Between Dread and Assurance: Autobiography and Academic Conventions in the Writing of Adult Learners

by Laverne Nishihara
Assistant Professor of English
Indiana University East

As a teacher of composition and autobiographical writing at a university with a high percentage of nontraditional students, I have often heard adult learners express anxiety about writing papers for the first time in years. My presentation described methods used in my Autobiographical Writing course that have succeeded in increasing the confidence of adult learners, methods that establish a foundation for achievement in writing. I took participants through exercises that have increased the learners’ confidence and cultivated their enthusiasm. Later in the presentation, I speculated about possibilities for extending the techniques used in autobiographical writing to improving the formal academic research and writing of adult learners.

In the Autobiographical Writing class, a good part of the writers’ increased confidence can be attributed to their examining, during the first class period, a short excerpt from Brenda Ueland’s classic text If You Want to Write. It is no coincidence that Ueland describes her own writing class as one dominated by adult learners: "prosperous and poor, stenographers, housewives, salesmen, . . . timid people and bold ones" (3). Students ponder Ueland’s other statements: "everybody is talented, original and has something important to say." (3). "Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express" (4); and "Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be" (4). The magic in Ueland’s work appears to be its assertion of the integrity of individual experience, and its placement of talent and originality in being truthful about that experience. Examining her statements appears to modify adult learners’ conception of writing as a rule-following, constricting exercise. Among the students in my classes, I have seen the paralyzing fear of the instructor’s red pen replaced by an attitude of freedom to write productively and originally. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which I have adapted for in-class freewriting exercises, have led to stimulating essay drafts based on the writers’ experiences.

Initially, I was afraid that using Ueland’s statements and Goldberg’s freewriting techniques would lead to undisciplined writing. However, it has become clear that the definition of talent as expression, and originality as truth-telling, also leads to writers’ willingness to offer and consider suggestions about their writing. The peer reviewing process, in which students offer comments about each other’s writing, appears to work more productively in the atmosphere of acceptance created by this class than an atmosphere of criticism. Though this is a long-accepted truism, I was struck by the contrast between this class’s peer reviewing and that of my others. I was also struck by the writers’ increased willingness to dialogue with me about their writing: they would voluntarily write what amounted to long letters explaining their intentions and hopes, and asking me to look for specific elements in their work. The quality of the essays turned in for Autobiographical Writing has been superior to the quality of those turned in for any others I teach, reversing any impression that emphasizing criticism would lead to the greatest improvement. Typical student comments about the class include "excerpts, books, and workshops . . . helped me to elicit out of myself uninhibited writing"; "I was a skeptic at first as I am not a sharing individual, but it grew on me"; and "the essays I read in class were remarkable."

A challenge now is to transfer some of the atmosphere and the outcomes of the Autobiographical Writing course to my composition classes. I have thought that one important function of a first-year composition and research class that I teach is that it is a survival course in academic writing; people should emerge from it better prepared to write reports and papers in as many academic disciplines as possible. Yet the transition from personal writing to academic writing is difficult; adult learners in particular might decide to withdraw from the class in the face of the academic writing conventions that might seem to inhibit thought rather than inspire it. Bruce Ballenger’s recent book Beyond Note Cards: Rethinking the Freshman Research Paper has been useful in addressing this transition from the autobiographical essay to the research paper. Ballenger advocates the exploratory research essay as an alternative to the thesis-driven research paper. Rather than beginning with a claim and then selecting lifeless excerpts from research to support it, students are encouraged to generate and explore questions in their research. The papers are more accurately called essays in their exploratory quality and in their freer development of thought.

I have just begun a process of offering people in my classes the option of building their research papers upon autobiographical topics; previously, I had only specified that personal anecdotes could supplement other (more legitimate) evidence. My motive is to increase the personal engagement of the writer in the research paper assignments. The experiences of adult learners, which contributed so potently to their work in the Autobiographical Writing class, would then provide motivation for research writing. I am also trying to re-frame the tools and conventions of academic writing (the claim, the introduction, the organizational strategies, the documentation formats) as structures that can liberate rather than inhibit. Just as the dimensions of a canvas or a block of marble provide a foundation for the creativity of the visual artist, so can the structures of writing provide a creative challenge and inspiration to the writer.

Thus far, I have seen some positive outcomes of giving adult learners the option of using an aspect of their extensive experience as the center of their research papers. They appreciate the choice, and some are selecting that option. One difficulty so far has been that writers tend to compose their entire paper drafts around personal experience, leaving research to be fitted in at the end; they have not been interacting with the research materials as extensively and with as much engagement as I had hoped. I have consequently altered assignments so that the writers frame autobiographical questions that motivate their research from the very start.

Works Cited

Ballenger, Bruce. Beyond Note Cards: Rethinking the Freshman Research Paper. Portsmouth, N. H.: Heinemann, 1999.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 1986. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book about Arts, Independence and Spirit. 2nd Ed. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1987.

Posted with permission.