Assaying the Essay

Assaying the Essay:

Creating an Argument by Incorporating Personal Essay into Persuasive Writing and the FYW Course

ShelliRae Spotts

In order to be effective citizens and effective rhetorical beings, students must first learn how to carry out the negotiation between self and world (xv).—Sherrie Gradin, Romancing Rhetoric

The Appeal of the Personal

Patrick sat across from me at the desk, shoulders slumped, his head between his hands. “I just can’t write,” he kept repeating, staring at a point on the ground and refusing to meet my eyes. We were barely a month into the semester and our first big project—an opinion editorial—was due in a few days. With a required length of three to five pages, he was having a hard time getting past the second page. We had workshopped his paper, brainstormed ideas, spent two or three office visits talking about invention strategies to help him elaborate his arguments. Every suggestion managed to produce a line or two of painful reasoning and support, stilted and awkwardly phrased. Finally he showed up for a conference with a defeated look in his eyes. “I just don’t think I am cut out for college,” he said. “Everyone else seems to find it so much easier than I do, I just don’t have anything else to say.” Just as frustrated as he was, I suggested that he take his paper into the writing center again and that we meet one more time before the final draft of the paper was due.

In class the next morning, I decided to take a different approach. Many of my students seemed frustrated and stressed by the challenges of acclimating to college life, so I assigned a creative free write, hoping to prompt them to think in new ways. They were assigned to respond to a color or describe a person without using any color words or descriptive words that are traditionally used to characterize their topic. I was amazed by the response. One student chose to describe her husband, writing,

If you went in to his closet you’d find three sets of hangers, one for each type of clothing item hanging. You can find the old grey t-shirt of his in the dark: third drawer on the right, second shirt from the top, on the left side. His shirts are folded in a special way so the tags show on the outside edge of the fold. No one on the planet folds their shirts this way, I’m sure. The sign in his office speaks of the highly organized individual, which he displays proudly, even though all who enter know within seconds that they have crossed the threshold of one of the most micro-organized persons they will ever meet. I’m the opposite—and I love him anyway.

Another student wrote about the color blue. “Blue: It is calm. It is peace. It can also be

depth, perspective, or even mystery. It is a bright day. It is night. It is the rain. It is life just as much as it is death (think water). It can be adventure (TARDIS).” And Patrick, who was so sure he could not write, responded to the color yellow. “It is the glory of the sun. The color of a beautiful sunflower. The glimmer of happiness in people’s eyes. The smile of a person in love. The light of a new day just breaking over the top of the mountain. It is the freshness of clean air. The likeness of a pencil. It is hope.”

In considering their response to the prompt, I realized these students do know how to write. They know how to use simile, metaphor, and analogy, as well as more sophisticated techniques like repetition and parallel structure. Even Patrick was instinctively mimicking some of the same rhetorical and literary moves as more experienced writers, a vast improvement over what he had been producing when he was worried solely about an unfamiliar genre, such as the opinion editorial the class had been working on. There was an instinctive use of language in this casual, low-stakes assignment that is similar to the spoken language acquisition that occurs in infants and small children. My students used some of the more advanced techniques of writing almost unconsciously, as if they had a tacit understanding of what would work best to influence their audience. But there seems to be a disconnect between what students write for this type of expressive or essayistic writing and what they write for assigned and evaluated school writing, what Thaiss and Zawacki define as “Academic Writing” in their book Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines (Thaiss & Zawacki, 2006, p. 4).

Building Foundations and Constructing an Argument

I think a lot about story. About the twists and turns of personal experience and cultural reference, about what makes language interesting and compelling. I think about what will influence a reader. About what will cause them to think, to feel, to say to someone else, “you have to read this, it changed my life.” I think about the narratives that help navigate complex social situations and cultural problems, narratives that are for the most part absent from what students perceive as academic writing. I think about how stories connect us to each other and how they can teach us. I think about how in telling stories I might be able to blend the traditions of storytelling, those elements of language that we recognize from our earliest experiences, with more recognizable and established academic traditions, combining theory and experience in a way that will speak eloquently to readers and influence the way they think.

