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Writing as a Process of Valuing Author(s): Jerry Mirskin Reviewed work(s): Source: College Composition

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Writing as a Process of Valuing Author(s): Jerry Mirskin Reviewed work(s): Source: College Composition
  Writing as a Process of ValuingAuthor(s): Jerry MirskinReviewed work(s):Source: College Composition and Communication, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Oct., 1995), pp. 387-410Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Stable URL: . Accessed: 05/03/2012 10:32 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  . is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact  National Council of Teachers of English  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to College Composition and Communication.  Jerry Mirskin Writing as a Process of Valuing n this essay, I want to explore how value mediates the construction of meaning, how our active processes of constructing meaning are "molded" around value. I am also interested in how a description of the writing process in terms of value might inform classroom practice: in general, in terms of how we perceive what our students are doing in their writing, and specifically, in terms of the kinds of comments we provide students in response to their writing and revision. One benefit of conceiving writing in terms of how writers are valuing their subjects is that it allows us to talk about what students write in the same terms that we use to describe how that writing gets done-to talk about product in a way that is consistent with process. As a way of introducing these ideas, let me briefly illustrate the role that value plays in making meaning in common, everyday exchanges of language. Consider the following two scenarios: Scenario : I am on a plane; the flight is delayed an hour. When we are finally in the air, the pilot comes on the loud speaker and says the usual things about weather, destination, etc. He ends by saying, "I'm pedaling as fast as I can ..." Scenario : A friend and I are waiting by our car for a ferry boat, which will take us across a river. It is summer, hot, and we have been waiting over an hour. We are sharing a bag of blue corn chips as we wait. A boy, about 8 years old, who has been playing nearby, turns to us and proudly announces, "My father likes those. My friend holds out the bag of chips to the boy and says; "Would ou like some?" The boy repeats, "My ather ikes those." My friend says, Jerry Mirskin arned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin two years ago, and has been an assistant professor at Ithaca College since 1992. He has delivered two papers at CCCC elating to his interest in valuing and Bakhtinian theory, and has recently received funding from Ithaca College for a research project that explores the role that value plays in writing across the curriculum. CCC 46.3/October 1995 387  388 CCC 46/October 1995 "Oh, and again asks if he would like some. The boy answers, "No hanks," and continues playing nearby. My friend and I trade mildly puzzled ooks. As I consider these exchanges, I am interested in understanding why the utterance in the first scenario is satisfying and direct, and why the one in the second seems less so, less on the mark. I say seems, because to a large extent our sense of meaning and its occurrence is tacit. That is, a light does not go on when an utterance achieves meaning. Rather, to borrow a term that Sondra Perl uses to discuss reading comprehension, we have a "felt sense" about meaning. We also have a felt or tacit sense of how meaning occurs along a continuum. We say something means something, is very meaningful, is less meaningful, or doesn't mean anything at all. But what is the "bottom line"? Can we be more explicit? When does meaning occur? What are the necessary conditions for making meaning? These questions are often addressed by talking about context, the envi- ronment or conditions in which language functions and figures meaning. In the first scenario the pilot's utterance is funny. The context here is in part the situation of being a passenger-where at any moment one might fear that the machinery that supposedly keeps a plane aloft is not what you thought it was, or maybe is what you thought it was or feared. However, not only is the message humorous, but the message is mollifying and to the point. The pilot's statement acknowledges that we are late, but more importantly, the acknowledgment is significant because lateness is part of a context in which what is most important is the value of time. The fact that we are late, and the fact that the pilot says he is pedaling or going as fast as he can is only significant in that context, a context of value. The utterance has meaning-is to the point-as it conforms to our attitude toward time, and that context underwrites the humor and meaning of the statement. In this simple example we see how meaning occurs as statements "press" gainst shared contexts of attitude or value, in almost the same way that food presses against hunger. I prefer this metaphor of context to metaphors that talk about "background knowledge," because hunger sug- gests the valence that contexts of value hold. In other words, context is not simply a store of shared and neutral knowledge, but rather a charged ground that provides currency to utterance. We notice in the example that nothing needs to be added to the pilot's assertion that he's "pedaling as fast as he can," in the same way that nothing needs to be added for instance when a waiter reports, "Your ood is on the way," or when a parent asserts to a 12-year-old child, "It's en o'clock " The waiter's