The Question of Transfer

I’m going to post Jerry’s post the WPA-L here and then struggle to answer his central question.  As usual, Jerry poses thoughtful remarks–and the earmarks of seriously thinking about his question rather than pose a rhetorical question, using the question as a frame within which to make his argument. I’m going to think carefully about his post and a way of engaging in his question.  I’ll probably combine this with some links to others who have taken seriously my project of making writing fun.  I’m assuming Jerry wouldn’t mind this reposting.

Very nice summary of much of the argument for teaching personal writing.  As David suggested, many of us in the field don’t view personal writing as too easy but just the opposite.  And I would take it one notch further: I suggest that personal writing is really a complex of different writing functions that rely primarily on one particular kind of data (i.e., personal experience) and tend to take a similar form (i.e., narrative).  But the purposes of these different “genres” (“sub-genres”?) can be vastly different.  Yet they also share one more trait: a limitation in the ability to generalize from them, because they rely primarily on personal experience and narrative.

Traditional academic and professional writing, different as they can be, share at this abstract level just the opposite functions and features: They use varying kinds of data and take a variety of forms with the intent of generalization.  And for me, this is where teaching personal writing becomes complicated, because the different functions of personal writing “genres” can make transfer a real issue–IF we assume that what students should learn from personal writing assignments should transfer to other kinds of writing and, specifically, academic and professional kinds of writing.

Let me give an example.  This semester, I am using Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal essay, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” as a starting point in teaching students how to actively and critically read texts, summarize texts, synthesize texts within ongoing “conversations,” and respond to those conversations.  Chua’s essay is interesting, because she relies virtually entirely on her own personal experience.  She mentions “tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting” and summarizes “one study,” but she never provides any adequate citation of this research, and she leaves it behind after the 4th paragraph.  Also, notably absent is any data from other Chinese or Asian or other parents. All she provides are sweeping generalizations about Chinese parenting versus Western parenting (in addition, a clear either/of fallacy, among others).  Chua’s essay, then, is a lesson in how not to use personal experience in argument.  Yet, there are moments of good personal writing, most notably her anecdote about her daughter Lulu (age seven) when trying to learn a particularly difficult piano piece, a narrative that Chua calls “a story in favor of coercion.”  The problem, of course, is that Chua presents this as an example not just of how her “Chinese” (also called by experts in the field “tiger” and even “harsh” and “authoritarian”) parenting can produce success for children but an example that, Chua claims, shows the superiority of her kind of parenting.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen students–even graduate students–fall into this same fallacy of overgeneralizing from personal experience.  Yet, there are other examples–I think here of a number of Ellen Goodman essays–where the writer successfully relies on personal experience to suggest the possibility of generalizing.  Goodman was very good at telling a suggestive story and letting the reader do the generalizing from her or his own experience, although there were many times, where her personal stories would lead into actual arguments.  But that ability to use personal experience to suggest the possibility of generalization is such a nuanced art, I question the ability of many novice writers to apply their learning about that strategy to their own writing.

And so, I think many of us fall back on having students explicitly state the “lessons” of the personal experiences they relate and then, offer a final conclusion about how the lessons of these experiences could be relevant to that of others, perhaps even the readers.  And this is where I become ambivalent about the personal experience essay.  I understand the argument of having students succeed at writing early on.  Self-efficacy research is very clear: success raises self-efficacy levels and thus, breeds further success.  But the research is also clear that success as causation of further success must be perceived as relevant to that subsequent effort at success.  That is, what students learn from writing the personal experience essay must be seen as relevant to the writing of the next or some subsequent text(s).  That’s why I tend to teach the use of personal experience as one source of data for supporting examples and the use of personal narrative as one argumentative strategy.  And I also teach reflective writing, which will include personal reflections, as a way for students to monitor their learning.

I am not saying, of course, that personal writing can’t have other, just as important functions. There’s research clearly showing the health and well-being values of journal writing that includes writing about personal experiences.  Personal writing can certainly help us explore ourselves and reflect on who we our and our relationship to the world.  But that brings me back to the larger issue of the purpose of the composition course.  It seems to me that if we view the comp course as preparing students to write academically and/or professionally, then the role of personal writing becomes a question. 

So, in the end, I’m not sure that personal writing is really the issue.  Personal writing exists.  It’s not “easy.”  It has important functions that should not be discounted.  But what’s its role in college composition instruction?  And I’m asking this sincerely, because I am truly uncertain what I think about its role.

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