Unit I: The Personal
Georgiana Seetaram "Subway Stop" Photo used with permission
THE STUDENT AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE LITERACY NARRATIVE AND SIMILAR
GENRES - John Talbird
When I began my job at QCC as Assistant Director of the Writing Program, I decided that my first semester on campus, to better get a sense of the pedagogical culture of the first-year writing (FYW) program, I would use the same textbook that the majority of other faculty used in teaching EN-101. I hadn't used a textbook in many years, in fact, since my first couple of years of teaching. The Ph. D. program I attended required that new graduate student instructors assign trade books for course texts (a list of possible books to order was distributed before the semester began). No college textbooks were allowed. I don't know if there was a theory behind this prohibition--probably, though I don't know that it was ever communicated to me. I adapted. And then, later, when I came to QCC and saw that many instructors were using a textbook, I ordered the same book without much thought.
Except that I had changed. How to assign reading from a textbook, which has more texts than any sane, non-sadistic professor would assign in a normal semester? Which ones do you choose? How do you organize the readings? Do you simply set them up thematically; using the same ready-made themes/units that every college text seems to come with? In my very first semester of teaching--actually assisting a more experienced instructor teach her course--a college textbook was used, the course units were the textbook's units, even the writing assignments straight out of the textbook. I didn't know much about teaching then, but I sensed that a prof who took everything from a textbook was giving away something crucial in the design of a course.
Although I struggled in writing my syllabus that first term at QCC, the theme of the first unit for that course was easy to design: the literacy narrative. Peter Gray; a QCC colleague, had written a brief description of the literacy narrative in the textbook-- essentially a story; memoir, having to do with one's acquisition of reading and/ or writing skills, although Pete raised the possibility that " literacy" could encompass other realms--and several of the readings: Sherman Alexie's " Superman and Me ", Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue." and even an essay by former student (and current QCC administrator) Susan Madera ("One Voice") were model literacy narratives.
The Literacy Narrative in First-Year Writing
The literacy narrative is an ideal genre to get students to read and write at the beginning of EN-101. Many enter our classrooms thinking they're bad writers, that they know very little that is valued in college, and that they'll never "know grammar" (see here for what John Bean has to say about this and also the " politics of grammar " (pp. 69-73)) They've been judged, many of them, as poor writers. The literacy narrative can be empowering for many of our students because they come to college thinking they're empty vessels that need to be filled up. The literacy narrative challenges this assumption because students bring into the classroom all they need to write one: their experiences. They're already an authority, they're the authority; the literacy narrative recognizes that they are already writers, even before the first day of class. But the literacy narrative isn't "just" a personal story; it's more than "what I did over the summer." It asks students to do many of the tasks that the academy values: construct a narrative, reflect on learning, discover and articulate what's important, make convincing generalizations based on the facts, and complicate the familiar. As Mary Soliday has written , "By foregrounding their acquisition and use of language as a strange and not a natural process, authors of literacy narratives have the opportunity to explore the profound cultural force language exerts in their everyday lives."
Why I Stopped Using a Textbook
That first semester at QCC, I discovered that a student who was doing well otherwise in the course was failing all his reading quizzes. When I asked him why he wasn't doing the reading, he answered that someone had stolen his textbook and he couldn't afford to buy a new one. As I have too often, before and since, I shrugged this excuse off. He could have gone to the library to read the one on reserve, he could have photocopied the relevant reading from one of his classmates, he could have found many of the readings online or in the library for free, etc. However, somehow, I couldn't get a nagging feeling out of my head every time he handed back a blank quiz with a shrug and a rueful smile.
I realized I didn't know how much the text cost, so I went across the parking lot to the bookstore to find out. I was a little shocked to realize that that thin textbook I'd been requiring all my students to buy was over eighty dollars. Although I was finding that the textbook bored me and my students and I probably wasn't going to use it again, after discovering its prohibitive cost (which, in hindsight, I probably should have known), I decided to drop it and return to using trade books. Since I had had a lot of success requiring the literacy narrative, I decided to continue to copy and distribute a few essays that I had used from the textbook or other sources.
