Teaching Autoethnography


Goals and Uses of This Book

The purpose of this textbook, aimed at college-level teachers, is to present a unified approach to using personal writing and qualitative inquiry, specifically autoethnography, in the first-year writing classroom. Its use can also extend into any classroom where the instructor wishes to use personal writing. Compositionists and university composition programs have embraced aspects of personal writing and qualitative research with varying degrees of success for many years. My book is meant to be a practical guide to integrating many of these methods, with help from the field of creative writing, into a course that teaches all of the aspects of writing that students should practice before leaving the first-year writing classroom. The book can be used to structure an entire first-year writing course or creative nonfiction course or as a resource for individual assignments in any classroom when the instructor wishes to use personal writing critically. All writing assignments included here can be considered either building blocks for autoethnography or autoethnographic in nature.

Through conversations with colleagues over the past thirteen years, I have come to realize that many writing teachers need more opportunities to theorize properly and demonstrate the importance of the work they are doing with personal writing. Although personal writing remains a popular genre, varying opinions about its value and use keep it from being analyzed and studied in a way that allows its definitions to expand and evolve. The intention of this book is not to ask why personal writing has been such a contentious yet popular form in the field of composition but rather to trace its history in the field of composition and to explore how we can employ it critically and productively in our classrooms using qualitative inquiry.

In my introduction, I draw together a number of working definitions and methodologies to situate the approach to the teaching assignments I include in the rest of the book. For my purposes, the focus on personal writing will be on its position in the field of composition studies. Depending on the academic field of study, there is much disagreement about the definition of the term autoethnography. There are many valuable resources, including well-conceived literary reviews, on the use and differing definitions of autoethnography in the social sciences, a few of which I will contextualize for our purposes in Chapter 7. However, to maintain the focus of this textbook, I have limited my literature review to how qualitative inquiry has been appropriated and used in the field of composition studies. Additional readings from the social sciences on autoethnography can be found in the bibliography at the end of this book.

In this book, autoethnography is treated as personal writing in which the subjectivity of the writer is highlighted and experiences are understood through narrative exploration and storytelling, incorporating other voices, observation, participation, and larger cultural ideas. Using autoethnography in this way allows students to employ first-person research and analyze their own subjectivity in narrative form. The primary focus is on the value of storytelling and examining the self in relation to experience. This approach values the audience and considers the value of analyzing, reflecting on and narratively communicating personal experience, which I will refer to as the “Who cares?” factor in Chapter 3.

I hope you will find this to be an informative and user-friendly book that draws on my own experiences in the classroom. Rather than including a large number of professional examples, I include a variety of student contributions to demonstrate the products of this kind of work. During my years of studying this topic, I have come to realize that solid examples of student writing in response to these assignments are a major element that has been missing from our research resources. I am grateful to all of the enthusiastic student volunteers from my classrooms who have made this book possible. I encourage all teachers using this book to complete the assignments themselves, so they can understand the perspective of the student writers and share their writing in the classroom, guiding students in their own endeavors.

Informational sections will be addressed to the instructor, and assignments will be directed at the students. Please feel free to adapt any of this information as necessary for different audiences. The structure of this textbook in its entirety would be appropriate for a traditional 15-week course. I have included a sample timeline at the end of the book and timeline references in each chapter introduction. Any of the assignments can be excerpted for individual use.

I will not include readings for students in this textbook. Instead, I will include some examples in the chapters from texts I have used in class. While I hope this will be helpful, I encourage all teachers to choose readings they find relevant for students based upon their focus and desired outcomes.

A Brief History of Personal Writing in Composition Studies

Within the field of composition, personal writing—an umbrella term that includes any writing which draws on first-hand experience, including genres such as autoethnography, autobiography, and mystory—maintains a precarious position at best. I use personal writing both to provide a more general term that can apply to many kinds of writing and to avoid using terminology that has historically been problematic in this genre. Following a more general trend that started in the mid-1960s and flourished in the mid-1970s, personal experience has appeared in the academic accounts of scholars involved in the process of creating the field and expanding it to include disciplinary ideas from communication to cultural studies. The use of personal writing has become so ubiquitous that often it does not get the critical attention it deserves or it receives critique that is not productive. There are concerns that what is personal is not critical and that personal writing is therefore not what we should be teaching our students to use in the classroom.

