From Autobiographies to Academic Writing…

From Autobiographies to Academic Writing: What happens when First Year Composition Instructors (FYC) assign the personal narrative to their FYC students as a spring board to the writing process?

My interest in Autobiographies began as a community college student during the summer of my junior year in high school at the YMCA Community College in Chicago. We were a group of about twenty Latino and black high school students taking college courses for credit that hot, sticky summer in Chicago. Our instructor Samuel Betances was a young Puerto Rican graduate student from New York City. He used Piri Thomas’ autobiography/ memoir  Down These Mean Streets as our main text to draw us into the course.

Betances wanted us to identify with Piri Thomas (a New York born Puerto Rican, like himself). His purpose was not only to get us to read the book, but to connect with the author. Down These Mean Streets was an autobiography of growing up in the wild and wicked streets of New York City in the early 1940s and 1950s. (Betances was to later get his doctorate in education from Harvard and also do postgraduate work in sociology. In addition to this he taught at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.)

Piri Thomas was to be one of the first Latino writers published in the United States.

Years later I met Piri Thomas at a Poet’s Conference at the University of California- Santa Barbara. We had a long conversation at the dinner table where he looked at my poetry and encouraged me to keep writing, and to consider teaching. I would meet him again several times again at this home in Berkeley, California and at several poetry readings.

Many years later I would read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the third time while in graduate school at San Francisco State University. This book along with others read would draw me into autobiographies  and real life experiences. It is because of these experiences, that I am proposing this study of using autobiographical writings as a drawing point to engage FYC students.

Statement of the Problem

My assumption is there has to be some type of impetus to get First Year Composition (FYC) students including Basic Writers to read and write and to be interested in reading, and writing by first writing about a subject they are familiar with, in this case themselves. Is it possible that through the hook of the personal narrative (autobiographies) this might motivate the FYC student to look within him or herself and to want to write? I will investigate several studies in this literature review that relate to autobiographical writings, identity, self and the FYC student. This paper is aimed at community college and FYC instructors who are planning to use the personal narrative, including autobiographies and the literacy narrative in their FYC writing course. It is my hope that this study would give other community college instructors new strategies, new methods to use in attracting FYC students to be engaged in the writing process.

The research question I propose is what happens when FYC Instructors ask students to write personal narratives? Are FYC students or Basic Writer more motivated to write? Does it encourage students to read?

Literature Review

In this study I will be delving into what motivates the Basic Writer and the FYC students to read and write? Is it possible that through the use of autobiographical writings and the connection of identity, and “self” this will allow the Basic Writer and the FYC student to be able to engage in the reading and writing process through the personal narrative? I would like to investigate if the introduction of the personal narrative, through the autobiography, and the literacy narrative will induce FYC students and Basic Writers into the reading writing process?  I will be looking at fifteen articles beginning with Shaughnessy (1977) to lay the ground work of the Basic Writer then moving on to Bartholomae and Petrosky (1986) a study that dealt with Basic Writers and autobiographical writings and Fox (1990) who discussed Basic Writers to Soliday (1994) who discused Basic Writers, FYC Students, literacy narratives and identity.  In a separate study, Canagarajah (1997) discusses identity and coping strategies of African-American students in the academy. In our final study Camangian (2010) writes about “Starting with Self” he uses the autoethnography as a tool for students to connect with themselves first, then with each other and then with the academy. In addition to this I will be looking into four separate articles related to autobiographical writings from Hamann, Schultz, Smith and White (1991), the second study along the lines of autobiographical writings was conducted by White (1995) on ninth graders. The third and main study in relationship to autobiographical writings was conducted by Chamblee (1998) who demonstrated how to engage and bring to life reading and writing for “at-risk college students.”  The final study was conducted by Spires, Williams, Jackson and Huffman (1998) who researched how reading and writing autobiographies enhanced student engagement and understanding of literature.

The studies in this literature review will address the previously discussed questions in reference to reading and writing and also to try and discover how FYC students and Basic Writers can be engaged in the reading and writing process through the introduction of identity, and “self.”

