It’s Mister Orwell to You

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, July 15, 2005

I’m in my pajamas, a half-eaten muffin beside me, a coffee-stained stack of papers from first-year composition students in front of me. The pile doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller. I’m slogging through it, when I get to a sentence that causes me to cough up a big bite of breakfast: “George shot the elephant because he felt peer pressure.”

I gloss over the interesting use of “peer pressure” as applied to an essay exploring colonial privilege and burden, and say, aloud, to no one but my disbelieving self, “George?!”

The papers are not so much formal academic exercises as “critical reading journals” that students are required to keep, recording their response to each of the essays we read during the semester. It isn’t just one student, and it wasn’t just George. A surprising number of my students refer to authors by their first names.

That confused me, so I went back to look for patterns.

In every case where a student first-named an author, it was in response to an essay that was first-person personal. With “Shooting an Elephant,” the reference was to “George”; but it was “Orwell” who wrote “Politics and the English Language.” When reading Debra Dickerson’s intensely moving and immediate piece about her 16-year-old brother, “Who Shot Johnny?,” my Montana students, few of whom have known any African-Americans, felt an intimacy with the author, shared her race rage, and called her Debra. An excerpt from Lars Eighner’s book Travels With Lizbeth, about fishing for food in dumpsters, provoked a similar reaction. Lars, they wrote, was really, really smart (which seemed to surprise, given that he was a homeless person writing about homelessness).

But it’s about more than just the voice. Early in the semester we read Mark Edmundson’s essay, originally published in Harper’s, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Education for Bored College Students.” Edmundson establishes himself as a professor at a major research university, sets up an easy rapport with his readers, and then goes on to attack the current crop of college students for consumerism, superficiality, and a host of other sins. The essay, not surprisingly, generates good classroom discussion. But in their reading journals, only a handful of students referred to the author as Professor Edmundson. It was “Mark is dead wrong.” Or, sometimes, “Mark has a good point.” Here, not only was the essay first-person personal, it was also on a topic on which students felt qualified to comment, to engage, to argue against. They wanted to throw down with Mark.

But no one first-named Jonathan Swift when we read his essay about eating Irish babies. And an Atlantic article by the philosopher Carl Elliott, “A New Way to Be Mad,” about a subculture of people who seek to have perfectly healthy limbs amputated, so freaked out my students that I think they forgot the essay had been written by a person. If the material was upsetting, the author’s name often did not even appear in my students’ journals. Or if the writing was particularly — shall we, say, academic — they backed off first-name acquaintance.

Something was going on here with the distance between subject, author, and reader.

Most of my students had not been much exposed in high school to authors who presented themselves as characters in their own stories; there, not only is reading more formal, but so is writing. Many of my students told me that they were taught never to use “I” in a paper. They were taught to respect authority. They were taught to avoid familiarity — with teachers or with authors.

When I asked them why they now sometimes wrote about authors as their peers, they were nonplussed. They denied doing it. They knew it was wrong. When presented with the evidence, they shrugged their shoulders. “Oops,” they said. One student posited that maybe it was because, in college, you get more freedom, and that includes freedom to push boundaries: “It’s as if we say ‘George’ in defiance, rather than ‘Orwell’ like most brown-nosing nerds would,” she told me. Many said that it’s because our culture has become more casual: “Come on, it’s no big deal.”

Certainly there are lots of places to see creeping informality, like when a waitperson comes to take your order and then squats down right next to you, or when a smarmy telemarketer interrupts your dinner, or a store clerk, on handing back your credit card, thanks you by your first name. It’s possible that the lines of formality have been blurred or removed, and that today’s college generation is the product of that dissolution; that we are a people whose language doesn’t have both the formal French vous and its more personal tu, so we’ve defaulted to a nation of tu-ers.

But perhaps it is about something else. Perhaps — and the fledgling teacher in me would love to believe this — it is because these students are reading texts as if they were written by people, not words that fell to the page as the gentle rain from heaven, but the products of hearts and minds not so unlike their own. Perhaps this first-naming is a way of engaging in dialogue, encountering authorship while eliding authority; a way of humanizing texts, empowering the self against the word.

I’m thinking that it may not be such a bad thing. In college, early in the Decade of Greed, I sported on my jean jacket a button asserting “Question Authority.” Perhaps my 18-year-old students are doing just that. Perhaps, because they are products of the cyber-age, where everyone can have a Web site, a blog, an e-mail list, where everyone can be an author, they are not cowed by published prose, by the authority of a print culture to which only the elite have access. With the advent of the Internet, entrance into public discourse is no longer mediated by teachers or editors or guides.

The technologies of the Internet, e-mail, and text messaging have allowed this generation to use language in various and novel ways, bending and fashioning the conventions of print. While I won’t claim that it has made them better writers, it may put them in a different relation to the written word. No one any longer writes out first drafts of school papers by hand and then spends hours retyping — and revising; students spit their words out onto their computer screens, let the spellchecker do its thing (often turning their prose to nonsense), and then they print them out. While they are writing, they are using the same piece of machinery to do research on the Web, to send e-mail messages to their moms, and to IM with their friends. The informal tone used in many of their academic papers may reflect the breakdown of the use of distinct modes of discourse.

And so when they read, my students seem to embrace a similar and informal relationship to authors. One of my students so hated the composition textbook we were using that he Googled the author, found his e-mail address, and threatened to write a message saying exactly what he thought of the scholar’s work. If that isn’t questioning authority, I don’t know what is.

I like my students to call me by my first name — I’m old enough that my authority in the classroom doesn’t feel contested — but I know some of my colleagues think first-naming bespeaks a lack of respect. Either way, when it comes to reading and writing, I think the blurring of boundaries is a good thing (as long as it’s not accompanied by mushiness of thought). If students care enough about what they are reading to want to claim the author by that most personal of attributes, the given name, then that’s the kind of material I want to assign.

When I write personal essays, I understand that I am inviting readers into my world — hoping they will join me, follow my line of thought. If my students want into the world of ideas, if they want to crouch at the table of knowledge, and if what it takes for them to do this is to feel a personal connection with the author, I guess I don’t mind if they call Plato by his first name.