A lot of what I’ll say here concerning personal writing circles back not only to yesterday’s post, but also (as Clancy points out) to what I was thinking last year, and also to the recent excellent posts (and the subsequent discussions they spurred) by Sharon Gerald and John Lovas. So, first, some givens: I agree with Sharon that “personal writing is academic writing,” and with John that “all writing is personal. All good writing conveys a sense of the person who produced it, including good academic writing.” No surprises there. And I think the insights offered by John’s answer to his rhetorical question are extremely useful, and also interesting in the way they anticipate the title of Thomas De Zengotita’s new book (referenced in yesterday’s post): “How does the personal intersect with knowledge-building? It means finding in each subject a personal connection, a dimension of the topic that connects to or illuminates one’s lived experience, including previous reading and mediated experience.” But what I’m talking about here is different from Sharon’s “personal” essays that “are all about something other than the student”: this is writing that is, in fact, about the student (more on this in the Method section), because I think such writing can work against those assignments that — as I said before — “rely upon a vague rhetoric of individualism and positioning, while actually ignoring individual and institutional context: they are simultaneously solipsistic, generalized, and abstracted from any concrete and particular context.” Personal writing is worthwhile in its groundedness, in its connectedness, in its being located in its done-for-its-own-sake non-exchangeable non-equivalent value: in its Use Value.
Which is why I’m puzzled when Clancy asks to what ends personal writing might be put; when she asks what it’s for; when she wonders about transforming experience into evidence. It’s not for anything other than itself-as-writing, I want to answer. Its value is in its doing. This weblog — even as I’m writing about composition theory, about politics, about the Romans who I love for their sheer cussed weirdness, about rhetoric, about material that may seem largely academic — is personal writing. But then I follow Clancy’s link to Joan W. Scott’s work on experience, and I start to understand a little.
Scott writes that experience-based writing can result in a multiplication of histories and subjects, which may “give the lie” (“Experience” 24) to dominant narratives. No, I reply: the supplementation (to borrow Derrida’s language) of additional narratives emphatically does not render one narrative untrue. This is flawed either/or zero-sum reasoning. The supplement, instead, makes for a multiplicity of narratives, a multiplicity of truths, a multiplicity of analytical frames. (Interesting here to note Wayne Booth’s advocacy for the pluralistic rhetorical strategies of Richard McKeon — both in his recent book and in his recent College English symposium with Peter Elbow — while simultaneously militating for what seems like a single rhetorical truth. Nietzsche writes: “The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise there would not be so many languages.”) Scott takes experience as the evidence for the interrogation of a hegemonic truth, which it’s not: experience is itself not a tool, but rather an alternate truth.
What Scott seems to want to critique, in fact, is the use of experience in order to say, “See, things aren’t really that way — they’re actually this other way!” Which is precisely the problematic New-Criticism-disguised-as-Critical-Pedagogy move I’m so fed up with. This simplistic move in effect serves as a way for a teacher to (metaphorically) demand that her students sing “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.” (Let’s not even talk about the ugly implications the following stanza holds for ideological domination.) And, of course, the teacher is always already enlightened: this is a horrifyingly smug manner of teaching that — as Peter Elbow implies in “Pedagogy of the Bamboozled” — turns teachers back to a deficit model in our stance towards our students.
In the equivalencies Scott sets up, she’s seeking to turn experience into critique, believing into doubting, hermeneusis into deconstruction (please, if you haven’t already, read Mariolina Salvatori’s brilliant essay “Toward a Hermeneutics of Difficulty”, in Audits of Meaning: A Festschrift in Honor of Ann Berthoff, Ed. Louise Smith. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1988. 80-95.), but these two things — while complementary — are separate. I’ll try to draw together Mariolina Salvatori, Peter Elbow, and Wayne Booth here (hell, that boy Mike’s nothing if not ambitious), and while I’ll likely do injury to their individual writings, I hope the importance of the collective parallels in relation to what Clancy’s suggesting via Joan Scott might become apparent. Hermeneusis/believing/assent is an inhabiting-of, a highly self-aware and reflective understanding of a thing’s constructed nature, its terms, how it came to be, and all that made it possible, seeing and inhabiting the circumstances that led to its construction and simultaneously being and monitoring its belief-system. Deconstructing/doubting/dissent is a being-in-alterity, a critique, an unspinning of a thing’s inherent contradictions and seeing how that which is present within the thing at once calls forth its absent counterpart and in so doing makes visible the limits within which and by which that thing is produced. And when these two difficult, complicated, and complementary (but most definitely not equivalent) moves focus on a person’s experience — whether of the word or the world — good writing can happen.