To understand Basic Writers, we will go back to Shaughnessy (1977), one of the pioneers in working with Basic Writers; she wrote one of the first books with the purpose to reach remedial college students.  First of all, what is a Basic Writer? Shaughnessy suggests that a Basic Writer is a student who might be labeled as a remedial student; a student who is not prepared to begin college level writing and needs some additional instruction to get him/her up to speed to be able to complete and pass a college level reading and writing course. That Basic Writer might be African American, Latino, or from another minority student background, a working class student including white students, and second language minorities also International students.

Shaughnessy discussed “severely unprepared freshman writers” in the early 1970s. She discussed the BW movement (Basic Writers) which eventually evolved to (Integrated Reading and Writing) IRW, and how in 1970 City University of New York (CUNY) began a new admission policy that allowed any New York City resident with a high school diploma to attend the CUNY system. This increased enrollment from “174,000 in 1969 to 266,000 in 1975.” Because of the change in policy, many students in the CUNY system were admitted, though, not academically prepared at the college reading and writing level. “The essays these students wrote during their first weeks of class stunned the teachers who read them. Nothing…short of a miracle was going to turn such students into writers,” (Shaughnessy, 1977, 1, 3).

What happens when FYC instructors ask their students to begin writing by using the personal narrative? Another study that dealt with Basic Writers and autobiographical writings was Bartholomae and Petrosky (1986) who suggested that a basic writing course should start with the students in mind.  In the course, they created they had students write an autobiographical pieces of their lives. They suggested that a basic writing course should begin with the students writing about their own experiences. By writing in the beginning about their own experiences they were able to see themselves not only as readers but also as writers. This activity motivated and encouraged them to write.

Sometimes, students come to the reading process looking at the text as strange or foreign, something to decode. Through the introduction of the personal narrative students not only learned to decode but also learned how to compose their own essays; they in affect wrote their own stories. Students were encouraged to write their thoughts and experiences on journals, and they were also encouraged to record their experiences, both as readers and writers. They were able to see through some of their own writings that reading and writing is not a mystery something to decode but something else to compose. They composed their own “stories” by writing about their own struggles and their own victories. They composed their experiences through writing their own autobiographies. Bartholomae and Petrosky wrote, “We choose to represent out student readers as composers rather than decoders,” (Bartholomae and Petrosky, 1986, 15).

Fox (1990) viewed basic writing as a conflict with some cultures especially of those of minority groups in the academy. He references various composition theorists Bartholomae, Bizzell, Cook-Gumperz, Ogabu, and Rose and suggested that writing instructors of Basic Writers should teach their students to write and not worry about teaching them basic skills “such as punctuation and spelling.” This is almost in the same concept or frame of reference as Peter Elbow who wanted writing teachers to get their students writing.  Elbow suggested students just freewrite and then go back and” clean up the junk” referring to mistakes with spelling and grammar.   Fox also references Bartholomae and Bizzell suggesting that Basic Writing classes are focused on “social group membership and the involvement of “discourse communities,” (Fox, 1990, 66).

There are four studies involving autobiographical writings in this literature review. The first study was conducted by Hamann, Schultz, Smith and White (1991). The researchers of this study discussed students connecting to the reading and writing process through reading and writing about autobiographical writings. The students did prewriting activities that connected them with the “literary text.” This study was conducted with eight graders at a middle school in Madison, Wisconsin. Though the study was conducted on eight graders this could also apply to FYC students and Basic Writers in the community college or university setting,

Sommers (1992) discussed the importance of motivating FYC students to begin to write in an area they felt comfortable in and that was in the area of the personal narrative. She wrote, “When they write about their lives, (italic mine) they write with confidence.” Sommer suggests, “As soon as they begin to write to turn their attention toward outside sources, they too lose confidence.” She goes on to further write; (they) “defer to the voice of the academy, and write in the voice of Everystudent to an audience they think of as Everyteacher ,” (Sommers, 1992, 284). It appears that Sommers is correct with motivating FYC students to write in an area in which they have some expertise where they are the experts. Once they have developed their confidence and skill, then, they can be moved on to academic writing.