Deriving knowledge from personal experience is risky for at least two reasons: (1) first-hand experience may have limited application or relevance in other situations—or as scientists and social scientists like to say, “Anecdote is not evidence”; and (2) display of the self can often elicit harsh personal and scholarly judgments from others. I is a well-established point of contention for the teacher, the researcher and the student—when to allow it, how to use it, whether it is critical, where its use can be rigorous. For most people, forbidding the use of I is an outdated notion (although the majority of students will still admit in their first college classes that at least one of their previous English teachers banned its use), but there seem to be gaps in the critical research supporting theories of the benefits of using I. Current personal writing terminology often carries negative connotations, encouraging scholars to redefine their terms, and in doing so splinters the definition of personal writing. As Karen Paley suggests in her study of I-Writing: The Politics and Practice of Teaching First-Person Writing, a book that came out of her dissertation exploring the implications of personal writing, “the sheer circulation of so many synonyms or near synonyms may be indicative of anxiety about the personal in the academy…. [O]n the other hand, the multiple names may reflect the versatility of the form itself” (10). I will break down current notions of I in this introduction; in later chapters I will include assignments that use I in the classroom both literally and metaphorically.

Tracing attitudes toward the personal and how they have evolved within the pedagogy and scholarship of composition can establish a working definition for the term and lay out the current stakes for personal writing in our departments and classrooms and its potential for interdisciplinary expansion. Practices associated with the expressivist movement, such as free writing, fast drafts and even performance, have made their way into the core curriculum of many English departments, according to composition scholars such as Paley (I-Writing) and Thomas Newkirk (The Performance of Self in Student Writing).

These two books thoroughly analyze the value of expressivist pedagogy as a basis for many popular composition practices. In I-Writing, Paley views the entire debate surrounding the use of personal writing through the history of the expressivist movement in composition, concentrating on the debate between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow, and evaluating the classroom practices of Patricia Bizzell to discover what the expectations are for the personal in the classroom. After evaluating the relevant literature, Paley defines expressivism as:

a pedagogy that includes (but is by no means limited to) an openness to the use of personal narrative, a particular type of the narrative mode of discourse. Personal narrative takes the writer’s own experience as its focus. It involves the use of a narrational I that seems to be the actual voice of the person who writes. Sometimes the narrator may appear to isolate individual consciousness, and sometimes he or she may represent the self in one or more social contexts, such as the family or college community. The narrator may or may not explicitly link the particular situation with those experienced by others (13).

According to Paley, personal writing concentrates on the experience of the individual but may include outside perspectives.

Paley conducts her research on the premise that most literature denigrating the use of I is not based on qualitative research, a problem I will attempt to address in this introduction. According to Paley, “The misrepresentations of pedagogies that include the teaching of personal narrative are based largely on published writing as opposed to classroom observation” (13). In her own study, she spends time in classrooms and interviewing scholars to add to the body of scholarship on personal writing. In doing this, she can begin to break open the category by contributing new observations and insights.

The debate between Elbow and Bartholomae that Paley discusses may be the first thing composition scholars refer to when analyzing personal writing. The assumption that expressivism and personal writing are the same thing is so ubiquitous that in The Performance of Self in Student Writing, Newkirk assumes that the two discussions are identical, moving freely between analysis of self-writing and expressivist methodology. While the topics have abundant similarities, we need to push past many of the restraints of expressivist writing to make new strides in critical evaluation of personal writing. The ability of the personal narrative to allow students and scholars to be engaged readers and thinkers becomes apparent in Newkirk’s study.

In addition to engaging expressivist pedagogy, composition scholars regularly publish personal writing that draws on teaching practices, literacy narratives, and case studies from classrooms. While composition literature has included many nods toward the personal in the teaching of first-year writing, concerns arise when first-person autobiographical perspective is employed in our publishing and when nontext-based models are used as research methodologies. An example of this resistance can be found in reviews of current autobiographical scholarship such as James D. Williams’ College English piece “Counterstatement: Autobiography in Composition Scholarship.” Though he discusses the importance of the personal in the accounts of composition scholars, Williams ultimately chides the authors of the books under review, stating, “The key topics…must be pried from the personal history” (211). This simultaneous acknowledgement and rejection of the value of personal writing is not uncommon. As a whole, then, this book will analyze some of the origins of conflicting attitudes toward personal writing and how we can make these disagreements productive in creating new definitions.