Jennifer Aacker, a social psychologist associated with the Future of Storytelling Association, spoke of one study in which researchers asked students to make a one minute persuasive pitch. On average, each student used 2.5 statistics in their pitch. Only one in ten told a story. Ten minutes later the researchers asked the students to pull out a sheet of paper and write down every idea that they remembered from the other pitches. Only 5% remembered any type of statistic. However, over 60% remembered the stories. “Stories are memorable, impactful, and personal in ways that other modes of persuasion are not. When used with statistical data, stories are an incredible persuasive tool that can help us as humans decide what to believe in a world that is otherwise incredibly over-saturated with information” (Aacker, 2013).

The Rhetoric of the Personal

In contrast to those students who struggled with the opinion editorial, another student seemed to find it effortless. One of the main differences between her paper and those of her peers was her ability to seamlessly connect proofs with personal experiences, a connection that helped her to realize the greater implications of her arguments. She identified with her topics to the extent that it was easy for her to see the “so what” of participating in a greater conversation and arguing persuasively for some kind of change. She used personal experience in her papers in ways that were not merely confessional and indulgent but rhetorically functional, appealing to the reader both emotionally and logically as persuasive proofs. The students who failed to connect to their topics this way struggled to come to any conclusion in their argument, especially in their opinion editorials, and instead wrapped up their papers with a half hearted summary of the preceding supporting evidence—a reiteration instead of a culmination. They did not see how an assignment could apply to them, and consequently they also failed to see the bigger picture, one in which their paper could be more than an assignment in a class that had no more import than to procure a grade.

In her book Personally Speaking, Candace Spigelman calls this kind of combination of the personal with the academic a “surplus,” a way of understanding “how the personal can replace the academic and help [students] reconcile their understanding of the texts that shape their knowledge of the world” (Spigelman, 2004, p. 83). However, instead of replacing the academic, I believe constructing experience in a way that informs and enlivens a more traditional argument can bridge the gap between abstract knowledge and meaning. If we can effectively teach our students to use the personal in an academic discourse, they would be more able to move from simple rhetorical analysis and dry discussion of the issues to increasingly multilayered and complex discussions that contribute in meaningful ways to the discourse communities in which they are participating.

One of the goals of a first-year writing course is to help students learn to think critically, argue persuasively, and come to conclusions that they are able to support throughout different genres of academic writing. My students are comfortable writing. They have experience with recognizing the forms of specific genres. They know how to craft a paragraph, punctuate a sentence, and spell words correctly, for the most part. But they struggle with coming to a conclusion about their topic, participating in a discourse community, and seeing their own opinion as a valid addition to a continuing discussion. They are comfortable reiterating the thoughts and ideas of someone else, offering up facts and figures to support their thesis, and liberally using their thesaurus to create what they perceive as academic language. However, expressing their own ideas with concision and clarity is difficult. They perceive academic discourse as dry and dense instead of a process of participating in a vibrant and engaging discussion.

Throughout the semester, we were able to use creative writing essay prompts to explore personal experiences and help generate topic ideas, avenues for effective argumentation, and research possibilities. During the writing process, I asked students to reflect and respond to a series of prompts, including, “When have I experienced something similar to the issue I am writing about? How would I describe that experience to my audience? How can my own experience counter or support the claim of one of my sources?” I believe this exploration of their topic helped them to become more aware and deliberate in the rhetorical choices they made in their writing assignments.

Examining the Essay

Although critics of the personal essay maintain that it can be at times “personal, confessional, and at times even indulgent” (Atkins, 2009, p. 23), I believe it can also provide a medium in which students feel comfortable addressing their own opinions and making connections between their personal lives and the ideas and philosophies they are learning about in their academic lives. I believe that helping students personally engage with issues through essay writing will help them connect their own thoughts and ideas with outside concepts and philosophies and also motivate them to question their own ideas and assumptions. By promoting a prose style that blends personal experience and academic argumentation, using what Chris Thaiss and Terry Zawacki call “alternative discourse,” I believe students can come to alternative modes of understanding that help to increase “transfer” throughout their university experience and improve their ability to write about a wide range of topics effectively and persuasively (Thaiss & Zawacki, 2006, p. 5).

