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March 04, 2006



I have a stack of personal narrative essays to grade over Spring break, so this is a particularly interesting post. I don't see argumentative and expository assignments and more personal/narrative assignments as mutually exclusive. I assign both types of writing in my composition course (I use John Trimbur's "The Call to Write"). I assign a memoir and profile assignment together, focusing on the fact that both genres employ narrative and description in ways that writers typically can't when using more academic forms of argument and exposition. Students who don't feel comfortable with personal writing can choose the profile. Usually, though, 95% of my students choose to write the memoir. And since the assignment follows a couple of more traditional academic essays, students find the memoir assignment a nice change.

I'll have to think more about the memoir assignment in the context of a larger social trend toward deindividuation. It does seem to me that students (at least in most of their college courses) are not encouraged to draw connections between their lives/experiences and the academic subjects that they're studying.


I agree that the personal and expo/arg "modes" aren't mutually exclusive (that is, that both can/should be included in a comp class, and, in fact, I'm probably especially drawn to the idea of straddling the two/three modes within one assignment). I guess I was responding to the sense I get from some of my colleagues that the more personal writing, in their view, may not be so relevant to their main goal in a comp class: thesis-driven argument. There was an interesting strand related to this whole debate on Mike Edwards's Vitia a while back: http://www.vitia.org/wordpress/2005/03/31/personal-writing-theory-and-method/

I'd never thought about the idea of giving students the choice of "how personal" an approach they wanted to take. That's an interesting approach. Do you have other such pairings you use? I'm a bit surprised that so many opt for the personal; I sense that about half my students aren't really comfortable with mining their life for subject matter.

I'm curious about the rationale behind yr sequencing of assignments. It seems often the personal essay comes first in classes, and that's how I've generally taught it myself, but I sometimes wonder if it might be better positioned a bit later in the course.

As for the deindividuation bit, I agree with yr observation that students are not often encouraged to draw connections between the personal experiences and the academic studies they're studying, but you think they should be, right? (I'm trying to decide if I would argue that making those connections should be the root of any education in the humanities...)


I decided to teach academic before personal this semester simply as an experiment. I've usually followed the more conventional path of beginning with more personal forms of writing and moving towards more academic forms of writing.

I didn't think you were saying that the personal and academic were mutually exclusive. I was responding what I see as the prevailing convention to give academic writing greater weight and view personal writing as less relevant. I think from the perspective of some teachers personal writing seems like an artifact of the 70s or something (like bell bottoms; though, aren't they making a comeback as well?).

I'm interested more and more in getting students to somehow combine the academic and the personal (which is, I think, what your assignment gets at). That is, I want them to think about their personal experiences, but I want them to be able to situate their account of their personal experiences within a larger social context. I want them to be able to make connections between their experiences and larger (even academic) arguments about culture and society. Or something like that.

A very interesting post, btw. It's helping me rethink this memoir assignment. Are you also a contributor to Community College English?


I've had this post marked "keep new" on Bloglines because a.) it's so beautifully written (I especially love the part about the tools you considered writing about); and b.) it resonates with things I've been thinking about in regards to personal writing; and c.) I love your idea about providing the "hook" or "window" for students' own writing.

Also, I love this line: "And what's this essay about, you ask? Well, I'm not exactly sure, but that's the point. That's what makes it worth my while to write it." I've tried to get that same idea--that sense of discovery, of urgency but also patience--across to students, but they so often seem frightened by it.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Really just wanted to say: I loved this post!


Thanks so much for the comments (and compliments)! I had originally started this blog in the hopes of getting some dialogue going within my dept, the failure of which was a semi-dismal disappointment. That coupled with some family issues last year stopped my blogging for a while, though I've been an active lurker (if that's not an oxymoron) for a few years now. Anyway, I'm absolutely delighted to have a few readers. I'm not a contributor to CCE right now, Jason, but that's one of the steps I was thinking of making out into the world a bit...


I think you'd be a great contributor to CCE! Email Joanna Howard, and I'm sure she'll set you up!

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