Teaching Autoethnography

1. Understanding our Students’ Relationship to “I”

Histories of individual relationships with writing, family histories and educational histories are just a few examples of what students may have been asked to write in order to ease into writing “formal” or “academic” essays in high school. In other words, personal writing is often used in the classroom as a warm-up exercise for “real academic writing.” Using personal writing only as an untheorized method of introduction to other kinds of writing can distance students from their experiences and from their subjects of study. When these activities are not given critical attention, the result can be that although personal writing is used in the classroom, the manner in which it is critically considered may not be clear and thus most of its value can be lost for the student and for the teacher as well.

While the personal obviously is thought to have some value, since it is used so frequently in writing classrooms, many teachers may be missing numerous opportunities to draw on the personal critically. Personal writing does not necessarily describe deeply emotional and private moments, as many may assume. Instead, as I demonstrate throughout this book, the personal is a representation of individual and collective experience, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, but always rooted in ideas that are valuable and meaningful for the writer.

Among the possibilities for this kind of writing and for expanding the way personal writing is treated and theorized is using the classroom as a place for students to connect to each other and their teacher—to create a classroom community and even connect to the larger university community through extended critical projects that simultaneously engage personal interests and expand the potential consequences of these interests. Experiencing ideas in action can help you understand your positionality and the consequences of your positionality.

Activities and methods can be devised to help students and teachers build critically on the personal, by grounding it in method and theory, thus allowing first-year students to bring what they know to the classroom while simultaneously empowering them and allowing them to connect to other new students. For students who are already established in the university, the personal can enable them to contribute to their community. For teachers, the personal can create richer connections for building community in the classroom and can provide insight into the students’ interests and connection to their academics and outside lives. It can encourage scholars to value our own personal experiences, positive and negative, and share them with the field in our own writing. Building a critical framework for the use of personal writing in the classroom can thus empower both students and scholars, who can then situate their work in a larger body of theory and scholarship. While not without its problems and complications, the introduction of verbal sharing into writing classrooms can provide valuable examples for this kind of engagement and expansion.

Min-Zhan Lu’s essay “Reading and Writing Differences: The Problematic of Experience” portrays a pattern that appears within composition again and again; the desire for an ability to re-envision the classroom through our experiences and thus revise our understanding of one another as parts of the classroom community. According to Lu, “We need to imagine ways of using experience critically: experience should motivate us to care about another’s differences and should disrupt the material conditions that have given rise to it” (239). When we can identify with certain elements of a story or piece of writing, we tend to focus on those experiences at the expense of other important elements and veins. Lu offers a concrete set of “exercises” for her students that will allow them to read and interpret a story based on their own experiences first, then take part in reading critical feminist discourse, and finally “re-vision” and rewrite their initial interpretation of the story from new perspectives, incorporating the viewpoints they have read about in order to learn how this can change their initial readings and help them see from new perspectives while analyzing their old perspectives (240). Exercises like the ones that Lu discusses, which encourage students to integrate real-world experiences into their academic writing, provide the basis for performance studies methodology and can foster positive effects on personal classroom writing practices.

Teachers have tried to build in the personal in direct and theorized ways. In “Personality and Persona: Developing the Self,” Walter S. Minot discusses the value of building the self-esteem of his students through writing assignments that interrogate the concept of persona (353). He encourages the use of one form of performance, drawing on research suggesting that if we repeat something often enough or use a certain voice, we are more likely to accept it as our own. He argues essentially that embracing the concept of I, using it in speech and in writing, makes one more assertive (355). In other words, practicing something and utilizing it in multiple ways can make you believe in its value and applicability in a way that just writing it cannot.

But much confusion remains about the kinds of assignments we can use to engage students on a personal level while allowing them to develop their writing skills. Nancy K. Miller brings this issue to light in her discussion of teaching an autobiography class. What we need to ask of our students and what then to do with what we get is not always easy to figure out and value. Miller writes:

So, on the assumption that the main thing was to write something, instead of a second critical essay I assigned the writing of what I called “autobiographical fragments.” My notion in asking for short takes of personal experience was to bypass both the problem of institutional writing, with its canonized standards of correctness, and the plot of becoming that characterizes canonical autobiography (466).

While Miller encourages experimentation, she found herself afraid to read stories that were too personal and having a hard time determining how to grade and value a student’s life. This is an issue that comes up often as scholars struggle with how to evaluate and teach personal writing, and it is something I will discuss in later chapters. Teachers have come up with their own ways of rationalizing and evaluating personal writing based upon individualized criteria and expectations. It is this kind of consideration of goals and value that can mitigate nervousness about evaluation. Miller also considers all personal writing to be something that requires a kind of secret-telling, which minimizes what I have defined as the personal throughout this study.

Ultimately, Miller realized the value by watching the reactions of her students and noticing how she reacted herself. It was valuable both for others in her class and for herself as an academic to hear other people’s stories, no matter how well-written, touching or painful. She explains:

Teaching autobiography provides texts for reading that engender the coming to writing in others. Perhaps the essence of autobiography as a genre—or rather one of its most valuable effects—is to enable this process. To say this is also to say that autobiography in its performance as text complicates the meaning and reading of social identity, and hence of the writing subject (468).

The students were able to analyze their positions in the classroom and relate to each other through the writing of the personal. This was not only empowering for them but enabled Miller to write her own piece for publication based on her experiences, thus helping her enact what she was teaching. In this way, Miller was able to analyze the situation and find value in the experience, thus contributing to a larger framework for the analysis and valuation of the personal.

Other scholars such as Janice Hays recommend programs of teaching in which students are encouraged to be personal and reflect on their experiences and then “branch out” from there. According to Hays, “The use of personal narrative as topic material or as a springboard for more analytic writing can ensure that students do not find analytic writing irrelevant and dull, even though it may be general or abstract” (174). As I have mentioned, for notions of personal writing to be valued and expanded, scholars need to move away from the concept of the personal as simply a “springboard” to more important or critical writing and understand what function it serves in their classrooms. Although problematic, Hays’ view does still show that in the classroom, many academics believe in the value of “writing ourselves,” even if their criteria and analysis of goals are underdeveloped.

Min-Zhan Lu suggests that often we create exercises for our students that allow them to experience what they read on a personal level, although we leave little room for this in our own professional scholarship. She says, “The task facing a teacher is to help students rethink ways of using personal experience so that readings through the personal will not be at the expense of other stories and selves” (242). If we use the personal only as a “step” to other things, we are not valuing it in and of itself for our students or ourselves. We are unable to understand our environment in a critical way if we are unable to understand how we are situated within it. Lu thus believes:

We need assignments that ask students to explore the analytic possibilities of experience by locating the experience that grounds their habitual approach to differences; by sketching the complex discursive terrain out of and in which the self habitually speaks; by investigating how that terrain delimits our understanding of differences along lines of race, class, sex and gender; and by exploring personal and social motivations for transforming one’s existing self-location in the process of rereading and rewriting (243).

Instead of using the personal only as a set of uncritical stepping stones, we need to theorize its function and application.

We need a methodology for theorizing the personal that is applicable in the classroom as well as in our scholarship. Such a methodology has to extend beyond limited notions of personal writing and evaluation and include theoretical value for the entire academic community. In the next chapter, I will provide ideas for how to introduce students to interacting with their audiences. I suggest throughout this chapter that the practice of these methods as well as the teaching of them will provide the consistency and connections necessary to make the personal productive for both students and teachers.

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