A Collection of Good and Not-So-Good Reasons for Assigning a Personal Narrative as the First Essay in a Composition Course

Apropos of a lecture I attended yesterday by Bruce Horner* and some general thoughts I've been having lately about this issue, I've decided to collect as many reasons as I can think of for assigning some sort of "personal essay" as the first assignment in a college writing course. These are reasons I've heard other people cite and reasons I came up with myself when examining this question as a thought exercise. I'm not saying all of these are good reasons by any means, only trying to compile a list. Please let me know if you have other reasons.

1. Start inward, go outward: or from individual concerns to social concerns. This is one of the ideas Horner critiqued, actually; he argued that it rests on assumptions that those two things are uniform and monolithic (I would add, not to mention mutually exclusive).

2. Building blocks: provide students "an initial experience in expression" which they can build on as they move on to argumentation.

3. When content is irrelevant: personal experience provides expedient subject matter when the subject matter of the essay (and the student's mastery of it) is not what one wants to assess. For example, personal experience is often used as a topic for diagnostic essays/proficiency exams in which one wants to assess students' grammar, mechanics, sentence structure, vocabulary, etc.

4. In the interim: students may lack experience with research-based arguments, so the teacher doesn't want to jump right in with that kind of writing yet. As the instructor is in the process of teaching research and argument, s/he assigns students to write about something they know, so that they're always doing some writing.

5. Descriptive skills first: the teacher wants to start off the class by teaching a certain skill set which includes vivid description and specific detail.

6. Unlearn: the teacher wants to get students beyond the five-paragraph essay format they may have had in high school, and as quickly as possible. As a personal narrative doesn't lend itself well to the FPE structure, it hastens this kind of unlearning.

7. Hailing students as writers: the teacher wants students to think about themselves as writers from the very beginning of the course, so s/he assigns a literacy narrative type of assignment to facilitate students' reflections on their past experiences with writing.

8. First contact with theme: the particular FYW course has a theme, and as a way to get students thinking about that theme (gender, cyberspace, labor, what have you), the teacher assigns a personal essay about the student's experience with the course theme.

[Edited to add...]

9. Writing from personal experience can be an exercise in amplificatio

10. Personal experience is easy to write about

And here are some other reasons for assigning personal writing which I'll include for the sake of comprehensiveness. These reasons, however, are reasons for assigning personal writing in general. I'm more interested in "Essay 1: Personal Narrative" reasons that call for putting a narrative first in an assignment sequence.

1. Empowerment: if personal writing is the province of the socially and politically privileged, assigning this kind of writing helps students have access to this discourse.

2. Self-knowledge/student interest: college is thought of as a time to learn more about oneself. I've asked in classes before as a short in-class writing assignment, for example, "what do you most want to learn?" The overwhelming majority of students write "I want to learn about myself/find out who I am."

3. Find your voice: personal writing can be a way to discover what one's voice sounds like. It's a way to cultivate an ethos and style that a student can (potentially? presumably?) take with him/her to other genres and contexts.

4. Site of negotiation: I got this one from Horner. It conceives of the personal as a site of negotiation with issues of ethics, politics, epistemology, social construction, etc.

[Edited to add...]

5. Something for everyone: while some students don't like writing from personal experience, others do, so you assign both outside-source-based and experience-based essays.

6. Refutatio: if you assign an article written by an author who is writing about a group of people of which the students are a part (Cajuns, young people, college students, etc.), students could write an auto-ethnography that responds to the author's claims.

7. Investment: you want students to feel some personal stake (ownership, authority) in the writing they do. If they're writing about a topic they don't care about, they won't care about the research involved, organization, style, etc. of the paper. But if they are writing from personal experience, they (presumably) care more about how that experience is represented on the page and will spend more thought on crafting the essay.

* abstract here:

"Rewriting the Personal"

Examining the contradiction between those calls for incorporating
personal writing into scholarly texts to defy the strictures of recent
critical theory and those calls for using personal writing to comply with
those strictures, I argue that confusion over what constitutes the personal
has led to this discrepancy in positions on its use and prevents us from more
productive engagement with the personal in public discourse in both our
writing and our teaching.


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a genre concern

Personal essay does not equal personal narrative.

I'm curious: what were Horner's examples? (Montaigne?)


Genre concern indeed

I basically agree, but I'd still be interested to find out the difference as you see it. Horner's main example (the only one I remember) was his involvement in the IRP, an organization that has to do with immigration. Horner was talking about how one could use personal experience when speaking against (or as a member of) the IRP and how that personal experience would be received by the audience. He could use his experience as the husband of an immigrant, but how would that be viewed? Would he be considered credible because of this experience, or biased?

Personal narrative

I just recently used personal narrative in my Analytical Reading and Writing course with the goals of 6: Unlearn traditional modes of reading and writing, and 8: First contact with theme. However, it was not at the beginning of the semester--it was at the beginning of a unit on digital literacy, and they wrote a "personal narrative about place" using Google Maps as an exercise related to reading and writing online, and exploring the idea of digital, cartographic literacy. Here's one (my) example:


They really seemed to enjoy it, and many of them chose to present/narrate their map to the class. I think next time I use this assignment, I'll move the digital literacy unit to the beginning of the semester and use the assignment to get things going.

basis versus recounting

I'd say the personal essay uses the personal -- and not necessarily narration -- as a jumping-off point for a discussion, whereas the focus of narration is on the recounting of events (and only secondarily upon their implications, typically in a single concluding paragraph). For examples of the former, I think -- as I mentioned before -- Montaigne is the obvious model. All his essays were clearly personal, but in a much different way from, say, Rousseau's Confesssions: for Montaigne, it's a matter of briefly noting (rather than describing or narrating) an event or two and then exploring all its possible associations on a certain theme and the implications of those associations, supported by brief quotations from other authors. Perhaps the closest parallel we have today is Richard E. Miller's wonderful Writing at the End of the World, which is deeply personal but not really so much about the dark events that spur the book's best reflections as it is about the wandering investigations those spurs lead to.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that current-traditionalism's categorization and privileging of the EDNA modes has turned the genres named into self-serving ends. Many of the reasons you describe in your original post are the things that lead, harmfully I think, 180 degrees away from the amazing things that Montaigne and Miller are able to make the form of the essay achieve: they're pedagogies that actively prevent students from being good writers.



2 Board AlleyThis year I broke with pedagogical "wisdom" and delayed the personal narrative assignment. It's still in a holding pattern because I want to use it as either the final paper in the course or as a week's worth of writing that a sub can do with the class if my father passes away this semester.

Instead, I grabbed the excitement that is Sarah Palin and we read several op-ed articles (pro and con)about her and studied the genre of the op-ed column. The students then wrote their essay on an issue that mattered to them, using personal examples to bolster their ideas. I won't claim that this lead to brilliant essays being written by all, but it did make some inroads in shaking up the perception of the 5-paragraph essay model as the ONLY way to write.

In terms of positioning the PN in the course, I am moving towards making it the last assignment for practical reasons--I find doing the heavy, paraphrase-based, using -other- sources papers best done in the middle of the semester, when the energy and focus is there. I'm thinking of ways of jettisoning the PN and turning it into a technique, or way of approaching an idea, as Mike describes above.

Well, I've been feeling cranky about FYC this semester, and you struck a nerve, Clancy. This strand has been very useful in helping me shake loose some of that inchoate frustration and do something with it.

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