CCCC 2001 in Review: D.32 You Want Me to Write What?: Negotiating Identity and Cultural Expectation
Cinthia Gannett: Chair
Like a good many folks, I try to remain true to my school; thus, I make a concerted effort to make it to panels that my friends and colleague put together. Also, I know that when y'all look out into a group of people, no matter how large or small, you want to see familiar and friendly faces.
However, I had another, even more pressing desire, to see this presentation: I am very much interested in how students in first-year composition classes negotiate, through writing and oral discourse, the identities that they want to create and those that they feel compelled to try on. And it turns out that session D.32 was the perfect session for me. This session, ably chaired by Cinthia Gannett, brought together a number of teachers who have used personal writing in the college composition classrooms, and had thought about the effects of using personal writing in a college classroom quite deeply.
The session started off with Michelle Cox talking about the problems and promises of personal writing, specifically the personal essay, for students, and what was very interesting was that way that Michelle talked about the complex, complicated, and difficult challenges that personal writing posed for ESL students-students who might not understand the cultural codes that underlie "strongly approved topics" for college level personal writing.
Building on this, Christina Ortmeir-Hooper talked about the complex, and often conflicted, relationship that students have with the designation of being "ESL students." Specifically Christina focused on three students for whom this sort of negotiation was quite complex: Sergi, Misha, and Jay. At the end of a very compelling presentation, Christina came to five conclusions-as I think we all in the audience did: one, it's important to remember that immigrant ESL students come to our composition classes with a wide range of experiences; two, students will often work against labeling, regardless of its origin; three, we, as teachers, shouldn't put too much significance in the label "ESL;" four, homeland experiences, traumatic or otherwise, will have an impact on how ESL-labeled students perform in our first-year composition classes; and five, we shouldn't assume that all ESL speakers have somehow been traumatized by experiences in their home country, and even if they have been, then we shouldn't assume that they'll want to write about those experiences.
After Michelle and Christina went, Rebecca Dawson held forth about ways that teachers might help students achieve some level of comfort with personal writing in their classrooms. Rebecca reminded us all that the personal narrative as an assignment might intimidate both non-native and native speakers of English. However, Rebecca thought that the personal narrative was valuable because it helped students take their writing seriously. Rebecca then outlined how she uses teacher-student writing conferences to help students find something meaningful to write about, without students feeling like they had to write about something painful to be serious.
The last person to speak in the D.32 section was Katherine Tirabassi. Kate ended the panel by moving towards some discussion of theory and the importance of reflection in the personal essay specifically and in college writing generally. Making reference to Donna Qualley, Bonnie Sunstein, Cinthia Gannet, and Kathleen Yancey, Kate reminded the folks in the audience that one of the very important reasons that we ask our students to write personally is to get them to reflect upon their lives.
Kate's point really struck home with me. I, like all of the folks on this panel, use personal writing in my first-year composition classes, and, like all of the members of the panel, I both value personal writing and find myself concerned about demanding, in some oblique way, that students share their experiences with me and their classmates. I think that Kate's point about the value of reflection in personal writing, and after it via metacognitive writing, is key to my ever-evolving understanding of why I actually ask my students to write about their lives. It seems to me that an unexamined life is not mere "not worth living," it really isn't a life in some sense. What we, and our students, make of our lives is really available to us in reflection, and this is the sort of work that good personal writing in a college classroom should do: make our own experiences really available to us on the page.
It's not often that a conference presentation gets us to think deeply about our classroom assumptions, but session D.32 certainly did that for me. I walked away from the presentation thinking not only that my friends had done a great job presenting their research, but that I had, as many times previously, learned a great deal from my friends about my own teaching, my own thinking, and our shared discipline. All of this thanks to "a little help from my friends." [CD]
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