Thank you, Margaret and Jerry, for your comments--and to several others who have written to me off-list. I know that both of you & many others in our field highly value the use of personal writing in the classroom (and I'm here just going to keep using the term although it's loaded mostly as a consequence of how it has been used and dichotomized). In a discussion with my Life Writing students yesterday, I said something about this discussion on the listserv; I said the use of personal writing has by and large been frowned upon, particularly in required writing classes. They wondered why--and were surprised (these are juniors and seniors). It being a casual conversation, I oversimplified (as is my nature) and said something like, well, a lot of people think it's too easy. Having just written their autobiographies, they were again surprised. These are serious writers. I think all but one of them found writing these essays hard (and one, very hard--she hit a block). I can't continue with this post (other pressing issues), but it's worth thinking about all the decisions these young writers have to make when they try to explain themselves to readers, whom they know but not well. Another set of questions popped up when I asked whether i could link to all their essays on my blog & then another set when I asked whether they would let their Facebook friends see their essays. Changing peoples names were the simplest questions they dealt with.
I think they're going to be ready to post their essays on my blog this Thursday. I know that many people on this list will be interested in reading these essays and the writers' explanations of their experiences/thought/feelings while writing the essays, letting others read them, and reading others--all of these activities in a dialectic relationship with one another. When you read them, you will see why I have fun -- and how writing them was, for most of them, as Papert puts it, "hard fun" (thanks, Nick).
I want to point out two other issues that were involved in the list conversations. Someone referred me to Harriet Malinowitz's article on the personal essay (thanks for that reference--I think I read it). I am of course not working with the personal essay in the Montaigne tradition, a wonderful genre to read and teach--although I can certainly see getting my students to head in that direction. And the other issue that David brought up: he made some remarks on how good narratives are difficult to write--and was, in essence, I think, making a case for teaching this kind of writing because a well-written narrative is about as rare as a well-written academic essay. I think the logic was: teaching so-called narrative writing (more of a mode than a genre--Beale's point) is legitimate because it's difficult to write one well. I just wanted to point out that I'm not all that interested in teaching my students how to write, let's say, well-crafted narratives. I'm interested in having them enjoy the experience of writing and reading one another's writing and having others read theirs--and in that process, learning a lot about writing, as it were, from the inside.