Saturday, October 21, 2006

Writing with the Penis

I got into an interesting conversation during the editing process with some peers. We were talking about how hesitant we are to make grand claims for our work. How do I say that my dissertation is earth-shattering without sounding arrogant? How do I convince people that my work is important when I'm not sure I really believe it myself? Is my work anything special, and by association, am I anything special?

One friend (a recent female Ph.D.) said she's been told to "write with the penis." Write like a man. Be bold. Be boastful. Write like you know you've changed the world.

I believe that this is something very common among women academics. We've been trained all our lives to be modest, to not make ourselves too conspicuous, to defer to the expertise of others. So how do we get past this?

It doesn't end with the writing, of course. I also have to "interview with the penis." Now that's a disgusting thought.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

a case of great minds thinking alike? i sorta posted about this today, too.


12:05 PM  
Blogger Quinn said...

So you did! I tend to write just like this is a gender situation, rather than a situation of race/class/gender, previous family experience in higher ed, etc. So I'm glad you wrote on your experience also.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the male perspective, writing with the penis is not as easy as you'd think. For starters, dipping it into the inkwell can be very uncomfortable.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and papercuts? what about possible papercuts?

8:36 PM  
Anonymous kr said...

Deborah Tannen writes about this ... I remember her commenting (this is hugely paraphrased, my apologies to Dr. Tannen) on how the "Thank You" pages for an academic work by a woman go on Forever and the thank yous in an academic work by a man tend to be "mentor 1, mentor 2, secretary, spouse-if-such-exists [end]."

Because, you know, we really have to "justify" that our work is qualified : P.

In good news, I was just reading in the paper about a new book, "Alpha Girls" I think, that explores how all those eye-opening books from the 90s that explained the trauma girls experienced as they entered puberty (body disgust, insecurity, blah blah blah) don't resonate with the surrent generation of girls, who grew up as women were overtaking the university systems and becoming CEOs etc etc ... so maybe we are a step in the process, and they won't have to have the weird gender lesson of imaginary penises ...

2:30 PM  
Blogger Jennifer (ponderosa) said...


It's not just academia I think. As a general rule we have trouble taking credit for things. Makes us good negotiators, peacemakers. See, there's a plus side.

Good luck!

3:45 PM  
Blogger belledame222 said...

Have you read Joanna Russ' "How to Suppress Women's Writing?"

10:23 AM  
Blogger Quinn said...

Welcome, Belledame! I'll have to take a look at that.

KR: so true about the "thanks" section. Mine overflows. Maybe I should cut it down a little.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Andy said...'re saying that if I want to write effectively, I should not bother trying to find my inner vagina?

11:56 AM  
Anonymous kr said...

two basic thoughts:

1) "proper writing" in general* is (in my un-academically-qualified opinion) patriarchal. This theory started with my observation in Short Story class (yes, the prof called it something more academic) that the men's stories tended to hew to that odious "introduction, action, denounment" structure that "defines" a story (how many times were we force fed that Absolute Definition pre-college?) and the women's stories tended to set up an emotion, situation, mood, etc., and then just (satisfyingly, I thought) explore it ... with none of the "required" structure.
Broadly, I think male fiction writers are more plot driven and female more character driven. It would be interesting to consider the differences in non-fiction (obviously some, implied by the Thank Yous).

* I would except grammar, of course, but Quinn probably already guessed that ;). Although, perhaps less artifically structured is my preference, now that I consider it ...

2) Since it is, as I understand it, established fact that the written language comes harder for males, where do they get off claiming we have to write like them?
a) this might explain the structures constantly placed upon literature and writing until women started closing the education gap
b) this might explain male English profs' otherwise inexplicable Superiority Complex (even the "humble" ones)--they actually slew the dragon/beat the rest of the men
c) Andy, no idea how this applies to your (according to reasonable science, from-utero) homosexual self ... but I'm not sure looking for an inner vagina is a good idea ;).

6:41 PM  
Blogger Quinn said...

Aren't all vaginas "inner"? Sorry, couldn't resist.

KR, on your others points, I wonder if part of your observations stem from the older, more traditional "canon" that tends to be male-dominated, and that therefore we assume that "good" writing looks like men's writing. There isn't much in the way of women's writing until the last couple of centuries, and many of them impersonated aspects of masculinity (including pen-names) in order to meet with acceptance in a patriarchal field.

KR and ~n are grammar goddesses. Me, not so much. I accept that, regardless of gender. My problem isn't so much with form or structure as with sheer bluster. Women are trained to downplay our accomplishments, which hurts when you're trying to argue how your work is important or unique.

8:35 PM  
Anonymous kr said...

Yeah, I know ... it just irritated me when I realized how much I bought the hype, is all. The hype of all traditional academia (where women had to do everything twice as well...), but this part was (to me) just so(!) fundamental(ly wrong).

Even in Advanced English, even our junior year (and we were pretty damn smart, lots of us), Mr.S was still pushing that "definition" of "a story" as if it were (forgive the phrase ;) ) God's Own Truth ... and I just wanted to bang my head against a wall, but it didn't occur to me at the time that it might just be an artificial construct that I didn't have to accept, and that I could argue against.

I actually considered going back and having a good intellectual row with the English Department, so they would consider not imposing this upon other children, but then ... was it Uncle Chet's son committed suicide then? Some actual reason came up not to, and then all the teachers I knew were retiring ...

Anyhow, this is me, so solidly schooled in the patriarchal arts that people on the web often assume I'm male. Bonus for me.

As for penis attitude, I probably gained that the year I learned to swear worse than my Marine Sergeant supervisor, and became the Only White Girl who my Chicago-black-heritage best friend admitted "could swear." That year I won the Bitch Award ... it was an interesting year.

I have been fairly (probably too) intellectually unapologetic since then. With no credentials to do anything much constructive about it ;).

10:48 AM  

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