Sunday, March 06, 2005

Personal Essays

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.

From Clancy...

~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.

22 comments:

clc said...

Thanks for this post. I think the personal has gotten a lot of undeserved bad press, probably because it has so often been linked to bad assignments. It is possible to get good personal writing from students when you aim for the kind of fusion between the personal and the more traditionally academic as you suggest. Rarely do I read any scholarly writing that holds my interest that does infuse the personal in some way.

I understand Clancy's response, but the personal does not have to be intrusive or emotionally-baring, either. While I may ask a student to honestly examine an experience, I am careful not to push them beyond a point they feel comfortable sharing with me and their peers.

Sharon Gerald said...

Yes, Clancy made some good points, but as you say, there are a lot of ways to go about personal writing.

I especially appreciated the person who said that we get bad essays out of the personal narratives because we assign them firt. So true. Narrative writing is one of the most difficult forms to master, yet we persist in sticking it at the top of the assignment list as if it's the easy part.

Rosa G. said...

I remember back in the eighties that narrative was assumed to be easiest because the students were writing about themselves, a subject which they were supposed to know a great deal about. What made it a difficult assignment was in the sharing part--whether with the teacher or a peer--especially if the students were uncomfortable sharing anything with anyone else, let alone a personal story.
Postponing the assignment until later in the semester makes sense, as does merging it with the academic.
And, good luck to you with Composition Southeast!
Joanna

Sharon Gerald said...

Thanks for your response!

The difficulty in personal narrative for many students is distancing themselves enough from the subject matter to view what they are writing as a craft. It's hard work to write a good narrative scene. You have to think about pacing, description, dialogue, clarity, meaning, metaphor, and so many other things. Most students want to write summaries, not narratives. Getting them to focus in on the very specific and still hold on to a point is a real challenge. And if they've written the old "My Best Friend Died in a Car Accident" standby, it is even trickier to get them to understand they've done a boring job of it.

Scott Rogers said...

I have not taught a "personal essay" in freshman composition in years, and it was a great relief when I realized I didn't have to.

Styles said...

For years I've told students that if legislators ever asked what I did for a living, beyond my saying that I practiced "non-invasive brain surgery," I'd answer: "I turn privates into generals."

So, mostly, I turn from personal matters to public in class. A good general's grasp of such a move mostly insures his troops' survival.

That's why personal essays make sense to me. It doesn't, of course, mean that I end with them.

jeanne said...

I am fascinated that instructors have some of the same objections to personal essays as do student, particularly the idea that instructors who assign personal topics are voyeuristic. I have felt defensive for many years now about beginning with personal topics, so I include in the assignments warnings about writing anything that is too personal to share in peer response groups.

I think SG pointed out something important: We use personal experience to buttress our arguments. Even in scientific journals, and especially in journals such as College English and English Journal, personal experience is included in even highly theoretical articles.

I don't agree that the narrative is one of the most diffult forms to master. Yes, description is probably easier, but academic topics are more difficult because of the student's lack of experience in reading, much less writing, in an academic style. And in English classes, most intructors expect writing in a style suitable to their own academic discipline. Of course. We have trouble evaluating writing for other disciplines. But I digress.

I assign writing on personal topics and--in an effort to conform to the department's textbook and what I see as the department's philosphy--stress different modes of development (description, narration, cause/effect, argumentation, analysis). I discuss with students the fact that writers rarely set out to write description, cause/effect, or whatever but use these methods to develop their writing

I think that it is easier for students to control usage and mechanics and to master conventions of general academic writing (granted that such a thing might not exist outside classrooms) while writing about topics they are familiar with--their own personal experiences.

A book that I have used successfully, Writing and Being by G. Lynn Nelson, guides students through journaling. Nelson has assignments that he calls "toward public writing," which, I think, are useful in showing students that their experiences can be shared without spilling their guts. That's my goal.

I think that writing courses are most useful to students if they both help students develop their writing abilities and also help students realize the tremendous value of writing as a tool for learning--about themselves, their world, and academic subjects.

