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First Person Singular

Posted by on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 in Commentary.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director, cross-posted from Derek’s blog, Agile Learning

Your first paper assignment asks you to make an argument drawing largely on your personal experiences and perspectives. Did you have writing assignments in high school that asked you to do this?

LonelyI asked this question of the students in my first-year writing seminar earlier this month. I drafted this question after listening to a compelling new radio documentary from American RadioWorks, “Greater Expectations.” The documentary explores the Common Core, a set of standards (learning objectives) for grades K through 12 that have been adopted by most states and are now being rolled out in schools.

I learned from the documentary that the Common Core literacy standards emphasize textual analysis — skills like close reading that my colleagues in the English Department value. This is, in part, a reaction to the kind of assignments described in the question above. Apparently, prior to the Common Core, some teachers would give students a text to read, then, in an effort to level the playing field for students who struggled with reading, give students a writing assignment that didn’t actually require them to read the text. Instead, students would be asked to write about their personal opinions and experiences. Naturally, this resulted in students who weren’t very good at making arguments about and with texts.

With that in mind, I reread the first paper assignment I had given the students in my writing seminar just days before (emphasis added):

For this paper assignment, I’m asking you to read and respond to one of the articles listed below, each dealing with cryptography and its role in society. You’ll need to summarize the thesis and argument of the article you select, then respond by agreeing or disagreeing with the article’s thesis and defending your position with your own argument. Your paper should draw primarily on your personal experiences and perspectives.

Oops.

I wondered what kind of writing assignments my students, all first-year undergraduates, had been given in high school. So, I asked them.

Writing 1

Two-thirds of my students (10 out of 15) indicated that they had, in fact, not been given these kind of personal perspective writing assignments in high school. Only one of my students said that these assignments had been common in high school.

When we discussed the results, several students said that they had been prohibited from voicing their personal opinions in writing assignments. At least one student reported having a teacher who told students never to use the personal pronouns “I” or “we” in academic writing. Instead, they were asked to make arguments by drawing on evidence from the literature, from texts they had studied as well as sources uncovered through research.

This is great, right? My students seemed to have received the kind of training in textual analysis and writing that the Common Core is meant to promote.

However, I couldn’t help thinking about the research on student intellectual development. My teaching center’s reading circle had recently discussed Women’s Ways of Knowing by Mary Field Belenky and colleagues, and I’ve been familiar with William Perry’s work for a while. Research by these and other scholars indicates that students have a hard time connecting what they learn in college with their own interests, values, and beliefs. Even those who learn how to understand and make complex arguments using the tools and standards of their disciplines often distance themselves from these arguments. They don’t apply these evaluative methods to make decisions of personal relevance, and they don’t claim their own voice in academic debates.

I asked my students if, in high school, they had ever argued for a point of view with which they personally disagreed, simply because they felt they could make a better case for it from their sources. Several students said they had indeed done so.

I’m glad my students bring to college some skills in textual analysis and working with sources. I worry, however, that their high school experiences have taught them that their own opinions don’t matter and shouldn’t be examined in academic contexts.

Here’s a bit more from my students’ first writing assignment:

This paper is an opportunity to surface your opinions about one of the big questions in this course and take some ownership of those opinions.

I want my students to have informed opinions about the balance of security and privacy in our society, one of the “big questions” in this course on cryptography. This one assignment won’t get them there, but I think it’s a useful first step. It’s clear from their papers, now written and graded, that some of them are seeing connections between this “big question” and their own lives.

At the very least, I’ve convinced them all that they can use first-person pronouns in their academic writing.

Image: “Lonely,” Waheed Akhtar, Flickr (CC-BY)

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