The Power of Personality in Student Writing
Recipient of the 2013 Faculty Teaching and Advising Award, and Assistant Professor of Music
It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your postage stamp of reality. Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are. You want to escape yourself. For almost ten years it didn’t occur to me that I should exploit Daddy’s blue-collar idiom. I was trying to pass for edge-u-kated. -Mary Karr
I read Mary Karr’s third memoir, Lit, a month ago and found myself captivated by her honest, spare writing – a writing style that seemed so intertwined with (what I imagine to be) her personality that it felt as though I had learned about her agonizing lapse into alcoholism and her eventual spiritual conversion while talking to her over coffee. Although the epigraph above is from an interview where she addresses the art of memoir-writing, and not academic writing, I wonder if student writing would improve if there were more emphasis on working to discover and enhance each student’s unique academic writing style. This is not to say that a students’ writing style emerges fully-formed, without effort, from their personality, but that their academic writing style need not, in fact should not be, divorced from who they are as people.
Encourage expressive clarity
The first time I was accountable for grading papers, I was a teaching assistant without much guidance about how to assess student writing. In an effort to provide non-biased suggestions, I found myself most comfortable correcting grammar. It seemed the fairest way to grade. Especially in cases where the writing was very unclear, grammar correction was my crutch. I told myself it was all I could do to help the student create a path to clarity. Looking back, though many of my students could have improved their grammar, most of them would have been better-served with suggestions about clarifying their ideas, expressing thoughts more precisely, and writing in a voice or style reflective of their personalities – in essence, a style that mirrored their epistemologies, the ways they knew what they knew. In well-intentioned efforts to produce clear writing, perhaps many teachers, like myself, have felt it necessary to focus on grammar, on the “rules” of writing instead of developing each student’s particular writing style complete with its own quirks.
Creating writing aversion
Is this why it is a rarity to encounter students who love writing? After teaching writing intensive classes for almost a decade, I am beginning to believe that many students have developed an aversion to writing because they feel detached from it, as though professors are asking them to become someone else on paper – someone much duller, perhaps frumpier, than who they are in person. Because their written word seems detached from their true selves, academic writing can feel like a stodgy and cold exercise to even the most enthusiastic students.
Focus on style
Perhaps we would do better to focus on each student’s style – to focus on their writing as an extension of their personality – albeit a fancier, more sophisticated persona, one that wears a sweater instead of a sweatshirt to class. This may give them some intrinsic motivation to be true to their most excellent selves on paper. Proper grammar is necessary, and precise terminology helps produce clear writing, but if grammar and highfalutin words that students know only from the thesaurus come to mind when a writing assignment is announced, it must be tough to get excited about it. Perhaps they believe we are telling them that their ways of knowing (in writing) are simply not good enough. Yet, this is not the case. I am endlessly impressed by what my non-music majors hear when they listen to a tune. Many of them are as perceptive as their peers with more musical experience. They simply do not know the terminology, but through conversation and practice, we tease out what they are trying to communicate – and though the vocabulary changes, their assessment of a tune’s resonance remains the same.
Karr uses nuanced language in her memoirs – but she is true to herself; she writes as her educated self, not her “edge-u-kated” self. Our students must write as their educated selves, allowing their personalities to infiltrate their papers. When I think about the excellent papers I have had the pleasure of reading as a professor, the superior papers always have presence of personality, a writing style that feels true to the author’s life. As professors, we need to encourage students to write as their unique selves while maintaining high expectations for precision in language and clarity of ideas – the etiquette of academic writing. There is room for both.
- Fortini, Amanda. “Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir No. 1.” The Paris Review 191 (2009). Web.
- Wolf, MaryAnne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.