The poet Charles Boebel once explained his view of personal writing: “There are many masks buried deep inside each of us and when we write, these masks, sometimes one, sometimes more than one, surface and are expressed in our written works” (ICEA 2002). Masks provide interchangeable alternate identities, not to be hidden behind, but exposed, processed and developed through writing. Boebel’s concept draws upon connections from the mask theory of W.B. Yeats to the expressivism of Peter Elbow and Ken Macrorie, to the psychoanalytic theory of Christine Brooke-Rose. As we write, we select a mask, don it, and express its representational persona. Through review and revision of our writing, we attempt to examine aspects of that mask, and to define our worlds, our thoughts, and our selves. In this process we learn.
As expressivist theory espouses the ideals of empowerment and ownership in writing, the idea of multi-faced individual identities emphasizes a teacher-student and student-teacher discourse. Included here are theories such as those of David Bleich, stressing the need for classroom discourse that creates a writing experience powerful enough to expand student identity.
The discovery of our masks, or more appropriately our submerged identities, is often a positive, though sometimes painful, event. Through critical self-exploration, writers may find themselves adjusting, altering, and interchanging these masks to accommodate an ever-changing world of ideas. Thus, the individual writer is engaged in a process of exploring such concepts as Mikhail Bakhtin’s “others” and integrating this otherness into an ongoing reexamination of self (Halesek 96).
As writers and as teachers of rhetoric and composition, we, too, carry our masks/faces into the classroom; therefore, we must be cautious in our expositional discourse. We must practice a non-directive pedagogy so as not to shape students’ ideas regarding self-identity, but rather try to foster their awareness and discovery. Through this constant engagement in discourse exchange, teachers watch themselves grow and change. Paulo Freire’s model of communication speaks of such a transformation: “Through dialogue, the teachers-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teachers cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers” (67).
Each of the four core composition units that we discuss in this paper presents its own set of challenges to both student and teacher. As writing teachers at mid-sized (Carnegie Master’s I) state universities, weoffer four varied approaches to the process of student/instructor discourse and to the examination and discovery of identity. One of the main goals in core curriculum composition and literature classes at such schools is to allow new students to explore issues of personal and social identity formation; at the same time we must respect the mandate to provide basic communication tools and skills that will facilitate just such an exploration. The following assignments have helped us to achieve both of these outcomes on a regular basis.
Exploring Values in a Changing Society: A Writing Assignment for Freshman English
Martha K. Smith
At the University of Southern Indiana, our freshman English class is called “Rhetoric and Composition I: Critical Thinking.” We emphasize these objectives:
- Developing a composing technique
- Developing the skills, attitudes, and character of a critical thinker
- Defining a problem of issue
- Developing an awareness of language
- Discovering one’s own ideas
- Discovering and dealing with the thoughts of others
- Testing and evaluating ideas
- Using standard written English effectively
I address many of these objectives in the semester’s first major writing assignment, which explores the students’ own values. Whether living on campus or commuting, freshmen are constantly adjusting to a broader range of ideas and experiences, some of which can challenge long held values and beliefs.
I like to use texts from the book Searching for Great Ideas as a springboard for discussion and writing. Many of the readings lend themselves to a discussion of values. Here are some examples:
- “Introduction” from The Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett
- “The Allegory of the Cave” by Plato
- “Existentialism” by Jean-Paul Sartre
- “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism” by Suzanne Pharr
Once the class has examined and discussed several of these articles, they are ready to receive the following assignment:
For the past few weeks, we have been reading and discussing articles that concern personal, cultural, or societal values. These texts address moral decline, multiculturalism, and philosophy and rationality. Think about the influences that have shaped your own beliefs and values. For essay one, examine a belief, value, or opinion that you once held but, for some reason, have changed. First, describe the original belief and its causes or sources. Next, recount the event or process that brought about the change. Finally, describe the new belief you now hold and its effect on your life. You should give equal weight to each of the three sections. First person point of view is acceptable. No outside sources are required for this essay, but if you do choose to add them, use MLA form for your bibliography and citations.
As a prewriting technique, students list as many groups as they can think of to which they have belonged. Once the list is made, students mark whether or not they are members of each group by choice. The next step examines values connected with both types of group membership.