In addition to academic writing, of course, there are many other ways to share personal stories, from casually recounting our day to our friends to sharing our own learning experiences in the ways we teach and write. In Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson emphasize the consumer nature of the individual American, who naturally takes in the life experiences and stories of others on a daily basis while offering her own in return. Everything from popular memoir to reality television supports this kind of life sharing. As Smith and Watson put it, “In postmodern America we are culturally obsessed with getting a life—and not just getting it, but sharing it with and advertising it to others. We are, as well, obsessed with consuming the lives that other people have gotten” (3). We rely on personal stories to convey common messages and relate to one another. From the obsessive imbibing of celebrity gossip to sharing personal experiences in a conference presentation, we can involve the personal in our leisure activities and in our work. When considering how we contextualize the work we do in the classroom, it is important to be aware of how we as teachers use personal writing every day to create life narratives and how our students, whose lives are infused by social media, have learned to create public life stories.

Qualitative Inquiry and the Composition Classroom

Qualitative inquiry methods have grown in popularity in writing programs and universities over the past twenty-five years. Some universities have started programs that encourage students to engage in various kinds of fieldwork, interacting with and interviewing their communities as well as investigating university resources. Examples include the Center for Ethnography at the University of California, Irvine, created to support interdisciplinary use of ethnographic research and writing, and Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab to provide support for those combining visual media and social scientific practices. Among such programs is the University of Illinois’ Ethnography of the University initiative, the first ethnography program I was a part of and one that encourages instructors in all disciplines to incorporate qualitative inquiry methods in their classrooms while helping students get to know the history and makeup of the university more intimately. Students are thus producing writing that is personally meaningful and contributing to an understanding of their position at the university while also contributing to the community through writing and inquiry. This can be an empowering experience for students and especially in first-year composition can allow them to feel they are an important part of their community. As I have mentioned, it is this concept of empowerment that can allow students and scholars to create and expand theories of the personal. According to the program’s mission statement:

The Ethnography of the University Initiative … engages students in research on what they know and care about: their own universities. Student work is public and preserved, housed in a dynamic on-line archive designed to encourage future generations of students to build on past student research. EUI guides students to think about colleges and universities in relation to their communities as well as in national and global contexts. EUI researchers reflect on their findings to identify concrete ways that the University can better fulfill its many missions. EUI leads students to become engaged citizens, actively and critically contributing to public life.

Student work is put into a publicly accessible database, which gives it a readership well beyond the confines of the classroom.

In addition to interdisciplinary programs like those mentioned above, the popularity of using qualitative inquiry methods to teach undergraduates research skills in composition is also evidenced by textbooks that have been widely adopted in composition classrooms. FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research by Bonnie Stone Sunstein and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater, two researchers who in their own scholarly lives employ qualitative inquiry methods as well as teacher research, is a textbook intended to help teachers walk students through the process of writing ethnography. The work is now in its fourth edition, and many articles have been written in response to its methods. The textbook takes students step by step through creating research proposals, mining and analyzing data and considering their own position in their research. For Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater, the value of the methods contained in the book is clear. In their notes to the instructor they explain:

Fieldwork invites students to be more engaged and involved in the research process. To a much greater extent than their counterparts whose research activities are confined to the library and the Internet, students who work in fieldsites and archives learn to observe, listen, interpret, and analyze the behaviors and language of ‘others’ around them. Because doing fieldwork allows students actual contact with people and cultures different from their own, they will often be more invested in the topics they investigate. Doing fieldwork also encourages a greater understanding of self as each student reads, writes, researches, and reflects on relationships with ‘others’ in the culture. But the most compelling reason for any instructor to use this investigative approach is that through the process of fieldworking, a student will become a better reader, writer, and researcher (To the instructor, vii).

Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater also created the qualitative research network at the Conference on College Communication and Composition, and other major conferences in the field of composition have followed suit, devoting large sections of their programming to qualitative inquiry. In fact, a simple Google search for “ethnography and composition” leads to a large number of articles and Web sites dating to the early ’80s that deal with the value and pitfalls of using ethnographic methods in the composition classroom. Of course, as in the rest of the history of composition, there are issues that arise in this teaching of qualitative inquiry and ethnography. These initial issues were hashed out as scholars began early in the field engaging in teacher research and other qualitative inquiry that involved their students and their communities. A number of edited collections have been published in the field of composition that explore the role of the teacher as ethnographic researcher, most notably Voices & Visions: Refiguring Ethnography in Composition and Ethnography Unbound: From Theory Shock to Cultural Praxis.

