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Supporting Arguments and Theories


Validates Student’s Ideas

In their article, “Experiential vs. Expository: Is Peaceful Coexistence Really Possible?” Jerrold Nudelman and Alvin H. Schlosser argue that personal writing can be bridged to more abstract academic writing, while having the added benefit of allowing students’ voices into the academic world. This validates students’ ideas and shows that these ideas are worth being included in an academic setting. Robert Connors, in his article, “Personal Writing Assignments,” agrees, stating that it is necessary for students to engage in personal writing so that they understand that they have a right to speak. He believes that academic writing should be the goal of freshman composition, but that starting with personal issues allows students’ voices to be heard.

Peter Elbow, though advocating “writing” and not necessarily “academic writing” in first year writing courses, has a similar interest in personal writing. In his article, “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals,” Elbow states in his first sentence, “I fear that there is a conflict between the role of writer and that of academic” (72). Elbow wants to get rid of the division, and throughout the article, he discusses how students can feel like a writer and an academic. Keeping his goals realistic, (“I’m not trying to get first year students to commit to making their living by writing—nor to get a Ph.D. and join the academy”) he tries to get across that both writers and academics need to be celebrated (72).

Elbow argues that teachers must get students to “trust” language. “But in my desire to help my students experience themselves as writers I find myself in fact trying to help them trust language—not to question it—or at least hold off distrust until they revise” (78). In other words, Elbow wants to go against the authorities that have written on the text before. Each student as a writer should see themselves as an authority. Perhaps this is why Elbow sees the autobiography as the best mode for analysis. Elbow wants his students to write as if they are the first person to ever have the idea that they are writing about, and he acknowledges that there are pros and cons to this. First year students suffer from “naivete,” says Elbow. They are unsure of their place in academia, unsure of their voices, and their ideas, and yet they must see that writing is a risk.

While many composition classrooms are turning away from Elbow and the personal to Bartholomae and “academic discourse,” Peter Lavender advocates the opposite. Lavender questions the motives behind moving away from personal writing and publication of developmental students in Great Britain in his article, “We need to derive reading and writing materials from the real world.” He questions this shift away from the personal considering that there is “so much lip-service given to the voice of the learner” (6). He ponders, “Is it that the voice of basic skills students is an unsettling one, and particularly so when it’s in writing? Or is it that the teaching methodology has forgotten an important element of literacy work —writing?”(6). He doesn’t answer his questions, but simply reiterates that we have a need to hear these student voices.

Susan Bernstein gives a possible reason for this shift away from the personal, stating that “often as instructors, we avoid assigning life writing because we fear the results may be too “personal” to assess objectively. Yet we run the risk of shutting down an important opportunity for facilitating potentially transformative writing experiences for students in basic writing classrooms” (77). She stresses using life writing as a way to both help students communicate their personal experiences and develop rhetorical and persuasive strategies.

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All Writing is Personal

In his article, “All Writing is Autobiography,” Donald Murray argues that all writing, even those genres that seem impersonal, such as reports, are autobiographical because they relate to the general interests that we have developed in our lives. Kathleen Dixon picks up on the same theory in her article “Intellectual Development and the Place of the Narrative in ‘Basic’ and Freshman Composition,” where she argues that knowledge is experiential and that narrative and expository writing are connected because every piece of writing has a personal story behind how the author became interested in the topic. Norbert Elliot argues something similar as well in her article, “Narrative Discourse and the Basic Writer,” explaining further that many scholarly articles use personal antecdotes to deliver their message. Ironically, even those articles that argue against expressive pedagogy use personal antecdotes to do so. Nancy Sommers, in her article, “Between the Drafts,” expands on this explaining that academics weave together theory and their own experiences in their essays. Amy Robillard takes this further, arguing that abstract thinking is a part of the personal narrative and that scholars acknowledge this by using narratives in the academic articles they write. So while they may not allow their students to use these personal narratives, they are an integral part of their own academic discourse.

