Disrupting Authority: Reflections on co-authoring


This guest post is by Cecilia D. Shelton and Emily E. Howson, director and assistant director of the writing center at Saint Augustine's University, and contributors to the Praxis Special Double Issue on Course-Embedded Writing Support Programs in Writing Centers.

Our work in “Disrupting Authority: Writing Mentors and Code-Meshing Pedagogy” describes the idea behind—and the plans for—combining a course-embedded writing tutors program and code-meshing pedagogy at our small, private Historically Black College (HBCU) in order to challenge language hegemony in the writing classroom. The article was the first time either of us had attempted co-authoring. Writing in the plural “we” felt a little strange, especially at first. We wrote most of the paper side-by-side in Cecilia’s office, alternately talking or typing. Because identity (and identity in language) is such an important part of our topic, we wanted to discuss our experiences in co-authoring in a way that let our individual voices be heard. We thought a chat might do the trick.

Emily: So as I was thinking about co-authoring, one of the first things that popped in my head is that our co-authoring work together didn't truly begin with the paper, but at the 2014 SWCA Conference and our presentation there. I remember being pretty nervous—about how the topic would go over, about being one of the people standing up and talking about race and language and inequality. I think maybe a little of that nervousness followed me into the article.

Cecilia:  Yeah, you're right. We did kind of start with that presentation. I remember being nervous too—but like an excited nervous. I think we adopted a kind of "Screw it, let's do it" attitude about the whole thing, and that followed us into the article as well. I do think the positive response to our talk gave us the nerve to respond to the CFP. We knew then (and we know now) that we're saying something that may be edgy... radical, even.    

Emily: I remember talking about that radical(ish?)ness of the article a lot during our writing sessions—how to frame the ideas for our audience, how to explain that Goldilocks amount (just enough), how to convey what we've learned teaching at an HBCU, which can be so hard to convey. One of the things that made working together feel natural, for me, is that you and I share some writing tendencies. And one of those is to overwrite. To use about twice as many words as we need. (We get teased about our emails for this reason!) But eventually I think we settled into a kind of rhythm, got that "we" voice going.

Cecilia:  I think I may now be spoiled by having written with another over-writer for this first co-authoring experience. Someone who is more economical with words may have killed me before the paper ever got finished, lol. But, what I loved is how we worked to find the differences in our writing styles that helped us to complement each other rather than continue to mirror one another. You were so much better at recording the words, however and whenever they came—unorganized, written on scrap paper, voice memo'd on an iPhone in the car—and reminding me to do the same. But then my obsession with structure and organization really got us over a few humps, when it felt like we just had gobs of words on the page and weren't sure where our connections were.

Emily:  Oh my goodness, yes. Without your organizing sense, we'd still be wandering around my mazes of words! Before we wrote the article, I would have said that I had a pretty good sense of myself as a writer, but there's something about being in the room with someone, sharing the moment as the thinking and the words come. It reveals you to yourself. Not that I felt "under the microscope" with you, but just having that other person, that observer. It made me more an observer of my own writing process. I think we probably apologized to one another about 6,000+ times for the scrappy, messy nature of the composing. That self-consciousness, is what I mean. It felt awkward sometimes, even embarrassing—like, nobody ever sees my underwear drawer or my straight-out-of-the-gates writing!—but it was revelatory at the same time. I'm glad to have shared that vulnerability with you. There's all kinds of vulnerability for us in this article, it feels like.

 Cecilia:  Exactly! There were definitely some "naked" moments, but I'm the better for them. And our article is too. I agree about vulnerability being a theme for us in writing this article. For as many times as we felt unsure and exposed about our writing process, there were just as many moments where we checked our thinking about these issues of language, race and inequality. We've talked about how our individual insecurities about what we were writing were really manifestations of insecurities about the politics of our identities in the context of this discussion. So let's put it out there—I'm a black woman and you're a white woman. And that matters and it doesn't all at the same time...

Emily: Our discussions about those raced identities really stand out in my mind. I remember that in one of our more candid moments we kind of acknowledged that we both felt that there were benefits to us working together on this topic. I know for me, being white and talking about the role of race (in language ideology) can get uncomfortable, often worries me. Trying to keep from performing whiteliness, trying to be aware of the ways that privilege distorts my perception of the world and also to separate when I'm trying to be self-effacing from when I'm just being a coward. If I had tried to write this article on my own, I'd have been a basketcase. Even knowing that asking you, Cecilia, to stand in and speak for all black folks—like you have some Black Approval Wand you can wave over the project—is a totally nuts thing, I still crave(d) the validation I felt by having you as a writing partner, the "authenticity" you lent to our work. That's a little messed up. More than a little, actually. Of course, I value to a far greater extent your clean and clear thinking, your well-ordered mind, the way you check and challenge my own thinking—not as the voice of Black People, but as one damn smart black woman J ... maybe that helps?

Cecilia:  Those talks we had were priceless, Emily! That confessional convo especially, right? I was so cautious about constructing (controlling?) an honest narrative about language attitudes at HBCUs and among black people in general. I wanted to offer critiques of those spaces and ideologies, but do it in a way that values, rather than further marginalizes. I didn't want to punk out OR sell out, know what I mean? I can't count the number of times I said "Does that make sense?" in order to check your reaction to what I knew to be true of my own experiences. Why did I do that? So I guess, in an equally messed up way, I needed validation from you, that I wasn't in my own little (black) world—or that even if I was, it was worthy of discussion. That someone else could see what I first saw as an undergraduate student at an HBCU myself, and now continue to see as a faculty member and writing center administrator at an HBCU, that mattered to me. I needed to know that I wasn't going off on some radical, black power tangent. I appreciated your willingness to be both subjective and objective at different points throughout the project—to say, at some times "I agree with you—full stop, no explanation necessary" and at other times to remind me of the clear body of evidence (both empirical and anecdotal) for the arguments we were making.  Our negotiation of our feelings helped me to learn to just say what I had to say, make a strong argument and be willing to be wrong or disagreed with later on. That's what scholarship is, in many ways. And that insight is invaluable to me as a burgeoning, black scholar.

Emily: The back and forth of scholarship, right? We started the conversation between ourselves, and in response to the other scholars who have already written about race and dialect and code-meshing and all of it. Now is the fun part, right? Getting to sit back and wait for other voices to join in the conversation with us.

Cecilia: Yep… popping the popcorn now!

[Image of the Writing Center at Saint Augustine's, courtesy Emily Howson]