplish this teaching moment are more counterproductive than they are effective. Implementing rules such as the restriction of using “I” is something that, along with intertextuality, makes student writers feel insignificant. This leads to teachers like Gemmell noticing a robotic and almost parrot-like style of writing. Thankfully, there are many different solutions for this issue. Allowing students to use “I” in their writing, while stressing the importance of appropriate evidence provides the best of both worlds. Also, letting students write their ideas freely without the pressure of being graded through the use of a writer’s notebook or something similar assists them in finding their own voice. When students are able to write with their own voice and express their own ideas, it benefits the entire writing community as a whole. If students continue to write with a voice that is not their own, the “conversation” will inevitably become redundant and eventually die off. But, by supporting students’ efforts to write with our own voices, it continues the flow of original ideas, allowing the conversation to thrive and continue, and the positive cycle of writing lives on.

Works Cited
Gemmell, Rebecca. “Encouraging Student Voice in Academic Writing.” The English Journal, vol. 98, no. 2, 2008, pp. 64–68.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty.” College English 57.7 (1995): 788.

Kinloch, Valerie Felita. “Revisiting the Promise of Students’ Right to their Own Language: Pedagogical Strategies.” College Composition and Communication 57.1 (2005): 83-113.

Porter, James E. “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 5 no. 1, 1986, pp. 34-47.