Voices and Visions focuses on the ethical dilemmas of the ethnographic researcher in composition studies. Editors Cristina Kirklighter, Cloe Vincent and Joseph M. Moxley attest through their research and call for papers that ethnography, despite the predictions of many, has continued to increase in popularity, prompting composition scholars to further explore the implications and value of this research.

In the first chapter of the collection, “North Northwest: Ethnography and The Making of Knowledge in Composition,” H. Eric Branscomb begins with an overview of the reaction to Stephen North’s 1987 book The Making of Knowledge in Composition—a book that, in addition to predicting the demise of the field and the imminent failure of ethnography as a methodology, set off a lot of the major ethical discussions of qualitative inquiry in the field of composition (2). Since the publication of North’s book, Branscomb argues, feminism and postmodernism “seem to be directing Composition studies away from paradigmatic models and toward narrative models, of which Ethnography is a prime example” (6). This, according to Branscomb, has led to the proliferation and flourishing of teacher research models and “polyvocality” (6-7). Besides briefly recounting a popular history of ethnographic methods in composition, this chapter signals the acceptance and growth of the valuation of teaching narratives and the methods used to conduct and write the research. This is followed in the rest of the volume by accounts of individual scholars’ struggles in applying and theorizing ethnography, but always while ultimately assigning value to its processes.

In Ethnography Unbound: From Theory Shock to Cultural Praxis, editors Stephen Gilbert Brown and Sidney I. Dobrin strive to make the same assertion seven years later, that despite continued criticism and questioning, critical ethnographic inquiry seems to be growing in use and here to stay. The book focuses on the practices of critical ethnography, which implicate action, change, and citizenship in the actions of the ethnographer. The individual authors in the anthology explore their ethos, decision making and projects, but more importantly for my purposes here, they explore the student as ethnographic researcher and the implications of teaching ethnographic inquiry in addition to practicing it ourselves as scholars, something I would like to explore in more depth.

Almost every chapter in this volume discusses the important fact that doing ethnography ultimately changes the researcher and the researched. It is an involvement in a community, a change in awareness of positionality. In “Critical Auto/Ethnography: A Constructive Approach to Research in the Composition Classroom,” Susan S. Hanson describes a classroom where she “had organized the order of the reading and writing assignments to demonstrate that autobiography and ethnography operate on a continuum and to suggest that the two forms of narrative are inextricably connected” (183). Here she explores the transition she made from being a graduate student with a traditional understanding of autoethnography, to entering the field as a scholar and developing her own definition of the term in relation to composition pedagogy. For her purposes in this chapter she postulates that “As a composition pedagogy, critical auto/ethnography enables subjugated others (read students) to do systematic fieldwork and data production about subjects other than themselves, but without concealing what they learn about themselves in the process” (184). She seeks to combine here two types of writing and research that have come under fire in the field for being too limited and generalizing, namely autobiography and ethnography. By combining the terms, she hopes to create a new way to view the possibilities for the integration of the personal and methods of analyzing communities. Hanson explains:

My aim in this chapter is to propose that critical auto/ethnography emerges at the interstices of autobiography and ethnography. I incorporate the slash (/) as a way to emphasize that critical auto/ethnography is committed, as is ethnography, to studying other people, but as an account of that process, it bridges the chasm between the autobiographical Here and the ethnographic There and lays bare the dynamics of self-other engagement.…I advocate developing a pedagogical practice that emphasizes what students bring to the classroom by encouraging them to contribute to the production of ethnographic knowledge by becoming participant-observers in discourse communities engendering communicative practices that reproduce or resist dominant notions of race, class, gender, and literacy. Critical auto/ethnography meets this need (185).

