Friday, April 27, 2007

Personal Writing vs Academic Writing

Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk's article "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate" discussed one of the most relevant issues related to college composition and basic writing. In a nutshell: what kind of class is this going to be? What kind of formal essays will be assigned? What activities will happen during class on a daily basis? What kinds of readings should be assigned?
The author (I'm calling her M) tackles these rather daunting questions by focusing on the personal writing vs. academic writing debate. She gives a basic definition of the terms--personal writing being expressive, informal writing designed to tell a story and convey meaning implicitly, while academic writing is the traditional thesis-based argumentative writing. Then she looks at the debate between two highly respected scholars of composition/rhetoric: Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae. Elbow advocates a first-year comp class that is focused entirely on the students' writing--no textbook, no reader, just the students participating in personal writing experiences and learning to be comfortable with writing. Bartholomae privileges the more traditional, source-based argumentative writing. He basically argues that the best way for students to learn academic writing and thus be accepted into the academic community is to imitate the language of their professors.
These are important issues to discuss when considering a teaching career in college-level (or probably even high school) composition, because the teacher must determine his or her idea of what "good writing" actually is before they can teach it. Will they privilege objective academic writing that displays clear critical thinking and reasoning skills or will they embrace personal, poetic stories?
M seems to fall somewhere in the middle. She argues that students need to learn how to read critically and how to write about their readings, but that the language of personal writing is often a good place to begin. In other words, students must learn to connect with complex ideas in a personal manner and the relate these topics to their own lives before they can learn how to discuss them critically and academically. I'm inclined to agree with this viewpoint--and I'll use personal experience to support that. I can remember my undergrad days when I wrote "academic" papers by basically imitating the critical jargon and academic style of papers without really having any idea of what I was talking about. After awhile, however, I began to connect these academic ideas with issues that concerned me within my own life, and my writing began to improve immensely in that it suddenly had a concrete purpose.
My personal belief is that every freshman or basic composition course should begin with some kind of personal writing assignment, whether it be the personal narrative or some other more creative assignment. I think it increases the students' comfort level and readies them for more challenging assignments in which they tackle ideas without necessarily relating them to their personal lives. Yet even this assignment has potential do you draw the line between too personal and sufficiently critical for a composition class? (you wouldn't want to write a diary entry for example) Should you have them state their thesis explicitly like in traditional academic writing, or should they attempt to convey their thesis implicitly as is common with more creative, expressive, personal writing. These, and others, are questions that I am constantly considering in my courses, and I still don't always know what's best. It's always helpful to read other instructors' attitudes and ideas about these issues in order to make more intelligent and educated decisions.