Cook-Gumperz (1993) argued that grade school teachers began  teaching writing using new  methods that had students concentrate on the “natural way” to write using topics that connected with the student’s interests “and personal experiences.” This study suggested that having students write about an area they are experts on “themselves,” helped and influenced students to write their own autobiographical accounts. ” She referenced a study by Britten (1982) “In other words autobiographical accounts came to be seen as useful in motivating students to write with the necessary commitment, “(Cook-Gumperz, 1993, 339)

Kutz, Groden, & Zamel, (1993) were writing instructors who looked at reading and writing as a connection. They also used the personal narrative in their classrooms to connect their students to the reading and writing process. They discussed that during a semester their reading and writing assignments included readings that were of an autobiographical nature that students were able to relate to:

Over the course of a semester the classes of a typical course in our curriculum would move through a sequence of informal and formal writing assignments that connected personal experience to a series of course readings such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl, Maya Angelou’s I know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and other autobiographical accounts of adolescents growing up in a variety of cultural and historical contexts, (Kutz, Groden, & Zamel, 1993, 86)

By reading autobiographical writings such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl, and Maya Angleou’s I know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the students were able to make some type of connection to the author and to their own personal experiences. In addition to this, the students were able to write about not only the reading but also about an autobiographical incident in their life that related to the reading.  These written responses by the students were conducted through a sequence of informal and formal writings which connected and engaged the students using the genre of autobiographical writings and incidents to motivate them to write because they were writing with authority using their life experience as a source.

Soliday (1994) discusses the role of identity and what it brings to the writing and the text of FYC students this includes the “tensions between discourse worlds.” Soliday suggests some FYC students and Basic Writers “are also usually minority, immigrant, and working class.” She points out that through having students read and write “literacy stories” this allows and “enable(s) students to ponder the conflicts attendant upon crossing language worlds.” This also engages and motivates the Basic Writer to write their own literacy narratives with what she calls “literacy autobiographies.” It causes the student (the Basic Writer) “to reflect upon the choices that speakers of minority dialects and language must make.” Soliday points out “a considerable literature in composition studies addresses the relationship between cultural identity and writing.” She references Bartholoamae; Fox; Kutz, Groden, and Zamel, just to name a few, authors who agree with this premise, (Soliday, 1994, 512).

The Second study along the lines of autobiographical writings was conducted by White (1995) on ninth graders who participated in writing and literature. One objective of White was to have his students connect the narrative to their lives. One issue that White argues in his study is that for a student to be successful when reading that student must be prepared before he or she reads the text. White strongly suggests in  preparation prior to reading. In his study, White refers to Bartlett (1932) who suggests that” the reader’s prior knowledge (schema) and “expectations” have an influence in what they “comprehend and remember.” He points out a study that was conducted by Bransford and Johnson (1972) which suggested and demonstrated that “reader’s memories and understanding are guided by the perspectives that they bring to the texts” (White, 1995, 174). We can interpret from this last statement schema. White argues that these classic studies suggest that if the student has” autobiographical experiences in mind,” they will be able to relate to the text prior to reading the text. He suggests that they will likely remember the details that pertain or are similar to their own lives. White argues that writing a response after reading the text does not reap the same benefits as prior to reading the text.

In a separate study, Canagarajah (1997) discussed identity and coping strategies of African-American students in the academy. Canagarajah argued African-Americans, minority students and other cultural groups sometimes have a conflict when they enter the academy as they feel they are being swallowed up into another cultural system. “Minority students can experience… sources of conflict as they develop literacy in the academic contact zone.” Canagarajah found that his students had a conflict with their ethnic identity and the academy as they viewed academic writing as “acting white.” He saw a conflict in that though his students wanted to maintain their culture, the students realized that to be an educated person they had to accept the dominance of “the dominant middle-class culture of the school…” In relationship to identity and connecting with the academy, and the text, I argue that by introducing autobiographical writings into the classroom it would be away of connecting students identity to their culture and to their writing assignments, (Canagarajah, 1997, 173-175, 178).

