Session 8: Reflections on engagement and suspension of audience

In the peer led session this week, we discussed the articles by Elbow (1987) and Ong (1975) and their perspectives on concepts of audience and voice and how they shape both the conception of thesis meaning and the production of thesis writing.

Audience and voice can clearly only ever exist in a dance with one another. Our task in developing as writers of our own meanings is about beginning to untangle this relationship in an attempt to have some control over it through understanding. The effect of audience upon voice is profound, and all of us will have our own powerful memories of experiences by which real audiences have validated or silenced our voice. I remember diligently rehearsing by rote a poem about the Australian dreamtime to recite on the stage as part of a performance to parents, to obtain a badge for Brownies. As soon as I surveyed the (small) sea of parents’ faces that made up the audience, the words of the poem left me completely and I dissolved in tears – an experience repeated inwardly in many a public speaking event since. As Elbow warns us, audience problems do not come only from actual audiences, but also from phantom audiences in the head. Past experiences of critical, judgemental voices from parents, teachers and others can feed fear and shame around the legitimacy of what we want to say, growing into internalised voices of self-doubt. Blocking these voices out at will can offer the potential to be more creative.

Elbow suggests that it can be difficult to work out new meaning while thinking about our audience, as these two demands can pull against one another. He sees ‘writer based prose’ as offering a response to cognitive overload, and  identifies that we often feel that we don’t have anything to say until we succeed in engaging ourselves in private ‘desert island writing’ for ourselves alone. It was certainly only once I allowed myself to forget my audience and focus on myself when writing meaning into my research, that I believe from both feedback and faces that I paradoxically became less boring for my audience. Inviting ourselves into the text, locating our self at the centre of our writing process, acknowledges self-worth and locates the unique voice that gives us the perspective to convey what we wish to. Attending to the task of working out ‘you-ness’ can hence be seen not simply as self-indulgent navel-gazing, but a responsibility in the endeavour of finding out the unique contribution we have to offer.

Elbow espouses the value of turning off the babble of voices outside our head and listening instead to the quiet inner voices. He reminds us that far from this focus on the self-alienating our actual audience, we trust the authenticity of voices more when we know them to be unaware of us as an audience, rather than tailoring their message to what they know we want to hear.

Coming to recognise the ways in which our research is always connected to us as we have explored though this group, acknowledges that the task of meaning-making is oriented not only to others, but also for ourselves. Elbow gives the examples of Chomsky’s effort into developing writing that he had no plans to share with anyone, or more simply, the child who labours over building a sandcastle, only to knock it down before any adults see. This engenders the question of whether we are able to pick apart discernible differences between what it is we wish to understand ourselves, and communicate to others, though the process of our research.



Elbow, P. (1987). Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience. College English, 49 (1), pp. 50-69

Ong, W.J. (1975). The Writer’s Audience is Always A Fiction, PMLA 90, (1), pp.9-21.



2 thoughts on “Session 8: Reflections on engagement and suspension of audience

  1. rinamy74 says:

    We spent about 10 minutes writing to our intended audience. In the beginning I was addressing my supervisors and my funders. After a few sentences, I find myself actually writing to myself. I was trying to convince myself that my voice mattered and I should strongly write from my perspective and not others – especially when I am the one who know more about my data than my intended audience. So the writing activity ended being a few paragraphs of pep-talk to myself. I hear you Rina. I trust you. Now go write and you will be brilliant!


  2. Fawzia says:

    It was super interesting to discuss how, within the group, we all had very different people in mind when we were writing. This ranged from our research funders, to academics we hold in high esteem, to ourselves, our supervisors, or even to family members or friends. The general trend was, we were writing for people whose opinion we considered important, we were writing to people who we felt needed to hear what we had to say (and this includes feeling the need to write to ourselves in order to be able to hear what we have to say through how we render our thoughts textually). But how does who ‘they’ are influence how we ‘word the world?’ (I love the idea of ‘wording the world’….Elizabeth Adams St Pierre uses this phrase in her writings on poststructuralism, feminism and education and it has stayed with me).

    I was amused by a quote from ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ (don’t ask) – ‘My way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to consider who is listening to me; and, if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper.’

    How much of what we write is, ultimately following our own ‘humours?’ (the funny and the not so funny)? How much should be? Ah, that wobbly walk of ‘properness’ across the sea of the improper…

    Liked by 1 person

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