In Your Own Words


When I was in grad school in the 1980’s, various works of Mikhail Bakhtin, most written several decades before, were being translated from Russian for the first time. The ideas in these books and essays were refreshingly different and had interesting implications for work in fields such as literary criticism, philosophy, and linguistics, causing a Bakhtin boom that lasted about 10 years. Though the boom is long past, it is still common to find citations of Bakhtin in critical works in many different disciplines.

Note: Most of Bakhtin’s work was written under the authoritarian regime of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals were always in danger. Bakhtin avoided being shot, as some of his friends were, but he was exiled to Kazakhstan for many years. Some of his books were published under the names of his friends. Some, such as Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, include Marxist terminology in order to avoid censorship or political trouble.

Bakhtin’s ideas are simpler, and more useful, than they first appear. Part of the difficulty is his terminology. In a series of posts, I will attempt to recast some of Bakhtin’s basic concepts into more accessible terms and apply them to teaching and learning. In this post, I want to talk about what it really means when we ask students to write something in their “own words.”

No Man is Adam

Bakhtin is fond of saying that no man is Adam. No speaker is “the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe” (Speech Genres 69). We do not invent the words we use, like Adam naming all of the animals and plants in the garden of Eden. The words we use belong to the language, and we get them from other speakers. Every word we use, and many of the phrases and combinations too, we got from someone else. We cannot own words. There is no such thing as “your own words.” Bakhtin also argues that a word continues to resonate with all of the voices that have spoken it before. We get the word from a context, from a conversation, and some of that context sticks to it.

So, what do we really mean when we ask a student to use their own words? When we say that, we are usually concerned about plagiarism. However, it is not the theft of words that is the problem. Bakhtin calls the word, “a bridge thrown between myself and the other” (Marxism 86) When a student pastes a passage from a website into an essay, they are hiding behind a wall of dead words, words that are not an authentic response in a dialogue between speakers. Bakhtin says

The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions. (Dialogic Imagination 293)

Note how active that word “appropriate” is. We grab our words from other mouths and use them for our own purposes.

The “Utterance”

If we cannot “own” words, how can words become “dialogic” in this sense? For Bakhtin, the basic unit of conversation is the “utterance,” which he defines as a bit of speech that is complete enough for a response. He notes that we are already responding internally even when we begin to hear the utterance. This back and forth saying and responding is the essence of dialog. In dialog, each participant is both listener and speaker, taking turns.

Authoritative Discourse

Bakhtin makes a distinction between “authoritative” and “internally persuasive” utterances (Dialogic Imagination 342). An authoritative utterance is one that does not seek a response other than agreement and perhaps obedience. Dialogue is not initiated. For the student inserting a passage from a website into their essay, that passage is authoritative discourse. Its authoritative nature makes it impossible to alter, paraphrase, or respond. It’s a wall of dead words.

“Internally persuasive” discourse on the other hand initiates a response. It fits into the thinking system of the listener. The response might be agreement or disagreement, but the meaning created by the utterance can trigger a response. Dialogue ensues.

Ideological Becoming

Can authoritative discourse become internally persuasive? Yes. This is the process that Bakhtin calls “ideological becoming” (Dialogic Imagination 342) “Ideology” in Bakhtin means something like “thinking system.” It does not have the political connotations that it normally has in English. Your thinking system is made of words. New words can be assimilated into your thinking system, but it takes time.

Time is the problem here. Most “plagiarism” that students engage in is when they take an utterance from another dialogue in which they are not a participant, not an addressee, and simply mouth it without making a response. This usually happens because they are being forced by an authority such as a teacher to enter into a dialogue with a monological authoritative discourse that they have no way to respond to. The shortcut they take is to grab some utterances that look relevant and mimic participation in the dialogue.

As I noted above, the word is a bridge between myself and the other. New words assimilated into the thinking system create new pathways of thinking. Even one new word opens up new perspectives. Students encounter giant piles of authoritative pages in their daily school lives. The way in is through the words and through dialogue with the words, eventually a dialogue with the author. Education and learning are all about what Bakhtin calls, “ideological becoming.” Students need the opportunity and the time.