I ask students to examine their beliefs to see which are strongest and what people, experiences, and processes have shaped and influenced them. Finally, they proceed to looking for beliefs or values that have changed. Such discussion invariably produces an extensive list of possible topics.
Once a first draft is completed, the students engage in peer review in order to critique each other and make sure they have developed each part of the essay sufficiently. Many students have no trouble describing the event(s) that caused their beliefs or values to change, but they often have a little more difficulty examining the origins of the feelings and, particularly, the effects that the new beliefs have had on their lives.
Following individual writing conferences, students submit their final drafts and answer questions that I design for feedback on the assignment. Many students stress how much they have learned about themselves in the process of writing these essays. By using their own life experiences, they seem able to find the voices to engage in critical self-analysis. I have frequently received mature self-examinations of topics such as religion; parental expectations; pressures from peers and the media; self-image; materialism; patriotism; racism; homophobia; stereotyping; and relationships with friends, families, teachers, and employers. Examining identity, I feel, is an ideal vehicle to launch the college writing experience.
Using Concepts of Gender Identity in Core Curriculum Composition
The discovery and exploration of individual and social identities by freshman writing students can be a sometimes painful, sometimes positive process. If the university is to truly be a place of discovery, then it will often be the core curriculum reading and writing assignments that provide students with an introduction to that process. Having taught in graduate school at a large (Carnegie Research Extensive) state university, and as a faculty member at two mid-sized (Carnegie Master’s I) state universities, I have found that the objectives or goals of such schools usually include a mandate to help students build critical and complex perspectives about conceptions of themselves and the world at large. This objective is achieved by some combination of personal experience, critical reading, analysis of others’ experiences, classroom discussion, and various forms of writing. However, as university teachers, we often find that a lack of a broadly-based life experience--combined with strongly internalized but frequently unexamined social assumptions--makes it difficult for such students to get far enough beyond the painful aspects of identity exploration to finally achieve the positive.
In my freshman-level composition classes, I have often used an assignment that encourages students to make such a transition by entering more fully into the academic discourse community--critically reading and discussing ideas that at times may seem intuitively reasonable and at other times counterintuitive to concepts that they may have internalized without much inspection--and by gaining mastery in the discovery, organization, and presentation of a thesis and complex argument that uses both affirmative and contradictory assertions of others.
The goal is to help young men and women at a transitional stage in their lives to gain more confidence in their abilities to marshal an argument based not only upon their own opinions, but also by synthesizing their opinions with those of others. This assignment provides a very good transition between the largely personal types of writing often found in high school and first-level college composition courses, and the research-based writing required in secondary composition and major field courses:
What does it mean to be a man or a woman in America in the twenty-first century?
Certainly, for the last generation or so, there have been charges and countercharges of sexual bias, economic oppression, double standards, and other negative assertions that have clouded and sometimes aggravated relations between American men and women.
In our current and future America, are there significant differences between the possibilities for achievement that are available to men and women? Are we all really equal or are there basic differences between the sexes that continue to separate us on intellectual, emotional, social, and economic levels? Does the culture we live in make our interactions with members of the opposite sex more likely to foster positive or negative results? Why does it sometimes seem difficult for men to “understand” women and vice versa?
Consider these questions and assertions as you write an essay on an issue of female and male identity at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Focus on one aspect of the ongoing cultural discussion. Synthesize references from at least two essays that we have read; do so with references from any class discussions and/or personal experiences that you have had. Develop specific examples to support your thesis.
You may agree or disagree with any of the authors—you may even agree with part of one essay and disagree with another part of the same essay; however, your paper should center on your thesis. It is not a comparison or contrast of the ideas of others. You should use the assertions of others only as they relate to your own.
The readings below are selections from The McGraw-Hill Reader: Issues across the Disciplines. But a similar assignment could easily be constructed from selections in numerous other texts, or even a personally developed course packet. The key is to find a combination of readings that offer seemingly self-evident assertions as well as readings that require a more critically complex analysis. This text contains many essays that are both accessible and thought provoking for many of my freshman and sophomore composition students. These selections seem appropriate for gender identity exploration:
- Susan Jacoby’s “When Bright Girls Decide that Math is ‘a Waste of Time’”
- Perry Klass’s “Ambition”
- Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s “Who’s in Charge of the English Language?”
