In the beginning of this semester, I asked my students to write a short reflection on how they learned to read and write. The assignment was an abbreviated version of what we traditionally call a literacy narrative in the field of writing and rhetoric. Literacy narratives are popular assignments in composition classrooms, and if you have taught ENC 1101 or 1102, you have probably assigned some variety of a literacy narrative. Pedagogically, they offer powerful ways of helping students connect the content of the classroom to their own life experience. Yet, when I asked students to share their story, my otherwise active class became quiet. I was startled at first, but then I thought back to a piece by bell hooks I first read two years ago, and I began to understand why even some of my most engaged students were suddenly reluctant.
Students’ literacy narratives often reveal the kinds of lessons students were taught about reading and writing outside of school, and they also show which people, tools, texts, and institutions have shaped their learning process. Thus, literacy narratives tend to reflect the kinds of socio-economic privileges students did or did not have growing up: How many books were available in your childhood home? What kinds of technologies did you have access to? Did you have high speed internet at home, or did you have to visit the public library to access the web? Are you among the first generation in your family to attend a university? As instructors, we may not always realize it, but writing a literacy narrative entails answering questions that may feel sensitive, delicate, and private.
Any time we assign a personal narrative, we ask students to take a risk and make themselves vulnerable. bell hooks reminds us that “[p]rofessors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive” (21.) So should we abandon personal narratives in composition classrooms, to shield our students from such risks? On the contrary, I agree with bell hooks that the key to teaching any personal narrative in a non-coercive, empowering manner lies in breaking down the teacher-student hierarchy, and in showing students the value of sharing and connecting lived experience to classroom content.
After teaching literacy narratives a few weeks ago, I made a promise to myself. Like hooks, I will not “expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any ways that I would not share” (21). Luckily, improvisation is my favorite part of teaching. After a minute of silence with no volunteers to share their narrative, I began to tell my own, and I made sure to not only draw parallels to the readings we discussed in class, but to also include all the nerdy details. As hooks states, “when professors bring narratives of their experiences into the classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators” (21). If we take the first risk, we identify ourselves not only as co-learners, but as human beings. Making ourselves vulnerable takes practice, and it takes courage. However, if we expect our students to come up with that courage, we should be willing to at least try the same.