And Why I Ultimately Stopped Requiring a Literacy Narrative
I give my students a lot of time, especially early in the semester, to write in class (this is great practice in a computer class, since students can draft for a more formal assignment, but even useful in the more traditional classroom using pen and paper). Since I want students to know that I take this work as seriously as I hope they do, I often write with them (also, if I don't write, I find myself getting antsy and stop the in-class writing too soon). As I wrote my own literacy narratives, I discovered something crucial about my own learning: Being a student made me love books. I'm not just talking about the stuff inside books--the ideas and metaphor and play of language, etc.--but the actual books themselves, their covers and pages (especially when they're new, but also when they're used and in an edition that most others in the class weren't reading). I had seldom bought books before then- mostly reading books from the library or from my parents' collection or loaned from friends--but I loved buying my books at the beginning of each term, the feel of them, especially when I found them used, in near-mint condition.
I should be specific: This time that I'm describing is when I was a junior and had decided on English as a major (after bouncing around from Journalism to Advertising to Psychology to Math) and I was firmly ensconced in the major and no longer using textbooks. Although I wouldn't have had the language to describe it (having not yet taken an Existential Literature or Philosophy class), textbooks were alienating to me. They were heavy and they were boring. And they were so very expensive.
This is not to say that trade books are cheap, or were even then. I was a student financing his education on Pell Grants, student loans, and too many hours at a falafel joint. But trade books offered a sense of excitement for me as a student. The big stack of books that I carried to the register at the beginning of every term felt like potential. I never felt anything but tired when I had to carry my standard college textbooks to the register--and then sorrow when I got the bill. I feel that excitement now when I'm designing my course, composing writing assignments, choosing my texts. It feels, in those early days, that anything might be possible.
That memory of early-semester excitement as a student made me return to assigning texts again, trade books, real books, the kinds of books one finds in a real bookstore (as opposed to your typical campus bookstore, which is made for anything but browsing). Rather than assign photocopies (because, though a photocopy may be free/ cheap to use, when is the last time you were excited about being given one to read?), I began ordering trade book literacy narratives: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Bootstraps (Victor Villanueva), Lives on the Boundary (Mike Rose).
But just as it's difficult to read the same book over and over, it can be tiring to assign the same book for the same class too many times. Recently, I've started assigning The Best American Essays series (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) to create variety in my EN-101experience. The Best American series is generally full of autobiographical writing, many of the essays are written by some of our best writers, and some texts are even literacy narratives (for instance, "Rude Am I in My Speech" by Caryl Phillips from a recent edition (2011)). This series, I have found after reading it for several years, has complicated that term "essay" for me. Although many of us in the academy value that genre--especially in the Humanities, but in other disciplines too--as WID /WAC Coordinator for several years, I've come to see that it means different things to different people depending on their discipline or background. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it's an umbrella term, encompassing autobiography, pop culture analysis, political rant, social issue exploration, investigative journalism, etc. One type of essay that every Best American has in multiple styles and varieties is the personal essay, which is really all a literacy narrative is, though a personal essay focused on a specific subject matter.
And perhaps that specificity was what made me veer away from assigning the literacy narrative. Back when I used to first teach trade books in FYW during my Ph. D. days, I used a portfolio system (another requirement of that FYW program) and let my students write about essentially anything they wanted to. I got a lot of stories about dead grandparents and big football games and prom dates. Some of my colleagues outlawed these topics-- much in the way I've heard some outlaw certain well-worn social issues like abortion rights and gay marriage--but I felt that any topic could be made fresh again. (How can any English professor not think that after reading Shakespeare's repurposed folktales, Joyce's updated classics, and Angela Carter's revisionist fairytales?) I still believe this and Best American is a good example of how many well-traveled narratives can be made new again. In that recent edition there is a coming-out story written as a hybrid prose poem and pop culture analysis (Hilton Als' "Buddy Ebsen"), an argument for a revision of our current healthcare system disguised as a personal essay about the death of a parent; Katy Butler's " What Broke My Father's Heart"; and a film review that turns into a critique of Facebook--and simultaneous examination of the Millennial Generation (Zadie Smith's "Generation Why?"). All the essays, despite their various approaches and aims, use the first-person narrator (except one, Madge McKeithen's "What Really Happened" an essay about the murder of a friend written in the form of directions (2nd person), a how-to on navigating the North Carolina prison system).
