Jeanne pointed out a discussion that took place in November at Vitia regarding personal essays in freshman classes. I have to admit to have gotten quite a kick out it. It sounds so much like the conversations I had as a graduate student. In those days I needed a theory for everything I did, and if I didn't understand the theory, I was uncomfortable with the validity of the practice. These days I tend to work from the opposite direction. I do what works and figure out how to explain it later.
But I digress.
Regarding personal essays, I think the gang over at the Vitia discussion are pretty smart people with pretty smart ideas, but they've failed to address the obvious.
~Here’s the deal: Although I strongly encourage students to bring personal experience into their research papers when applicable, I don’t assign personal essays. I have before, when I taught at Tennessee and again at Roane State Community College, but in my current program, they want a lot of consistency across sections of FYC, so the course is designed in a pretty specific way (see “Genres"). So I can relate to you, Mike, when you point out the “institutional pressures” informing your views. However, my resistance to the personal essay goes back to high school. When I was a student, I never saw being required to write a personal essay as “a way of asking a student to take an initial stake in the writing that the course asks them to do, and towards seeing the personal essay as something accessible and open.” I already had a stake in the writing, and to be perfectly honest, God. I . Hated. Writing. Personal. Essays. for two main reasons: First, I felt that writing such an essay was a purposeless activity, really just done as a kind of minstrel show for the teacher with (as I perceived it at the time) an inappropriate, voyeuristic desire to pry into my personal life.
First, I'm struck with the irony of using an extremely personal form of academic writing in order to question the legitimacy of personal academic writing. Clancy, like anyone would, backs up her distrust of the personal essay with a personal example: "When I was in school..." Why does she do this? Because it is effective, of course. Because it adds authority to what she has to say. Because it gives the theoretical discussion a human quality that makes it more understandable and more believable.
Personal writing has a power like no other. When politicians campaign for office, they bring along regular folk to stand up and give testimony to what their policies have done for the regular folk. When pharmaceutical companies advertise drugs, they have actors play the parts of regular folk to give testimony to the miracles those drugs can work. When composition teachers go to conferences to tout their theories, they use personal examples from their own students and their own experiences to reinforce their reasonings.
None of these instances constitute real scientific evidence, and it certainly behooves us to recognize that. But the fact is personal testimony has a real life currency that scientific evidence does not. It resonates in people's memories. It engages their emotions. It entices them into the arena in which they might become a willing audience to the more scientific or theoretical.
The point is personal writing is academic writing. It permeates almost all realms of academia, and bloggers, of all people, should know that. The power of the blog lies precisely in the personal. People who are building their careers on a kind of discourse that depends entirely upon a blurring of the professional and the personal should be able to see how that same discourse can benefit their students.
The ability to speak with authority in a manner that blends the personal and the theoretical is the rhetoric of power and privilege. It is the kind of writing and speaking our students will most likely need to know when they leave school. We would be remiss not to teach it.