comment is consistent with our attitude about eating when one is hungry, or receiving timely service. The twelve-year-old understands why the parent is reporting the  Mirskin/Writing as Valuing 389 time. In a few years he might challenge the assumption that going to sleep before ten is good, for what is good or valuable for a 12-year-old is not valuable to a 16-year-old. Indeed, when we talk about meaning being relative, or subjective, or socially constructed, what we are talking about is its valuative nature. The 16-year-old will assert that "ten o'clock" does not mean anything-it does not have value. In the second scenario, the communication is not as satisfying, or complete. Why? Why does the young boy's assertion seem beside the point? Certainly, we understand his statement; that is not the problem. The difficulty here has more to do with the fact that the statement does not cut a figure against a significant context of value. Thus the knowledge that someone's father likes what we like is not meaningful. To mean something is, in a sense, like scoring in sports. Getting the ball between the goal posts is valued, outside of the goal posts is not. In this case the boy's statement does not make it between socially shared goal posts. The shot is wide; there is no score. By providing the information--"my father likes those chips"-the boy is assuming that we value what he values. For, as I have suggested, information in itself is not valuable. Rather, value determines what infor- mation is significant. Indeed, value determines the form and content of what we attend to as it selects from an infinite world and assigns meaning. In the above example, the difference between what adults and children attend to can be explained in terms of value or attitude toward objects and events in the world. In general, as children mature, their values and attitudes change, which accounts for the social nature of development. Thinking that others will value what we value is a generalization that children outgrow. Having said that, however, I might add that the blurring of what shared understandings are necessary to provide a significant con- text of value is not uncommon. The boy's behavior in the second scenario is very much like that of people who assume that others will enjoy looking at pictures of their grandchildren. We summon a show of enthusiasm, but the pictures do not have the value to us that they hold for their owners, and therefore they do not have the same meaning. Bakhtin and the Valuative Nature of the Word In the above examples, individual language users' ability to construct meaning is relative to their ability to negotiate social contexts of value. The significance, or status of value in terms of making meaning, however, is not limited to context. Because language functions within valuative con- texts, it reflects, or bears the stamp of those contexts. Language, words, and phrases are saturated with value. In addition, as individuals work to  390 CCC 6/October 995 inscribe meaning within social contexts, their words gain meaning in regard to others' value-inflected language. The social language theorist Mikhail Bakhtin is explicit in describing both the valuative nature of language as well as the role value plays in terms of the intersubjective nature of meaning. According to Bakhtin, the word lives in "a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, [the word] weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others ... and all this may crucially shape discourse.. . may complicate its expression and influence its.. . profile" (Dialogic 276). In effect, individual language use is a practice that evolves in relation to how other languages, other voices, or speakers regard or value an object. Language is produced or propelled by coming into contact with other language, by churning in a sea of different values and perspectives. Bakhtin's concepts of heteroglossia nd dialogism are useful for discussing the multiple accents and voices that inhere in language, as well as for explaining how a particular word or utterance achieves meaning in rela- tion to another's word. My purpose in referring to Bakhtin's work has not so much to do with the multiplicity implied in terms such as heteroglossia or multivocality, but rather to highlight the role that value plays in making meaning. My focus here is on language use, rather than on languages used. What I want to emphasize is that others' words reflect others' distinct perspectives and attitudes toward the world, and as such provide a valua- tive context within which individuals practice making meaning. I might add that being heteroglossic, valuative contexts demand nego- tiation. The following example shows how another's language, another's valuative perspective, influences and shapes discourse. The example is excerpted from a first draft in which a student, Jeanne, in my introductory writing class, is writing in response to an assignment that asks her to explain something that is more complicated than most people think. She has chosen to write about "homemakers": One of my biggest pet peeves is when people ask me what my mom does and when I say that she's a homemaker, heir usual responses s "Oh, she doesn't work." What an insult. My mom works as hard or harder han any- one with a job outside of the home.... I really hate the word housewife. First of all, it has a very negative sound. Secondly, t uses the word house and I do not have fond feelings or the word house. Also, my mom is not married o a house as housewife mplies. refer o my mom as a homemaker because of the love that surrounds er and the effort he has put into making a home.
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