I find that Best American keeps EN-101 fresh for me; it keeps me on my toes. It's like when I give part or all of a class up to small group work: I'm relinquishing some of the control of what this course can be, I'm Jetting my students (in a way) design the course with me. Though I'll have read the book at least once before the semester begins, when I reread it with them, I'll be in the process of experiencing it with them.
But there are any number of ways of teaching the literacy narrative or the personal essay; this is just the way I've come to it (and it's still a work-in-progress, always will be; this is just where I am now). You may have your own way (or your argument for why the personal essay is not a good first assignment in FYW). Hopefully, you will want to join in the conversation and contribute your assignments and text suggestions to the department database.
ONE PROF'S APPROACH TO TEACHING THE LITERACY NARRATIVE/AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITING
Despite the personal nature of autobiographical writing, students do need help getting started. Below, please see some invention activities along with a couple of assignments and suggested readings.
Invention Activities / Low-Stakes & In-Class Writing
- Literacy Narrative Freewrites
- Writing About Place
- Time Line
- Autobiographical Map
- Loop Writing
- Reading Table
Formal Writing Assignments
- Personal Essay
- Literacy Narrative
To see these documents, please visit the department archive.
A PARTIAL READING LIST OF NON-TEXTBOOK TEXTS FOR EN-101
Alexie, Sherman. "Superman and Me." LA Times 9 April, 1998.
Atwan, Robert. Series Ed. The Best American Essays. (Multiple Years.)
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. Dover , 1995 .
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed . Picador , 2011.
hooks, bell. Bone Black. Holt, 1997.
Jordan, Teresa. Riding the White Horse Home , Vintage , 1994 .
Karr, Mary. The Liar's Club . Penguin, 2005 .
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior . Vintage , 1989 .
Mairs, Nancy . Plaintext . U of Arizona P, 1997.
Ma lcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (as told to Alex Hailey). Penguin, 2001.
Tan, Amy." Mother Tongue."
Miller, Henry. Plexus . Grove, 1994.
Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking. Vintage , 1994.
Reitman, Dr. Ben L. Sister of the Road (aka. Boxcar Bertha). AK P, 2002 .
Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. Penguin, 2005.
Thompson, Hunter S . The Great Shark Hunt. Simon & Shuster, 2003.
Villanueva, Victor. Bootstraps: From an American Academic o f Color . NCTE, 1993.
Wolff, Tobias. This Boy's Life . Grove, 2000.
RESOURCES FOR INSTRUCTORS
Alexander, Kara Poe. "Successes, Victims, Prodigies: 'Master' and 'Little' Cultural Narratives in the Literacy Narrative Genre ." CCC 62. 4 (June 2011): 608 - 633 .
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom . 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.
(Available as an e-text through QCC's ebray link ) .
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education . Simon & Brown, 2012 . Digital Archive of Literacy: Narratives . OSU.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed . Continuum, 2012.
LeCourt, Donna. "Performing Working-Class Identity in Composition: Toward a Pedagogy of Textual Practice." College English 69. 1 (Sep 2006) : 30 - 51.
Soliday, Mary . "Translating Self and Difference through Literacy Narratives." College English 56. 5 (Sep. 1994): 511-526.
Schrader, Claudia. " The Power of Autobiography." Changing English 11. 1 ( March 2004): 115-124.