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Inviting the Personal

posted: 11.19.10 by archived

Most of my traditional students had been writing five-paragraph essays for years: no first person, thesis in the first paragraph—the removed and the impenetrable. So while they may have thought that the move from writing to proclaim to writing to explore sounded exciting at first, they soon discovered that learning to explore their own opinions and experiences isn’t just a matter of having the freedom to say what they think; it’s a matter of taking responsibility for the complexity and thoroughness of that thought.

After a semester of discussing what it means to write a complex essay, we arrived at our last reading, Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Her work was broken into sections, but the components of personal experience and the larger questions of language, culture, and sexuality were almost impossible to tease apart.  Those elements were constantly influencing one another, sentence by sentence, segment by segment. We looked at examples of paragraphs my students had written that did something similar. What is the impact of allowing the personal to inform your position?

For their essays, I asked students to use their own experience (or that of someone they knew) to illuminate a larger social issue that was important to them.  The challenge I posed was to move elegantly between the personal issues and the social issues, to ultimately make them inseparable.

They struggled to work with “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” which wasn’t quite an essay, and to learn from it how to write an essay. They wanted to understand it, though—there was something powerful about what Anzaldúa was doing. We looked at where she divided her work into sections, and they reviewed their last essays to see where they divided their paragraphs.

For many undergraduates whose individual perspectives have been frequently devalued by their formal education, it seems natural to detach from anything greater that they might need to say: a paragraph on the text, a paragraph on their reactions. If they choose to break the ideas apart differently—that is, not to consider personal experiences and responses as separate from “intellectual work”—how does the meaning change? What kind of thought does that work allow?

Many of their final essays surprised me, sometimes bringing nuanced light to an easily divisive topic: What does it mean to be Muslim in America post–9/11? Or sometimes revealing an issue where I previously imagined there was none: Why don’t Americans like soccer? They refused to simplify graffiti art or vegetarianism, instead showing multidimensional considerations of subjects that are easily one-side-or-another.

As students brought the personal and cultural into such close proximity, they demonstrated more awareness of the subtleties of their arguments, and exploring those nuances became a matter of personal responsibility. Most of them produced essays that were inquisitive, powerful, and demanding. Almost always, like Anzaldúa, they were fiercely intellectual, and the value of the human element made it impossible not to listen.


PicKatie Booth is a nonfiction writing MFA candidate and an instructor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh.  She is currently writing a narrative nonfiction book about the first century of the oralist movement in deaf education, particularly the philosophy and experiences linked to the Clarke School for the Deaf (currently the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech).  The work explores the complicated line between empowerment and oppression in language assimilation, and seeks to understand the perspectives of administrators, teachers, students, and families of students.

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Categories: Pitt Instructors, Ways of Reading, Working with Sources
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2 Responses to “Inviting the Personal”

  1. Holly Pappas Says:

    I’m really drawn to this notion of inviting students to connect personal and public! (The essay that inspired me to start thinking along those lines was Donovan Hohn’s essay in Harper’s from a few years ago titled “Moby Duck.”) For some of my CC students, though, it seemed maybe a bit of a stretch. I wondered how this fit into a semester’s worth of work: did other essays precede this one (and if so, how did they set the stage for this challenge), or was this made up somehow of a series of smaller, staged assignments? I can imagine a long essay like this being the culmination of what would amount to a individually tailored themed course.

    I am also curious about how difficult it was for students to come up with workable topics. Any suggestions for teaching strategies there? Thanks for the inspiration! (It’s that time in the semester when I’m on the lookout for a new approach…)

  2. Marilyn Hollman, Literacy Perspectives Says:

    What a useful and thoughtful post. Thank you. I, too, love “Ways of Reading,” although I haven’t taught a writing course for several years. My copy is the first edition, I think!
    You said something interesting when you said about the Anzuldua text that it isn’t quite an essay. Well, I contend that it is — the “essay” is a very elastic form although most teachers do not present it as such. But — there are other works that feel like that, also, and I typically find them the most compelling. (Right now I find myself bereft of any examples.)