Sharon Gerald said...

Excellent comments.

I come from a creative writing background, so perhaps I am more critical of the narrative form than some of the other forms. I don't think because it is personal it is necessarily easy, though. I think sometimes we make that mistake of viewing the personal as somehow less complex and less academic. That can be true, but it is not always true.

I think, as Jeanne pointed out, that the trick is to get the students to use personal examples as support for ideas without launching into emotional confessions.

We have so little time with them and there is so much to teach. Our confict is often in having too many choices in how to do it right.

clc said...

Hmmm...I think we are also here using "personal" and "narrative" interchangeably, and we shouldn't. Many academic essays use personal experience, observation, and reflection as evidence, and while I might think of these as somewhat "personal" essays, they are not necessarily "narrative" in form. I don't think I ever assign anything I would deem a "narrative" but my students often find themselves using pieces of narrative to back up an academic argument.

Sharon Gerald said...

No, we shouldn't use "personal" and "narrative" interchangeably. I don't think we meant to. We just kept talking around both things until they merged. It just goes to show how sloppy we can be with the language, even those of us who spend our lives devoted to using words effectively. Imagine how hard it is for the students to avoid these same mistakes.

Nick said...

For academics, there's a degree to which the academic is personal. When you writing as an academic about issues and questions that drive you to think, and then drive you to share what you think with your colleagues, you're engaged in intensely personal writing with personal motives: you want to be heard; you want to be known to the community.

This differs from writing called personal because it's about things, or draws on things (events, memories, and so on) that are personal as private and often separate from one's public intellectual life.

When instructors say they don't like personal essays, they often mean they have a hard time reading the writing of students that is either too personal (and therefore difficult to critique or painful to read) or too impersonal pretending to be personal (because the student doesn't want to write a truly personal essay and doesn't know that there can be degrees of personal).

But then we find something wonderful, something that is both personal and academic, such as: Janet Carey Eldred, "The Technology of Voice." College Composition and Communication 48 (Oct. 1997): 334 - 347.

In this piece, Eldred describes how having to move to writing to her mother via email, as her mother went deaf, changed her voice, affected the tone and voice of her academic writing. It's a fascinating personal essay, but it also makes important observations about the nature of voice and the role of technology in shaping voice. Issues writing instructors and scholars consider regularly.

In Eldred's piece, both kinds of personal are brought to bear: the academic personal and the private personal.

Sharon Gerald said...

I think the comfort level over talking to students about the painful, confessional types of personal writing is something that develops over time. All writing is a craft. There is no real reason any form of writing can't be critiqued as such.

That said, I don't think personal narratives just for the sake of personal narratives belong in the classroom (except as journal entries maybe). It should all be about getting across an idea, and the personal descriptions should be chosen for the sake of relating the idea to the audience, not the other way around.

Clancy said...

I've been meaning to respond to this post for a while now. Yes, I did, even as I was writing it, understand the irony of using personal experience to support a claim that I have reservations about assigning personal essays. I probably should have said that, heh.

clc makes an excellent point that "personal" and "narrative" get conflated a lot. I have always allowed and even encouraged students to, if applicable, support their arguments with anecdotal evidence from their own experience. I agree with others who argue that this is how personal experience can be re-visioned, transformed, politicized, etc., though I would bring in Joan Scott's critique of experience as evidence here. What I, while an undergraduate, and still actually, find frustrating and ultimately intellectually unproductive is the personal narrative about something like, say, "why my grandpa is great." I don't think this kind of thing gets assigned much anymore, though.

Sharon Gerald said...

You know I don't think it ever crossed my mind that the people I was responding to would see what I said, which shows how little I knew about blogging when I embarked on this little project.

Thanks for stopping by, Clancy.

Maybe we all agree after all. In comp 1, all of the essays I assign are personal, but they are all about something other than the student and the student's feelings too. I don't think gratuitous navel gazing accomplishes much in writing. I would never deliberately subject myself to the grandpa paper, though one does slip in now and then.

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