Teaching Autoethnography

2. Getting Started in the Classroom

Overview

In this chapter, I will demonstrate how you can begin a semester-long class that draws on personal writing and qualitative inquiry. I will break down a number of ideas and small introductory assignments in detail. All assignments will be in a form that you can distribute to students.

I will not be including readings for students in this textbook. I encourage all teachers to choose readings that they find relevant for students, based upon their focus and desired classroom outcomes. I will make reference to value I find in a few pieces I regularly include in my classroom. These assignments would be appropriate for the first one to three weeks of class.

The Public Nature of the Classroom

Before I start any writing in the classroom, I introduce a few concepts about the nature of nonfiction writing. Probably one of the most important things to note, and one of the first things I say to students, is that all writing in the class should be treated as public. This means that no writing should ever be considered for my eyes only. Each student should expect to share personal writing with classmates at some point.

This is important to note for a number of reasons. In treating every piece of writing as public, students become aware that they are talking about real people, the self included, and that they have an obligation to consider their writing and their audience carefully. This also helps students to become aware of what they are willing and not willing to explore when the interaction is more than the private back-and-forth with their teacher. It is an important first lesson in taking ownership of content and voice and considering a broader perspective (particularly one that is not giving them a grade).

Given the public nature of their writing for class, I emphasize that being mindful of feedback and commentary is very important, since all writing is about real people. I encourage students to be honest and specific in their feedback as readers and open and willing recipients of critique as writers. They need to make ethical choices about how they portray people, being mindful of the opinions of the subjects. This discussion sets a tone of respect and openness that will guide the rest of the course.

Warm-up Exercises

Here I will give a few examples of early semester exercises that will prepare students to engage in personal writing and qualitative inquiry in a critical and productive way. Starting off with fieldwork and discussion sets a tone that can be carried throughout the semester, one that values individual voice, audience, and research. For each assignment, I will offer an overview of the exercise, details of the task and, in the results section, reflection on the value of the assignment.

The First Day of Class

On the first day of class, I ask students to do a freewrite about what the terms personal writing and academic writing mean to them. This is a great jumping-off point in that it allows you to learn what students have been taught over the years about the value of the self, the use of I and which writing has value. It can be the start of a discussion about how they might come to understand these terms differently in their college-level writing classes. It also creates a great moment for you to share your knowledge and perspective on the terms and how they will be used in your course.

In addition, freewrites are a great tool to use throughout the semester when you are introducing a new topic for discussion. They allow students to pause and engage the idea before sharing their thoughts with the class. This often gives them more confidence to participate and more ideas to contribute to discussion. Try to include freewriting in your course plan each time you introduce a new topic.

Freewrite Assignment

What is personal writing? What is academic writing?

Over the course of the semester, I will be asking you to create responses through something called freewriting.

Freewriting is also known as stream-of-consciousness writing—essentially writing whatever comes to mind on a particular subject. The theory behind freewriting is to allow your mind to make connections among given topics and your own thoughts and experiences. It is not meant to be an edited piece of formal writing, but rather an exploration of your responses to a particular topic.

Throughout this course, it will be necessary to make connections with one another and focus on communicating clearly and effectively with classmates. This first exercise will help you get to know your fellow students, consider the focus for the class, and also to get acclimated to sharing your writing with your peers.

For this exercise, I would like you to write about the terms personal writing and academic writing and what they mean to you. You will be writing continuously for twelve minutes.

The goal of a freewrite is to keep your pen or pencil to the paper for the entire length of time I give you to write. It is natural for the mind to wander. Often in life we are thinking of many things at the same time: class, how hungry we are, what time it is. When you feel as if you have run out of things to say or you find you can no longer focus on the topic, don’t stop writing! Simply continue to write about what is distracting you and carefully make your way back to the topic. These pieces are not collected or graded, so do not edit yourself. Write whatever comes to mind in response to the prompt. Be prepared to read this writing out loud for the class. We will define the two terms as a group based on your contributions.

