Context of the Personal Essay

Thoughts on research:
Ok, I’ll have to admit, I’ve screwed up on this post a few times.  Trial an error.  I’m going to use this page to keep track of my thoughts and sources on the use of personal writing in the classroom.  Better save now, cuz i lost before.  I know the issue of personal writing began in about 1822 when Bishop Richard Whatley (Elements of Rhetoric, 1938 or so) first asked his students to write about their summer vacation, locating the subject in their lives rather than abstractions like Virtue, Obedience, Government, Chastity (just kidding) and so on.  There were all sorts of social class issues involved in this move away from abstract subjects.  That Summer Vacation writing task took on a life of its own, lasting for decades and is now a joke–but one should remember that it was a revolutionary subject in the early 19th century–having students write about their own lives!!! as if they mattered????

Whately, Richard.  Elements of Rhetoric.

I think the reference was on about p. 40 or so.

There were many bumps in the road from the 1850s on–but personal writing was never, for social class reasons, the favorite on higher (or lower, for that matter) education.  The short story here is that the favored genres of writing are going to be those that the middle-middle and upper-middle classes have access to and which the lower-middle, working, and poverty classes don’t.  This is a sneaky way of maintaining social class privilege.  There are all sorts of other ways, but the selection of privileged genres is only one (ok–personal opinion here).

I think one of the proponents of personal writing in the early 20th century was Fred Newman Scott in about 1930 or so, University of Michigan.  He was intelligent enough (and not overdetermined by social class biases) to know that students would learn more about writing if they were invested in their topics, and they would learn less if they had to write about subjects in which they had no interest.  I’ll check this out in James Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, but this subject has been written about in several places.  In Rhetoric and Reality, Berlin also recounted the experiment in the University of Colorado, Denver, when writing instructors began to use writing as therapy–primarily in response to the traumas many of their World War II veterans, going back to college on the GI bill suffered.  Teachers in that program used writing as a way to help their students overcome what is now know as PTSD.  These teachers were criticized for dabbling in areas in which they had no training–risking greater trauma as their students relived their wartime experiences.  I know all about this.  My father was captured in WWII by the Germans and put in Stalag 17 or 19–one of the famous ones–for a year.  At then end of the war, when he was liberated, he weighed 90 lbs.  He had to spend another year in a hospital before he was allowed to come home.  He had PTSD for the rest of his life–a violent temper, a wild misdirection, a love of guns and shooting.

I think personal writing was more or less ignored until the mid-sixties, a consequence in part of the student resistance to middle-class culture (see Little Boxes) and the war in Viet Nam.  I was a part of that resistance.  At the same time, there were many educators resisting (linking their resistance to race and social class) the dry pedagogy of the times, exemplified by the idiotic five-paragraph essays.  James Britton et al in The Development of Writing Abilities (1975) reported on the neglect in British schools of expressive writing, a key element in the development of writing ability; relying instead on transactional writing, the sort of writing that was certain to alienated student writers.  This privileging of transactional writing (the sort middle-class students are trained to do [see Annette Larreau, Unequal Childhoods]) was the mainstay of traditional education in Britain and more so in the United States.  There are all sorts of implications and consequences of this privileging.  They concern capitalist ideology, the myth of individualism, meritocracy, and all sorts of mythologies that the ruling classes have unconsciously subscribed to in order to maintain their privileges and the illusion of their merit (as was said of George Bush, who was born on third base and thought he hit a homer).

I have clearly segued into my personal predisposition here, losing any sense or appearance of objectivity (although it is possible that I have still retained some).  But before I get into my own history and consequent bias, I want to get to the Dartmouth Seminar–an event that has been all but forgotten except by a few aging scholars like Joe Harris and myself.  That was an event when writing teachers from secondary and postsecondary institutions in England and the United States met for a week or so trying to hammer out a reasonable position on the best teacher practices for reading and writing (or literacy).  The subjectivists (those who believed in the efficacy of personal [expressive] writing clashed with the objectivists (the academics–largely the Americans).  There’s quite a story here and it has been told from both sides.  John Dixon, Growth Through English, described the seminar from the subjectivists’ point of view (the right side, by my reading) and Herbert Muller, The Uses of English [see here for a review] presented the American (objectivist) side.  One should also read this article for an overview of the issue.

Lord: that’s enough for tonight.  Next installment: my social origins and consequent biases.

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