Before I get to the Method part, I’ll anticipate a last loosely related set of objections to assigning personal writing. Clancy has rather emphatically declared, “God. I. Hated. Writing. Personal. Essays.” This hatred, she writes, comes from a perception that “personal essays were an enormous waste of my time because I didn’t acquire any new knowledge.” Note the word acquire: I read Clancy’s weblog, see her regularly producing new knowledge, and wonder (here comes the critical pedagogy stuff again) what she might have thought then, as a resistant undergraduate, if she’d encountered Paulo Freire’s thoughts on “banking education”. The mode of writing she’s talking about — like Joanna’s “perfunctory ‘A’ paper written by the savvy student who knows how to play the game” — shuts off any possibility of inquiry, veers away from difficulty, and instead channels any writerly thought-activity into foregone conclusions. Clancy didn’t “acquire” any new knowledge because she chose not to. Of course, asking students to write about experience leaves this choice open — but also, when done right, it shows students (perhaps via those difficult moves described in the previous paragraph) that they can produce new knowledge on their own rather than “acquiring” it from books or teachers. I’m not talking about Romantic individualism here — yes, of course we all know that knowledge is mediated and social — but instead trying to describe a move from a teacher-to-student transmission model of education to a more multi-directional and reciprocal model.
And related to Joanna’s “savvy student,” I think, is the concern noted by Julie Lindquist that asking for authentic “emotional responses for the purposes of academic rewards becomes, for students, a matter of producing the ‘money shot’ on demand”: Lindquist offers the example of the canny writing student who spins a wholly fictional “tragic account of his friend’s car accident and death” (197) to please his teacher. (Yes, I just recycled my own words. One day I’ll do like Walter Benjamin and compose an essay entirely out of quotations, only I’ll be quoting myself.) This problem — the problem (cue Burl Ives’s booming intonation of the lines of Tennessee Williams) of mendacity in student writing — is difficult to address, but no more difficult than in the risk of a student’s telling her instructor what she thinks the instructor wants to hear in one of Jenny’s “general equivalency” essays (about, possibly, free-market individualist ideas or mass-media political correctness). And — apropos of mendacity — consider Jenny’s “general equivalency” vis-á-vis Nietzsche’s argument that “We know nothing whatsoever about an essential quality called ‘honesty’; but we do know of countless individualized and consequently unequal actions which we equate by omitting the aspects in which they are unequal and which we now designate as ‘honest’ actions. Finally we formulate from them a qualities occulta which has the name ‘honesty.’ We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual.” The “individual and actual” is Joan Scott’s “experience,” and the “equating” Nietzsche’s talking about is precisely her drawing-together of experience and evidence. But it gets even better: look at the following paragraph. “What then,” Nietzsche asks, “is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.” This “movable host” seems to me to correspond to Peter’s believing game, the deeply personal inhabiting of a multiplicity of possible perspectives — alternative truths — that constitute “human relations.”
(Brief aside: I’m indebted to the Happy Tutor’s post on “How to Write Like a Liberal Sack of Garbage”, and its concomitant comment-storm, for sparking these thoughts on lies. As always, the Tutor offers provocative insights, in his fine and generous — albeit sometimes sharp — dialectical mode.)
But we’re not yet done with mendacity.
- Exercise: in class, ask students to write brief descriptions (one paragraph for each description) of three events in their lives; things that happened to them or that they did. These events need not necessarily be particularly interesting, but one of them must be a lie. Share with classmates in small groups: see if classmates can tell which one is the lie. Discuss as a full class. Revise, making it into a contest: try to fake out your classmates. Write down three different experiences, again making one of them a (this time better) lie; share with a different small group. Again see if the lie is detected. Discuss: what makes a lie about one’s experience effective? (Thanks to Diane Chase for the idea for this exercise.)
- Essay 1, Part 1: ask students to write a brief essay — say, 750 words — about an event in their lives, something that happened to them, something they’re comfortable sharing with the class. This essay must both describe and analyze the event and its implications. Audience is the class, not the teacher.
