CEE 101 Back to Getting the Class Started

College Teaching, Spring 1998 v46 n2 p58(5)
Uncovering the rhetoric of the syllabus: the case of the missing I. (use of pronouns, classroom power) Diann L. Baecker.

Abstract: The course syllabus serves as the first piece of evidence to establish solidarity with students and demarcate lines of authority in the classroom. A successful syllabus is often very simple. It includes the assignments and their relative weight and often is confined to one page with very little evidence of the instructor's personality.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 Heldref Publications

In the December 1996 issue of CCC, the editor, Joseph Harris, relates the story of a young teaching fellow at the University of Pittsburgh who "argued fiercely with what she considered the politically retrograde aims of the comp program, while at the same time setting up a schedule of readings and assignments for her class that in their pulse and pattern, their accent on revision, their seriousness and complexity, imitated quite closely the course materials she had been given to work with the previous year" (484).

I can empathize with that young teaching fellow. By the time I returned to a freshman English course, this time as a TA and an instructor, many years had passed and the vocabulary had changed. I encountered talk of portfolio grading, process writing, collaborative work, ways (plural) of reading and writing. I was excited. And I was sure that my teaching would be different. Unfortunately, like Joseph Harris's teaching fellow, I have discovered that my theory and my practice sometimes collide. One site of that collision is, indeed, the syllabus.

Recently, I have collected fifteen syllabi from fellow teaching assistants and full-time instructors of English composition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and analyzed them for clues to how we negotiate issues of power and authority in our classrooms. I focused my study on pronoun usage, specifically the pronouns I, you, and we and their possessives. The results were very interesting: you, by far, was the most frequently used pronoun in the syllabus. Although I discuss here syllabi constructed by TAs, I would suggest that my findings apply equally to the most tenured faculty member.

In fact, I suspect that TAs reflect on their syllabi much more than the average professor. Certainly, we have all seen syllabi from professors where the date appears to have been the only change since the syllabus was first hammered out on an old manual typewriter. Yet, there are probably very few faculty members who have not been influenced by the work of Paulo Freire and who have not, thus, become keenly aware of issues of power and authority in the classroom. However, as Peter Elbow (1986) points out, we can be tempted to initiate a liberatory pedagogy in our classrooms without first coming to terms with the problems inherent in applying Freireian pedagogy in an institutional setting (88). One result is a syllabus rife with contradictions.

In this essay, I draw heavily on the work of Muhlhausler and Harre's 1990 study of the role of pronouns in constructing social and personal history. Their emphasis is on the role of pronouns in establishing moral responsibility in the speech act, an issue that should interest us enormously.

Issues of Power and Authority

But why pronouns? How do they relate to issues of power and authority in the classroom? As Muhlhausler and Harre (1990) have noted, pronouns do more than just stand in place of other nouns (13). The correct use of pronouns involves much more than a knowledge of grammatical rules; rather it necessitates an understanding of social relations (5). English is a language that does not formally recognize conventions of power asymmetry. Unlike many European languages, for example, we have no distinction between the you addressed to an intimate and the you addressed to a stranger or superior.

Nevertheless, differences of power and authority are both very real and are capable of expression in English. Brown and Gilman (1970), some of the first researchers to study pronoun use and power, note that pronouns fall into two categories: pronouns of power and pronouns of solidarity (303). Later researchers have noted the existence of ambiguous linguistic markers, which blur the distinction between power and solidarity and, in fact, allow power to be expressed as solidarity (Bing 1994). The pronoun we is an example of an ambiguous marker of power, which can be used both to indicate solidarity or community and as a means to coerce the audience into behavior that benefits the speaker.

One of the reasons the pronoun we is so effective at coercing behavior is that Americans assume that "power resides in individuals" (Bing 1994, 46). It is the flip side of our belief that we can--each and every one of us--pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and shape our own destiny. Therefore, the choice between using we or using I can be a significant one. Moreover, there are specific rules for determining who can use the royal we and who must remain with the solitary L Breaking these rules, as Brown and Gilman (1970) point out, "generally has the meaning that . . . according to the speaker's own customary usage, the addressee is not what the pronoun implies" (330-31).

In establishing pronoun usage as evidence of moral responsibility, Muhlhausler and Harre (1990) note that a "person is an embodied being located in a spatio-temporal structure of things and events, so having a point of view; and is also an active being located in a structure of rights and obligations, so having a sense of moral responsibility" (88). That is, I am not only a particular person located in a particular place and time, but a person located within a social structure in relationship to other persons with whom and for whom I have certain moral responsibilities.

