Gail Stygall: Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucault’s Author Function

September 23, 2007


Stygall, Gail. “Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucault’s Author Function.”  CCC 45.3. Oct 1994.


Defining “Basic Writers” and “Basic Writing” are hard for professionals and laypeople in the field.  Whether it is “remedial,” “development,” “educational opportunity students,” or “basic”: requiring foundational or fundamental instruction in writing,” there is no one catch-all definition or term that signifies the Basic Writer and Basic Writing.

Gail Stygall contends that while professionals resist the “deficit theories of language” when considering enrollment trends in favor of the “temporary” enrollment “Wave Theory” (i.e. vets returning from war, economic advancement, displaced adults, etc.), the fact remains that basic writing courses are needed.  She argues the Michel Foucault’s “author function” will “organize the curriculum of English studies and define its proper object of study” (321).  Stygall suggests that basic writing facilitates the author function, regardless of the fact that literature may argue over the validity of the “author.”  She said, “If literature and its related author function remain opposed to non-literature, non-literary writers will always fall short or the English department’s highest value.  A master discourse that reveres one kind of authorship and dismisses all others is bound to affect those kinds of authorship counted among the “all others” category” (321).

Basic writing institutional practices and “inscribed” author function dominance work together, along with “educational discursive practices.”  “I mean by educational discursive practices are those activities and talk about education that we experience as natural, normal, inevitable, and unremarkable.  These are practices that we take for granted: one teacher for each classroom; the existence of classrooms and buildings . . .; grading and sorting students; separating students by age and grade level; dividing time into semesters and quarters; days into class periods; homework and all those other aspects of the daily life of education that we rarely question” (321-322).

Stygall offers two studies to demonstrate educational discursive practices:

Linda Brodkey studied correspondence between an Adult Basic Education class and a graduate class she was teaching, which “maintained asymmetrical power relations.”

Stygall studied correspondence in the form of comments and drafts between her graduate students (professional student teachers) and students enrolled in a basic writing course at Temple University (undergraduate students).

By presenting these studies, Stygall hoped to examine the processes of Foucault’s “author function,” as it relates to Basic Writing.

Stygall offers Foucault’s definition of an “author” in literary criticism:

The author provides the basis for explaining not only the presence of certain events in a work, but also their transformations, distortions, and diverse modifications (through his biography, the determination of his individual perspective, the analysis of his social position, and the revelation of his basic design).  The author is also the principle of a certain unity of writing—all differences having to be resolved, at least in part, by the principles of evolution, maturation, or influence.” 

The Foucault’s definition produces two versions of author function found in English departments:  1. Authors in the literary sense—Novelists.   2. Authors in the sense of discursive initiations—i.e. Marx, Freud, etc. (those whose work and schools of thought create discourse).

Foucault identifies four characteristics of the author function:

  1. “First, when writing or authorship became property and thus operant within the law of property, writing offered the possibility of transgression, especially in “the form of an imperative peculiar to literature” (324). [Applied to Basic Writing, Stygall suggests that “apprentice writers” should be judged as doing “pseudo-writing.”  But this is not the case.  Apprentice writers’ errors are judged more harshly than published authors whose errors are overlooked.  Students receive negative feedback from instructors more readily and like deficiencies are identified by placement exams.  Students’ errors are evaluated as “transgressions.”]
  2.  “Foucault’s second characteristic—the relative prominence a discourse gives authorship—places apprentice writers in an academic setting in which the author function has prominence. This prominence results in a principle of limitation operating for nonauthors.” [Applied to Basic Writing, Stygall implies that because students are labeled basic writers, there is no assumption of change or improvement.  When there is noted change in a student’s writing, the question of “plagiarism” arises.  Author function in traditional educational institutions limits basic writers.  Likewise, Stygall suggest that teachers within academics are under scrutiny to perform with set guidelines.  “Finding and keeping a “good job—that is, one on a tenure line—means publishing.  Tenure decisions often mean the application of the author function to scholarly writing” (324-325).] 
  3. “Third, the pairing of an author to a particular discourse is not a simple matching; it is rather the social construction of a “certain rational being” (324).  [The writers’ identity as writers is out of their control.  If a teacher/reader finds the writing “unclear” or “lacks logic,” the student may be labeled a “non-literate” or “non-logical” writer.  This places the teacher in a position as final arbitrator, giving or taking away value of student’s writing.]
  4. Finally, the author function allows readings that acknowledge several selves of the same author, framed by processes of “evolution, maturation, or influence” (324).  “Though some composition scholars have recently examined the notion of the “authentic self” or the unified voice in relation to ideology, the dominant approach has been to silence multivocality and to unify self-presentation in student’s texts.” . . . “These textual “qualities” also have value in maintaining the author function.  Valorizing [to assign value or merit to: validate] multivocality in works of literature has the effect of denying or banning its presences in works by non-authors: (325).

“Being declared a marginal writer as a first year college student is public and institutionally sanctioned.  Being declared marginal in a graduate English program—as a consequence of a declared interest in composition, an interest in the non-authors, as it were—is less public, less officially sanctioned, yet is just as powerful” (326).

Due to educational discursive practices, authority/teacher roles tend to remind basic writers of their deficit writing abilities, whether consciously or unconsciously.  Basic responders in the Stygall study self-identified as subjectively “poor writers” or “enrolled in basic writing as the natural order” and forced to serve out their repentance.  Still student recognized that they had less power when labeled basic writers.  Discursive practices lead to privileges which hold education up as a model for everyone, even though this is not the reality (327-332).

Author Function is reproduced with the training of composition professionals.  Graduate students, who teach basic writing, pattern the same author function principles that were imprinted upon them to their students, and they must do so if they want to keep their jobs in the institution/English department (335).  Still, Stygall noted some “slippage” or rebel teaching practices in her students that challenge discursive practices.

Stygall had hoped to use Foucault’s Author Function and identifies discursive practices to bring about change in Basic Writing.  She deems this goal unfulfilled.  She isolates changes that she will make to future research in this area, as well as offered recommendations,

The idea of authorship in English departments is constructed by the people who populate them.  We do not have to simply accept current practices, especially when those practices make it impossible for some student writers to escape the imposition of negative status.  By challenging the principles on which the author function rests, by exploring the lived experiences of our basic writing students, by agreeing to rethink our own positions, we can begin to resist the reinscription of power and collaboratively redefine the author (339). 

  1. Basic writing is not a temporary issue, so institutions should stop “creating temporary faculty positions.
  2. Recognizing One Group of Writers.  Composition faculty should not cause/support divisions between “regular” and “basic” writers.  By identifying one group of writers, there would be on need to assign only graduate students and part-time instructors to basic writers.  

Stygall summarizes,  “In examining the role of the author function in creating and regulating the positioning of basic writing in English departments, I hope to point us to the path of resistance, one in which we examine our representations of educational discursive practices” (340).