“Managing the Personal in the Writing Classroom”

Just found this at the Dartmouth Writing Program website. Ah, a middle ground in the debate… After all, there are two letters in the alphabet between “B” [for Bartholomae] and “E” [for Elbow]. :-)

Managing the Personal in the Writing Classroom

The Place of the Personal in the Writing Classroom

Discussion of the proper role of the personal in the writing classroom is common among professors teaching first-year writing courses. The argument in favor of the personal is, at base, an argument rooted in students’ cognitive development: our first-year students are making an important transition into their lives as members of an academic community. In order for students to make that transition in a meaningful way, their “persons” must be engaged; otherwise, they are simply posturing.

To move students beyond such intellectual posturing, many first-year writing teachers deem it necessary for their students to write papers that are essentially personal. By “personal” we generally mean writing that is rooted, both substantively and in terms of voice and tone, in a student’s personal experiences and responses (as opposed to writing that is text-inspired, text-based, and text-supported).

Not all professors agree that personal writing is the best way to help our students make the transition to the academic community. While some professors feel that the best academic writing finds its roots in issues and ideas that matter personally to the writer, other professors believe that our students abuse any opportunity to use the personal, creating arguments that lack objectivity and sharp critical analysis.

Still, if properly managed and used sparingly, personal writing can work to effect a smooth transition into the academic community. It can also work to improve a student’s thinking and writing in courses beyond the first year. In order to insure that personal writing assignments will enhance your students’ learning process, you might wish to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the personal and the analytical necessarily at odds with each other? Is the personal at odds with the goals of my course?
  • Is there some way that I can teach my students to use their personal experiences and personal writing to fortify rather than to deplete the strength of their academic arguments?
  • How do I move students who seem to be “stuck” in the personal to writing and thinking that is more analytical?

Personal Writing That Serves Academic Ends

We’ve collected ideas for managing the personal from several professors teaching at all levels and in various disciplines. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas:

  • Use personal response papers, but root them to the text. One professor routinely asks his students to write short personal response essays on the reading they’ve done for class. These essays need not obey any of the formal rules of composition—that is, they need not provide a thesis, or follow a formal outline, or conform to the rules of paragraphing. The only requirement that this professor makes is that students must begin their essays by quoting some part of the text they’ve read. This one requirement forces students to consider more than their own feelings about the text. At the very least, they’ll have to consider why they chose this particular passage to respond to. Is this passage central to the text’s meaning? Does it suggest other lines of argument or inquiry? Is it just plain fascinating? And why?
  • Ask students to analyze their personal writing. Some professors ask students to write personal essays about a particular topic. Then, after reading some critical or scholarly works about that topic, students are asked to return to their personal essays and to analyze them according to what they’ve read or talked about in class. This exercise teaches students to think critically about their own experiences and responses, deepening their analytical skills.
  • Ask students to write a personal essay, and then to frame that essay with an introduction and conclusion that are analytical. This kind of assignment allows students to explore an experience that is personal and then requires them to reconsider that experience in some larger context: historical, cultural, theoretical, and so on.
  • Assign journals, and ask students to use their journal as a resource for at least one of their academic papers. Journals are an excellent way to make room for the personal in your course. The presence of the journal signals to the student that the journal “space”is for personal writing, and that the paper is a place for academic writing. Journals also work well when the professor makes use of them in some way—either by asking students to share ideas from their journals in class, by making them part of a conference session, or by providing written response that engages students in an academic dialogue about their more personal responses to the course material.
  • Make use of the anecdotal introduction. While we don’t want students to come away from a writing class thinking that all essays should begin with an anecdote—an approach that can become as formulaic and annoying as the first line, “Since the beginning of time…”—the anecdotal introduction shows students how to use the personal to illuminate or to “frame” an academic question or problem.
  • Provide students with academic criticism that combines the personal and the theoretical. Criticism of this kind is available in many disciplines. Professors might use it to illustrate how these two kinds of writing are compatible—or how they are not, depending upon how a professor feels about this sort of criticism.

Moving Students from the Personal to the Analytical

Here are some of the most useful ideas:

    • Assign texts that transform personal experience into some larger argument—like The Way to Rainy Mountain or The Woman Warrior. Professors who teach these books often ask the students to write essay(s) that mimic what the writer is doing. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, for example, Momaday writes three paragraphs—the first mythic, the second historical, the third personal—to illustrate a particular point about the destruction of the Kiowa tribe. You might use Momaday’s technique as a model, asking students to mimic this mythic-historical-personal structure to explore the landscapes—both physical and psychological—of their own lives. This exercise also gives students practice in writing focused, powerful paragraphs.
    • In class discussion, require that any reference to personal experience be explained as relevant. Some professors don’t permit students to make reference to their personal experiences when they discuss a text; other professors sometimes find that their classrooms contain more “talk show” than discussion. You can moderate between these two extremes by requiring students to relate their comments explicitly to the reading, the lecture, or any of the other course materials. This discussion strategy helps students to build a bridge between their own experiences and the course ideas.
    • Show students how personal academic ideas are. Sometimes our course readings contain difficult theoretical vocabularies and constructs. These ideas need not remain abstract or foreign to students. Discussing difficult texts could include some discussion of what these abstract terms mean personally to the writer who uses them, and to the reader who struggles to make sense of them. Often, rooting the abstract in the personal makes it easier for students to grasp the nuances of complex theoretical ideas.
    • Restrict, inhibit, or otherwise play with the use of the first-person singular pronoun. If students are forbidden to use the “I,” they will be forced to write in ways that omit explicit reference to the personal. In playing with this idea, professors might ask students to write two short responses to something they’ve seen or read—one that uses the first person pronoun, and another that does not. Students will come to understand in this exercise the difference between writing that permits—and writing that disallows—the personal.
    • Use class or conference time to model for students how to move from personal response to academic analysis. Allow students to make uninhibited personal responses to a text. Then put these responses through the sort of inquiry that transforms them from opinion to argument. Use critical thinking pedagogy to train students to examine their observations, evidence, inferences, and assumptions. Or ask them to analyze formally the logic of their argument, to see in what ways it holds up.
    • Provide clear guidelines for what constitutes an appropriate academic argument. The Writing Program’s Materials for Students Web site offers abundant advice on what constitutes an academic argument. Please refer students to our page: What Is an Academic Paper?


If you have thoughts that you’d like to share on this controversial topic, please send them to Karen Gocsik, Executive Director of the Writing Program. We hope to post an ongoing forum on this topic.



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