Muhlhausler and Harre go on to say that it is "largely through pronouns and functionally equivalent indexing devices that responsibility for actions is taken by actors and assigned by them to others" (89). I have certain ethical and moral obligations to you; you have certain ethical and moral obligations to me. Pronouns indicate who is responsible for both a statement's illocutionary force and its perlocutionary effect. For example, in discussing the results of my study I attest to you that what I am relating is accurate and you make certain assumptions based on your--at least initial--belief of what I am saying. I establishes moral responsibility. When I demand that you do something, I am not hiding my (however genuine or illusory) authority or power to command.

English does not distinguish between formal and informal uses of you. You is a fairly unambiguous pronoun. The pronoun we, on the other hand, is much more complicated. It means far more than a mere group of people. It can be both inclusive and exclusive, as well as coercive (Muhlhausler and Harre 1990, 170, 173). The inclusive, but simultaneously coercive, we can be used not only to integrate with the audience but to also diminish responsibility for what is being said (175). We spreads the responsibility. Muhlhausler and Harre point out that we, when used to signal the group, still retains the self:

In languages such as English the only

constant semantic element of we is the self.

In the use of we it is either the self who is

speaking or the self in whose interest the

addressee is supposed to act. Thus the

dimension of control is an important one in

the use of this pronoun ... It is, as it were,

as if the ego hides his or her intentions and

desires in an anonymous mass. (199)

We is a rhetorical device that allows the speaker(s) to distance themselves from whatever is being said, thus making it more palatable because it appears to come from the group as a whole rather than from a particular individual (Muhlhausler and Harre 1990, 129). The academic we, they go on to say, is

not mainly used to imply teamwork.

Rather it is used to draw the listener Into

complicity, to participate as something

more than an audience.... A narrative

structure is created within which the

interlocutor is trapped, since the ephemeral

special relationship created by the

discourse prevents that addressee from

taking up a hostile or rejecting stance to

what has been said. (129)

It may be this particular rhetorical function that, more than anything else, explains the prominence of we, more so than I, in the syllabi studied here.

In their work on pronouns, Muhlhausler and Harre emphasize the need to look at the context of speech. Because the focus of this study is on the syllabi used by teaching assistants, it would be useful to look at the context surrounding their construction. One of the dominant metaphors for the syllabus is that of a contract. Each new teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro is given a handbook that contains a sample syllabus, and much attention at the required orientation is given to the contents of the syllabus. In this litigious age, perhaps it is not surprising that the importance of constructing this "contract" so that it is binding on both parties is emphasized. Even more important, however--whether we are relatively new TAs or tenured professors--is the fact that one of the very first impressions we give our students is provided by our syllabus. It is the one piece of evidence our students can hold in their hands at the end of a day filled with a jumble of confusion.

The syllabus is also, for the new TA, one of the first places we assert our authority as teachers. Brown and Gilman note that "mode of address intrudes into consciousness as a problem at times of status change" and cite in particular the plight of the new Ph.D. who has, with the conveyance of a single piece of paper, become transformed from student to colleague (323).

Think of the conflict for the TA who is still working toward the attainment of those three elusive letters: p, h, and d. At UNC-G, at least, TAs are required to have a Master's or its equivalent before they are allowed to teach. Although the demands of the marketplace tell us differently, we are, nevertheless, minimally qualified to teach at the university level. The trick, of course, is feeling qualified. This is complicated by the fact that many of our students are savvy enough to know that freshman composition is taught by TAs, who sometimes are not much older than they.

At UNC-G, although textbooks are selected for the new TA's, the syllabus is not. We are free to use a sample syllabus or create one of our own. All of these issues about power and authority come together in this document, the creation of which, it is important to note, is a right reserved for the instructor. Our students certainly do not come to us on the first day with a written list of their demands and expectations.

I began my analysis of these syllabi with the assumption that there would be a balance between the use of I and the use of you. Because the bulk of the requirements will fall on the student, I gave myself 10 percentage points in either direction. That is, I considered not only a 50/50 distribution balanced, but a 60/40 split as well. Of the fifteen syllabi I examined, none could be considered balanced in this way. When, on the other hand, I counted we together with I, about one-third of the syllabi could be considered balanced between usages of I/we and you.