Hanson recognizes the interdisciplinary history of qualitative research and believes that because of the many connections that can be made, it is more successful for students trying to learn to write than simply asking them to read and respond to texts. Bringing experiences and multiple methods of knowing into classroom research can help expand their understanding of their communities and themselves. Also, understanding what goes into the creation of the texts they read from other authors can help them gain the necessary authority to create valuable texts. As she continues to explain:

Critical auto/ethnography emerges at the interstice of autobiography and ethnography, but as a research, writing, and reading strategy it encompasses literature, folklore, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, social history, and cultural geography. Additionally, because ethnographic research is central to much of the work that goes on within the humanities and social sciences as well as across the arts, business, education, law, and agriculture, showing students how the kinds of texts that form the basis of much of the scholarship that we assign as reading are produced makes good sense. It is a premise of this approach, however, that while reading surely improves writing, it is not necessarily the best place to begin in college composition classes, because to read well, which is to say critically, one needs to understand how language works in writing, how texts are constructed, what the choices are, how the pieces fit together, and to what end. And to understand writing, one needs to write extensively (188-89).

Hanson gives an overview of how her class is laid out in a ten-week quarter moving from autobiographical narrative to a final auto/ethnographic essay. She starts with an autobiographical narrative because “it helps me get acquainted with the students and the students with each other; second, it helps me help the students select a research topic that intersects with their own experiences, concerns, and interests” (192). She connects these initial pieces of writing to potential topics for field research and moves through a series of assignments that will be familiar to qualitative inquiry practitioners, including writing on spaces and description, annotated bibliographies, interviews, “emerging themes,” ethnographies, and self-reflections (192-97). This course plan creates an increasing level of success with qualitative inquiry assignments. As Hanson explains,

When I started teaching composition I slipped a few field research writing assignments into the syllabus.…(Students’) response to the field note assignments, the quality and length of their writing compared to the rest of their work, and their level of curiosity about ethnographic methods confirmed my suspicions: student like writing when they “get” the point. The next year I based the writing and reading assignments on autobiographic and ethnographic methods, texts, and theory, believing that undergraduates might actually “take” to academic writing given the opportunity to approach it auto/ethnographically. They do (197).

Hanson contends, in fact, that using these methods has reaffirmed for her the potential of all students to be good writers once they realize their connection to the writing and “perceive of themselves as having authority” (198).

Hanson is not the only one to report success with qualitative inquiry in her classroom. In the chapter “Writing Program Redesign: Learning from Ethnographic Inquiry, Civic Rhetoric, and the History of Rhetorical Education,” Lynée Lewis Gaillet describes her creation of a course based on the methods in Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater’s textbook Fieldworking: Reading and Writing Research, discussed earlier in this section. “Inspired by metropolitan university philosophies,” she says, she created an ethnographic writing course:

The ethnographic approach in this course takes advantage of the unique research opportunities available in Atlanta and surrounding communities. Higher education task forces advocating a metropolitan university philosophy of education indicate that the quality of student learning is directly related to the quality of students’ involvement in their education. It is not enough, in other words, to say that a writing curriculum will involve public issues or demand that students venture out into their communities (105).

Gaillet asks students to engage in projects that identify and investigate issues and groups close to home that have importance to them. For her, “the ethnographic-based writing class answers the call for incorporating community experience in the academic classroom. Those involved in this project are “inventing” a new curriculum and pedagogy – adopting an interdisciplinary approach to writing instruction that is new and exciting for teachers and engaging for students; moreover, we are creating scenarios for conducting primary research and producing writing assignments tied to community experiences” (106). She sees the direct community impact of these projects and the excitement of the students who get to pick their own field sites and engage in ethnographic assignments, portfolio work, traditional research, and self-reflective writing (107).

The value and success of this work come from students being encouraged to engage in the same kind of writing that teachers and scholars in the field are doing. This helps teachers to explain the process of writing to the students and communicate how it can best be researched. The time spent by scholars in the field to theorize and consider important applications has made successful community-oriented and student-focused inquiry possible. In “Anti-Ethnography?” Ian Barnard recounts his own experiences with the use of ethnography in the field and how he applied what he knew to a class he taught in social sciences. He believes in an ethnographic pedagogy that makes students aware of the impact of their research and of how media and political representations shape meaning and understanding. Barnard states:

These understandings of the real material impact of ethnographic writing…inform students’ reading of and participation in writing in their disciplines and in their larger social and political contexts. Once students realize the extent to which representations of the Other enform material reality, their own rhetorical work takes on added urgency. This, of course, is also a challenge to compositionists, writing teachers, and all teachers, to intervene into the ethnographic project as it is variously manifested in our cultures and curricula, and to conceptualize this intervention as a question of writing as much as it is a question of history, politics, and sociality (8).