The third and main study in relationship to autobiographical writings in this literature review was conducted by Chamblee (1998) who demonstrated how to engage and bring to life reading and writing for “at-risk college students.”  Chamblee taught developmental reading classes in a small, historically black liberal arts college in the Southern United States to African-American students. She designed the course so that the students would be “experts” on the subject they were going to write about, their own lives. In this course the reading and writing assignments were divided into five sections; each section dealt with a certain section of life, “childhood, early adolescence, later adolescence, adulthood, and the senior years.”  The students were engaged in reading and writing activities related to the time period in the life section they were studying. They wrote a chapter of their life and then add to their autobiography. Chamblee chose readings from texts that were in the most part short stories “that varied in terms of content and level of difficulty,” (Chamblee, 1998, 533-534).

The students were assigned prereading prompts for them prior to reading their short story or another short piece of literature. The function of the writing prompt was to activate the student’s prior experiences (schema) and help him/her to focus on the theme of the story. After reading the text, they responded to an open ended prompt that gave them some direction and allowed them to form their own interpretation of the text. In addition to the prereading prompt, they also had a post reading prompt in which they wrote a brief summary of the story.

Chamblee referred to a couple of educators who had specific views on reading and writing, the first one was Wertsch (1985) who suggested that “new ideas, skills, and strategies are acquired through social interactions.” Chamblee also referred to Rosenblatt (1978) as the scholar who suggested that students be allowed to express their “reactions to the text in writing and group discussion.” Chamblee strongly suggested the process of preparing and reflecting gave the students insight into the notion “that reading and writing are recursive and continuing activities,” (Chamblee, 1998, 535).

Chamblee references Nystran,( 1991) who argues that in order for a student to be successful in reading, the student must be prepared before he or she reads the text. He strongly suggests preparation prior to reading, (Nystrand, 1991, 153).

The fourth study along the lines of autobiographical writings was conducted by Spires, Williams, Jackson and Huffman (1998) who researched autobiographical writings and how reading and writing autobiographies enhanced student engagement and understanding of literature. Spires et al. (1998) suggested if students had not had previous positive experiences in their writing, it was unlikely that their writing would improve, this was one reason to have them write about their own life. They suggested when students engaged with their reading they became emotionally and psychologically engaged and connected through their writings.  Spires et.al added expository reading and writing at the end of their course. Spires et al. believed students developed a “sense of self through autobiographical readings and writings,” (Spires et al., 297- 298).

Young (2004) an African-American professor who taught English at a private university in Chicago suggests part of the problem many FYC students have is they write as they speak and that many students have never learned the academic discourse of the academy. He suggests though many problems in relation to reading or writing began at the elementary, middle, and high school level that community college and university writing instructors can still reach their African-American students by trying to understand their student’s culture. He argues instructors have to learn to engage with their students of other cultures including African-American students, (Young, 2004).

In our final study, Camangian (2010) writes about “Starting with Self” Camangian  uses the autoethnography as a tool for students to connect with themselves first, then with each other and then with the academy. “It is essential for students of color to have a collective understanding of themselves and one another.” And he teaches his students to connect with each other through the autoethnography by interviewing and getting to know each other’s culture but by first knowing their self by writing an autoethnography which could also be like writing their autobiography, in which the purpose is knowing about their self-first before moving on to learn about other cultures, (Camangian, 2010, 179).

The Gap in this study is that there has been very little written about the correlation of using autobiographies to motivate FYC students and Basic Writers to read, write, to be engaged and also successful in an academic setting. The purpose of this study is to understand what happens when basic writers or FYC students are asked to write personal narratives in the context of a FYC composition class. I would like to investigate if the introduction of the personal narrative, through the autobiography, and the literacy narrative can induce Basic Writers into the reading writing process? The studies in the literature review addressed the previously discussed questions in reference to reading and writing and also discussed how FYC students can be engaged in the reading and writing process through the introduction of identity.

