Monday, February 26, 2007

More than you might think

I want to talk a little more about the letters written between graduate students and basic writers as described in Gail Stygall’s article “Resisting Privilege” as it is presented in Landmark Essays on Basic Writing.

On page 191, Stygall shows her readers one of the letters written by a basic writer, James, and then gives the response of Dee, the graduate student. Stygall notes the response Dee gives is almost three times as long as James’s and suggests Dee is “comfortable writing, even to someone she does not know” (192). It is also noted that James “asked no questions, while Dee feels it appropriate to ask eight questions” (192). Stygall goes on to point out that James’s handwriting is labored and “tortured,” and that Dee simply responds to James as a “teacher” by echoing him and asking him more questions about himself, thus requiring a reply.

However, I find Dee’s reply a little calloused and cold and I find Stygall’s analysis of James’s letter to be a little simplistic. If Stygall and Dee were to take a second look at James’s letter, they might see a more complicated letter than they previously thought.
The exploratory letter actually has a lot of questions embedded within it. Here is a list of questions I see within the letter:

1. Where were you born?
2. What are some of your interests?
3. How far into graduate school are you?
4. How many credit hours are you taking?
5. Where do you work?
6. What are your career plans?

James has written a perfectly conventional introductory letter in which he has described himself and the things important to him. When James asks Dee to tell him about herself, he intends for her to “echo” him, but his intentions are poorly met. While Dee seems comfortable writing to James about “feeling wimpy,” she does not echo him in a way that truly acknowledges his letter. Dee turns a letter that is supposed to be about her (a letter that should have echoed James’s by giving him more basic facts about herself) into a myriad of half-responses laced with more questions. The response letter seems to be less of a correspondence and more of a quiz.

I’m not sure how the barrage of questions will aid James, especially if he feels as though Dee has ignored his genuine attempt to learn more about her. What is it that makes Dee’s letter superior to James’s in Stygall’s eyes? Sheer number of words used? Dee’s ability to fill a page without really saying anything important or giving an actual reply? Why is it acceptable for Dee to write a letter filled with questions and ignore James’s true inquiries? Dee’s letter, to me, seems unfocused and misguided when read as a response to James’s.

It is clear that James and Dee both have different expectations of what an introductory letter should be and each is functioning within their own parameters of comfort. Which "comfort zone" is closer to our own and how do we move between zones to meet the needs of the other person? How do we step out of the rhelm of "teacher" and "student" and become communicators?