Friday, March 30, 2007

How Do I Know What I Think?

Min-Zhan Lu observes that Shaughnessy’s pedagogy "seldom considers the possibility that the meaning one ‘has in mind’ might undergo substantial change as one tries to ‘coax’ it and ‘communicate’ it in different discourses," thereby suggesting that "‘meaning is crafted’ only to match what is already in the writer’s mind" (107-8). This observation struck me as particularly notable if only because Shaughnessy, in her chapter on syntax, appears to acknowledge and address Lu’s very point. "No sooner has the writer written down what he thinks he means," Shaughnessy writes, "than he is asking himself whether he understands what he said" (79). To this same end, she then immediately quotes W.H. Auden, who wrote: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" (79; emphasis mine). In this way is she not admitting that, while one may begin by writing "what he thinks he means," that meaning might yet "undergo substantial change" during the writing process? Granted, Shaughnessy finishes the passage by noting that a growing syntactic awareness grants the writer with the "power to make choices that bring him closer and closer to his intended meaning" (80). Nevertheless, I don’t think she intends to imply that the writer necessarily had an intended meaning prior to writing, so much as she’s saying that he may begin with a vague notion of what he intends to say about a given subject, then develops that meaning via the writing process. The struggle becomes, then, to faithfully articulate what he means to say as it is generated in the act. Lu’s argument would also seem to suggest—and maybe I’m way off base here—but it would seem to suggest that Shaughnessy does not subscribe to the notion of rhetorical invention. For if Shaughnessy in fact believes that meaning is strictly crafted to reflect what a writer already thinks or knows about a given subject, then techniques like brainstorming, prewriting, and the like would essentially be rendered as without merit. (Or, in the very least, they would be gratuitous as tools used to generate/articulate new ideas, thoughts, or reflections, which is what I generally use the invention process for.) And while I can’t remember right off hand if and/or where Shaughnessy recommends invention techniques (nothing is listed in the index related to this), I find it difficult to believe that she wouldn’t do so. None of this is to suggest that I think Lu is wrong about Shaughnessy’s pedagogy: she’s obviously much more familiar with it than I am now (or probably ever will be in the future). I just thought that particular observation of hers rather curious given what I remembered from Shaughnessy’s syntax chapter. If my logic is completely ass-backwards, though, and you wanna call me out on it by leveling unflattering accusations at me then, by all means, please feel free to do so.

Lu, Min-Zhan. "Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence." Representing the "Other". Eds. Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu. Urbana: NCTE, 1999. 105-116.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I don't think Lu really means to deny that Shaughnessy leaves room for writing as a discovery process. I think she just doesn't think that Shaughnessy takes this idea far enough, and allows for more meaning "underneath" language than Lu herself would.