- Encouraging Emergent Moments:The Personal, Critical, and Rhetorical in the Writing Classroom
We are taught not to trust our experiences. Great Salt Lake teaches me experience is all we have.Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
We need to get serious about creating new, fused pedagogies, ones that include rhetoric, composition, creative writing, and literature as partners in instruction.Wendy Bishop, "Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition"
For several years, I have been a student of three disciplines that sometimes push each other around and sometimes meld to yield surprisingly useful insights. I came to all three of them informally, beginning my acquaintance with creative nonfiction when my composition and poetry teacher in college handed me a John McPhee anthology and told me to read it. I slid into rhetoric and composition when I became a graduate coordinator and teacher in a university writing center. My interest in critical pedagogy emerged through my work with students in writing classes who struggled with their situatedness in social systems that could not account for their experiences. In the past few years, I have approached these three disciplines both more formally and more experientially. Specific experiences in the classroom never fail to fuse with the tenets of theory or the resonances of text, each reflexively [End Page 401] helping me to interpret the other. In this essay, I turn to a set of classroom experiences that enabled me to begin constructing an answer to my ongoing questions about the various shapes and purposes of a critical writing classroom. Can critical work emerge from student essays about grandparents and football, prom and first cars, as well as from essays about gender, race, or other sociopolitical issues? In other words, can critical work emerge from students' processes of composing texts on topics of interest and importance to them? Previously, I believed such work had to be assigned by teachers directly asking students to consider such issues as racism, sexism, homophobia, institutionalized hegemony, and so on. My reading of creative nonfiction texts has become more central to my pedagogy as I realize that these authors use their own experiences and the opportunities of essayistic writing to do a critical and transformative reading of self and world.
I am asserting that the composing and recomposing of reality and the self through language that happens in personal essays, autobiographies, and memoirs—to name only a few genres—is critical work.1 A student's own essay is a site for critical pedagogy to be enacted and for critical consciousness and social critique to emerge. Already students are doing this. Hundreds of decisions are made in each text, and many of them have to do with the ways in which students feel enabled, constrained, limited, and/or threatened by the textual territory into which they have written themselves. A writing teacher following the tenets of critical pedagogy would not just help the student find a transition sentence for the second paragraph or a public audience for that text; this teacher would ask that student what is at stake in that paragraph and offer the student readings that have different cultural, political, or social paradigms to help the student resee his or her own text. This work is going to be necessarily individual, and there will still need to be conversations about culture, politics, society, education, and literacy in the classroom. But important work will get done in individual texts and the conversations and reflections surrounding those texts. I am more and more convinced that the texts we choose to write are important sites to understand the self, the world, and culture. I believe that critical work is personal and rhetorical, emerging to alter the perspectives and locations of individual people.
The two terms I use to articulate this ever-evolving understanding of writing pedagogy are personal-critical-rhetorical and emergent moments. I am arguing that a critical writing pedagogy with a primary goal of having students claim their own agency and become active participants in critiquing and transforming unjust social institutions happens at the intersections of the personal-critical-rhetorical. By personal, I mean the topics, purposes, [End Page 402...