Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Personal Continued

Mike at Vitia has been blogging up a storm on The Personal and Personal Writing: Theory and Method. Mike also points to a discussion on the personal by John Lovas which is very well thought-out.

Mike has too much to say for me to respond to it all, but I would like to zero in on the question of whether there is intrinsic value in personal writing for the sake of personal writing (as opposed to personal writing for the sake of making connections to other forms of academic writing).

I think I made a comment about gratuitous navel gazing in the previous discussion on personal writing. Now I think that comment was a little too flippant for what I really believe.

Yes, there is intrinsic value in most any form of writing for its own sake. If we didn't believe that, we wouldn't assign journals or other forms of informal writing.

In my lit classes, I usually start out with a talk about why we are reading what we read and what we are supposed to get from it. In this talk I mention a quote from Confucius:

Confucius said to his disciples, "Why do none of you study The Book of Songs? Studying The Book of Songs can enrich the imagination, enhance the powers of observation, smooth the relations among one's fellow men, and help master the art of satire. On one hand, the teachings presented in The Book of Songs can help one serve one's parents well; on the other hand, the knowledge and methods provided in The Book of Songs can help one serve one's lord well. Moreover, one can learn a lot of names of birds, beasts, plants, and trees."

Just as reading literature that is about personal human experience can "enrich the imagination, enhance the powers of observation" and so forth, so too can writing about personal human experience.

The point is that we as instructors need to be clear on what it is we want the students to learn from any assignment we give. And we need to be sure we get that message across to the student.

I often start the year in composition with a narrative paper. The assignment is usually to write about something that happened either to themselves or to someone close to them that taught them a lesson or changed their minds about an issue. They write a descriptive story that they can use to support a claim. In this assignment I want them to learn how to make a clear point with a narrative illustration, how to narrow the focus and timeframe to an appropriate level, how to pay close attention to detail, how to be aware of the audience and how the descriptions might affect the audience, and how to fine tune their writing in terms of style, clarity, tone, etc. It's not just about confessing their hang-ups or bemoaning the loss of their loved ones. It's about making connections between experience and opinion and learning to speak with authority on topics that matter to them. We also, by the way, talk about the difference in personal testimony as evidence and academic research as evidence. And we discuss examples of ways people use personal testimony to persuade in advertising and politics and religion and other such arenas.

By the time the students finish this assignment we've done a lot more as a class than simply personal writing for the sake of personal writing, and I do realize I'm veering away from the original question. But I just wanted to make the point that I have a whole set of objectives for this assignment, but if I don't tell the students these are the things they are supposed to learn from it, they are never going to know.

Then the question becomes will they still learn any of these things (focus, support for a claim, attention to detail, style, clarity, audience awareness) if I never tell them that's what they are supposed to be learning? I believe the answer is yes, but I believe the degree to which they learn these things will vary greatly from student to student, as it does for all assignments.

People can learn writing skills from any kind of writing they do. It isn't so much a matter of what kind of assignment they are doing as it is how much feedback they get and how much they are aware of what they are supposed to be learning. It's also a matter of how motivated they are to learn.

Ideally, we want students who think for themselves and learn something from the class that goes beyond a set of objectives. Still, we have to start somewhere, and the first step in making sure any kind of writing is beneficial to the student is being clear on what the assignment is supposed to teach. If we are wishy-washy and uncommitted to whether there is value in the assignment, the students probably aren't going to learn as much.

7 comments:

Clancy said...

Sharon, you said:

"Ideally, we want students who think for themselves and learn something from the class that goes beyond a set of objectives. Still, we have to start somewhere, and the first step in making sure any kind of writing is beneficial to the student is being clear on what the assignment is supposed to teach. If we are wishy-washy and uncommitted to whether there is value in the assignment, the students probably aren't going to learn as much."

That's what I'm screamin'. Exactly. It's what I was trying to say here. Not making the goals and purposes of the assignments clear is a sure way to get a lot of purposeless essays, written dutifully for no apparent reason (other than to get a grade).

On an unrelated note: I want a post from Sherri Jacobs! All the contributors here are great, but part of why I keep checking back is to see if Sherri is going to shout out. She and I (unless this is a different person with the same name, spelled the same, who also happens to teach composition in the southeast) went to Tennessee together for our master's degrees. Let's hear it, Sherri! :-)

Mike @ Vitia said...

