Encouraging Substantive Discussion of Course Content by Getting Personal

“Why are teachers afraid of sentences that begin with ‘I feel’ or that draw on personal experience?” Margaret Mott asks, repeating a question she read in an essay early in her career.

Most faculty don’t encourage students to use personal experience because it is seen as too subjective and without much intellectual substance. Mott has students in her political theory course write three personal essays. Her motivation derives partly from the need to “displace the preponderance of passivity I find in their essays.” (p. 207) Not only does the academy object to the personal, but students themselves have been trained to stay out of their writing. “High school students know from experience that the more they talk about themselves, the more will be taken away.” (p. 207)

Mott’s carefully designed writing assignments creatively weave the first-person voice and personal experience into explorations of the political theorists being read in the course. Here’s her second five-page essay assignment:

“Begin by describing a situation in which you felt at odds with a professional (a doctor, a lawyer, a therapist, a teacher, a social worker). Show us (don’t tell us) how your experience of the event differed from that of the professional. Let the details of the story convey all the confusions of this experience. Stop and breathe. In the subsequent section, use one or two passages from Montaigne to analyze this experience, to unpack the confusion, and to lay out the terms of power. Finally, what did you learn about yourself as a result of this essay? (p. 209)

“The beauty of this method is that it allows a layering of experience, first descriptive, and then analytical, so that the writer becomes both participant and judge. First the writer explores the fullness of experience and then she reflects back on it using theory.” (p. 209) All three of Mott’s essay assignments are designed so that students cannot write about just their feelings or personal experiences. The personal writing becomes a vehicle for substantive discussion of course content. The article contains excerpts from student essays, and these show how effectively this approach enables students to confront personal experience with political theories that can explain more deeply or challenge what they may have come to believe about those experiences.

This article is not particularly easy reading, as Mott describes the writing assignments in terms of very specific discipline-based content. What the article does show clearly is how powerful carefully designed writing explorations like these can be. They allow students to take what they know and what they have experienced and hold that knowledge against a light that significantly illuminates their understanding.

Reference: Mott, M. (2008). Passing our lives through the fire of thought: The personal essay in the political theory classroom. PS, Political Science and Politics, 41 (1), 207-211.

Excerpted from Use Personal Essay Assignments to Encourage Substantive Discussion of Course Content, The Teaching Professor, vol. 23, no. 3.