Chatting after today’s meeting inspired me to write up some thoughts about an initial writing assignment by my English department colleague and friend Serena Le. Like many of you, I’ve typically done a first day fastwrite and/or discussion about students’ previous experiences with writing / literary study / English classes. Serena builds on such opening reflection by having students write a personal essay for their first assignment, in response to a (quite extensive) prompt on “Why & How I Write.”
In a recent department R&C meeting, Serena shared four students’ essays. One discussed how “For me, writing has become an activity that has gotten more difficult and tedious with time instead of getting easier with practice,” recounting a narrative of difficulty adapting to the shifting expectations of new courses, from elementary and middle school, to early high school, to AP courses, to Berkeley courses. The second wrote a highly analytic breakdown of “Why and How I Program” into a fifty percent global reason of wanting to get a good grade, twenty-five percent as a requirement on applications, and the last twenty-five percent as everyday communications; unsurprisingly, the essay also discussed the student’s sense of a need for structure when writing, partly in the context of a greater comfort programming rather than writing essays. The third essay situated the student’s sense of their own tendency to digress in the context of their trilingual and international background and a process of trying to balance the pursuit of new trains of thought with the use of outlining. The fourth essay recounted a childhood love of reading, the challenges and rewards of the student finding their own voice in an Ethnic Studies class, and a demonstration of the importance of telling one’s own story to counter biased, privileged narratives. Serena spoke to how the essays were super valuable to her, in giving her a more robust, more detailed appreciation for the range of her students’ backgrounds, relationships with writing, and concerns and goals for their writing. She also posted her own response (after the students had all posted theirs) and required each student to read a couple of their peers’ pieces; she said that many of them wound up reading ALL of the essays, and that it had already had a significant effect on the dynamic of the classroom community.
As I’ve been reflecting on the assignment, I’ve been thinking about how it goes beyond the basic function of “getting to know” each other. Writing an essay to the whole class, rather than just the instructor, also gives a clear sense of audience and purpose, while also soliciting for students to articulate each’s personal sense of concerns, audience, and purpose. That the students read each others’ varied experiences normalizes difference, so that each person doesn’t feel their own differences as deviance from a(n abstract, presumed) norm. And the ample mentions of practical writing tricks and strategies initiates the course with a horizontal relation of students learning from each other, supplying the course with their own saturation of tools, so that differences of knowledge and approach are also practically valuable.
I also really like the way that, in making space for students’ narratives of difficulty with writing, the assignment normalizes that difficulty and its attendant affects. At the same time, some of the essays speak to the value that can come out of difficulty—even the narrative of limited and frustrated development was a narrative of some degree of growth. In this way, the essays clear document how both writing itself and learning to write are extended processes. Finally, the solicitation of the personal dimension situates the work of the course within larger contexts and personal concerns.
I think perhaps these extensions, beyond an individual conception of what writing ‘is’ or ‘is like,’ to a personal relationship with and situated praxis of writing, amount to an argument for devoting the initial “diagnostic” assignment to something like this rather than something like a close reading. The papers also appeared to demonstrate quite adept and creative displays of voice, organization, presentation, and insight, with what seemed to me confidence even when claiming limited competence. The assignment thus would seem to offer a relatively secure ground from which to build a ladder over affective barriers, in contrast to starting by asking students to skate out onto the thin ice of a close reading task, and seems to give a more accurate sense of their practical knowledge and fluent abilities, having students identify as intermediate apprentices rather than inflicting novicehood upon them. Finally, it also opens the course by explicitly soliciting connections between the labor of writing, students’ personal lives, and “big questions.” (I should also mention that Serena has students write a follow-up, parallel articulation at the end of the semester.)
So, the example struck me as an impressive one, and apropos, so I thought I’d share it.