 

Results

Typically, students will be very flustered by this exercise. They will feel that you want a specific answer from them and will struggle with how they view each term. Usually, I find that students have still been encouraged to keep the personal out of the academic and have a hard time understanding how the two might be combined. It always creates a fascinating discussion and an opportunity to share stories about rules for writing and how students might reconsider some of the things they’ve been taught. I have the students share pieces from their writing and use the board to create lists of ways we currently think about our writing and ways we might adjust our perspectives in this class. As the discussion progresses, I add my own ideas for how these terms will be treated in our classroom.

The Importance of Observation

How to properly use and conduct observations will be one of the most important skills your students will acquire in this course. Having strong observational skills is key to being a successful writer, but for many people this does not come naturally. In a busy world, we often block out a lot of our daily experiences in order to focus on what we perceive as more important tasks. Many of the exercises for this course will encourage students to pause, take in these small moments in everyday life, and reflect on them.

When students think about observation, many will go directly to the idea of visual observation. This is not surprising, since we live in a visually oriented culture. However, when trying to convey an experience to someone who is outside of the experience, it is important to consider the value of other senses. For example, if someone visually describes a cafeteria, many of us will flash back to our own experiences in cafeterias. But if the writer is careful to share the smells, sounds and textures of a particular space, people will be able to relate their own experiences but understand how their environment differs. This exercise will help students focus on using their five senses to describe a situation.

The Deep Observation Assignment

Spend at least twenty minutes in a public space, observing one person you have never seen or met before. The person need not be someone who strikes you as interesting. In fact, somebody who appears to be less than interesting to you is often the best choice for this assignment.

This is a difficult assignment for a number of reasons. It is hard to find someone who will be still and accessible for twenty minutes; if the person moves, move with him or her. The subject also might become aware of being observed. This is not a problem; simply talk to the person if he or she inquires, or move on to another observation if it seems at all bothersome to the person being observed. Your goal is not to make someone uncomfortable but to pause and consider your environment and those who inhabit it.

Using your five senses, take notes on everything around you and everything about the person, focusing on the subject’s appearance, how she carries herself, her actions and interactions, the way she interacts with her environment, any speech you might overhear, the feeling, look, smell and feel of the space your subject inhabits.

After you have finished taking notes, as close to the observation time as possible, construct a narrative description of this person and his or her life based on the details you have recorded.

This is an assignment you may enjoy doing more than once. If you are riding public transportation or have free time in a public space, you can practice your observational skills and storytelling abilities by basing pieces on this real-life observational note taking.

This is a fiction-writing assignment based on real observation and will be shared during class discussion.

 

Results

These are the strongest initial pieces of student writing in my class for a number of reasons.

Writing anything personal can be very challenging at first, since students can feel vulnerable and unsure about how they portray themselves and those they know. Starting with a fictional exercise that draws on real, observed detail opens up student writers to discussing all aspects of a person without fear. They do not feel as exposed personally or as bad about making judgments because their pieces are not intended to be truthful. Here they have the luxury of writing about a stranger in a fictional way.

In addition, the exercise allows students to take observed information and create a story from it, and that skill will be immensely helpful in their research as they amass notes and have to make sense of the information they have collected, identifying threads and narrative connections as well as contradictions and dissonance.

Since the exercise is based on limited information, it makes students rely on their own points of view and recognize how judgment and stereotyping play a role in their research and observations.

I encourage students to pick someone not particularly noteworthy, which forces them to be creative. They probably would have an easier time writing about things that are “striking” rather than commonplace. In general, when we conduct any sort of research, we are more likely to end up with many run-of-the-mill details and few aha moments; it is important to recognize the necessity of both in a narrative.

Students will quickly realize how much information they can gather in a small amount of time when they focus their attention. This will be useful in all other assignments that ask them to gather information and re-create experiences.