This extension into concepts of citizenship or connectedness to community and the importance of student writers’ contribution can be hard to communicate and assess and might not be a goal for all teachers. While this is not a necessary outcome of ethnography in all situations, finding ways to understand their work in the world outside the classroom allows students to have a sense of authority and to value their personal experiences in a broader context.

Looking specifically at how this writing can lead to larger ethnographic projects, Howard B. Tinberg in “Ethnography in the Writing Classroom” advocates ethnographic methods and the creation of projects relating to issues of language use, diction, vocabulary and the value of words culturally, as a way to make composition curriculum more inclusive. He explains, “At a time when students are bringing increasingly diverse backgrounds into the classroom, ethnography, which would take as its subject the communities from which these students have come, would not only educate faculty and students alike in the ways of such communities but would make the classroom a setting for genuine and committed research” (79). This bridging of the gaps between classroom and community is the cornerstone of a more effective and productive classroom for Tinberg, as he explains: “It is important to emphasize that in ‘doing ethnography’ students …are actively and genuinely doing research and that they are connected to the research they do. Moreover, in using ethnography teachers send a clear message to students that their communities are worthy of study even in, of all places, the classroom” (82). In describing the project of one of his students, Victoria, he offers a tangible example of a project that fostered a greater understanding of the writing process, community awareness, and the value of personal experience.

Wendy Bishop, a compositionist recognized for her work as both an ethnographer and teacher-researcher, created an important resource for students and scholars attempting to make qualitative research accessible for all involved. Ethnographic Writing Research: Writing it Down, Writing it Up, and Reading It stems from her own experiences in doing research and writing as a scholar and teacher and provides an important set of guidelines for this emerging field in composition. She frames the goals for her study:

This book, in a way, may be seen as one translation, or an introduction to translations. For those initiating smaller classroom-based ethnographies, this text may provide a fieldguide or blueprint, an initial talking-through of issues and decision points. For those already involved in a deeper, long-term engagement with the methodology, this book will serve as a part of the conversation, pointing you toward issues (that no one can resolve, however much we enjoy and need to talk about them) and sources as you make your own contributions to field discussions in the form of finished ethnographies and meta-analyses of your methodology (xi-xii).

Bishop attempts to keep the category fluid in order to engage multiple perspectives on the value and uses of ethnography. As she does this she proclaims proudly that the book is “personal and anecdotal” and avoids the “high academic road” in order to be a piece that helps in thinking through things rather than just instructing or providing evidence (xii). Both her concepts and the way she engages the “I” in her writing broaden the possibilities for qualitative inquiry.

Although many have theorized its value and application, there are still many stories that recount a marbled history, similar to the history of personal writing in the field, as scholars have battled at different points in their lives to integrate ethnography effectively and in a scholarly way. In her 1992 piece “Ethnography and Composition: Studying Language at Home,” (in Methods and Methodology in Composition Research edited by Gesa Kirsch and Patricia A. Sullivan) Beverly J. Moss explores her decision as a graduate student to choose ethnographic research as her dissertation method. “I knew then that I need my scholarly life to have some real connection to my personal life, that I needed a bridge between what I saw as a rather large gap between academic research and real problems that affected the people where I came from” (153). She was inspired by Shirley Brice Heath’s work on the African American church and how she engaged in an ethnographic project that had strong personal relevance (153-54). In later chapters, I include student ethnographic projects that show the connections their work has to their personal lives.

What each of these authors explores in his or her own way is the concept of critical ethnography. According to D. Soyini Madison in Critical Ethnography, a conscious awareness is required as we use these methods in our classrooms and our own scholarship. She asks us to consider that performance is not just the doing but also the awareness of doing. This is essential when we engage the larger community in ethnographic research, and it is important for that awareness to be passed on to our colleagues and our students as readers of our research. Madison explains:

