584: Weekly Position Paper #10: Surplus as Epistemic Sites: Resisting the Tidy Essay

In Personally Speaking: Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse, Candace Spigelman argues persuasively for the use of personal experience in academic writing, both by scholars and by students. She offers many reasons and benefits for incorporating personal experiences. Key among these is personal experience can be used rhetorically, rather than viewed epistemologically, in order to build stronger arguments. “Rhetoricizing experience” (64) entails understanding that experiences are interpretations and never fully “authentic,” that the “voice” in an essay is not equivalent with the writer, that we as writers have many voices, and that experience can be used as logical evidence. Spigelman does not propose a turn to completely personal essays, but would rather break down the binary of personal and academic writing, thus inviting blended discourses that can create more complicated essays—ones with surplus, offering a “more complicated process of meaning making” (92).

Spigelman’s discussion of surplus reminds us that writing can be messy and untidy. I believe that too often we avoid these moments of surplus in students writing by directing them toward more internally cohesive documents. I should probably rephrase that, and put it terms of my own experience. I can recall moments where I have seen these “points of excess” in students’ papers and pointed out that they are contradicting themselves in their writing. I like Spigelman’s take when she sees this surplus in Michelle’s paper: She asks Michelle to write more. I think too often I have not asked students to keep writing, to develop this surplus and see where it leads them.

Instead of viewing surplus in student writing as opportunities for more thinking through writing, I have often viewed them as problems in logic, something to be ironed out. As Spigelman notes, “such points of excess are epistemic sites: places where our knowledge is re-viewed and reconstituted to account for (but not necessarily to integrate) inherent contradictions” (93). Spigelman’s use of personal experience as evidence and as rhetorical is helpful in creating these points of surplus, especially as students think through commonplace assumptions and notice that various lived experiences contradict those assumptions. By bringing this up, I don’t mean to say that I don’t ever help students develop more complicated meanings through the surplus in their writing. Rather, I want to note how easy it is to help them iron out this surplus in ways that create cohesive and tidy essays rather than complicate their own thinking and writing.

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One Response to 584: Weekly Position Paper #10: Surplus as Epistemic Sites: Resisting the Tidy Essay

  1. Laura says:

    Interesting. I was thinking the other day along these same lines — about how I encourage “thesis control” and focus on my students papers, but how I also want to see complex and thoughtful exploration, too. I think in the past I’ve assumed that less experienced writers need to start with the tighter essays and only once they’ve master them, let them losen up a little bit, let them explore more nuance and complexity and inconclusiveness. But I don’t know. It’s a tough balance.

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