REVISITING THE PERSONAL ESSAY: EXAMINING THE NEGLECTED SOPHISTICATION AND THE RHETORICAL DEXTERITY OF STUDENT WRITING

Wendy VanDellon, University of New Hampshire, Durham

Abstract

The debate around student personal essays has dissipated in recent scholarship, though it still remains a highly contested subject. This dissertation study examines three main criticisms surrounding student personal essays from the theorists James Berlin, Lester Faigley, and David Bartholomae. These critiques are that students don’t attend to craft when writing personal essays, making their essays arhetorical; students are trying to create a fixed identity; and students are not attending to larger social issues. The question that focuses the study is in what ways do students explore rhetorical moves, identity, and social issues within the personal essay? A corpus of 100 student personal essays from eight public institutions across the country was collected and a reader response code was devised to assist in reading for tools and techniques that students use. Five other coders aided by coding ten essays from the corpus to help eliminate personal bias. The study finds that students are using a number of different tools and techniques that can be deemed sophisticated and complex. Pedagogically the study offers tools that students can use to code their essays and examine the value of their writing, much like they would when conducting literary analysis. Additionally, the field of composition is afforded a way to intellectualize the personal essay so as to revitalize the discussion and prove its merit within the first-year classroom.