How Personal Should Students’ Writing Be?

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Take a look at these writing assignments for middle-school students:

“The characters in Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ are all seeking a home, a place of refuge, a place that is ‘clean and pleasant.’ Describe your own ‘clean, well-lighted place,’ the place where you feel safe, secure, and most ‘at home.’”

“In her essay ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me,’ Zora Neale Hurston defines her personal experience as an African-American female in early 20th century America. Using Hurston’s essay as a model, define how it feels to be yourself (as a male, as a female, as a member of any group) in early 21st century America.”

“If you were President of your own country and had the power to make laws, start of stop wars, end hunger, etc., what would you do? Write about an imaginary country where you are the president. Make your country the way you wish it could be.”

Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein doesn’t think much of them, as he writes in a post on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website:

“As a college teacher of freshman English, I can see no sense in these assignments. They don’t improve critical aptitude, and they encourage a mode of reading and writing that will likely never happen in a college major or their eventual job.

There is a theory behind it, of course, holding that only if students can relate to their subjects will they do their best and most authentic writing, not to mention explore and develop their unique selves.

But how does having students write an essay about a personal “refuge” enhance their knowledge of the literature and how to interpret it? Such prompts ask them to reveal things about themselves, not analyze the texts.”

Bauerlein is not against narrative; it’s important, he writes, “to know how to tell a story, recount an event, and reproduce settings clearly and sequentially. Explaining how one action succeeds another, detailing people and places, getting times right”—these are valuable skills. But the assignments that build them need not “solicit personal feelings, identity ruminations, and fantasy opinions (‘what would you do if you were president?’).”

If schools want their high school graduates to succeed in college and the workplace, Bauerlein concludes, they need to stop telling students, ‘Narrative writing is all about me.’”

I think Bauerlein is right: students need to be able to analyze texts, gather evidence, construct an argument—and these highly personal assignments don’t ask them to do that.

What’s your view—is there a place in the curriculum for writing about oneself?

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4 Responses to “How Personal Should Students’ Writing Be?”

  1. Hawke says:

    Writing about oneself is better than not writing at all, and has value in the same way play has value. It allows students to explore and clarify their own thoughts, provides a venue for creativity, and – if the process includes a good dose of feedback – can help solidify some of the more mechanical aspects of writing. But it’s not enough to remain at this “play” stage throughout one’s educational career; at least by middle school, they should be basing their responses to text on the text itself.

    Thinking about this like a math teacher, I would say that the personal narrative assignments cited here lack rigor because there aren’t enough constraints – it’s the math equivalent of asking students to find two numbers (any two numbers will work.) In math, we would increase the complexity of this task by adding constraints, such as a) the two numbers must add to 7, b) neither number can be an integer, c) at least one number must be less than zero, and/or d) the difference of the numbers must be a multiple of 4. Each of these constraints forces the student into the world of the task and out of his/her own original ideas. In the real world, fitting your model of how the world works to the available evidence is much harder than simply sticking with your own opinions and ideas despite available evidence (insert political jab here.)

    My own kids, ages 5 and 6, spend a lot of time writing about themselves, and I think it’s helpful, much in the same way they spend time thinking of numbers and mythical creatures and playing with blocks is helpful to their own development. By the time they get to high school, they will have built up enough practice playing with their own ideas – not to mention getting words onto the page in a meaningful way – that they can focus on the higher-order skills required. At that point, I sure hope their high school teachers spend their time critiquing my kids’ ability to critically analyze texts, synthesize information from various sources, and select the best evidence to support their positions…not their ability to make up a story to satisfy the minimal conditions of a highly personal assignment.

  2. Writing prompts should be varied, but when it comes to personal topics, confidentiality should be understood. One of my favorite prompts was “Three Things I Want You To Know About Me,” which gave the student liberty to reveal serious, silly or matter-of-fact information about themselves. It was a good teacher/student door opener for relationship.

  3. Perry Clark says:

    Prof. Bauerlein is spot-on. These assignments inevitably generate focus by both student and instructor on the student’s feelings and, in Freudian terms, the interactions of id and ego. This is seldom of much value in any other educational or occupational setting.

  4. Stan says:

    He’s right, especially in the kind of narcissistic culture we live in today. The last thing we need to do is encourage a student’s belief that “it’s all about me.” Plenty of young people are already fully skilled at talking about themselves. The skills they need to develop are the ones that focus on reaching and defending conclusions based on objective critical thinking. If they can’t back up their statements with facts and sound reasoning, then they shouldn’t make the statements in the first place.

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