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“Academic” Discourse/Voice is Hard to Define - Multiple Voices and Hybrid Discourses

Patricia Bizzell coined the term “Hybrid Discourse” in her 1999 article, “Hybrid Academic Discourses: What, Why, How.” Her premise was that the idea that academic work need be written only in formal, academic, Standard English was an outdated notion. Instead, many forms of discourse were becoming acceptable in intellectual and scholarly works. She cites scholars like Victor Villanueva, who successfully uses mixed forms of discourse in his book Bootstraps. Her conclusion is that we no longer need to demand one form of discourse over another in order to properly prepare students for success.

Later, in her article “Basic Writing and the Issue of Correctness, or What to Do With ‘Mixed’ Forms of Academic Discourse,” Bizzell revisits her previous work on Hybrid Discourse in an attempt to fill in the gaps she percieved in her theory previously. Though she works at discussing the problems with the term “hybrid discourse,” as well as the problems with separating forms of discourse into categories, her final premise still asks that the idea of alternative discourses in academic settings be accepted.

Judith Hebb, in her article, “Mixed Forms of Academic Discourse: A Continuum of Language Possibility,” disagrees with Bizzell about her later assessment of her term “hybrid discourse,” viewing it as the “inseparable mixing of oneself and the other(s),” which, “operates hazily along a continuum of consciousness and empowerment, the positioning of the subject ever moving back and forth as one reveals and takes control over more and less of the true self” (page number). Writers have the ability to choose their discourse and so even underprepared writers are making the choice to mix different forms of discourse. This allows teachers to avoid valorizing the dominant discourse. In addition, mixed genres and discourse styles open up more (and unique) choices in writing.

In her article, “Beyond Basic: Synthesizing the Personal and the Academic,” Virginia Duym addresses the personal vs. the academic debate and creates her own solution in the context of the basic writing classroom. She suggests “a better approach would combine the strengths of each – to say both/and instead of either/or” (2).

She describes voice as a combination of the differing discourse communities in which we are all involved. “[We all have] not just one voice, but a range of voices, depending on where we are, who we’re with, voices we can “hear” not only in speech, but in writing” (Duym 3). In reference to David Bartholomae’s theory on student acquisition of academic discourse, Duym says that we develop academic voice in the same way, “by trying it out, pretending to be more cool, more knowledgeable than we are” (4).

While she addresses Bartholomae’s definition of academic discourse as “the more formal, impersonal and abstract style, positioned within an ongoing discourse based on research, reading, theory,” Duym provides her own definition of academic discourse from those based on Mike Rose as a “method: analysis, interpretation, classification, [and] synthesis,” (5).

The importance of Duym’s definition is that she believes that these critical thinking skills can be addressed through personal writing. Bartholomae’s definition, however, “relies on form and appearance of academic discourse, failing not only to cultivate personal voice but failing equally to encourage academic thinking” (7). Duym stresses the fact that personal writing can be written using critical thinking and analytical skills. In the basic writing class, this is important because, to many basic writers who come from “non-college educated backgrounds, academic discourse is the “other” (6).

Integrating personal writing with aspects of academic writing allowed Duym’s students to “practice the various personal and communal voices they have brought with them, and in the same non-threatening way, experiment with the new variations of voice that will be more appropriate in academic discourse” (10). For more on how Duym integrated the two into her basic writing classroom, please see Best Practices?.

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Personal Writing Improves All Kinds of Writing

Guy Allen, in his article “Language, Power, and Consciousness: A Writing Experiemnt at the University of Toronto,” reports that students who wrote personal essays before starting expository writing produced better expository essays than did those who did no personal writing, but were instead intructed on the expository essay. In addition, students who did more personal writing in Allen’s class produced better writing for other unrelated courses. His theory is that personal writing requires students to look for meaning in their own experiences and that when they learn to take responsibility for meaning they become better writers in all forms.

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Personal Writing Can Lead to Healing

Combining the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and composition, James Pennebaker argues that writing about trauma can improve physical and mental health because it “robs [fear] of its power,” “naming an emotion or trauma legitimizes it […] and hence the sufferer is not alone,” writing can make someone see a trauma, “from different perspectives, in effect helping one to resolve it,” and “constructing a narrative about an event is a way of finding coherence and meaning in it” (97). Studies in the field show that those who write about trauma (both their feelings about the trauma as well as details about the actual traumatic event) have an “overall improved mood and a more positive outlook” four months after writing than they did before writing (96).

