Elizabeth Wardle Identity Authority And Learning To Write In
Table of Contents


Elizabeth Wardle’s main point in her article “Identity, Authority, and Learning to write in New Workplaces” argues the importance of identity and authority and how these things affect us when writing in a workplace. 

Wardle begins by outlining different theories of identity and how newcomers learn to write in new situations. the two groups that she researches are the compositionists and sociologists. the compositionists focus on the cultural- historic theory while the sociologists study apprenticeship. 

In this piece Wardle introduces Wenger, a sociologist who introduces three modes of belonging that a newcomer in a community will try to make themselves feel as if they belong. These three modes of belonging are: engagement, imagination and alignment. 
-engagement refers to a newcomers interactions with insiders of the community building interpersonal relationships with them. This engagement can either be positive, or negative in that the newcomer can feel lost and lose their sense of identity among others in the community. 
-imagination is the next step after and engagement, and usually refers to the beginning of a newcomer to form their identity in this new environment. 
-alignment is the third step, this includes these newcomers who begin to align their ideas with the old timer’s point of view. Alignment can lead to their loss of identity. But by getting more comfortable and pointing out observations, newcomers start to be accepted by the old timers. 

according to Wenger, newcomers have to find ways to fully integrate into this new community, by doing things that other community members do- including their writing. furthermore Wenger says that joining a new community is not only about learning new skills but learning and expanding your identity.

Newcomers deal with conflicting demands coming from different communities. These newcomers create their identities by choosing which things they do or do not want to participate in. “The choice of non-participation can lead to marginalization within the workplace.”  When a worker fails to write in a way which is appropriate or effective for the workplace, it could be because the worker doesn’t want to compromise part of his/her identity by completing a certain aspect of the writing.  

Authority in the workplace is a very fragile and potentially dynamic aspect of work.  A certain degree of authority is given to new workers, and they could maintain this authority by successfully exercising their authority in the workplace, given that is an appropriate situation to do so.  If a worker does not exercise authority when he should be, he may lose the amount of authority he was trusted with in the first place.  This idea of using authority to keep it is much like the idea of how a worker continually forms their identity in the workplace, and if a worker fails in their duty to exercise authority, their work will suffer as a result.  

The use of authority relates to a person’s identity as well.  For authority to be properly heeded in the workplace, the one exercising his authority must do so at the right time, to the correct group of people (workers he actually has authority over), and in the appropriate situation.  Failing to do any one of these things could lead a worker to be taken less seriously by other workers, since he is trying to exercise authority over those whom he has no authority over, or on an issue not under his jurisdiction to be giving people directives about it.  

The example that is used to explain the worst possible outcome of these workplace issues is the story of Alan. Wardle explains that Alan was a young technical support type person in a humanities department; essentially his job was to fix the computers if a problem arose. Alan thought very highly of himself, however, and he imagined himself with much more authority than he legitimately had over the workers. He saw himself as “God”, whose work was the driving factor that made all other employees’ work able to happen. Obviously he didn’t have as much authority as believed he had (or he desired to have), and his own work suffered for it.

In trying to look authoritative, Alan sent emails with many items he was working on to a huge audience, and often times to people who the email didn’t pertain to. As a result of his unnecessary messages, Alan’s co-workers didn’t take him seriously and rarely read his emails in depth at all due to their length and fairly random topics. Alan dug himself a hole, but he refused to remedy the situation by improving the way he communicated with the workers, and many workers simply didn’t heed his messages, which explained why no one knew about his project to enhance the computer network. Alan’s assuming of more authority than he possessed caused his communication to suffer; workers often mocked him and his emails behind his back, and a year and a half after starting, Alan left his job.


“To ‘find their own unique identities’ within new organizations, newcomers must choose levels and types of engagement; they must find modes of belonging.”