Methods Section

How does autobiographical writing prepare students for academic writing? How and why should teachers assign autobiographical writing to their FYC students as a spring board to the writing process? Is it possible that through the hook of the personal narrative (autobiographies) this might motivate the FYC student to look within him or herself and to want to write? This study is aimed at community college and FYC instructors who are planning to use the personal narrative, including autobiographies and the literacy narrative in their FYC writing course.

It is my hope that this study would give community college instructors new strategies, new methods to use in attracting FYC students to be engaged in the writing process. The research question I propose is what happens when FYC Instructors ask students to write personal narratives? Are FYC students or Basic Writer more motivated to write? Does it encourage students to read?

I will be conducting a qualitative research study  to ascertain if using the personal narrative specifically the autobiography and the literacy narrative will motivate FYC students and Basic Writers to read  and write and to prepare them for analytical  writing by first becoming successful in the personal narrative  and getting to know more about their “self.” The first part of this field study would involve conducting interviews with several FYC students to determine if they are open to developing their writing by beginning with the personal narrative (beginning with autobiographies, and the literacy narrative) in the first part of the semester and then moving on to analytical and argumentative writing by the latter part of the semester.

  1. Participants – There will be at the minimum two FYC instructors and 20-30 students. The students will be picked at random, though, some may self -elect.
  2. The context/setting of this qualitative study will be held at two classes at an East Bay Community College in the San Francisco Bay Area. The students will read autobiographies that relate to their specific ethnicity. For the sake of convenience (for myself as a researcher), I will connect with my former community college. They have two classes that have a mentoring program involved as well as a counselor as part of their program. One of the classes is Daraja which is composed of predominantly African-American students. The other class is Puente or the Puente Project, Puente means bridge in Spanish, and it is the bridge which helps Latino students cross from the non-academic world to the academic world. Puente is composed of primarily Mexican -American/ Latino students. (However, this study could be conducted with any FYC or Basic Writers class.) I am hoping, I will be given permission to conduct my study with these two classes using autobiographies of African-American and Mexican-American/ Latino writers.
  3. Data Collection -the data to be collected will be surveys, personal interviews, (pre and post interviews), and through observations and also by collecting documents including the class syllabus and student writing samples, including personal narratives, literacy narratives, short autobiographies, reflections, and analysis of some of the readings, and argumentative writings.
  4. Data Analysis- Survey all the classes. After the survey select students for personal interview and case studies. Observe the two classes at least once a week and take notes and use some of the students own writings. Record the data and analyze data, which will be the students’ responses to written work.

I will be the primary researcher, and my bias is that through the introduction of autobiographical writings in the beginning of the curriculum will allow the students to connect with “self” and with their cultural identity, and also find their writing “voice.” The hope and assumption is that they will become stronger readers and writers by reading a subject that interests them and connects them to their self or to their roots. It is this writer’s assumption that this will bring the FYC students to understand more of their “self” and of their identity by reading success stories of people with similar backgrounds and ethnicity. They then will be introduced and moved to academic writing and the academic discourse.

Interviews

I interviewed a FYC instructor who teaches at Berkeley Community College, and at Skyline College. I also interviewed a FYC Instructor who teaches at San Jose State University, and also at a community college in the South Bay, and an ESL Teacher who works on campus at SFSU. In addition to this I will be interviewing several SFSU (San Francisco State University) undergraduate students. The following are some questions I will use while conducting my interviews with undergraduate students:

Interview Questions:

1. How long have you been attending SFSU? / Or Chabot College?

2. Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to come to SFSU?