In her paper “Toward a Writing and Healing Approach in the Basic Writing Classroom: One Professor’s Personal Odyssey,” Molly Hurley Moran discusses how she redesigned her course around, and reassessed her views about, personal writing after engaging in personal writing about the trauma of her sister’s murder. Eager to share this healing experience with her basic writing students, she used theories from James Pennebaker, Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, and others to create an assignment sequence that asked students to engage in many personal and private pre-writings that would then generate their papers. Eventually the assignments moved from strictly personal to tying the personal into an issue or topic. The result was improved student attitudes toward writing and an overall improvement in grades comparative to other basic writing classes Moran taught.

In her paper, “Integrating the Voices: Writing as Healing as the Way to Constructed Knowledge for Basic Writing,” Jane E. Hindman argues that writing is a way to heal wounds and helps to mend the gap between the academic and the personal. She believes that most incoming university students, especially basic writers, believe that college writing should be “objective and dispassionate.” It is only through certain techniques that the instructor can get basic writers to see writing as a way of healing, as well as getting writers to see that academic discourse can contain personal expressive writing.

Opening up her paper with a discussion on the “false dilemma” concept of the either/or argument, Hindman uses this idea to get to the false dichotomies in basic writing pedagogy. “I see a false dilemma in the ways our discipline has haggled about the nature of academic writing” (2). Hindman wants present a practical conception of writing “which will enable students not only to appropriate the kind of writing and thinking that we as composition teachers view as necessary and beneficial but also to heal the split students often feel (and enact) between the selves of their “real” lives and their academic lives” (2).

Using the Spring/Summer issue of Pre/Text as a stepping stone for her argument, Hindman takes two key points from the discussion between Peter Elbow, Steven North, and David Bartholomae. The first is Bartholomae’s idea of expressive writings limitation. Hindman quotes Bartholomae as stating, “it is wrong to teach late-adolescents that writing is an expression of individual thoughts and feelings. It makes them suckers and, I think, powerless, at least to the degree that it makes them blind to tradition, power and authority as they are present in language and culture” (2). While this provides one side to the argument, Hindman also quotes Peter Elbow’s take on academic writing: “the use of academic discourse often masks a lack of genuine understanding” (3).

Hindman believes that basic writers rely on authority, that is, the “academic” sources that they find, and their voices are lost in the fray. Most complaints about basic writers work is that it “lacks the specificity and sophistication that emerges from self-reflection and genuine understanding, the authority that evolves from an investigation of ideas not immediately available or obvious” (5). If basic writers hold the belief that all academic writing should be “objective and dispassionate” then their writing will in turn lack passion and authority. Hindman believes that basic writers do not see academic writing as having anything to do with their lives or experiences, and so they remain detached from the assignments, and from writing in general.

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Personal Writing Can Act as a Bridge to Academic Writing

Though Linda VonBergen believes the goal of first year composition and basic writing courses should be academic writing, she explains in her article, “Shaping the Point With Poetry,” that personal writing, when integrated with an imitation of a poetic form, can teach students to precisely make a point. This precision of language and direct point making, VonBurgen argues, is the goal of academic discourse.

VonBergen, citing Isocrates, who taught rhetoric by imitation, states that this method of instruction can improve “focus, development, and language in student narratives” (need pg number – cut off). Students mimic the structure of Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” in their narrative essays, first describing the scene, then the incident, and then reacting to the incident using a subtle understatement at the end. VonBergen argues that by providing the students with a form, and a way to get at the point, students are able to better explore ideas instead of worrying about form.

Mary Kay Jackman’s, “When the Personal Becomes Professional,” looks at affect of the personal narrative on three nontraditional women’s writing. Her “argument centers on adult women learners’ necessary and workable negotiation of the personal and professional aspects of their lives in order to reach their academic goals” (183). As schools become more populated by women and nontraditional students, the traditional academic standard could change to include more personal writing. Narrative writing allowed “the power of their personal to bring about academic transformations, indeed, to (re)create professional academic realities” (195).

Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s states that she “has come to realize the importance of going beyond personal writing to help basic writers to acquire academic discourse…[but that students should also] reflect on their reading using personal, expressive language in order to acquire genuine academic discourse” (5).

