In thinking about my own teaching practices, I’m hoping I might get some responses from other first-year composition teachers to a few questions. First, how many folks teach something resembling a ‘personal essay’ (as opposed to, say, a research paper or a persuasive essay or a response to a text or a rhetorical analysis or what-have-you) as the first unit in a semester? Second, how many folks teach a variety of fairly identifiable genres, like those I mentioned in my first question? Third, for those who do teach something resembling a ‘personal essay’ as the first unit in the semester, what are your reasons for teaching it first — and for those who don’t teach it at all, what are your reasons for not teaching it? Fourth, how many folks teach a sequence of assignments that asks students to make major choices about which essays they will significantly revise and which essays they will leave behind?
I know there’s considerable literature in our field devoted to this topic, and since my first year of teaching, I’ve felt like I’ve had a decent sense of what the arguments were for the various practices, even as my own practices changed and shifted and evolved according to what I’d read, to my sense of my students’ shifting needs, and to institutional pressures — but in the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing some significantly recurring phenomena in student essays that make me call some of that into question. I’m still trying to sort this stuff out, so I can’t really be more particular right now, but just hearing about what other people do, and why, would help me to put what I’ve been seeing in student papers into perspective vis-a-vis my own teaching practices.
That said, I guess I’d better at least offer a little bit of rationale: for the past four years or so, institutional pressures (I’m at the UMass Amherst Writing Program, former home of Walker Gibson and Peter Elbow) have turned me towards seeing the personal essay as a way of asking a student to take an initial stake in the writing that the course asks them to do, and towards seeing the personal essay as something accessible and open. Such a perception understands the personal essay as somewhat loose, rambling, or discursive; the diametrical opposite of the impersonal cut-and-dried five-paragraph theme. The essay sequence I’ve been attempting to refine since 2000 moves from introspection to public engagement and back again, and I’ve lately begun to wonder if such a sequence is based on some problematic metaphors of writerly ‘development’ that simply don’t work — too blithely Lacanian? too literalist a take on Dewey and Britton? — for college-age students, especially in an age when process pedagogy has long since become widespread even in secondary education.
This semester, I’m calling the first essay “Experiences, Contexts, Perceptions”; from the title, I hope, a fairly obvious request for students to examine how what they’ve lived and where they come from affects their view of the world and others’ views of them. I ask them to incorporate some of these observations into the next two essays, “Reading and Writing Difficult Texts,” which is my attempt to revise Peter Elbow’s take on the back-and-forth between the personal and the textual. The next assignment, called “Subjects and Perspectives,” is an attempt to take the personal and textual work of those first two essays into the public sphere with a rhetorical analysis of the range of discourse on a particular subject, and serves as pre-writing for the following assignment, which asks students to take a personal position on the subject they’ve chosen and use documentation to support that position. So, clearly, I’m favoring certain kinds of writing as somehow more ‘basic’ and others as somehow more ‘advanced’ — and I’ve lately begun to see that as problematic, especially in the way I feel the need to offer certain similar responses to so many student papers.
I haven’t mentioned the types of assignments I taught when I was at Pitt, but if you’ve encountered Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, you might have some sense of how the institutional pressures there were radically different from the pressures here at UMass. So maybe one more (perhaps deceptive) question: there, at Pitt, first year composition was called “General Writing.” Here, they call it “College Writing.” What might that say — and how is the first-year composition course ycleped at your institution?