Teaching Autoethnography

12. Challenges of Personal Writing

Overview

As I said in the introduction of this book, issues or questions can arise when using personal writing in the classroom. In this chapter, I will try to review situations I have experienced and how to deal with some of these issues or questions.

When to Say No to a Project

I personally employ a fairly liberal policy when it comes to choosing topics for writing in my classroom. This is because I feel confident from years of experience helping students tackle most topics. If you are new to this kind of writing, consider what you as a teacher feel able to handle and make these limits clear to your students early on. Sometimes writing is uncomfortable, and that is OK, as long as you are comfortable handling the messiness of this as a teacher.

For the most, part students will self-censor unless they are very comfortable or interested in pursuing a particular subject. Often discomfort can occur because of emotions that are brought up when a student is writing about a topic that is close to the heart or very recently experienced. Some students are able to write about very tough experiences very beautifully; for others, writing about a death in the family or being victimized can cause them to relive experiences in a negative and potentially damaging way. It can be hard to ask students who are having a hard time with a subject to then revise and revisit writing that serves as a painful reminder or opens old wounds.

When students decide to write on a topic such as abuse, sexual violence or experiencing the death of someone close to them, I try to have a one-on-one conversation about the choice of topic early in the drafting process. In no way do I wish to discourage students from choosing a topic if they feel this is a good time to explore it. Instead, in these meetings, I invite them to write about these topics and also advise them that sometimes exploring these topics can be difficult because they will relive them again and again as they revise their writing. They will even be critiqued on how they recount something very personal and painful, which can be difficult. Ultimately, I leave the decision to the students. Most of the time, they will decide fairly quickly upon embarking on the writing of the essay whether the topic is indeed too hard. As long as you employ a drafting process that allows students a number of weeks to work on their essays, any student who decides to change a topic will have ample time to do so without negative consequences. In my class, students are also always invited to rewrite an essay if they were unable to complete the essay to their liking because of a difficulty with the topic.

There have been times when personal writing has brought to light issues for which students might benefit from having support services. We are there to create a supportive environment where they can explore issues in their writing, but professional services should be utilized when a student has a serious concern. I have found that students appreciate information about available services. I try not to pry, but because the writing is personal, when I see any warning signs or become concerned, I offer all of the available information about our student counseling services and explain what support the university can provide. I also offer to help make an appointment if that is something they would like. Some students will simply accept the information, while others will ask you to help set up an appointment. This will allow you to be supportive without having to become a counselor or get intimately involved in the matter. Your school may have its own process for handling cases such as these. I encourage you to speak with your department chair and to understand school procedures before intervening in any such situation.

Questions to Ask Students

For all projects, it is important for students to consider the ethical implications of their writing. For this reason, any group that cannot be a willing and capable participant in the research will not be a good choice for the assignment. Since I teach in New York City, I have had a few students come up with problematic topics for study, including the homeless, survivor groups, or even drug dealers they know.

To avoid some of these issues, I encourage students to pick subcultures they have chosen to be a part of. This often automatically rules out groups that could be inappropriate subjects because of circumstances such as mental or physical illness or drug-related activities.

How You Can Help with the Process

Sometimes it is very difficult to find something interesting to say about ourselves or our environment. One reason I include so many student examples in this book is to give new teachers an archive of potential topics and ways to steer students into topics they might find interesting. Initially I try not to give direct suggestions to students; instead I use the exercises I have included here to get them started with ideas that I can then help them refine and tailor.

On rare occasions, students will simply give up. Sometimes you can refer to earlier writing from the class to spark their interest, but it is always good to have in mind a few local organizations or events to help that rare student in a pinch.

Permissions

All students conducting interviews are asked to get permission from subjects to quote them in the writing assignments. This can be done a number of ways. Some schools will require you to use the institutional review board and develop a permission form that students must have participants sign. This is necessary if the writing will be published outside the classroom. Otherwise, make sure students know they must get oral consent from interviewees after clearly explaining the scope and audience for their writing.

Students are encouraged to use false names for people interviewed to make sure they will be comfortable sharing and answering questions and to protect everyone’s privacy.

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