Among some FYC folk, the personal essay seems to have fallen into disfavor these days, supplanted by that sturdy studly specimen, the thesis-driven argument. I've been trying to think through some of the problems with the standard personal essay assignment: "Describe a significant experience, one that changed you in some way, brought you to some new realization about yourself or your relationship with others or the ways things work in yr world; use the fiction-writers' tools to bring us inside that experience; indulge in a summary fillip of philosophizing about the significance of this transformative event." The results have ranged from the conventional car accidents (in an AAA report I recently read that 25% of drivers get into car accidents their first year of driving; according to my unofficial survey 97% of those believe it was the most significant event of their young lives) to last semester's astonishing collection of psychiatric disorders and abusive situations, legal problems and teenage pregnancies. Some of these essays have been first-rate, but many more have been difficult to respond to or evaluate, either because of students' uninspired choice of topic or seeming inability to remember or at least evoke lived experience or my own queasiness, in some cases, about attaching a grade to such sad stories of personal trauma.
In its most recent incarnation. I have tried for several semesters to give a more focused personal essay assignment, in an attempt to stretch student imaginations a bit beyond those ubiquitous car accident or tragic death stories. A couple semesters back I taught a theme-based comp class with focus on food (on the theory that food is a universal subject, that it could elicit some rich sensory responses, that it intersects cultural, sociological, historical, psychological, scientific "realms"); the personal essay assignment here asked students to write about an experience or aspect of their lives that involved food in some way. This semester, with technology our theme, I asked students to write about some personally significant tool (defined very broadly as a "useful object" that allowed them to do something they couldn't do, or not as well, with their physical bodies alone), the inspiration being Scott Russell Sanders's widely anthologized essay "The Inheritance of Tools." Show-and-tell fashion I brought in my beloved yellow sliderule (the one I actually used in college physics in the unimaginably primitive pre-calculator days; that unwritten essay has to do, perhaps, with the speed of technological change, or more likely my own slide from flunked-out math major to literature and then writing student) and my block plane (symbol of the courage that my brother gave me to try carpentry, with the familiar analogy here: "writing an essay is like building a bookcase") and my great-grandmother's pastry wheel (for an essay, in conceptual-art mode, about the art of pie making, truest test of a good cook in my family, and the links, domestic and otherwise, through five generations of women).
I was overall pleased with the essays I received: from the food course essays about fish cakes and receiving government surplus food and the pleasures of eating burnt cookies with a two-year-old and this semester essays about flour sifters, swimming goggles, the small scale used in a father's drug trade, subjects I doubt many students would have arrived at without the hook, window (choose yr metaphor) I'd provided. Try to fill in the blanks, I told them: I'm writing about _____ in order to write about _____. But still there were, this semester, a fair share of cell phone and computer essays, most from students unwilling or unable to stretch from the familiar to the fresh. (The computer is wonderful because I can use it to IM my friends, do schoolwork, e-shop to my heart's content--see the 5-paragraph possibilities). Tell me something I don't already know, I implored students.
It seems to me that often those traumatic experiences students reach for when we ask for "significance" (an idea they may have a hard time understanding) have already been sealed up with wrapping tape, either labelled with their neat little "what I learned" message or, more likely, preserved in some archive of wordless emotions. It's often possible to say more with less, I try to convince them.
As for the question of whether these personal essays belong in the FYC curriculum at all, a few thoughts and questions.
- Some students who can write perfectly competent expository or argumentative essays will struggle with this assignment. To what degree is it fair to penalize them (how much do I hate grading writing? let me count the ways) for their "failure" to recognize the rich material in their own lives? Other students, who might not be immediately recognizable as skilled writers, will have that knack of seeing a subject (or somehow a more obvious treasure trove of material). The personal essay assignment has the potential to give such students a great deal of confidence. Is it appropriate to have a course objective that we don't expect every student to master? Is there a sense in which course objectives need not be universal?
- To what degree is it our purpose (our sole purpose, a primary purpose, one purpose among many) to prepare students for entry into the "academic discourse community"? At the community college especially, where some (how many?) of our students don't have this goal, this is a question that demands some thought.
- For students who have internalized the 5-para. theme structure, might the personal essay assignment serve as a corrective of sorts? Ditto for students who think they must adopt the mask of objectivity in their writing (the "never write in the 1st person" camp). Can privileging the personal (even for students not too comfortable in its garb) help to convince them of the possibility/desirability of staking out a personal position in all their writing?
- In the article "My Crowd" (Harper's, March 2006), Bill Wasik divulges his responsibility for the flash mob phenomenon. (Interesting sidenote: Unfamiliar with the term flash mob, and actually not entirely sure the whole idea wasn't a parody, I checked my students' favorite source of infallible info, Wikipedia. A full summary and link to the Harper's article had already been posted.) He writes about the concept of deindividuation, which it seems to me is increasingly part of our social climate (mass media being an easy target for this, but no doubt there are other factors as well). I'm not really a fan of the cultural studies camp, but there does seem to me some almost-moral responsibility educators should feel to combat these forces of deindividuation. Personal essays are a step in this direction.
- Finally, and maybe perversely, I tell my students: OK, if you don't like this personal writing, confined to the contents of your memory banks, the present contents of yr skull, your only other alternative is ...go out and get some new information. That is, RESEARCH!