Teaching Writing Through Personal Reflection: Bad Idea

A pointed topos has emerged among English educators in the media in the last few years. It concerns a statement uttered by the educator David Coleman at a gathering of many educators in Albany, hosted by David Steiner, then-Education Commissioner of New York State, in April 2011. At the time, Coleman was the lead architect of the Common Core State Standards, the education effort sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers that set out to draft new standards in mathematics and English language arts from kindergarten to 12th grade. The Common Core standards have evolved into the most sweeping reform of public schooling in many decades, a controversial reform with Coleman himself an object of strong feelings on both sides.

Coleman has since become the head of College Board, and the Common Core standards have been adopted by 45 states and have the full backing of the Obama administration. (Disclosure: I contributed to the English-language-arts document of the standards.) English teachers, in the meantime, have been wondering what this reform means for their teaching: Will it require a full retooling, all-new lesson plans, or less literature and more “informational” texts? State officials have been wondering how much it’s going to cost to incorporate the new standards and administer assessments. Publishers have been wondering how they should alter their textbooks. Test developers like ETS and Pearson may have to create whole new project teams and, for English-language exams, build a hefty new bank of passages.

Those who doubted Common Core’s motives and implications, or who just wanted a hook on which to judge the Common Core standards speedily, found a token at the Albany meeting. At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.” Instead of explaining the pedagogy behind these assignments or probing the benefits of getting students to express themselves, Coleman issued a flat, real-world judgment of the whole thing:

The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh– about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” That is rare. It is equally rare in college by the way.

Since then, the statement has been repeated in The Washington Post, in a whimsical Time Magazine comment by Joel Stein, in Peg Tyre’s Atlantic piece, in The Chronicle, and in countless blog posts and online commentaries.

While the combination of crass phrasing and antipersonal content made for good copy, more importantly for educators, it seemed to identify Coleman as estranged from real classrooms. This is the kind of statement one cannot make to 15-year-olds before starting a unit on writing an argumentative essay, or any time, for that matter, they say. Critics say it reveals Common Core as a top-down endeavor out of touch with the precious things it affects most, the kids. Why discourage them at such a fragile time, and why deprive them the chance to explore their own thoughts and feelings?

Here’s the problem with those complaints: Coleman was right.

In a far-reaching study published by the Association for Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers in 2010, a team led by Sandra Stotsky surveyed high-school English classes and found that the assignments students completed leaned more toward personal response and historical context than they did toward “close, analytical reading” of the texts themselves. (For instance, a paper on To Kill a Mockingbird would ask students either to use their personal experience to reflect on the novel or to find out something about Jim Crow, not discuss plot, language, character, etc.) Stotsky concluded that the “stress on personal experience or historical context may be contributing to high remediation rates in postsecondary English and reading courses.” (Her conclusion is based upon the close relation between analytical, not experiential, reading modes and college readiness.)

In a research report from 2006 entitled Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading, ACT isolated the clearest differentiator of students who start higher education “college ready” in reading and those who do not. (One way ACT has determined college readiness is by identifying an ACT Reading Test score that reflects a 75-percent chance that the student will earn a “C” or higher in an entry-level college course.) That differentiator is: “proficiency in understanding complex texts.” The finding indicates why personal-response assignments in high school are counterproductive: Complex texts involve formal, verbal, and structural elements that experience-based labors easily ignore. They involve ambiguous and dense language, intricate structure, ironies, remote settings, and the like.

These are the characteristics of college-level readings, and they are appreciated not by “How does this text bear upon your experience?” exercises, but by close reading summaries and by “Arguespeak”—Gerald Graff’s term for academic habits of reading and writing characterized by position statements like “Critic X asserts that Twain presents Jim as the moral conscience of the novel, but Critic Y argues that Twain’s presentation falls apart in the final chapters when Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s games. Both sides err, for. … ”

Coleman’s harsh remark was justified, and it had to be offered bluntly because of the stubborn and misguided commitment many educators have to self-oriented, personal-response assignments. When they encourage 15-year-olds to explore their own feelings and memories and identities, they turn the text into a pretext for self-discovery—precisely the opposite of what they will have to do in college and the workplace. Instead of summarizing and arguing over what it says, they examine how it relates to them. Does this produce more reflective, thoughtful, informed graduates, the pedagogy of subjective response cultivating solid skills of critical thinking? Or does it encourage narcissism, the belief that “YOU are the measure of all things,” suppressing that all-important adult capacity of suspending personal feelings in order to assess and debate objectively?

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.

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