- Deborah Tannen’s “Sex, Lies, and Conversation”
- Paul Theroux’s “Being a Man”
For each essay we read the students must bring to class a short but (hopefully) thoughtful written response for class discussion:
- With which statement do you most agree? Why?
- With which statement do you most disagree? Why?
- Which statement do you find the most thought provoking? Why?
The length of the response is not stated, and I invariably receive a wide range, from one paragraph to several pages. However, I emphasize before each assignment that students should view this reading and writing as a directed form of pre-writing or note taking. If they read closely and respond specifically, they will have not only a form of outline from which they may select specific examples to build their assertions in formal drafts, but also good notes for our class discussions and for peer responses.
Usually the classes are initially hesitant to talk about their opinions and analyses of the readings, with one or two opinionated students dominating the discussions. However, with directed questioning and critical encouragement, I have found that most classes respond positively to the challenge of engaging their own assumptions with those of the writers and with those of other students. One student stated in an end of semester course evaluation that “I never really thought much about some of the differences between men and women. I know that we are different but this assignment made me think about specifics of how we are different and how we are the same.” Another said, “At first I thought this assignment was stupid. But after doing the readings and discussions, I even got excited about writing my paper and using ideas from things we’d read and talked about to support my opinions.”
The purpose of the assignment is not simply to negate sexual or gender stereotypes. Other topics might conceivably fit well into the basic pedagogical framework. But the exploration and discovery of assumptions about biological and gender identities has proven to be one of the more successful units in all of my composition and rhetoric courses.
Exploring Sexual Identity: Coming to Terms with Homosexuality through a Sophomore–Level, Argumentative Composition Course
Jean A. Wagner
I teach rhetoric and composition in a mid-sized university. I would generally describe my student population as innocent and clinging tightly to social beliefs and attitudes drawn largely from their homes and churches. Because of their sometimesingrained political and/or religiousbeliefs, it is often difficult to broach subjects in my composition classroomthat might well be the norm in other environments, such as a discussion between faculty members. Yet, as a university instructor, I feel it is my duty to prepare students for the world and to provide them with a process by which to argue their beliefs rationally or perhaps alter these beliefs in light of evidence at hand. It is a fine line but a necessary line that I walk as I rhetorically introduce controversy into their lives without coloring this introduction with my own beliefs.
The unit belowinvolves the general topic of homosexuality, more specifically that of gay rights. I have found that my students develop sharper critical thinking and argumentative skills if they are offered a very broad topic and allowed to narrow and focus it themselves. Through this process they experience ownership of an idea, are better able to express their true feelings, and internalize those experiences into their belief system. In order to allow for an open sharing of ideas, the importance of establishing a safe, comfortable environment cannot be overly stressed. Thus, introductions of controversial topics are not made until a few weeks into the semester, or until safe discourse communities are established.
The introduction of this assignment is done quite simply. I enter the classroom and ask my students to spend the class period writing on the following topic: “How do you feel about gay rights?” The only directions given are that they are to proofread their papers and turn them in at the end of the period. Often, after making this assignment, I am met with blank stares, shaking heads, hesitations, and finally efforts to write. These are also used as diagnostic papers--to pinpoint grammatical and mechanical errors, but not graded for content. Needless to say, content of these papers is often heated, has little credibility, and is often irrational. These are some common responses:
“I don’t care what they do--as long as they stay the hell away from me.”
“My religion says it’s wrong, so it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“It’s simply too disgusting for me to think about.”
In preparation for the next class meeting, students are asked to read and answer discussion questions pertaining to “The Declaration of Independence” by Thomas Jefferson and “Gay Marriage, an Oxymoron” by Lisa Schiffren.
The following class meeting, I return the papers and conduct amini lesson using the student writing to illustrate errors and corrections needed. This exercise serves a three-fold purpose in a nonthreatening manner:
- It allows for corrections to construction errors.
- It places student ideas into the open.
- It indicates the identity struggle of others.
The remainder of class time is spent collaboratively in group work and discussion using the assigned readings. My role in this discussion is as a guide and sometimes devil’s advocate to elicit rational discussion and critical thinking. I begin this discussion in a very general way in order to:
- Assist those students who have been unable to engage the issues.
