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.