"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


Some Thoughts about Teaching Personal Writing Assignments

November 22nd, 2016 by

Should I teach personal writing in my first-year writing course? This is a question I pose every semester I prepare to teach first-year writing. The question is complicated for me by my growing sense that this course is not first a writing course but is instead a general education course, an all-purpose requirement for students who do not think of themselves as writers, who have no motive for writing, and who have not learned of any new motives for writing from their previous courses. They are simply required to be in it, and in their minds, the course forges its mission, identity, its outcomes, and indeed, even its genealogy from general, required courses, not from a long and rich tradition of rhetoric, or even of arts and letters. To anyone who has studied rhetoric, the absence of the discipline, or the radical wing-clipping it gets in most general education writing courses, warrants the many critiques and investigations leveled against it in composition historiographies.

As I approach my planning for the course, I understand that the last stage of writing many of my students experience before college is the 5 paragraph theme, and so there is nothing, no foundation on which to build. To multiply the metaphors, we either need to move to a new campsite or, if we stay, tear the thing down and start over. If I don’t do this, then my students will persist in the belief that the subject of our course is a research paper on gun control or GMOs, and they will engage in an a-rhetorical program of forms, rules, and requirements administrators call “skills” that would be most congenial to reporting in a science lab.

I am aware that at least some of what I call out here is behind why many writing faculty choose to teach personal writing as the first assignment in their first-year writing course. The personal writing assignment rams full-speed against the rules, regulations, and forms of this course. That first type-stroke of the capital letter “I” not hidden away in quotation marks will feel quite the same as the first time they swam nude as a teenager on a beach after mid-night. The whole thing might seem exciting and freeing, but then, like the late 1960s, it won’t lead to much more than late 1970s disco. After all the fun, the question remains as to its value in cultivating transfer of writing abilities and motivations in students who have not been exposed to much beyond the book report, the research paper, and the five paragraph theme, the trivium of the modern English classroom.

College students in my general education writing courses think of writing in binary terms: first, writing for a teacher they reduce to rules—the rules and formats of the General Education course. Discovery and idea development, what creative writing students engage in, are missing. The other side of this binary, which students report over and over again in their literacy narratives, is a naïve view of creative writing that creative writers reject: that is, to write creatively, all one has to do is throw out the stupid rules and write whatever one wants.

Reflection on these reported subjectivities, in creative writing and in Gen. Ed., can lead to serious questions about this “rhetoric” of high school English and the FYW course.

But is it possible to reverse this simply by teaching the personal writing assignment? The first-year composition often consists of a few different papers, moving students from the deeply personal narrative in which tales are told of winning the sports event, surviving the car wreck, or mourning the death of a grandparent, to the required research paper on TV violence, gun control, or body image. Students vary in their appreciation of this.

One response to this is to invite students to the study of rhetoric. To say that I am teaching rhetoric would seem to suggest that I am choosing argument as an important genre for the course, and that is partly correct. Especially Aristotle’s rhetoric would seem fully expressed in the genres of argument, though another way of viewing the way that Aristotle moves in his Rhetoric from invention of ideas to invention about forms or genres is to say that he is being socially relevant and drawing on forms that are obviously in use around him. I am also interested in the same teaching of a social rhetoric that moves students toward thinking about community and learning to write in forms that are socially and culturally relevant. This is not done in General Education courses, where the forms that are taught are school forms, not forms that are read.

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Comment by Kristen on December 5, 2016 at 11:17 am

Some great discussion points are brought up here. It does always seem to be a toss up for whether it helps, hurts, or does nothing to the first year students I’ve worked with. In some cases, I think it has actually set the form in their mind so that in later assignments they believe they can write “I…” the entire time; whereas, in other cases I’ve seen the students enjoy the freedom and then dive into formal writing easily after. I suppose the question is: is it the type of student, the way the assignments are taught/given, or something else that makes the difference on how the personal writing assignment affects the student’s later writing? I think this chance to think through it and analyze the subject. Great read!

Comment by Tom on December 5, 2016 at 1:52 pm

Kristen, great insights. I have also noticed the same responses in some students–to treat every writing form ever after as an invitation to the personal, while others seem to get it and can still write formally. It seems we have to be teaching an understanding of different ways of writing and what is appropriate for different assignments.

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