As a consultant and teacher of critical thinking, close reading, and analytical writing in higher education for over 20 years and counting, I am talking about a quiet little secret shared in both the college and K-12 worlds of writing instruction: we hope and presume that by some happy accident our students will process important ideas about themselves and their lives through writing, but we rarely teach them how.
Given that I am a classically trained literary scholar who, for the past 10-plus years, has been teaching writing to engineering undergraduates, I most certainly do not have the luxury of assuming that my audience will make personal connections with my material. But it is my argument that none of us has that luxury, whether we are preaching to the choir or not.
While very young students might be indulged in writing a story about what they did during summer vacation or asked to make a case for their favorite pastime in an early prototype of an “opinion” essay, as students grow up in our writing care they are usually strictly instructed to purge any traces of the personal from their writing. Most of us have a memory of an English teacher promising an automatic “C” if you used the word “I” in a high school assignment, or a college professor snapping in a seminar that sharing whether or not you “like” a book does not make the grade as an analytical comment.
Is there a place for divorcing the personal from the intellectual? You bet. But frankly, we have erred in that direction to a skewed extent. Because when we tell students to hide how their personal feelings and experience intersect with assigned reading we miss a chance to tap into authentic engagement — or to explore and be curious about disengagement — with the material.
Instead of having yet another generation jump through yet another circus hoop of telling us what the letter “A” symbolizes on Hester Prynne’s chest in The Scarlett Letter, why not have students use the text as a jumping-off point to think about how a Hawthorne thematic of shame, or defiance, or cowardice, or rigid social norms has played a role in a story from their own lives? Ask a teenager or a young adult to write about that for an evening and we have their attention. And even better than their attention, we offer them the possibility of wrestling with questions that irrevocably matter in their daily intellectual and emotional life: but only if we stop standing on the sidelines and actually offer bridging assignments that help students take concepts they read about and apply them within the context and questions of their own experience.
Besides the question of authentic engagement, there are plenty of pragmatic reasons why we want to put the personal back into writing. And here are the two biggest: the college application essay and the post-college narrative self-representation for scholarships, jobs, graduate school, grants, and funding.
These are touch points where, after years of telling students to erase all traces of themselves from their work, we expect students to magically reappear and tell us who they are, what they care about, and how that drives and informs their proposals. And that is a squirrely rabbit to pull out of the hat at the last minute. I became astonished by the number of college seniors who would anxiously bring me evacuated, robotic drafts for high stakes essays due tomorrow to some gatekeeper for their future; when I would push the essay aside, lean towards them, and say “what makes you want this opportunity you are applying for?” they would answer with a wistful and hollow “I don’t know.”
Are there quick fixes to make our students reappear in high stakes writing? Sometimes. But I am invested in the longer term and much more satisfying project of offering students opportunities throughout their education to explore stories of what matters to them. Through the prism of whatever it is they might be learning, we can and should scaffold opportunities for students to integrate personal purpose into academic work.
My way of doing this has been to build and teach experimental critical reflective writing courses for engineering undergraduates, where we use literature as a portal for students to tell and analyze their own stories. I have condensed some of this work into the following five tips and ideas that I hope might connect with or spark your own classroom experiments. Take risks, have fun, and I would love to hear stories of your own work in bringing writing back to life!
1. Break the Fourth Wall: Share Your Own Stories
It’s odd to expect students to integrate themselves into their work if we don’t model it ourselves. Tell your students a story about why you care about teaching, or narrate how the specific content you are teaching matters, clarifies or connects with a moment from your own life. If you don’t know the answer to these questions (and many of us don’t, given our training) write a letter to yourself trying to figure it out — you may be surprised what you discover!
2. Get Personal: Ask for Student Stories
This seems obvious, and yet it surprises me how many years of my teaching career I never thought to invite stories of student experience into the classroom specifically and by design. Find moments in your curriculum where students can process the course content with stories of their own. This will of course take some thinking and discussion about boundaries and audience: students should determine the “edge” of what they feel comfortable sharing, and depending on the assignment may want the writing to be for your eyes only, or shared with a self-selected partner versus shared with an assigned partner or group.
3. Small is Big: Mine Small Stories for Big Themes
I am a big fan of small scale storytelling, meaning no more than one single-spaced page: asking students to tell “small” stories from their life frees them up to put anything on the table without self-censorship, avoids the paralysis of writer’s block, and makes re-writing feel accessible instead of onerous. Also, when students have the opportunity to write a number of “small” stories or moments from their lives, they can be guided to analytically mine their narratives for patterns and themes—thus getting a big opportunity for inductively derived self-insight.
4. Get Perspective: Teach Students to Ask Wondering Questions
The first take at telling an important story from our life offers one pass and one perspective at narration. Teach students to ask what I call “wondering questions” about what seem like foregone conclusions or observations or morals or resolutions of their stories. (Asking questions about someone else’s work is a great way to learn to ask them of your own). Ideally, students thereby become more empowered narrators of their own lives, who can make increasingly analytical choices about their self-characterizations and their intentions.
5. Build Community: Bring the Classroom to Life
Consider having students solicit and share stories beyond the classroom. For example, my current critical reflective writing course pairs students with elderly community members. Using the themes they derive from their own small stories (e.g., challenging authority, grieving a loss, making a mistake, compromising a dream or passion, connecting with a mentor), my students interview their elderly partner to hear stories from someone with a very different perspective about these same themes. The interaction is one of many ways to not only increase perspective, but also to build a community of story telling, questioning, and sharing that brings discoveries in the world of the classroom back to life.