In chapter nine of On the Familiar Essay, Douglas Atkins (2009) addresses the problems of a split in writing classes that has led to sharp divisions between the genres of creative and academic writing, with academics largely discounting the devices of narrative, voice, and tone that can help a student create and generate topics and arguments. He objects to the classification of the essay as nonacademic and to the idea that those studying creative nonfiction do not need to be as educated and knowledgeable in all academic forms of writing. I see this with my own students, this sense that writing creatively or essayistically is something completely separate from academic writing and that the two should never be mixed.

Some of Atkins’ insistence on a reintegration of writing styles has occurred thanks to Atkins’ own experiences as both an essay writer and an academic. His credentials as a scholar of Restoration and eighteenth-century English literature, with numerous publications in contemporary critical theory, are at odds with his emphasis on teaching the personal essay. “My insistence that a creative writing student be able to do critical analysis met with the same disfavor and defensiveness that accompanied my repeated efforts to introduce critical essay writing into literature classes. I understand why Eliot said the middle is the most difficult of ways. No one likes tension” (Atkins, 2009, p. 157). Atkins argues that the divisions that have become standard academic practice, those between creative writing and literature, between imagination and scholarship, and between the writer and the academic, are artificial. These two disparate disciplines can, when used prudently, act as complementary parts of the same effective whole.

Atkins’ arguments support my own experiences in using the personal essay in the classroom. Atkins points to the history of the essay as a genre prone to quoting others, engaging in conversation and dialogue, and examining the connections between ideas. “The essay typically says “Let me tell you . . . what I have just read, looked up, or remembered of my reading. The essay confirms the continuity, the contemporaneity, the reality of writing. The text we call essayistic is thus intertextual: an embodiment of education and an inspiration to discovery” (Atkins, 2009, p. 156). By limiting ourselves to a very narrow view of what an academic paper or a creative work is or should be, we are placing false restrictions on our craft. Supplementing freshman composition with essay writing prompts and activities is a natural way to help students not only write more effectively, but also create a stronger personal link between their topic and their own writing, allowing them a greater variety of options when it comes to composing, creating, and crafting an argument of their own.

Complexities and Contradictions

In writing the opinion editorial, my students seemed to feel uncomfortable with the very nature of the assignment, that of defining a kairotic issue and making their own position clear to a specific audience. By asking students to essay their own experiences and then judiciously incorporate some of that material into their paper, I believe we can help students learn to establish their own ethos as writers, teaching them that experience can suggest expertise. Although students have a limited scope of experiences in which they are practiced and proficient, teaching them the tools of more experiential writing such as essaying can help them understand the subject matter they are being asked to discuss. This practice would help students to make more powerful ethical, logical, and emotional appeals in their writing and to connect more effectively with their audience, leading to more persuasive academic discourse. However, this situation becomes more complicated when professors themselves feel uncomfortable using the personal in their professional writing.

In the essay Questioning Alternative Discourses: Reports from Across the Disciplines, Thaiss and Zawacki found while interviewing faculty across the social sciences that most informants said “it was standard in their disciplines to avoid the personal and to emphasize the clarity and logic of the argument and the strength of the evidence” (Schroeder, Fox, & Bizzell, 2002, p. 84). This avoidance occurred even in situations where addressing personal experiences would provide insight into their professional lives, such as the case of Priscilla Regan, an author and associate professor of political science. In Legislating Privacy, a book on the federal debates regarding privacy versus freedom of information, Regan states that although she spent five years working with Congress on technology assessment, she “would not feel comfortable using that experience as evidence” regardless of the many ways in which it informs her work (Schroeder et al., 2002, p. 85). To these professors, using their own experiences is invalid and counter to the “professional standard” to which they are accustomed. Some even regard essayistic or expressive writing as a matter of style, a “flourish that must be undertaken only by those who are first sure of the quality of their reasoning” (Schroeder et al., 2002, p. 85).