3. What is your major?

4. What type of essays where you assigned in your Freshman Year Composition (FYC)?

5. How many essays were you assigned a semester?

6. Did any of your essays relate to autobiographies?

7. Did any of your assignments deal with literacy narratives?

8. Do you use personal narratives in your class?

9. How much attention was given to grammar/ mechanics in your classroom?

10. What authors or materials did you use in your class?

11. Did you use a specific theme in your class?

12. Were you taught analytic or argumentative writing?

13. If so, tell me a little about what you learned…

14. What was your favorite writing assignment?

15. Were you a good writer in high school?

16. Tell me a little bit about your English classes…in high school or college?

Concluding Thoughts

In attempting to fill this gap, I believe by studying how FYC students or Basic Writers react to using the personal narrative as a way to improve their reading and writing skills would make for an interesting and worthwhile project. I suggested in the beginning of this paper that through the use of autobiographical writings, the literacy narrative and the theme of identity, and “self” this could be used as an impetus to draw and engage FYC students and Basic Writers. I suggest that by connecting the student with their life experiences, and their identity they could possibly involve themselves with their own writings. This could be a first step in the reading and writing process. Through writing their autobiography, their own literacy narrative they will begin to understand themselves and their own writings as they make connections with the text. They can write about something they are experts on, “themselves.”Spires et al. suggested if students had not had previous positive experiences in their writing, it was unlikely that their writing would improve. This is a way to give students that positive experience. Spires et al. also suggested that when students engaged with their reading they became emotionally and psychologically engaged and connected through their writings. Then they can be moved on to more analytical and academic writing.

Works Cited

Angelou, M., (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, New York: Bantam Books.

Bartholomae, D., & Petrosky, A. (1986). Facts Artifacts and     Counterfacts: Theory and Method For a Reading and Writing Course: Portsmouth, NH Boynton / Cook Publishers

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bransford, J.D., & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal  Behavior, 11 717-726.

Camangian, P. (2010) Starting With Self: Teaching Autoethnography to Foster Critically Caring Literacies Research in the Teaching of English Volume 45, No. 2 November, 2010

Canagarajah, A.S. (1997) Safe Houses in the Contact Zone: Coping Strategies of African-American Students in the Academy College Composition and Communication, Vol. 48, No. 2 (May, 1997), 173-196

Chamblee, C.M. (1998). Bringing Life to Reading and Writing for at-Risk College Students Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 41, No 7 Apr., 1998, 532-537

Cook-Gumperz, J. (1993) Dilemmas of Identity: Oral and Written Literacies in the Making of A Basic Writing Student Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 24, No 4, Alternative Literacies, In School and Beyond Dec., 1993, 336-356

Fox, T. (1990) Basic Writing As Cultural Conflict Journal of Education, Vol.172, Number 1

Haley, A. (1965).The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press

Hamann, L.S., Schultz, L., Smith, M.W., & White, B.,(1991).The Power of Autobiographical Writing before Reading Journal of Reading, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Sept., 1991) 24-28

Nystrand, M. (1991). Making it hard: Curriculum and Instruction as factors in difficulty of literature. In A Purves (Ed.), The idea of difficulty in literature. Albany: SUNY at Albany Press, 141-156.

Soliday, M. (1994). Translating Self and Difference through Literacy Narratives College English, Vol 56, No.5 (Sept., 1994) 511-526

Sommers, N. (1992) Between the Drafts in E.P.J. Corbett, N. Myers & G. Tate (Eds.) The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook 4th Edition, (279-285) New York; NY Oxford University Press

Shaughnessy, M.P. (1977).  Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing, New York: Oxford University Press

Spires, H.A., Williams, J.B., Jackson, A., & Huffman, L.E. (1998). Leveling the Academic Playing Field through Autobiographical Reading and Writing Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Dec., 1998) 296-304

Thomas, P. (1967) Down These Mean Streets, New York: Vintage Books

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard; University Press.

White, B.F. (1995). Effects of Autobiographical Writing before Reading on Students’ Responses to Short Stories The Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 88. No. 3 (Jan –Feb., 1995) 173-184

Young, V.A., (2004) Your Average Nigga College Composition and Communication, Vol. 55 No. 4 June, 2004, 693-715

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