National Writing Project

Book Review: Across Property Lines: Textual Ownership in Writing Groups, by Candace Spigelman

By: Jane Mikoni
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4
Date: Fall 2000

Across Property Lines: Textual Ownership in Writing Groups

Candace Spigelman. Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
176 pp. $14.95. ISBN 0-8093-2294-3.

I was a writer long before I was a teacher. For many years, I worked as a legislative reporter in a crowded newsroom with forty-three other journalists. Although we covered the same press conferences, hearings, and legislative sessions, we competed with each other for the best quotes from the best sources and tried to write different angles of the same story. Success was measured by the placement of one's byline in the newspaper. Front page got lots of attention and increased the chance of being noticed by editors of larger, metropolitan papers. I quickly learned that my survival as well as my success would depend on getting my byline on the front page as often as possible, and that depended on the quality of my work. So I developed an ability to seize my stories, to declare ownership of my work. That approach worked, and I was promoted and moved on to better jobs.

There was never time to reflect on the way in which competition kicked me from the level of novice reporter to that of mature journalist until I became a writing teacher. I remember one evening, as I read over a student's work, feeling unsatisfied, left with a desire to know more about the person behind the written page. The words were empty; there was nothing to suggest that they represented a thinking, feeling person. By the time I finished searching for evidence of real students in the stack of papers, I knew I had to help my students seize ownership of their written work.

Writers' groups became my favorite practice for liberating what I termed silenced writers, because the groups decentralized authority in the classroom and provided student writers with an immediate audience and a forum where their work could be affirmed as a product of their own ideas. Most of the time these groups worked well, but there were times when even the most productive groups did little more than edit papers. I knew something was lacking, but did not know what that something was until I read the first chapter of Candace Spigelman's Across Property Lines: Textual Ownership in Writing Groups.

Spigelman notes that in "both academic and nonacademic settings most writers embrace the notion of textual ownership and . . . it continues to factor decisively in writing group operations in both contexts" (15). She claims that the writers who benefit most from group work are those who "recognize themselves as the central authority" over their texts, because they are able to temporarily yield control to group members and allow them to actively engage in their work (68). I had not considered the impact of the writing group on writers who were still in the process of developing authorial control, but this book prompted me to think more carefully about my students' perceptions of textual ownership and how it shaped the work they were doing in peer groups.

Based on her study of two writing groups, one in an academic setting, the other a private informal group, Spigelman addresses differences between public and private writing as a prelude to her analysis of attitudes about the concepts of textual ownership and their effects on writing group performance. At the heart of the problem is a tension inherent in writing groups that requires students to "relinquish their texts, to create as well as to find meanings, to understand knowledge as socially constructed by groups as well as privately held by individuals, and to use their peers' work as unattributed sources" (22).

This explanation of the social constructivist nature of group work prompted me to consider the potential for confusing students who were in the process of staking out a sense of ownership of their work. How did they feel about work that was produced in a group where peers functioned as "coauthors" (68)? Did they feel a sense of authority over a text they had revised by incorporating changes suggested by peers? Had I inadvertently confounded the notion of ownership when I encouraged my students to appropriate others' ideas in their revisions? The last thing teachers want to do is to confuse students with mixed messages about knowledge making, but that's exactly what we are doing when we fail to consider the varied and complex notions of ownership and the ways in which the tasks of group work conflict with those ideas.

Aside from the inhibiting effect of group work on students' writing processes, Spigelman adds that student writers must also contend with social and institutional pressures created by the academic setting, which manifests in "varied interpretations of academic conventions regarding the ethics and methods of appropriating source material" (71). But, what are teachers to do? In most cases, we cannot change the realities of the setting for student writing groups. Nor can we remove the evaluative mandate of instruction.

Spigelman recommends that we begin by coming to terms with the power teachers have in writing classrooms, where "student writers must take into account the presence of the teacher, who as silent member, calls meetings, sets the agenda and monitors productivity." We must also consider that student writers, unlike writers who belong to private groups, always face "issues of evaluation and, in many settings, real or imagined competition for grades" (110).

I had to admit that competition, which had nurtured my own writing, could be inhibiting my students' ability to develop textual ownership in their written works. I wondered if competition, when combined with the pressures inherent in the setting, contributed to the silencing of my students? I had to admit that my lack of understanding of students' perceptions of ownership probably had shaped the quality of group work. One thing was clear; I had many more questions than answers about my approach to teaching writing.

While Spigelman's book doesn't offer the kind of practical solutions many of us have come to expect, it is an important work which prompts writing teachers to reflect on the complications that arise from unexamined pedagogy, particularly as it relates to contradictory notions about ownership in writing groups. Her book is not for the faint of heart, and I wouldn't recommend reading it unless you are prepared to allow her claims to provoke questions about your own classroom practices.

Rather than finding answers to my questions, I found that Spigelman's careful treatment of the issues helped me gain a better understanding of the reasons my students have struggled to establish authority in their written works. With that understanding, I think I'm going to be a little more patient with my developing writers and allow them the space to take control of their work, word by word.

About the Author Jane Mikoni is director of the Capital Area Writing Project at Penn State Harrisburg, where she also teaches humanities and writing. She has been a reporter for the Associated Press and ABC Radio, PBS news anchor for WITF in Harrisburg, and press secretary for the auditor general of Pennsylvania.

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