One important theoretical view of performance addresses the notion of experience. This view asserts that experience begins from our uneventful, everyday existence. Moving inconsequentially through the daily, colorless activities of our lives, we flow through moments of ordinariness, nonreflection, and the mundane. We brush our teeth, ride the bus, wait in supermarket lines, and generally talk about the weather without excitement or happenstance. But then something happens, and we move to moments of experience. At this point, life’s flow of uneventfulness is interrupted by a peak moment that breaks through the ordinariness, and we think and consider what has just happened to us. We give feeling, reason, and language to what has been lifted from the inconsequential day-to-day. We bring experience to it. The experience is received in consciousness and reflected upon: while brushing our teeth this particular morning, we notice a gray hair growing at the top of our head; while riding the bus, we meet an extraordinary person; while in the supermarket line, the cake box jogs a childhood memory; and while talking about the weather, we discover disturbing news. The mundane becomes heightened when gray hair conjures thoughts of aging; when an extraordinary person brings new insight; when the egg carton reminds us of licking mother’s cake pan; and when the rainy weather brings news of tragedy and loss. (151)

We can communicate this awareness in both our writing and our actions, whether we use simple exercises that move bodies around in the classroom to create connection between the physical and mental or we ask our students to interview members of their community to broaden their ideas about subcultures.

Teachers Including Student Voices: Scholarship and Practice

In The Performance of Self in Student Writing, Thomas Newkirk discusses personal essays and the difficulty of critiquing them, mentioning the fear of invading students’ privacy and “assuming the role of therapist” as just two unsubstantiated issues critics dwell on when discussing personal writing (19). In fact, he draws on his own analysis of personal writing forms and teaching them in his classroom to clarify his point of view. Although he is ultimately celebrating their value, he does discuss other potential problems.

Perhaps these concerns do go back our own classrooms, where it can be difficult to evaluate the personal writing efforts of our students, even though that is what many of us strive to elicit from them. How can we ask our students to be creative learners, perhaps participating in a composition classroom where we ask for alternative methods of inquiry, when we as scholars are often wary of how similar efforts outside the classroom will be evaluated by our peers? Since this use of the personal and qualitative methods is debated pedagogically within the classroom, perhaps it should come as no shock that it is debated outside it.

Including students in scholarship, as I do in this textbook, and teaching them the methods we theorize can be the first step for creating more space for those who do not necessarily have the power to create it for themselves. For Kirsch, “It is exactly this kind of change—a move away from competition and toward building connections between lived experience and academic subject matters—that educators…advocate in their model of connected education” (133). The people with whom we have the most interaction and share the most personal experiences are often in our own classrooms.

Qualitative inquiry can still be considered risky, but in discussing the successes and failures we can establish critical value and theory. Teaching as a practice in and of itself is not always easy, and perhaps one of the things teachers are most loath to discuss are failures in their classrooms. They are certainly not as likely to publish articles about failure, unless the lack of success was ultimately overcome. For Susan Hunter, “Even within our field there are dangers associated with talking and writing about teaching unless we authorize it in relation to some mode of inquiry” (Hunter 80). Hunter says composition teachers are constantly engaging in teaching practices that make us prone to failure because students are unused to methods, we are inexperienced, or we are relying heavily upon writing our students have had no prior exposure to. But admitting problems, especially in published articles, and telling others about our personal struggles in the classroom might be difficult.

While theoretical perspectives, programmatic and disciplinary histories, and success stories are informative and necessary, we also need to credit the personal histories of teachers, even if they are less than encouraging about where the field of composition stands in relation to the center and the margins of the academy. Their accounts can give us a localized perspective, which we should value on a par with other kinds of perspectives because they capture the reality of the composition classroom. I know I would like to read what some of my freshman students clamor for: stories written by better storytellers than I am with characters and situations I can identify with (82-83).

Just like our students, we may find it valuable to read how other people are experiencing their jobs and their classrooms so we can better understand where we stand in relation to our peers, perhaps finding kindred souls and personalized advice. Engaging in teacher-research and recounting personal experiences in the classroom are important steps to creating a body of knowledge and the groundwork to critically appreciate our students’ personal writing.

How to encourage students and ourselves to share these experiences without fear of failure is perhaps the most difficult part. In “Student Voices: How Students Define Themselves as Writers,” Carol Lea Clark says the best way is to get students to write and be involved with us in the writing process. “Whether these students know it or not, or whether anyone else recognizes it or not, that pride in their words does make them writers” (228). It is important not only to ask our students to consider their personal experiences but for us as scholars and instructors to place the work of our students in the context of our own professional writing. Instilling a sense of authority in personal writing can demonstrate the critical value of this writing. Students can learn a lot by reading about the experiences of other students, as in the examples I provide in this textbook, and since we ask students to read much of what we ourselves are writing, students’ stories are a valuable addition. This kind of incorporation can be a first step to recognizing the value of their personal participation and writing.

