How Personal Should Students’ Writing Be?
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?