Guest Post: Guess Who’s on the Syllabus?: Assigning Ourselves in the Classroom

KarenCraigoFrom day one, students in my first-year survey course understand that they will have to do a lot of writing. And their very first reading assignment reveals another important fact, which is that I am in the trenches with them.

Students don’t seem to bat an eye at the fact that the first essay I require them to read is by Karen Craigo. Colleagues … well, they might. And it does make sense to ask the question—why? There ought to be a very good reason for making a captive audience read one’s own work.

The essay I assigned this semester was published in a small online journal, Split Lip Magazine. It is a personal narrative—exactly like their first writing task—and it begins when I was roughly their age. (My students this semester are all recent high school graduates.)

The essay discusses the bravest moment of my life, and at first it seems to be about the time I moved across the country to Montana. Then it seems to be about the time I hopped a train (like an idiot) to try to roam the country. Ultimately, though, it is about the more everyday bravery of sticking with my obligations when adventure and the road always beckon. Being a middle-aged mom every single day? Cleaning vomit and watching non-stop Pixar movies? Trust me. That stuff’s brave.

It is a fairly common strategy in introductory, writing-intensive classes to start with a narrative assignment. Students are more accustomed to sharing their stories than they are to engaging in an academic argument or offering a proposal or evaluation. I usually remind them of their narrative prowess by asking them to share stories orally in class. In telling their classmates something personal about themselves—like the time in their life when they were most frightened, or the time they were most brave—students can be nudged into offering more details, description, or examples, and this is practice that will come in handy in their writing process.

It is also handy to see some examples of the sort of writing they are being asked to produce, and that is why I see some value to offering them an essay of my own as that first reading assignment. I do this for several reasons.

  • I’m a good writer. Pretty good, anyway. I have my moments, at least. My writing can serve as an example of a lively, detailed, non-formulaic approach to the assignment. I know how to write that way, and I work hard to pull it off.
  • They know me, at least a bit. Strong writing is something a lot of us can do with a little practice and instruction. When my students read my essay, they know that someone who considers herself a “real writer” is in the room. It is my hope that they see there is space for many of us “real writers,” and we’ll scribble forth together.
  • I understand the task. Students do not get the sense that I am unaware of the magnitude of what I’m asking them to do. Rather, they know that I do the same thing, voluntarily and daily, and that I find pleasure in it.
  • My advice has been tested. When students get stuck, I can suggest some of the ways they can rock out of that ditch and continue down the road. I offer multiple options, and I can suggest what I might try if I were in their situation. The solution sounds plausible coming from a practicing writer, and I can assure them truthfully that their options are almost endless.
  • Reading about my life opens the door for honest exchange in the classroom. Essays typically deal in the uncomfortable areas—risk, uncertainty—and sharing an essay is a gesture toward openness.

I think the biggest reason I use my own essays as samples in a writing class is that I’m no big deal. I’m not someone important, like a senator or an astronaut, or even someone cool, like a competitive eater or a mushroom farmer. I’m just a woman with a normal job in a normal town, and my stories are normal stories.

When students read a compelling story about a normal person, I think it reminds them that they have compelling stories of their own—more compelling than mine, I would wager. The moments of our lives are important, and they are worth the trouble of some keystrokes.

Their second reading assignment? That one is not by me. One instructor-written essay per section seems sufficient. More than that could make my life seem like part of the curriculum. I do write along with them sometimes—occasionally on the overhead projector on their writing days so that they can see my process and my mistakes.

In classes, especially first-year survey classes, students can feel very vulnerable. Sharing my essays, published or in progress, allows me to be vulnerable right beside them. When we can all let our guard down and be fully present, the classroom can be quite an amazing place.

“Next Stop: Montana” by Karen Craigo can be found here.

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