Writing From A Personal (Academic) Space

By Liana M. Silva-Ford, Ph.D.

As a first-year writing instructor I learned early on that the traditional arc for teaching academic writing started with the personal essay. I didn’t attend an undergraduate institution in the continental United States States and my only writing course as an undergrad was an introduction to literary criticism, so I had no context for what such a writing course should look like. Although I was told that the goal was for students to learn how to do the kind of thoughtful analysis that’s expected of them in college-level papers, all the sample syllabi I looked at and all the English instructors I spoke to started with the personal essay. That approach stuck with me until my last semester of teaching first-year composition.

When I would start planning my courses, I’d sit back and think about alternative assignments; but, I always went back to some variation of the personal essay. It gave students a chance to talk about something they knew (themselves) and also start practicing skills they would use in other papers (analyze, narrate, describe). I enjoyed teaching that first assignment; but, ultimately we would have to close that unit and move on to something else, and, eventually, make it to the research paper. Inevitably, I stressed all semester long how these skills we were practicing in other papers would come in handy in that last assignment. The personal essay would fade away; and, all we could see in front of us was the research paper.

The “logical” progression of the writing assignments went like this: start from the inside and work your way out. Ideally, the student would start thinking about their own experiences from a critical perspective and move from there toward more complex analyses until they arrived at the research paper. Depending on the writing instructor, you’ll get an Op-Ed in there, a rhetorical analysis or a book review, something of the sort. But the point is, you practice thinking critically until, BAM! the research paper springs on you. And so, the course ends with an introduction to the kind of paper you will write again and again and again all throughout your undergrad…and later on in graduate school.

you practice thinking critically until, BAM! the research paper springs on you.

As someone who thinks about academic writing regularly, either for my editorial work, for coaching clients, or for my research, I now wonder: how did we get from Personal Essay to Research Paper? And where did “I” die in the process?

Academics are often told to leave the personal out of the writing. Sometimes it’s for the sake of seeming objectivity, and sometimes it’s to avoid relying on their own experience than on proving their own argument. Although the personal essay may seem like an exercise in self-love, I find myself remembering why it is useful as an introduction to academic writing: it is supposed to teach students to think of their experiences in a critical light. It always helps to frame that kind of personal writing within a certain context: an event, an insight, an object. I, for one, wanted my students to step away from the familiar and think about their lives from within a critical frame. Why not bring that framing to our own academic writing?

Academics, especially those who make it all the way to the Ph.D. and/or who publish academic books, will have had extensive practice in that kind of analytical, complex, but often overwrought writing. It’s second nature, whether they (we) like it or not. The prospect of talking about oneself in an academic piece may sound uncomfortable or downright ghastly, and might be seen as the kind of writing only seen in diaries — or first-year composition. It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s important to remember why writing instructors assign this essay in the first place, and why it is so popular as a genre outside of the classroom. It allows a writer to practice reflection. Also, it enables us to consider our connection to the world around us. On a smaller scale, personal essays get writers to practice skills that are useful across genres: description, analysis, character development, summary, narration. Personal essays can help improve critical thinking. The personal essay genre may seem trite to some (Let’s talk about our feelings!); but, frankly, a personal essay can be about anything the writer wants it to be.

make your writing stand out by interweaving why it matters to you.

However, I am not suggesting that academic writers suddenly start writing personal essays, or that writing instructors should toss out the research paper. (That last point is a whole other conversation for a whole other essay.) What I am suggesting is that academic writing could benefit from taking a page from how to write a personal essay. For a lot of academic writers, this kind of exercise happens on a blog. If one’s research question or work stems from a personal place, it could be useful to think about why that matters. This approach can also help you to communicate your work and your research to your audience. It could be an excellent introduction to your work: why do you do what you do? Sure, we can talk about the importance of our research in the academic grand scheme of things and how important this theory about a certain author could be; but, make your writing stand out by interweaving why it matters to you.

Let’s dispel the notion that including one’s experiences leads to a weak argument. Instead, let’s embrace those experiences as part of the writing and the research.

Liana M. Silva-Ford obtained her Ph.D. in English at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Her thesis was an interdisciplinary study on New York City as home in African American and Puerto Rican cultural productions. She is the incoming editor for Women in Higher Education. She is also the co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! (a blog about sound studies) and Developmental Editor for Academic Coaching and Writing, LLC. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

The citation for this article is:
L.M. Silva-Ford (2013) Writing From A Personal (Academic) Space.
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Published 14-Dec-2013