Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Picking Topics, Picking Scabs: Thoughts on Student Writing On Personal Suffering

by Nicholas Hayes

Writing can be a source of much anxiety, so I encourage students to walk a thin intellectual line when choosing subjects. I ask them to find something interesting, but something that they do not feel passionate about. That may strike some readers as odd. Even though we often read passion as synonymous with desire, suffering lurks in both its etymology and experience. More than sports fanaticism or political belief, I fear for those students who want to share their personal traumas. I am concerned that in the few scant weeks we have that they will not be able to do justice to their passions. Time is what we need process our pain and produce texts that honor that pain.

I fear because writers who are still learning their craft can have trouble distinguishing criticism of essay structure and syntactic flow from criticism of content. It is hard for some students to understand that as an instructor I can be devastated by a story about a dying father while encouraging them to fix errors in verb conjugation

In essence, I have created a trap for myself. I have given advice to protect students as they develop their writing skills. But the papers many students produce can come across as competent and cold. Yet I do understand the cathartic function of writing and will often encourage students to free write during the first few minutes of class in order to practice this aspect. I encourage them to do this emotional, aerobic exercise so they can burn off the stress of life before we work on the slow stretching and endurance building practices of academic writing. 

The fragility of the novice writer can be magnified by the emotional injuries of traumatic events. Students must not only be willing to find their voice but to have their voice challenged. In my experience, this situation is even difficult for seasoned writers. Yet for some novice writers who find themselves strong enough to weather the gusts of constructive criticism, they are able to not merely emote. They are able to move beyond a cathartic gesture into a place of making sense of their loss or their injuries.

When students take my advice, I worry that many of the papers I receive may lack the spark of life that separates a strong essay from an excellent essay. In these classes, practicing the fundamentals often supersedes the development of the artistic voice. I can live with the expectation of papers that exist on the spectrum of moderately interesting to the tedious. These texts more importantly act as practice and are more emotionally safe to critique. But every so often a student pushes back on my advice. They are willing to display their passion to me and the class. After I suggest they rethink their topic, this minority of students resists because of pressing exigency. They insist we begin a perilous path. 

In writing of their injuries, these students not only risk how I and the students respond, but how their families and communities might react. Carolyn Ellis discusses her own fraught history with her controversial autoethnography Fisher Folk: Two Communities on Chesapeake Bay in which her poorly anonymized subjects recognized themselves in the writing. She explains that “Although [my subjects] knew I was writing about them, some said they thought we ‘were friends, just talkin’,’ and never thought I’d write down the things they told me” (11). Students might be find the abstraction of writing their essay cathartic. But they also need to consider the ethics of what information they are sharing and how others might respond if they read their essay. One student bravely wrote of their sexual identity only to have supportive members of their religious community warn them of the potential ramifications of sharing their essay, forcing the student to reshape their writing to meet ethical and community standards.

As hesitant as I am about students writing essays about their traumas, I do understand its importance. In writing about trauma narratives, Rachel N. Spear observes, they “…open up transformative opportunities for all course participants, and ultimately, these texts become catalysts for learning, self-actualization, and social consciousness” (53). They also provide opportunities to discuss such injuries and address healing. As writing instructors, we should be aware of the consequences of the topics students choose. While not forbidding their personal topics, we need to inform them about the scrutiny their writing will be under from us, the peers, and their communities. Ultimately, we should assure them the skills they are practicing in our classes can help them explore their traumas (even if they don’t do so in our ten-week quarter.)

Works Cited

Ellis, Carolyn. “Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research with Intimate Others.” Qualitative Inquiry 31.1 (2007) : 3-29. Sage Journals. Web. 26 May 2016.

Spear, Rachel N. “Let Me Tell You a Story: On Teaching Trauma, Narrative, Writing, and Healing.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching, Language, Composition, and Culture 14.1 (2013) : 53-79. Project Muse. Web. 26 May 2016.

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