“Newcomers must be able to imagine their own work, and writing, as being an important part of a larger enterprise. And they must be comfortable that the larger enterprise and its smaller components, down to the writing conventions of that community, are compatible with the identities they envision for themselves.”

“As writers shape and change genres, the power of these genres also shapes and enables writers’ identities.”

“[Authority is]…the effect of a posited, perceived, or institutionally ascribed asymmetry between speaker and audience that permits certain speakers to command not just the attention but the confidence, respect, and trust of their audience, or…to make audiences act as if this were so.”

“[Writing is]… one tool among many through which knowledge, identity, and authority are continually negotiated…”


I believe that Elizabeth Wardle’s three ways for newcomers to try and belong to a new community makes a lot of sense in some respects. Saying that there an interaction between the newcomer and old timers I believe can be interpreted two different ways. Firstly, an old timer as i believe it to be true would be someone in an executive position in an office for example. It is very possible that a newcomer does not have any interactions with someone of this sort and therefore the only people the newcomer meets are fellow newcomers. these other people may have more knowledge of the community but may not be insiders either. Therefore this process would cause a great deal of distress for the newcomer who does not know where their place is among all these people. On the other hand, i believe this all to be true, and to be a process for the newcomer. I think Wardle is saying that the only way for a newcomer to ever truly become an insider is by feeling lost and confused with their place in the community. and in this three step process the newcomer goes from confusion to well on their way to being an insider, and feeling more comfortable in their environment.

Wardle speaks about authority as something that is given to change based on a person’s actions in the workplace. I agree with the logic behind this point, since failure to comply with the authority entrusted to a person would give the next higher ranking worker reason to question whether that person should have so much authority when the will not properly exercise it when they need to.

This section about authority caught my attention, especially because one sentence or two sounded familiar to what Gee wrote about in regards to discourse communities. Wardle takes an excerpt from Bordieu explaining how true authority derives from using authority with the right audience, at the right time, for the correct situation, with the correct wording. This point reminds me very much of Gee’s idea of behavior and words (and even dress, perhaps) all affecting how others see you in a discourse community. Gee uses the example of someone going into a bar and asking politely for a match, whereas most people would simply say “Got a light?” I think this same concept can be applied to the authority issue in the workplace. Possessing authority means next to nothing if you can’t exercise it over the right people at the right time, in the right manner. For example, a worker could have authority over company finances, but his authority wouldn’t be taken seriously at all if he gave directives to someone in the company with no connections to the financial aspect at all. I think this is the type of point Wardle wanted to make here, seeing as authority also ties in with identity in the workplace, the other central idea of this piece.

The section about Alan was interesting in the fact that it gave information about what is the worst possible way to engage with employees in the workplace. Alan’s story showed that misalignment and poorly utilized imagination could lead to poor work performance and a lack of proper communication, even if they are an integral part of one’s job. I think this section was a little bit over the top to be honest. I think Wardle’s piece overall could have benefitted from a more subtle example of someone failing to align themselves or find their authority/identity in the workplace.

While I have no doubt the Alan story did actually happen, (although I hope the name was changed for the boy’s own sake) this is definitely one of the more extreme examples. Alan had a completely skewed view of what his authority and workplace identity truly was, and he defended this false notion he had of himself until his rather swift departure from the company. Most people (I like to think) would not act in a similar manner to Alan at all. Alan had an incredibly egotistical persona in regards to his workplace identity, which could be a problem for other people as well, I suppose. I just think that a similar example, but one in which the problem was much smaller, would be a more applicable story to use and one that more people could relate to than the Alan story, in which Alan himself sounds nearly insane and paranoid at work, doing whatever he can to build up his falsified authority in the workplace. The benefit of the Alan anecdote is that the audience of Wardle’s piece have an idea of the worst possible way to handle oneself as a newcomer in the workplace. The more people try to stray away from the “Alan personality” or “Alan complex” as I have began calling it, the easier time they will have adapting to a new workplace environment and finding their identity.

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