- Broaden student awareness of the complexity of gay rights issues.
- Stress the need for logic and clarity in arguments.
- Assist students in focusing and narrowing topic choices.
Following the discussion, the students are asked to come to the next class prepared to defend the positions they have taken. The group collaboration and discussion frequently reveals the emotionally charged irrationality of many arguments, and I emphasize the necessity to form credible arguments backed up with logical source material. Throughout this assignment, class discussions, readings, journal entries, and group work all focus on a unit approach. Following paper completion, we take a break from class collaborations and view the movie Philadelphia. I chose this particular film for its candid depictions, pathos, empathy, and lack of empathy, as well as vivid revelations of the power of argumentation. At the end of viewing and discussion, I announce that at the next class meeting a new paper assignment will be introduced. Sometimes this announcement is met with a sigh of relief from students who wish to see this topic behind them. Throughout the course of this unit, I continually stress the need not only to be able to argue one’s own beliefs credibly and rationally, but to know and understand the opposition to those beliefs. Therefore, the next topic introduction requires the students to enter once again the argumentative process--only this time they are to refute their first argument logically. In other words, they are to argue against themselves successfully. This exercise is usually met with student resistance; some students openly state in class “I can’t do that” or come to me individually to voice a protest. My premise remains the same--to understand and engage in successful argument, an individual must be able to argue against him/herself successfully. Further, this oppositional stance engages the students in a process of better understanding others’ viewpoints and a respect for asense of otherness is often forthcoming.
I acknowledge that such immersion in a controversial topic is not without its share of student misgivings and turmoil. However, by probing, questioning, and openly discussing controversial topics in a safe discourse community, I see my students grow, if only a little, through the semester and hopefully beyond. Granted, there are some students who drop out and others who continue the protest. There are also some who come closer to realizations of who and what they are, and that is the reward for this effort. I have had student comments ranging from “I hate you for making me think about this.” to “This has been a horrible, unpleasant time for me. You made me face myself. Thank you for that.” The range of comments indicates the difficulties, and also the possible rewards, of this particular unit.
Exploring Identity through Literature
Books are in my earliest memories. Sitting beside my mother or grandmother, I examined the pages turning before me, their brightly-colored characters and bold black words creating worlds in which I imagined myself. Regardless of the work’s characteristics, plot, conflict, resolution, or language including the generic masculine pronoun, I was always happily drawn into books; they held magical, transformative power.
I cannot imagine my life without literature and cannot say for sure how I might have developed as a person, writer, or thinker in its absence. As a teacher I can say, though, that I witness the void that a lack of reading experience has created in too many of my students. I am intrigued by the possibility of that void’s influence on their perceptions of self and others, as well as a measurable reduction of critical and communicative skills I expect them to possess at the college level. Still, it is to literature I turn again and again for the pedagogical crowbar that might pry weak and strong students alike out of old and unexamined habits in order that a deeper and more meaningful understanding of themselves and the world in which we all live may be fostered instead.
Certainly nothing engages my typical student more than an identity in conflict. Moving back to the classroom as returning non-traditional students or into the university world as emerging adults with new responsibilities, my students bring with them beliefs, values, and perceptions established and regulated primarily by others, and their attitudes range from tentative insecurity to practiced certainty. Regardless of the degree to which they differ in this range, however, they usually possess ready opinions about characters in identity conflict and how those characters shape and are shaped by events.
Through reading and subsequent writing assignments focused on identity conflict, I ask my students to move into the text in order to examine first the characters and, ultimately, themselves. While this assignment is geared toward an introductory literature course, it is easily adaptable to composition and creative writing courses at any level.
Below is a sample prompt that meets many core curriculum English course goals by enhancing student abilities in areas of cognition, individual development, cultural and natural awareness, and in the integration and application of knowledge.
Question: How does reading about literary characters whose identities are or have been in conflict empower you as a reader/writer/thinker?
1. You, the reader--
Choose a character in conflict from any of the assignments we have discussed and establish a link between that character and yourself as a reader.
- Who is this character and what is the conflict?
- How do you respond as a reader to this character?