In “Students’ Stories and the Variable Gaze of Composition Research,” Bishop is able to clearly articulate the potential value of student stories. She explains:

This kind of research will change composition studies. When teachers become researchers and students’ stories, interpretations, and contributions count, then knowledge making and professionalization come into balance.…And I do not believe a research methodology is useful unless it encourages and achieves some degree of methodological metaknowledge. Without such self-knowledge, something gets lost (210).

This “metaknowledge” can come from the ways that we actively theorize our expectations for student writing, both for them and for ourselves. This student writing we encourage is often not preserved; they submit portfolios and never collect them, drafts are lost, and we are forced to throw away thousands of papers if only for room on our desks. We are constantly bombarded with writing from our students that never makes it past our classrooms. Bishop discusses the need to have student voices in all research in order to make it valuable for the field and warns against the dangers of “student vacant” research (197).

A research report based in student writers’ experiences, which respected students’ views, gave my students support for exploring their own writing. They felt that their dirty linen could finally be aired and the generally not-talked-about-but-important aspects of writing, like procrastination or grades, could be raised. They were pleased to encounter a composition article that spoke to them and appeared to detail student writing experiences authentically (199).

The kind of research and writing that includes student concerns and writing can encourage student interaction and empower us as researchers by demonstrating how we value this work. The key to the success of any methodology is theorizing our successes, failures and actions. This is not only important in our own scholarship but an essential thing for our students. Providing models will give the methodology the groundwork it needs to be critically successful. For Bishop, “Listening to students’ stories helps me to remember that we occupy only a small portion of their lives, while they loom large in ours” (212).

Janice Hays notes that our ability to learn and interact begins when we are children and believes that merely staying aware of our natural tendencies will allow us to be effective instructors (161). This awareness is something that allows us to realize our own transformation along with the transformation of our students (161). Hays believes instructors must “support and challenge” simultaneously (168). She observes, “In teaching writing, such a pedagogy would regard discourse as a meaning-constructive activity, dialogic, a mutual construction of ‘truth’; included in this dialogic process is the instructor’s parental status as one who has greater knowledge and experience to share with students, while recognizing mutual participation in the process and mutual transformation in the process” (161). In this way you are not divorcing yourself from what you know; you are building upon it. As with Bishop’s concept of “metaknowledge,” you are tracking not only developments in student writing but your reactions to this development and how it shapes your teaching practices. As Andrea Lunsford suggests when talking about this student-teacher awareness, “Within this context, the embodied practices that dropped out of composition’s regular curriculum in the nineteenth century (i.e., the recitation, declamation and speech making, extended reading aloud, and other oral forms associated with rhetoric) become significant tools for working powerful classroom transformations” (Lunsford 232-33). As I have explored in this introduction, it is a reintegration of the self and outside experiences in the classroom that can lead to the success of methodology that encourages teachers to clearly identify goals and values for personal writing, verbal sharing and qualitative research methods in the classroom and in our writing. This definition of criteria is the first step in creating a clear vision for how we value our own experiences and those of our students.

Compositionists strive to position themselves in the field among their students and to thus broaden the “academic community” to include the classroom. The teacher of composition is unique, as Hunter points out, in that she is constantly involved in “[c]onferencing, responding, collaborative learning, peer review, portfolios, journals, dialectical notebooks, freewriting, writing to learn, workshops—…the currently preferred ways of teaching writing that I use enable my students to form a community of writers, collaborating to make knowledge” (70-1). As we encourage students to tell their own stories, we can help them by devoting publishing space to them and their writing, as I do in this textbook. This can also help us to demonstrate how our life stories work and combine with the experiences of our students.

In looking at my own classroom practices, I demonstrate the value and potential for these kinds of projects in expanding our ideas of personal writing and the use of personal experience in the classroom. I contend that the melding of our traditional composition practices and new ideas from qualitative inquiry can help our field strike an ethical balance and critical awareness in teaching and utilization of personal writing in our classrooms and scholarship. We can combine writing intensive assignments with community engagement and analysis of positionality to create a holistic education model.


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