personal experience ain’t always the easiest topic for student writers

This past quarter, when I was in a consultation with one of my regular English 085 (“The Writing Workshop”) students, I was surprised that he couldn’t come up with much to say in his Self-Evaluation and that what he did say sounded fake (as if he was just writing what he thought Dodie wanted to hear). His previous writing had been pretty lively and vivid (one of his essays — about the deaths of his grandparents when he was a kid — brought me to tears) — though, come to think of it, his best stuff was in the narrative not the reflective sections.

Anyway, as we talked, it came out that when he was a kid, he was asked very regularly to write about his feelings. It was part of some psychological treatment he was receiving (it might’ve had something to do with the sudden deaths of his grandparents, but I can’t quite remember). He said he quickly became so sick-n-tired of constantly being asked to write about what he was feeling about himself or about some event that he learned to bull-shit just to keep the adults around him happy. He also got to the point where he hated to write self-reflectively at all. Anything but that, he said.

It occurred to me that it’d be easy for a student like this to come up in my (future) teaching and not to know it (not knowing that he/she negative personal experience with personal experience!).

As an instructor, I would know that a student felt a similar difficulty only if he/she told me (another good reason to have conferences with students), so it might be helpful to include a second option in the assignment to start with — one that offered a more self-external topic. Since assigning a personal experience topic is a way mainly to help the student focus on writing as opposed to research or integrating sources, it’s not as if personal experience itself as a topic is necessary. Of course, if I wanted the student to use some personal experience to help illuminate or interpret some text, that’d be another thing.

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