The results show that you (and its possessive) is by far the pronoun most often employed in these syllabi. Percentages range on average from 55 to 82 of total pronoun usage (excluding third person pronouns), with only two falling below 50, exceptions which I will discuss in a moment. I, on the other hand, was a relative no-show. Here, percentages range from a low of 9 to a high of 38. We followed a similar range.

Interestingly, some instructors went to extraordinary lengths not to use pronouns at all, especially in the section labeled "Requirements," as though papers and exams would write themselves. Of the wes that were used, many were false or coercive wes, and not wes of genuine community.

Balanced Syllabus = Explicit Power

A balanced syllabus is not one in which power is shared, but rather one in which power is made explicit. It is neither duplicitous, with its false wes nor ambiguous, with its relative lack of pronouns. Wes are relatively rare in such a syllabus, as they tend to be in the classroom, while Is appear only slightly less frequently than yous. In short, pronoun usage in the syllabus mirrors actual power relationships in the classroom, where the bulk of the work falls on the student but the teacher retains the gatekeeper role. A closer examination of a few of the syllabi in my study will illustrate these points.

One of the most balanced syllabi I looked at is also one of the simplest--only one page. Everything is laid out, including the relative weight each assignment will have toward the final grade. Very little of the instructor's personality comes through, and the syllabus could almost be one for any course. Overall, this particular instructor uses very few pronouns. Sixty-three percent of the time he uses you and 37 percent he uses L Notably, this is the only syllabus that does not contain any instances of we. Although there are certainly more yous than Is, this instructor is fairly open about what I (he or she) will do as an instructor. There is no hedging about who will be doing the grading:

Though the type of essay you'll write is

predetermined, the topic is not. You'll have

to perform research and properly cite

sources. I'll score each essay according to

how well it addresses the "basic features" of

that type, as discussed in the text.

Another syllabus relatively well balanced between I/wes and yous shows the importance of considering context, as Muhlhausler and Harre insist. This instructor uses slightly more Is than wes in her syllabus, with 44 percent of Is/wes to 55 percent yous. Although her numbers are fairly well balanced, most of her wes are used either to blur/defer responsibility or to coerce cooperation. There is only one really genuine we: "We will work together as you work through the writing process."

Her writing shows some sudden, very interesting shifts from you to we. One is the sentence in which she abruptly shifts from you to we under "Purposes and Goals." She has been trying to establish community while she tells the students what they will be doing: "The aim of this course is to give you some strategies to use in all the writing you will do in college. . . ." Midway through the paragraph she switches to we: "We will increase our awareness of the intimate connections among writing, reading, speaking, and listening. . . ." This, of course, is an instance of the false we, because it can be assumed that her awareness of the connections between writing, reading, and soon has already been developed.

The important part of the paragraph, however, occurs in the next sentence: "During the semester we will develop habits of thinking that will contribute to your success in all subject areas." Here, it is as if she has, midway through the sentence, admitted the falseness of the we and gone back to acknowledging that the course is really about your success, not ours.

Similarly, in the midst of a paragraph entitled "Class Activities, Requirements, Policies, and Grades," are a bunch of wes whose function is to soften authority and maintain community. After noting that "you need to come to class on time" and "a significant portion of your grade reflects your participation," and so forth, she says: "We can learn a tremendous amount by sharing ideas with each other. Consequently, we will have a lot of discussions about our writing and reading as a class and in small groups." Thus, she mitigates her authority to impose an attendance policy by invoking images of community.

In contrast, another colleague, equally well balanced between I/wes and yous, tends to place more emphasis on we than I, but in a manner that uses very few false or coercive wes. This teacher makes a deliberate attempt to establish community with his students. He speaks of "our focus," "our . . . main objective," and "ideas we've discussed." There is one ambiguous we in the section in which he notes how "we will discuss [the portfolio] in much more detail throughout the semester." No doubt we will discuss the portfolio, but what is said is certainly going to affect us in different ways and, most likely, it will be I who does most of the talking.

Most of the wes that occur in this syllabus come in the first section entitled "Course Objectives." Unique among the syllabi studied, there are lots of Is and yous under "Grading" and no wes whatsoever. Also, under "Requirements," a section in which most instructors drop any use of pronouns whatsoever, this man states, quite clearly, that "in meeting the above objectives, you will be required to do the following." Thus, while he works hard to establish community with his students, he does not do so by blurring sites of moral responsibility. He is very clear about what I will do, what you will do, and what we, as a class, will do together.