On a practical level, students will begin to practice taking notes and converting them into text. They will recognize the value of spoken language they might hear while conducting observations and will practice how to become an unobtrusive part of an environment they are observing.

The process will show that research is messy and often does not produce the result we assume or intend. That does not mean it is a failure. It means they will need to practice and improve their observation skills so they are able to draw on their surroundings and become more observant on a daily basis.

In sharing these pieces orally with classmates, they will be able to hear other student narratives and participate in a discussion about varied approaches to observation. You as the teacher can fill in any gaps and provide information that you feel was not covered in the discussion of their writing.

Examples of this assignment can be found in Chapter 12.

Writing from Other Viewpoints

It is often difficult for us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Training students to consider things from other peoples’ perspectives is essential when they are writing about people as characters qualitatively. If they cannot imagine that other peoples’ perspectives differ from their own and are informed by different life experiences, they will not be able to write successfully about themselves or the people they research.

This is an assignment students can do in class or at home. I think it works best the first time in a group so they can compare and analyze what they have written and see how the versions differ. Unlike deep observation, this assignment does not require that they observe as outsiders; instead they must try to put themselves into the heads of the people they are considering.

Point-of-View Writing Exercise

As a class, go to a place outside the classroom. If you do not have access to any outdoor space, which would be the best choice for this assignment, simply choose a space where you will be able to sit comfortably and observe other people. Sometimes a cafeteria or a study lounge will work for these purposes.

As an individual exercise outside of class, you can do this in any public space where you plan to spend a long period of time.

Once you are comfortably situated in the space, use a notebook with four separate pages to freewrite from at least four different perspectives about the space around you. The intention behind this exercise is to look at the same space and group of people but to adjust your viewpoint. You are not allowed at any time in the writing to mention directly what perspective you are writing from and what your viewpoint is or to use any word given in the prompt. Instead, you must use your five senses and try to imagine writing about the environment as if you were a different person.

You can write based on mood: angry, sad, pensive, joyous. You can imagine a life situation: just fell in love or broke up with someone, just got a new job or lost a job, just returned from overseas or are eager to travel. You can write from almost any perspective imaginable, influenced by factors like socioeconomic status, gender, age, work title, and countless others.

Later, when you are in class, take one of the pages you think is your strongest and hand it to the teacher, who will mix up all the pages and redistribute them. Students will then read aloud the pieces they have been given and will discuss what point of view they think each is written from and why. Once all the pieces have been read, there can be a discussion of the similarities among the pieces that were from a particular viewpoint, the ways in which they differed and why.

 

Results

This exercise, much like the deep observation assignment, is all about stereotypes and judgment. Where do students draw their assumptions about what it might be like to see the world through the eyes of someone with a different gender identity or different amount of wealth? Ideas can come from personal experience, what they see in the media and the kinds of expectations they have from life. Usually a pattern of similarities emerges in writing from the same perspectives but styles of approach differ greatly, depending on the group. Students can learn a lot about how their own life experiences affect the way they perceive others and what it might be like to experience things in others’ positions. Recognizing their own prejudices and assumptions is essential to being open to other peoples’ points of view.

Keeping a Writing Journal

As students begin to practice their observational skills, I encourage them to keep a journal, whether it be a paper journal or just notes on a phone or tablet. This allows them to practice being aware of their surroundings and to take time to reflect on daily experiences. I never collect or grade these journals, but I encourage them to write often to practice for larger assignments. They are a great space to practice the first two writing assignments on their own time outside class.

Journal Guidelines/Assignment

For many, journals are a way to share or express emotions in private. People can come home from a long day, sit down and just let all their stress flow onto the page. For other people, journals might act more like a scrapbook for keeping sketches, photos, pieces of paper that could serve as inspiration for art projects, designs, or writing a book.

Consider your own experiences with journaling. Have you ever kept a diary? When you were young? Recently? Was it consistent? Sporadic? Did you write only when you were feeling emotional or nostalgic?

