Authorial identity – a cultural issue?

Hyland, K. (2002). Authority and Invisibility: Authorial Identity in Academic Writing. Journal of Pragmatics, 34, 1091-1112

I had to do a bit of research in the googlebox to determine exactly what Hyland means by ‘authorial’ – i.e. ‘of the author’ or ‘with authority’, both of these being key themes in the paper. As I expected, the two words have the same Latin lingustic root, but ‘auctor’ had several meanings to the Romans – including ‘creator’, ‘commander’ and ‘advisor’. So that didn’t resolve anything. However, I also hadn’t really appreciated the true meaning of ‘author’ as ‘one who assumes responsibility for the content of a published text’; I thought it just meant ‘writer’. I’ve now come to the conclusion that Hyland’s use of ‘authorial’ encompasses both the writer, and a sense of their ‘authority’ in terms of their taking of responsibility for the content of the text.

Hyland discusses Ivanic’s (1998) three ‘selves’ that are presented (I guess to varying degrees) in academic writing:

  • The autobiographical self – your own historical identity; who you are in an holistic sense
  • The discoursal self – the values/beliefs of the community; who you are writing for
  • The authorial self – what you claim, think & believe

He hints at Ivanic’s findings (with first-language students) of a perceived conflict between the pressure to adopt the discourse of the professional/academic community, and the expression of the self or establishment of an independent identity; I found this quite interesting and would quite like to read more about this. It interests me more than the claims Hyland makes about the specific tendencies of L2 (second-language) students to avoid the use of personal pronouns when elaborating arguments and stating claims. It seemed to me that the student’s reasons for not using personal pronouns were perfectly logical; they used ‘we’ when they felt that it would be factually incorrect and/or ethically wrong to take singular responsibility for the work. They were not sure enough about their results to make an absolute claim. They felt that, as absolute beginners, it would be inaccurate and/or appropriate for them to assume a position of authority.

The (L1) supervisors seemed to have completely forgotten what it was like to be an uncertain novice on the very periphery of their community. They seemed to think that it is sufficient to give their students research papers to read; that this is enough to enable their students to take on the persona of an expert in the field, even though their students know their theses will be annotated by a supervisor, allocated a grade and then confined to a box file in a basement; a context that is very far from that of the experienced academic. In their interview responses, the students clearly differentiated themselves from the ‘scholars’ and ‘experts’, and explicitly give this as the reason why they are unwilling to use first person pronouns when developing their arguments and reporting their conclusions. I don’t see any evidence that points to the Asian ‘collective identity’ as a mechanism of causation (one respondent said ‘In Chinese [Cantonese?] we don’t write like that’, but it’s not really clear what they actually meant).

Essentially – while Hyland claims that the students felt ‘ambivalent’ about the discoursal identity implied in authorial commitment, I don’t see how he got that from the quotes he uses. To me it looks like they *did* accept its connotations, they just didn’t think their own work was deserving of them.

Hyland does acknowledge in his concluding paragraph that it is possible that L1 (English-speaking) students experience similar problems…! I would like to look out Ivanic’s work to find out more.

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One Response to Authorial identity – a cultural issue?

  1. Pingback: The empathy and dynamism of non-academic discourse | Doctored

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