The other reason that I have always felt a kinship with Pratt is because of her description of autoethnography: "a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations that others have made of them" (4). We talk often in my classes about the importance of avoiding cultural tourism or appropriation and that the best way to do that for a project on difference is to engage with something in which they have an investment.
We usually begin this process with a short assignment (detailed in my WRD 110 in-class activities PDF) based on National Public Radio's "This I Believe" essay series. I begin by having students listen to Frank X. Walker's essay, which is rich in detail and personal experience, and we analyze its elements and its effectiveness. I then ask students to brainstorm ideas - topics that they feel passionate about and have an investment in - and then choose one topic and put together their own brief "This I Believe" piece. One of the things that is so wonderful about this assignment is its adaptiveness; in composition classes, this might function as a speaking assignment, but in creative writing class, it can provide the spark for a poem or creative nonfiction piece. What this first assignment often leads to is a realization for students that they write far more effectively when they have an investment in their material, and so I ask them to take a similar approach when they are deciding on topics for their larger projects, both scholarly and creative: what do they feel passionate about? What are they invested in?
This, I contend, is the heart of the craft of writing for students: it is not the grammar and punctuation, not the structure and mechanics, not the transitions and topic sentences that make this work an art. It is this idea of translating personal investment into something tangible, the concept of recognizing the vulnerability of one's subject matter and then examining that subject matter inside and out. It is about recognizing the perspectives of others on that subject matter, of learning how to contextualize it and place it within cultural and historical and intellectual settings. It is this work of learning to see one's material from a multitude of angles and perspectives, of learning to critique it and to revise it, that I most want my students to attempt.
I use that word - attempt - purposefully, rather than something like "master." It is, as we all know, a misconception to speak of mastery of the art and craft of writing; the writing process is a constant struggle, and openly discussing that with our students is important. But to attempt something, to try to achieve it to the best of your ability, may not lead to mastery, but it will lead to improvement, which is what our students most need in order to be successful outside of our classroom. And this is what I hope for most as their instructor: that my commitment to inclusion, creativity, collaboration and craft will result in students who do improve their writing, their self-awareness, and their respect for all kinds of difference.