The Common Core & Personal Writing in the College Classroom


Last week the Chronicle‘s “Conversation” blog featured a post by Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein. The comments that followed were only a small part of the larger brouhaha over the Common Core standards going on throughout all levels of education. While I have not gotten a chance to read every contribution to the conversation yet and the many other articles/blogs on the topic, Bauerlein’s argument against personal writing and the ensuing comments highlight the stakes in the debate for anyone teaching writing or writing-intensive courses on a college level.

This debate over personal writing is, in turn, reminiscent of discussions I often had with colleagues as a special education middle school teacher, leading instruction in English Language Arts and Social Studies in some of poorest neighborhoods in New York City. Every year the first unit of study in ELA focused on memoirs, and overall the students spent very little time doing close readings or the sort of analysis and writing that other content areas (and higher levels of education) would demand. While the entire literacy curriculum was of course not singularly devoted to memoirs, there was the constant push to simply “get students writing.” During instructional and curriculum planning meetings, this typically meant that we were encouraged to create writing activities that centered on the student’s personal experience. There was a profound disconnect between the DBQ-based exercises I would integrate into social studies and the written work that the students generated in ELA in alignment with the curriculum. These curriculum developments could have been mostly a product of the schools in which I happened to teach, but many colleagues in other buildings voiced similar concerns.

Bauerlein includes a quote from David Coleman, the “architect” of the Common Core in response to personal writing methods using the “exposition of a personal opinion” and the “presentation of a personal matter,” which I think is worth repeating:

The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh– about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” That is rare. It is equally rare in college by the way.

Coleman also discusses in his remarks the lack of close textual reading and a need for giving students access to the academic language that is the “language of power,” adding that the Common Core standards “require you to read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.”

In some ways, I could not agree more with the sentiments Coleman proposes are behind the Common Core standards in English. However, I also think that there is a place for personal writing in intellectual development. I do not want my students to become non-thinking, uncritical, uninvolved work droids (and, consequently, awful voters/citizens or disinterested humans) that forsake personal opinions and investments in very important debates to only take impersonal positions. To be clear, I do not think  Coleman and Bauerlein are endorsing that particular model of education either. But  it seems that trends in education swing from one extreme to another; this drastic paradigm shift happens on both an institutional and national level, and can include a shift on content focus (Obama’s fifth State of the Union last night is in keeping with a trending focus on science and technology, some would argue at the expense of languages, arts, and humanities), teaching methods, or testing. Rather than taking pieces from initiatives that work, the politics of education demand a complete disassociation with a failed trend, and a distancing from whatever was once “in vogue” as it falls out of favor. Meanwhile, critics and proponents alike often lift points (often out of context) from new initiatives to attack and entirely dismantle older practices, and – in some cases – discard the bits and pieces that did actually work.

One solution for including personal writing in a productive way in the college classroom lies in informal writing or reflective assignments, rather than making personal writing the main product of the course. Personal writing can help students access material initially, or even establish a base-line connection with the importance of a text or idea. Whether asking students to tweet in response to a prompt, write a short response for a pulse check, or post to our class blog or discussion board (and then respond to one another), interesting and fruitful discussions can and do take place.

As a framing mechanism for a Reacting to the Past game, I elicit students’ opinions on the major themes and conflicts of the game via informal writing.  RTTP games create a liminal space, wherein students are asked to abandon their personal opinion and take on a character role. Using primary source texts and powers of persuasion, they must argue in speeches and in papers to try and gain members to their faction and win their victory objectives; they are asked, as Coleman notes, to “make an argument with evidence,” and then to convince others of the logic and superiority of their position – even a position that they disagree with personally. Because RTTP clearly demarcates the “game play” space from the academic space, informal personal response assignments can be the basis for further research and allow students to reflect on their own learning process. For instance, before we played Mark Higbee’s game Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Constitution: 1845 in my composition class, I asked each student to post an informal written response as to whether or not he/she believed we lived in a post-racial society. They were later asked to revisit the prompt and their initial response in a different informal writing exercise. In their initial responses, students relied solely on personal experiences: what they saw or encountered in their daily lives, how (as a diverse group) they had been treated by others, etc. A handful mentioned news stories, but the overwhelming majority of responses were based on personal experience. After the game, however, and while pursuing research projects on race today and gathering data on affirmative action, immigration reform, and the commentary surrounding Obama (not to mention the birther movement), students based their responses on hard data, media representations, political and social theory, and legal scholarship. More importantly, students could articulate when and how their own initial personal opinions had been swayed or strengthened based upon the evidence they encountered during game play and later research; this, at least to me, seemed to be a powerful and important synthesis of knowledge. To discount how students interpreted and positioned themselves on the topic of race in our society today would have removed an integral meta-analysis component from our class.

At the close of a course where we explored the debates between creationism and evolution in public school education, one student declared that he did not think college was a place to form opinions or debate topics; he argued that it was a place to get facts from lectures and books, and nothing more. It seems to me that this is the inherent danger should the pendulum swing too far in the direction of eschewing personal writing in college or even high school classrooms. Used in informal writing exercises or as a framing synthesis device for textual analysis, RTTP game-play (or other learning activities) or larger research projects, personal writing is an important tool for political and/or analytical commentary and for developing critical thinking. It is worth remembering that Bauerlein’s defense of Coleman was largely in response to the Common Core’s changes to K-12 education – and Bauerlein focuses mostly on high school preparation for college, and personal narratives like memoirs in particular. A K-12 curriculum largely based on personal writing may not do any favors for future college students, but to deny the personal entirely is to potentially deny opinions, the growth of critical thinkers, and perhaps even the formation of political agency. As college educators, we do not need to ask for a “compelling account of your childhood” necessarily, but an outright denial of the opportunity to reflect upon personal experiences and opinion formation would not be doing college students present and future any favors either.

Leave a Reply