Taking Responsibility--Or Not

The final two syllabi are noteworthy as much for their contrast as their striking similarity. They are the only two in which I/we occur more frequently than you. It is striking that, although both de-emphasize you, one uses three times as many Is as wes--the other uses three times as many wes as Is.

It is not unusual in these syllabi to see I used more frequently than we. In fact, this next instructor is the only one to use more wes than Is. Notably, this instructor strives to establish community with his students by diminishing his own authority.

A prominent box at the bottom of this one-page syllabus reads:

I intend this syllabus to offer only the

barest skeleton of this semester because I, like

you, am open to discussion. You have your

expectations; I have mine. We will

determine the finer points of this semester


The we of the final sentence is in capital letters and serves to dilute responsibility for the structure of the class. After all, if it fails it is because we let it. There are only three other places in this syllabus where I occurs: in the heading where he uses it in an instance of self-deprecating humor ("Call before 10:30 or I'm in trouble!"), and in the section entitled "How will your work be evaluated?"

Here, he begins by saying that "I abhor pigeonholing individuals," that is, I don't want to have to grade you. He goes on to say, "In an effort to, make the best of the situation, I have decided on the following. . . ." In essence, then, he blames the system for the necessity of giving grades and abdicates as much of the responsibility as he can by declaring himself a victim of the system as well. "Unfortunately," he says, "that is the system in which we find ourselves."

Of course, we do not find ourselves placed in the system in exactly the same way. He goes on to use a number of other false wes, such as when he discusses "our own work" and "our individual creations." Most of the wes in this syllabus serve to blur or defer responsibility in an attempt to create community.

In contrast, the only other instructor to use more I/wes than yous clearly favors I over we. In fact, instances where he speaks of "our course" or "our class" seem to be grudging acceptances of communal possession. As Muhlhausler and Harre note, the self is never absent in the collective pronoun, and for this particular instructor it appears to be prominent. In this syllabus, lines of authority and power are well defined. He makes it clear how I will determine your grade and what policies I expect that you will follow. In fact, the syllabus is full of nevers, musts, and no exceptionss. Again, these two instructors' syllabi provide an example of the importance of context. Although both deemphasize you, they do not take responsibility equally for their actions. Indeed, while one works very hard to share responsibility with the students, the other works just as hard to be sure that they know who has the true authority in the classroom.

Power of the Syllabus

For a document that assumes such central importance in the classroom, the syllabus has been largely ignored in the literature. Probably no other contract we will ever encounter is drafted with so little attention paid to the language. As Muhlhausler and Harre emphasize, pronouns establish moral responsibility for both the illocutionary and perlocutionary effects of a speech act. I would like to suggest that in our quest for just the right multicultural reader, or the perfect balance of collaborative and individual essays, we look at what we do in our classrooms that might undermine our pedagogical theory.

The first piece of evidence is the syllabus, a document in which so many of us try to establish solidarity with our students even as we demarcate lines of authority. Certainly, I do not wish to imply that we give up our authority--as if that were even possible--or that we negotiate attendance or grading policies with our students. My point is that we need to be up-front and clear about our possession of authority.

If the syllabi I examined in this study are any indication, we do a very poor job of negotiating power in the classroom. Moreover, we should keep in mind that our students are unlikely to be fooled by false claims of community. They are well aware of who will be doing the work and who will be doing the grading. If we want to establish a real community within our classroom, we need to do it honestly. As Elbow points out, an "honest exercise of authority, even if hated, would not bamboozle" (91). It is time to recover the I in our discourse.


Bing, J. 1994. Killing us softly: Ambiguous markers of power and solidarity. In Cultural performances. Proceedings of the third Berkeley Women and Language conference. 8-10 April, Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group.

Brown, R., and A. Gilman. 1970. The pronouns of power and solidarity. In Psycholinguistics, ed. R. Brown. New York: The Free Press.

Elbow, P. 1986. The pedagogy of the bamboozled. In Embracing contraries: Explorations in learning and teaching. New York: Oxford University Press.

Freire, P. 1995. Pedagogy of the oppressed, M. B. Ramos, trans. New York: Continuum.

Harre, R. 1988. Accountability within a social order: The role of pronouns. In Analysing everyday explanation: A casebook of methods, ed. C. Antaki. London: Sage.

Harris, J. 1996. Free English. CCC 47: 483-84.

Muhlhausler, P., and R. Harre. 1990. Pronouns and people: The linguistic construction of social and personal identity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Diann L. Baecker is a teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.