Clancy, you're conflating two things: Sharon is talking about the teacher knowing what the assignment is supposed to teach, and the teacher having clear goals in mind for the assignment -- which, obviously, I do; goals I've thought through with considerable care and dedication. You're talking about "making the goals and purposes of the assignment clear" to the student, and performing the role of the student who says, "If I don't know why I'm going to do it before doing it, I don't want to do it." I don't know how to be more clear about this: writing is a mode of discovery. It's an act that produces knowledge in and of itself, and the personal writing I'm talking about -- the willful inhabiting of a multiplicity of perspectives and connecting it to experience as a move towards dialectical and engaged understanding of how knowledge gets produced -- is hardly "gratuitous navel gazing," but rather the concrete and particular and inhabited act of "making connections between experience and opinion." And you've further set up the straw man that -- because your teacher couldn't explain to you the value of an assignment in a way that could overcome your resistance -- the type of work I'm proposing would be explained (by me, in the classroom) in a similarly inadequate manner. Maybe; maybe not. Kirill acknowledges the resistance I encountered in my classroom in the past when I asked for difficult work from students. But, as I note in my response to Kirill, doing difficult work provides big intellectual payoffs -- as anybody doing a dissertation knows. I'm getting increasingly frustrated with people who construct personal, connected, inhabited writing as "easy" and "pointless": no, it's not. It's the hardest writing to do, because it requires investment on the part of the student, and it's far more useful than yet another rote expository rehearsal of allegedly ideology-revealing dogma.

Clancy said...

Mike, you said: "[personal writing is] far more useful than yet another rote expository rehearsal of allegedly ideology-revealing dogma."

No doubt. I'm just asking for something to keep students from having to fumble in the dark (and I don't think "write and learn" really gets there) and go through the motions without a clear sense of purpose. (NB: I don't mean to suggest that I think personal writing is purposeless, just that the purposes should be clearly stated to the students when it's done as part of a rhetoric course.) It's reasonable for a student to expect an answer to the question of why she's doing a particular assignment, not that I think you're saying it isn't, to be sure. Here's how I understand your position now:

Writing is a mode of discovery, and engaging in it -- making connections between experience and opinion -- will give writers a fuller understanding of how knowledge (of self, rhetoric, society, politics, culture, the environment, etc. because one cannot separate these) gets produced.

This is helpful and makes a lot of sense to me. Am I getting warmer?

Clancy said...

Writing is a mode of discovery, and engaging in it -- making connections between experience and opinion -- will give writers a fuller understanding of how knowledge (of self, rhetoric, society, politics, culture, the environment, etc. because one cannot separate these) gets produced.

Addendum: And personal writing is the best and really only way truly to produce this knowledge, because not drawing upon the personal, taking the self out of the writing, often (almost always?) leads to regurgitation and appeals to external authority, thus reinforcing disciplinary and institutional structures, putting the student into a passive rather than authoritative role, etc. Clumsy way to put it, but I'm taking a stab at it...

Sherri Jacobs said...

I do have a goal with my assignments, but I find, with Comp I especially, that if I am too narrow in what goal I am focusing on, then students do not have the impetus they need to start a paper on their own critical opinions. They end up writing my opinion, or what they guess my opinion is. How do you focus on outcome narrowly enough to get a goal accomplished, but wide enough to get some creativity?

Clancy: Yes, this is the also-famous Sherri Mahoney Jacobs of the more-than-famous group of our UT graduates. Here is your shout out. Glad to see someone I know "on blog."

Mike @ Vitia said...

Clancy, I think you're right on target there -- and of course, since you're the one who got me started on these ideas initially with your 4Cs presentation and your points about what Jenny was saying, it's not like you were ever not warm. My glib answer of "Write and learn" wasn't helpful, but my experience has been that there's only so much hand-holding one can do for the occasional student who doesn't understand the rationale for an assignment, but they often "get it" once they're immersed in the drafting process. Anyway -- thanks to you and Sharon both for getting me to articulate this stuff more clearly.

jocalo said...

My first assignment in the first course of FYC asks students to recall an experience from early in life (deliberately left vague as to "early") THAT REMAINS SIGIFICANT.

While the assignment invites personal material and narrative structure, the key purpose is to have students make a point--to show how this experience has current value.

I find this a good way to build on a kind of writing most of them can already do while introducing the notion that a paper has a point, that some idea must come through.