- Peer Response 1: students should each bring at least two printed copies of their essays to class. Get into small groups. Each student should read at least two of her peers’ essays and write a single-page single-spaced peer response letter to each peer for homework. This peer response letter must be entirely non-evaluative — don’t say good or bad, but rather describe the effects the essay had on you — and it cannot, under penalty of ineffable doom, address grammar, spelling, typos, or other correctness issues. (Correctness always comes last in the drafting process.) This peer response exercise may resemble Mariolina Salvatori’s triple-entry journal (“Conversations With Texts” in College English 58.4, April 1996), which asks students “first to write their response to a text, second to construct a reflective commentary on the moves they made as writers and the possible reasons for them, and third to formulate an assessment of the particular text their reading produced” (446). Alternatively, the letter can do what the UMass Writing Program calls “sayback, pointing, and questioning,” in which respondents “say back” in their own words what the text says, “point” to interesting, odd, or vivid moments, and “question” where the text might go or what it’s left unresolved.
- Essay 1, Part 2: revise according to feedback in peer response letters.
- Essay 1, Part 3: proofread and edit for correctness with the help of classmates.
- Essay 1, Part 4: note that the teacher has not yet seen the essay. This is important. Each set of essay drafts plus copies of peer response letters goes to three other anonymous student graders in the class (make sure students know that this is going to happen beforehand, so that their attention to audience will be shifted at least somewhat to their peers); those anonymous peer graders score the essay on the criteria given at the beginning of the assignment: description, analysis, depth and quality of revision. Note that this will require at least one class session of talking (and working with examples) about what constitutes good description, careful analysis, and substantial revision. That score constitutes half the essay’s grade.
- Essay 1, Part 5: re-draft the essay for the teacher-as-audience rather than the peers. The event described and analyzed must remain the same; the description and analysis must change substantially or even completely.
- Peer Response 2: teacher writes non-evaluative responses similar to those described in Peer Response 1; perhaps — in the interests of time — shorter, but not by much. After all, these are fairly free-form.
- Essay 1, Part 6: revise according to feedback.
- Essay 1, Part 7: proofread and edit for correctness with the help of classmates. Yes, this has to happen again: as we know, error increases with the conceptual difficulty of an assignment. Expect it to skyrocket here.
- Essay 1, Part 8: publish the paired final drafts in a class magazine. Assign the magazine as homework reading, noting that the following class day there’ll be a reading quiz, and that each student will be randomly assigned two peer presenters to introduce hir essays for discussion.
- Essay 1, Part 9: talk about the differences in drafts and perceptions: how do these things make you feel, and what do they help you see? How did these drafts — and these peer response letters — get read, understood, assimilated, inhabited? How — to use Peter’s term — did you believe them? This, I think, might be a useful way to help students understand the interconnectedness of reading and writing, of alterity and being, and of their necessary connections — via belief — to the rhetorical multiplicity of truth. And of course it’s difficult: do we, knowing how we write, expect it to be easy?
I’ll add, as well, that this engaged recursive process cannot be sustained through a 15-week semester. In one way, it’s similar to how we put artificial names to the individual steps of a concretized writing “process” in order to ask students to grasp the more abstract concept that the Writing Process is loose, temporal, and recursive, and in such qualities can’t be pinned down to a concrete “five simple steps to a great essay” generalizable process. It’s a making-visible, via Peter’s “believing game,” of one component of my pedagogy.
What might I follow it with? Well, I suppose the obvious thing would be the critical or deconstructive moves of Peter’s “doubting game” — but I wouldn’t go there right away. Perhaps, as an about-face from the personal experience thing, we’d move to a sustained engagement with (to borrow Mariolina’s terminology again) a difficult text (see Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading and Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts), wherein I’d first ask students to perform the believing game again and compose a draft that described and analyzed not only the argument of the text but the circumstances of that argument’s production — and only then move to the doubting game, to the minute and up-close deeply involved rhetorical analysis and deconstruction that leaves the text in a broken pile of its tiny component rhetorical parts. The assignment this time would be to then unite the two drafts into something uncertain, wobbly, Frankensteinian.
I’ve got more — like ideas about spinning an entire syllabus around the master trope of mendacity via secondary themes of belief, doubt, and revision, with a debt to Linda Brodkey via David Bleich — but I think that’s enough right now. The important thing here, to me, is understanding the complicated pedagogical ends of Peter’s believing game, and connecting those ends both to the possibilities offered by personal writing and to Mariolina’s engagements with difficulty.
I’d be grateful for any comments on theory, method, or both.