Personal Experience, Public Writing

And yet there are scholars who regularly approach publication and writing in a more essayistic way. David Bartholomae (2005), an academic studying composition and first-year writing and the former head of CCCC, discusses in his essay The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum the extent to which students in a basic or beginning writing course should be engaged in “the academy.” Bartholomae argues from his own experience as a basic writing teacher that students must engage in difficult materials and treat their writing seriously. He also examines the extent to which a basic writing course can become a place for students to learn to think in productive ways.

Although Bartholomae does not offer any concrete ways of accomplishing his goals, I found it striking that his mode of persuasion throughout the article was that of the personal essayist: he begins with a story about the first beginning writing class he taught and an experience with a particular student that illustrates the problems he wanted to address. He then uses his own personal experiences as proofs to support his arguments. From there he expands his argument into a larger discussion of the needs of current basic writing courses. He then analyzes a book about writing, The Tidy House, which is written partially in dialogue and partially in prose and contains what Bartholomae terms a “beautifully written, sensible, evocative, and surprising” account of composition studies (Bartholomae, 2005, p. 321).

In making his arguments about composition, Bartholomae incorporates his own experiences seamlessly, tying them into other studies that support his own conclusions. This style closely replicates what Thaiss and Zawacki term hybrid or alternative discourses and what Candace Spigelman calls the personal academic argument. He is using personal essay as authentication for his argument to persuade and convince his audience. But how do we, as writing instructors, teach our students to do this in their own writing?

Constructing the Personal Academic Argument

When we enter a classroom, students look to us for the answers to their questions, the “right and wrong” way of approaching an assignment. One of the most frequent questions I answered this semester in my student conferences was some variation of “Is it OK to use ‘I’ in my paper?” They want to learn how to do things the right way, the way that will earn them a good grade on an assignment, on a paper, in the class. But what if we can resist this “good and bad” way of looking at process and instead teach students to engage in thought-provoking discussion and argumentation? Will they then feel free to experiment in using alternative forms of addressing the audience and forming a persuasive argument?

Candace Spigelman (2004) suggests two different approaches to teaching students to include the personal in an academic argument. The first is to write personal essays and then incorporate sources into those essays to strengthen their ethical appeal. The second is to start from the academic and teach students to include personal experience as a way of learning the “rhetoric of voice” and making relevant connections between author, reader, and the authority of the academic source (Spigelman, 2004, p. 123).

I think we can go further and use the personal essay more extensively, both in the invention process as well as the final product of student assignments. We should teach students to use essaying as a proving ground for their arguments utilizing its meandering form to ask questions and address contradictions and counterarguments. These uses may help students introduce new thoughts or avenues of inquiry and to examine the shifts and turns in thinking that happen through in-depth exploration of a topic. We can help students create more diverse arguments and more complicated and multilayered treatments where personal accounts intersect with research. These outcomes can be accomplished through carefully crafted prompts throughout the writing process: prompts on topic generation, on counterarguments, on personal experiences with the topic, on student response to authoritative research, and on possible future applications. Teaching students to recognize the interconnectedness of citation, summarization, and personal insights that should be a part of the writing process will hopefully lead to students like Patrick recognizing “when their own examples and narratives make a logical case, are evidentially sound, and, ultimately, persuasive” (Spigelman, 2004, p. 136). We can help them learn to construct experiences and texts that bridge the gap between scholarly research and their own practical knowledge and to more effectively immerse themselves in the complexities of rhetorically persuasive writing. We can help them find their voice.



Works Cited

Aacker, J. (2013, September). The Future of Storytelling. The Future of StoryTelling. Retrieved from

Atkins, D. G. (2005). Tracing the Essay: Through Experience to Truth. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Atkins, D. G. (2009). On the Familiar Essay: Challenging Academic Orthodoxies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bartholomae, D. (2005). Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gradin, S. L. (1995). Romancing Rhetorics. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton.

Hesse, D. (2010). The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies. College 62(1), 31–52.

Mayers, T. (2005). (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press.

Schroeder, C., Fox, H., & Bizzell, P. (Eds.). (2002). ALT DIS: Alternative Discourse and the Academy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.

Spigelman, C. (2004). Personally Speaking. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Thaiss, C, & Zawacki, T. M. (2006). Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.