notes on Mlynarczk’s “Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate” (2006)

Warning: this blog may get a little messy and informal in the coming weeks! I’ll be posting my reading notes for my “Teaching of Writing” paper. I’m looking forward to seeing how being able to search my notes will ease the research/writing process.

(I’m focusing on the advantages and disadvantages of using personal writing (and what kind of personal writing?) in basic and first-year writing courses.)

Notes on Rebecca Williams Mlynarczk’s “Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate” (Journal of Basic Writing, 25.1 (2006): 4-25).

In her intro Mlynarczk mentions Robert Yagelski who thinks that Elbow’s ideas – and Donald Murray’s and Paulo Friere’s – may really be not so much outmoded but actually “radical” what with all the emphasis on standardized tests and standardized learning (5).

Intro – she’s realized the importance of “going beyond personal writing to help basic writers to acquire academic discourse” (5). “Students first need to explore ideas encountered in academic work in language (whether spoken or written) that feels comfortable, not strained, in order to work toward the goal of being able to write convincingly about these ideas in more formal language” (5)

[I’m thinking that obviously one of the issues, or one of the reasons there’s been an emphasis on personal writing is maybe/probably because in the past there was an over-emphasis on “theme writing,” writing that ended up too often sounding vapid and forced.]

Pp 6-7 she lays out three charts, ways of seeing kinds of writing. Bruner splits language up into “Narrative” and “Paradigmatic (or Logico-Scientific)” and Britton splits it up into “Poetic,” “Expressive” (in the middle), and “Transactional.”

8ff she recounts the Elbow / Bartholomae debate. Since I’ve yet to actually read much/all the Elbow / Barth debate, I’ll recount her recount (J):

Elbow: writing emphasized over everything else (including reading), puts student writing at center e.g., in a class magazine, encourages students NOT to see their writing as part of a larger discourse (!), invites them “to pretend that no authorities have ever written about their subject before” (Elbow 79), tries to make the student writer more an expert than himself, the teacher (so students will be more attracted to writing). He thinks academics, as well as everyone, would benefit from thinking of themselves as “writers” (ones who use and enjoy writing a lot).

Bartholomae: emphasizes academic writing in the academy (what else could be done? in other words), emphasizes to his students to get used to dynamics of college classrooms, authority of teacher, the presence of lots of others, past and present, in the discussion. Uses reading, key texts, and critical writing. (9) Practice skills of working with sources: summarizing, citing, etc. M says B wants to “push against the cultural common places that sometimes pre-determine how and what [students] write” (10).

I’m curious about this difference between E and B – this whole thing about trusting and distrusting language. From M’s explanation, I don’t quite get the issue.

“In their debate, neither scholar made an explicit connection with the role of expressive language…” (11).

E doesn’t go into HOW freewriting helps (but M will)… (11)

M quotes Britton as saying that students need to start with expressive language because that way “the self” is not lost along the way, along the way toward more academic writing (where the self is not so visible, but it’s still there). He says, “there can be no other way of writing quite impersonally and yet with coherence and vitality. (179)” (12).

M agrees and is surprised Barth’s position is still so dominant (12). She characterizes B’s view as advocating that students relinquish their own discourse while appropriating their professors’. (13) But does he really say/imply that?? – that students should completely give up their own “discourse”?

M brings in Richard Boyd’s critique of B’s mimeticism (13) – that B’s method ends up sending the message that “the subject must put off and ultimately despise the ‘naïve, outsider’ language [the student] brings to the university”. In other words, aren’t we asking students to reject their distinctiveness’? M thinks B at least did not address this question enough or at all.

She says students need to reflect on readings using personal language, otherwise they will end up with a “pale imitation of their professor’s language” (13). (She does have students read texts, not each other’s writing like Elbow).

M discusses the example of Roberto a Gen 1.5 student who has great academic success using reflective journaling (14ff). He connects to a character in a reading… then he began to write reflectively about a classics course (and later a philosophy course). (16) He was able to make connections and speculate, no matter how far his reading was from his experience.

M’s caveats: Roberto – was already interested in reading and writing, had positive experience in high school, and was able to connect in a personal way to the academic material. (19)

Kiyoko, a student from Japan, brought up other issues of public and private for M – helped M realize that all writing that is turned into a teacher, or shown to ANYone, is public writing.

M brings in Jim Cody (21) to support use of expressive language… but he just seems to be saying that it’s good because it helps basic writers see that “writing is a form of communication that has space for their intimate thoughts and ideas to take shape.” So? Seems to beg the question as to whether expressive writing helps lead to more complex writing.

M brings in Deborah Mutnick was points out that it’s suspicious that we’re starting to de-emphasize the “I”, “the self” just when more previously-marginalized people are now coming to college. (21) Mutnick wants to give college students more chance to “write themselves” rather than being defined by others. [But this seems a goal not shared by writing program administrators!]

Mutnick wants to bridge their communities and the academy with life experiences because their “realities that are frequently misrepresented, diluted or altogether absent in mainstream depictions.” (22)

But Mutnick, says M, is not using Elbow’s definition of personal writing. Mutnick’s forms are “rooted in the social,” part of public discourse (22). [freewriting + public = blogs!]

M admits that this type of writing won’t replace thesis-driven papers , and thinks Elbow’s method won’t work, won’t prepare students for those thesis-driven assignments. But she says students must first “grapple with their subject in a deeply personal way” before they can write good arguments. (23)

M brings in Frank Cioffi who believes that if students don’t come up with a response that comes from within themselves (one unique to themselves), they will also “acknowledge and take into account the viewpoint of others” (23). [But I’m not sure that is always the case. Cf. Stotsky]

M then makes a good point: that students need to “connect personally” with ideas, but some students have already done it, say, “around the family dinner table” or in good h.s. classes, [or in their own personal reflective journaling and letter writing] but that most basic writers haven’t done that yet. [THAT seems like her best point: This reflective interaction with ideas, with text, even with self, must happen, and one reason to use journaling with basic writers is because it helps them do it and because they usually haven’t learn to do it yet.]


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