Thursday, April 5, 2007

Personal vs. Academic Writing

It was a welcome break to read an article where the most difficult part was figuring out how to pronounce the author’s name.* However, that’s not an entirely fair characterization of Mlynarczyk’s treatment of the controversy between two schools of thought in the field of basic writing theory. Although her own rather limited observations seem somewhat insignificant when nestled between the two giants, Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae, her summation of the ongoing debate about personal and academic writing is concise, clear, and worthwhile—particularly for those who were not exactly on the basic writing scene in the 1990s. As she points out, “teachers are still facing the question Elbow and Bartholomae considered in the 1990s: What types of writing (and reading) [should one] assign in the first-year composition or basic writing course?” (5). Indeed, this is a question that must be answered by anyone who approaches the basic writing classroom. This article provides an opportunity for explicit reflection on the issue, and though she adds little to the conversation other than in her reflections on her own qualitative study, she does well by drawing on the work of Bruner, Britton, and others to present what seems to be a fairly sound overview of an issue that is still as relevant today as it was a decade ago.

For instance, Mlynarczyk highlights Bruner’s thoughts on the goals of each type of writing. According to Bruner, Elbow’s personal writing tries “to be evocative, to convince by being true to life, to achieve verisimilitude…[and] often takes the mode of stories” (6). In contrast, Bartholomae’s academic writing “seeks to transcend the particular in order to make valid generalizations...[and] often takes the form of arguments” (6).

Mlynarczyk also presents Britton’s perspective on the two schools of thought. For Britton, personal writing is concerned with producing “‘expressive language,’ exemplified by everyday speech,” while academic writing is concerned with producing “‘referential language,’ exemplified by scientific discourse” (6).

One contrast that I found particularly interesting was the difference in the way Elbow and Bartholomae thought about the role of authority in writing. Elbow focuses on setting up contexts in the classroom where student writers are truly experts on their topics. Usually this means assignments revolving around personal opinions and experiences. Bartholomae on the other hand, seems content to provide an assignment which requires the vantage point of an expert, expecting them to rise to the task by, first, researching the topic and, then, emulating the style, tone, and points-of-view used by true authorities in the field. Bartholomae seems to view Elbow’s approach as too much of a compromise whereas Elbow seems to think of it as meeting the students halfway, introducing them to writing in a way that, if not academic per se, is at least more liberating and less stressful. I, personally, tend to agree with Elbow when it comes to initially approaching the basic writer, but agree that students should also be helped to develop the academic persona in their writing that will eventually be required of them.

*Yes, I am actually nerdy enough to care. In fact, I googled it and at least one source suggests mi-NAR-chik.

“I don’t read anything from the 20th Century.”**

**FYI: That quote doesn't really have anything to do with the article. It's just something Chaz said before class. So don't hurt yourself trying to find the connection. Also, I could not find a picture of Chaz on the web, but I was able to find a picture of his hair and beard before they first met Chaz and became part of what is now known down certain dark alleys of the blogosphere as beardedfury. According to legend, Chaz found his beard in the personals section of The Standard: “Beard seeks head of poet. Likes knock-knock jokes, Chuck Norris movies, dogs, and long walks on the beach. Brunettes only please.” If you want to know more, you’ll have to wait for the E! True Hollywood Story.

(I had another version of this in mind where St. George rips the beard off a dragon and gives it to Chaz in appreciation of his verse, but there was a time machine involved, and I hate time machines. They're so darn implausible.)

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca Williams. "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate." Journal of Basic Writing 25:1 (2006): 4-25.

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