Today there are a lot of options for journaling, and it can be private or very public. If you are part of any social networking site, you are probably aware of how personal thoughts, emotions or actions make their way onto the Internet. Many people choose to keep blogs that cover adventures, traveling, daily life, and relationships. They may chronicle small adventures on social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr. Sites like Livejournal have provided a direct forum for those who want to go public with their most private thoughts.

Publishing a diary is no new concept, however. Thinking historically and from our individual pop culture knowledge, there are a great number of examples of people publishing private journals. Famous writers, like Sylvia Plath and Anais Nin, have had their journals published in their entirety. Musicians such as Kurt Cobain and artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh have made the form important, and so have a few people who have gone through harrowing experiences, such as Anne Frank.

Consider the value of keeping a journal. How can you use this form to help in your other writing? To reflect on experiences? To sharpen your observational skill and engage your world on a daily basis?

 

Results

Students find that practicing daily observation and reflection allows them to develop their writing voice. Most students will not keep a daily journal, but even if they make a few entries over the course of semester, this can improve the ease with which they approach their larger, more formal writing assignments and may develop into a valuable writing habit well beyond the scope of your class.

Intro readings

In the first few weeks of class, I use a few foundational texts to give students an overview of the field of creative nonfiction, the broad category in which personal writing is usually placed.

Becky Bradway and Douglas Hesse’s Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology offers a nice overview of the variations in the genre. I have students read the first two chapters from this because it gives a nice, if dry, overview of the many types of creative nonfiction while providing a brief analysis of relevant examples. By also defining what creative nonfiction is not, it helps students get an idea of the wide range of disparate texts that fall and don’t fall within this category. Bradway and Hesse write: “Creative nonfiction allows for a certain looseness of exploration. Some writers…are attracted to creative nonfiction for its very lack of definition. Over 250 years ago Samuel Johnson defined the essay as ‘a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.’ This very irregularity is what makes creative nonfiction so much fun to write, if the writer is comfortable with that openness” (8).

In their survey, they include memoir, essay, critiques, rants, reviews, lyric and reflective essays, place writing, the city essay, and literary journalism. This is a list I will include examples from but also deviate from when I include more qualitative examples later in the course. Bradway and Hesse make important points for students starting off, who need to consider objectivity and truth telling as foundations for all personal writing.

The authors state: “It is supposed to be true to the author’s best ability. The story and people in creative nonfiction are based upon actual events, people, and information” (7). Yet at the same time, unlike what students might have experienced previously in their research, “Creative nonfiction makes no pretense of objectivity; the writer admits that she is coming from her own point of view” (7).

Lee Gutkind’s “The Five ‘R’s of Creative Nonfiction” is a great starter piece as well. In his essay, Gutkind creates scenes, showing us his “fly on the wall” approach while discussing the importance of critical elements in creative nonfiction writing. Students enjoy the way Gutkind employs the strategies he suggests in his own essay. It’s a fun and engaging piece, and I find that with the more instructional pieces, it is useful to see the authors using the methods they suggest. The five Rs Gutkind discusses are real life/immersion, reflection, research, reading and (w)riting (3-6). He stresses the need for students to read other writers, to reflect on the value in their writing, and to research experiences, even their own. He encourages students to step outside of the classroom to recognize the importance of the larger world in their writing. “I design assignments that force my students out into their communities for an hour, a day, or even a week so that they see and understand that the foundation of good writing emerges from personal experience” (9). By demonstrating the value of action in an essay, he highlights the importance of scene: “The creative nonfiction writer will show…subject, place, or personality in action” (9). His organizational ideas on creating narrative frame are also very useful.

Conclusion

These initial exercises should open up discussion for the students and allow them to examine their own perspectives on the outside world. They will begin to practice skills that will be essential to their longer essay writing and also make small realizations about how others view the same thing in different ways. You do not have to do all of these assignments, but I find that in conjunction they provide a great basis and important tools for the upcoming larger essays.

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