- Why are you drawn to this character in particular?
2. You, the writer--
- How does your reading of this character/text inform your written response?
- Does your language change when you write about this kind of character?
- Do your details change? Your tone? Style?
- Do you write about this kind of character/conflict in multiple genres?
3. You, the thinker--
- If you write about this identity in conflict differently (even if this means that you write about this kind more often, in more detail, more sympathetically), then why?
- How do reading and writing about this character’s identity conflict influence your thinking?
- For instance, do you seek real-life explanations, reasons, consequences, connections or results in a way that is influenced by your engagement with the text?
- Are you better able to problem-solve in real life by reading about this kind of character in this kind of conflict?
- Are you better able to identify and understand your own decision-making process? Your emotional responses? Memories? Strengths? Weaknesses? Motivations? Fears?
- Are you better able to understand cultural attitudes or experiences dissimilar from your own? Gender roles or attitudes? Values or beliefs?
4. Select a character from our text assignments and handouts whose identity is in conflict, and discuss in a short essay (three to five pages) how your reading of the piece empowers you as a student and a person.
Student responses frequently support the validity of this approach. They have, over the years, included the following thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to this identity-oriented unit of instruction, though these are only a sampling: :
Carolyn Kizer’s “Bitch” [. . .] lets me know I am not unlike any other person who has been mistreated or unappreciated [. . .] and that holding on to negative feelings about myself or my ex-boyfriend won’t change anything except how happy I can be now.
I can compare my personal stress with the plight of Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins [. . .] relating my situation as a college freshman away from home to his [. . .] I need to place much less emphasis on end results and invest my consideration and attention in each challenge as it happens [. . .] ultimately, I can’t write about this kind of character unsympathetically, or without seeing such a response as synonymous with self-criticism.
The juror in Audre Lorde’s “Power” has the chance to make a difference through her voice and strength of character, but fails. That is the fearful situation I run towards and hide from simultaneously; I am afraid I will miss my chance to do the one thing most important, or, worse, that I will hide from it when it comes.
Never have I felt such an immediate connection with and empathy towards a fictional character as I did upon reading the account of Alonso Quixano [. . .] for though we hail from very different eras--he from the epoch of emerging rationalism and Spanish exploration, or thereabouts, and I more nearly from ‘the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats,’ to quote Sartre--I very much share in Alonso’s feeling of being an anachronism, the feeling which brings about his conflict of identity.
Lt. Jimmy Cross in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is already having an identity conflict when one of the men in his platoon is killed [. . .] Cross blames himself for his subordinate’s death, which Cross believes has resulted from his inability to draw the line between and among conflicting emotions and responsibilities [. . .] As a nontraditional student, wife and mother, I’m never quite sure where to draw that old proverbial line myself [. . .] When my kids need help with their homework and I have my own paper due, which effort do I choose as more important? How do I prioritize? And as a student, I daydream sometimes when I should be paying attention--daydream about finishing school, securing a great job, and having enough money to pay for my kids’ educations so I won’t have to borrow even more money while paying my own student loans [. . .] but the “what-ifs” cause me to second-guess myself at every turn it seems, with great anxiety [. . .] A wrong decision on my part wouldn’t result in actual physical death as it does in O’Brien’s story, but it could easily result in my academic death, and worse the death of a future my education depends upon; so yes, I identify with Jimmy Cross; I face at least one conflict of identity every day [. . .] Reading, thinking about, applying to myself, and finally writing about the literature in this class have done for me exactly what they should; each time I am presented with a character experiencing real-life decisions and realities I am empowered as a person to better reason, react and relate, to literature and to life.
The general idea of a mask construed as something we use in order to hide our true natures is only one potential description of the concept. We might also consciously construct masks as decorative adornments; as celebratory symbols of elements in our own personalities that we perceive to be strong or beautiful. In Yeats’s theory, the construction of such a mask can become an ongoing act of revelation and self-empowerment. The creation of such positive masks entails specific and conscious efforts, including focused study and ongoing revisions that allow incipient ideas of self to mature into fully crafted identities.
For writing students and teachers, both the challenges and rewards of these efforts can be great. The discovery and exploration of personal identity through the process of writing is often one of the most exciting and significant activities that we attempt.
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