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Personal Writing Can Help Basic Writers Understand Their Identity and Their Location in Society

Rosemary Winslow and Monica Mische, in their article, “The Hero’s Performance and Students’ Quests for Meaning and Identity: A Humanities and Writing Course Design,” explore the aspects of their class, a six credit hour course in writing and literature. Through readings focused on the hero quest, students enter their own hero quest through the class assignments, locating the hero (and themselves) in society. Students engage in various readings and forms of writing as they “renew” their identities. Since narrative forms identity, these narratives allow students to do the same. Free writing, creative writing, and academic writing assignments allowed students to negotiate their way through various discourses and build a stronger author presence and voice. Morris Young also approaches the issue of identity in “Narratives of Identity: Theorizing the Writer and the Nation.” Morris believes that students need to determine the place of the “writer,” and themselves, in society.

In his article, “The Importance of Expressive Language in Preparing Basic Writers for College Writing,” Jim Cody discusses how the workshop format “supplements traditional writing class instruction with group work and individual instruction that emphasize the power of expressive language—is essential to basic writers for their development as writers” (95). Basic writers have to establish a writing persona, but many basic writers feel intimidated by academic language that seems to require “imitation” and “conformity” (96). In this sense, basic writers are unable to connect writings to their lives, and the distance impedes their ability to function on an academic level.

Cody maintains that the writers feel “betrayed” by academic writing. Many basic writers are being forced to undergo rapid change in terms of the political side of education. The students who make it through college are able to weather the “difficult psychological, educational, and cultural change compressed in the space of one generation” (96).

By using the example of Maika, Cody discusses Maika’s loop writing assignment results taken while watching the film, High School. Though Cody saw potential for a reactive paper to the film, Maika suppressed revealing any of the personal details in the formal essay assignment. Cody states: “I think she continued to have great difficulty because she did not trust the idea that her experiences expressed in written form were not appropriate for college writing nor that they would result in the acceptance that she strives for in college” (98). Cody’s underlying question seems to be “why?” Why must the academic be devoid of the expressive? He believes that “basic writers need to develop an understanding of why they write the way they do, and of how their voices are their power and their unique contribution to academic discourse” (98).

However, when discussing another student, Lydia, Cody gives a counter example. Unlike Maika, Lydia could not shun expressive language from what she wrote. Cody believes that Lydia saw writing as a “means of mirroring or reflecting her personality” (99). Lydia did not have the same reaction to writing that Maika had, and partly due to this, writing came more naturally to Lydia. “I believe for basic writers expressive language is not the result of randomness, carlessness, or lack of organizational skills,” Cody writes, “It is ‘logical’ in the sense that it is the result of an event or set of circumstances already experienced by the language user (100).

Cody believes that expressive discourse should be encouraged among basic writers in the writing process. When students are unsure of their voice, and whether or not their message is appropriate, students tend to rely on the “language of generalizations and clichés” (103). Though Cody acknowledges that this is still an expressivist in nature, he also believes it has to do with the lack of voice in the writer. He does not think that writers should succumb to a “jacket voice” which is when the writer hides behind words as opposed to using them for a more powerful purpose” (103). Students are unable to enter into a discourse if they are unable to use the language to their benefit.

Above all, Cody does not want for students to feel distanced from academic discourse because they feel as if they have to separate with their identities. If anything, Cody believes that composition instructors should help to facilitate the dual voices of the paper. “Writing becomes not an act of conformity but a method of helping students empower themselves to enter into a discourse that once pushed them into the margins” (109).

Cody concludes by stating, “by making writing an act of invention and expression throughout every step of the writing process for basic writers, I give my students a chance to become prepared writers” (110).

While Wendy Ryden’s article, “Conflicted Literacy: Frederick Douglass’s Critical Model,” focuses on the complications of the literacy narrative in relation to the literacy myth, she does state that “the literacy narrative, as a college writing assignmnet, especially in basic writing and ESL classes, can help students interrogate the public placement of their private selves through a critical examination of literacy and educational practices” (4). Reading literacy narratives in the basic writing classroom can help students identify with others who have had to struggle with their own literacy journey. Further, Ryden notes that teachers “who teach literacy narratives can use Douglas’s Narrative to help [themselves] understand under what conditions people and texts begin to interrogate prevailing assumptions about literacy” (16).

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