I followed the conversation on WPA-l about the “personal narrative” that morphed into a conversation about the dangers of students revealing themselves, and then into IRB concerns and unitary versus fragmented identities, echoing Berlin’s misguided attack on so-called expressivist writing. And then there is the sidestream slip into the horrors of academic writing (the polysyllabic, depersonalized kind). At some point, I end up shaking my head, thinking helping students into the wonderful world of writing is really so easy. Why make it hard?
I am somewhat reluctant to post on my blog another conversation about writing and education. One of my good friends said about my travel posts (see: So You Want To Drive to Panama?) and my writing/education posts, where did you lose your sense of humor? She had a point: Writing about traveling (through space and in one’s head) is essentially funny. I get too serious when I think about education. I take it personally whenever I read about one more student who has been turned off from writing, usually (if not always) a consequence of how teachers have taught him or her to hate it.
But I’m going to write out a few humorless thoughts anyway.
First: Jerry is right; academic discourse has loosened up let’s say since the 90s. But revisiting the Hairston/Trimbur conflict might help to resituate this discussion–I think in the late 80s. I meant in my discussion the awful academic discourse, writers signaling they have read so-and-so and know about such-and-such, using language that only full professors might understand. We use language to claim our position in privileged social groups. And then label language usage of those who are not in privileged positions as substandard.
I think most readers in the WPA-l list recognize how their graduate training has taught them how to signal their membership into the privileged group—leaving their organic language behind. Working-class academics like Val and me have had to disguise through our language our social class origins—because we were “wrong” and those born into the privileged classes were right. Gary Tate’s “Halfway Home” is one of the more powerful testaments of the sound barrier through which lower or working class students have to pass in order to be heard. One should also read Berger and Luckman’s The Sociology of Knowledge.
But to this “revealing” question: I confess that I don’t entirely get it. Let’s imagine that as a teacher (preferably tenured) that you could get away with abolishing grades. It’s not hard to do. Just say to your students, everyone (except for the people who don’t show up) gets an A—and let’s go from there. So instruction and your responses to student writing is grade neutral. Nice place to be. You can actually write back and forth to each other as communicators rather than as students and grader.
When you create a community of writers in your classroom, with you being one of them, the “revealing” question drifts away. No one is being required to reveal anything he or she doesn’t want to. If I ask students to write for an hour about transitioning from high school to college, I simply want them to write to the other students in the class what they, the writers, feel and think about the transition. In my classes, with the exceptions of portfolios, all writing is written to the class. The students know this; thus, they make their own decisions on what they want to share with the other students. I can’t think of a better way to introduce audience concerns: it’s lightyears better than “Imagine you are writing to a senator . . . .” So I don’t get the “revealing” question, particularly if the teacher has the courage to get rid of grades.
I think the controversy over the “personal narrative” genre is generated by teachers who still give grades, for which reason the primary audience is teacher-as-evaluator (Britton et al.), even when the essays are shared with other students in the class. It is also a constructed rather than a de facto (Beale) genre. As others on the WPA-L list have noted, much of our writing is grounded in personal experiences; again, reasoning works from the ground up, from personal experiences to others’ experiences to generalizations to speculations (Moffett). And narrative is simply a strategy. Maybe people could be more accurate and write about the autobiographical incident (immediate or removed), the memoir, the chronicle, the first-person biography, all of which might invite subjects that would engage student writers (tell us about someone or a group of people who were important in your life). It seems to me that anyone could write and share essays in genres like these.
I wish I could think about something that is funny about all this, but I can’t. I’m really bothered by any teaching that discourages students from writing; taking the gift of writing away is like cutting out someone’s tongue.