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Memoir and Autobiography in Freshman Composition Although first-year composition classes are not comprised entirely of 18-year-old freshman,

the majority of students are both young and new to college. The composition teacher, then, must rise to the occasion and simultaneously introduce these students to college writing, and introduce them to the college classroom, assuage their fears of higher-level writing, and, at some level, ensure that the students feel secure and comfortable enough to take the risk and attempt to write in new ways. Memoir and Autobiography (for the purposes of this paper, I will be using these terms interchangeably) present an ideal way of helping the teacher accomplish these goals. As the first assignment in first-year composition classes, autobiographical writing allows students to ease their way into writing using their own experiences. They are equipped, even as they enter the college classroom for the first time, with the tools needed to write memoir. This assignment, as research suggests, leaves students feeling confident, connected to their classmates and teacher, and primed to tackle the more traditional, academic papers that College English classes will, inevitably, require. The Theoretical Rationale for Memoir Almost every article I encountered arguing for the inclusion of memoir in the freshman composition class begins with a fervent argument against naysayers, those who claim that memoir is not academic enough. Each article confronts this argument differently, but the common thread amongst these scholars defenses seems to be that memoir allows students to write critically about, or to analyze, their own experiences. However, each scholar adds his or her own unique argument in support of memoir. In his seminal 1958 piece, The Autobiography as Creative Writing, Ronald Cutler, first and foremost, argues for the use of autobiography in freshman composition classes because, he insists, freshman are uprooted from their homes and

need the catharsis autobiography provides. Critic Sandra Wyngaard agrees, and also notes that during this time of transition, a preoccupation with the self develops in freshman. Teacher must, she stresses, take advantage of this preoccupation. Both Cutler and Wyngaard agree, though, that autobiographys most salient byproduct is the impetus it provides for students to think critically about the self. Students begin to reflect on their personalities as a process rather than an immobile, congenital structure. Megan Brown takes this discussion of the self further in her article, The Memoir as Provocation: A Case for Me Studies in Undergraduate Classes. She accepts Cutlers proposition that students will recognize the construction of the self as a given, and suggests that memoir also encourages students to question and critique American culture, a culture intensely focused on the self. Students will start to problematize and analyze the ways identities and life stories for the purposes of the class are commodified and consumed in American culture. Brown posits that this process of analysis will ultimately prompt students to become critical of other texts, that the experience of analyzing and critiquing their own life will leave with them a desire to analyze, to look deeper. Browns article starts to take a practical turn, but a significant subset of articles on this subject focus almost exclusively on autobiographys ability to teach students concrete skills that will transfer to other types of writing. In his article on Autobiography in composition classes, Greg Barton represents the beginning of the move within the context of the texts included in my annotated bibliography toward practical application. He discusses the process by which students investigate the backwaters their seemingly meaningless memories and find ways to ascribe new meaning onto these memories. But this process is not complete with the discovery or creation of new meaning; the student must translate this. They are compelled to articulate this

process and this new meaning in writing. Barton hints that students must make deliberate rhetorical choices, and that they are more likely to make effective rhetorical choices because they are, after all, trying to communicate their own life experiences. Whereas Barton only hints at rhetorics prominent place in autobiography, critic Margaret Byrd Boegeman illustrates its distinct role in detail. Boegeman balks at the suggestion that narrative is a less rigorous form of writing than academic analysis. She asserts that there are many rhetorical devices at work: thematic unity, Aristotelian wholeness, balance, proportion, and selectivity (664). Robert L Root takes the idea that students must make rhetorical choices while writing autobiography further by suggesting that students must first draft their experiences, but they must also learn to re-draft them, to revise them, to sharpen their writing, to make use of more rhetorical strategies with each revision. While Barton, Boegeman, and Root highlight the practical uses of memoir insofar as it results in concrete improvement of student writing, Alys Culhane provides a practical way of bringing these changes about. In her article, Memory, Memoir, and Memorabilia: A Generative Exercise, Culhane explores the connection between memory and memorabilia. She proposes a course in which memorabilia is used to trigger memories, the most important part of the process. Similarly, Sandra Wyngaard details an activity in which students create a memento box, a shoebox of things that are of importance to them. Similarly, in her article on teaching memoir, Carolyn Kraus advises students to search outside of themselves for material, and recommends the use of documents (547). This brings in a component of research, but also draws out a story. In Kraus, Culhanes, and Wyngaards models, students must explore the meaning behind each object and participate in class-wide workshops. The discussion between students on

the significance of each students object(s) and of the memories associated with these objects offer more possibilities for the memoir itself and creates a unified classroom. The classroom remains largely overlooked in the majority of articles I annotated. Culhane touches on its importance, but only as a kind of afterthought. However, both the physical space the classroom itself and the dynamics, or the relationships that form within the space, must be considered. These are practical concerns, perhaps the most practical in that this is the area the teacher has the most control over. However, the only critic who fleshes out the importance of the actual, physical classroom is Wyngaard. This may be because she focuses on high school freshman. This distinction is important because it reveals a way of thinking about children as students we tend to think of children as both selves and bodies, as embodied selves that differs from the way we think of adults, or more specifically, adults as students. However, I argue that Wyngaards attention to bodies and physical space is important, and that teachers and pedagogical theorists must think of college students as both a mind to be shaped, taught, explored, and a physical body, which should be comfortable, and which should be allowed movement and freedom. Wyngaard allows physical movement in her classroom by placing her students memento boxes at different places around the classroom, thereby allowing her students to get up and move around, but also to interact with and to feel the objects. Wyngaard does not ignore the importance of tactile exploration, and neither should teachers of college English. While the physical classroom is largely disregarded, the classroom as a more abstract, less physical space of connection is at the center of several articles on memoir and composition. Rebecca Ruppert Johnson writes that autobiography helps students not only to gain an understanding of themselves, but also of their classmates. The workshop model, which Ruppert suggests employing in freshman composition, places students and teacher in the place of the

listener. This, she argues, levels the playing field; students and teacher become equal and develop a sense of community and a sense of respect for one another. Amy Kass, in her article Who am I? Autobiography and American Identity, extends the abstract classroom space. She begins by pointing out, as others have, that autobiography spurs a connection between students and teachers, but she goes further, arguing that the writing of autobiography points ones perspective beyond oneself and ones classmates and onto the larger world. In order to think about oneself, Kass observes, one must think about oneself in relation to others (94). The students position themselves in relation to their family, their friends, but also their culture, their beliefs, their nation, et cetera. They connect, in essence, to the larger human experience. In the course of these articles and chapters on Autobiography and Memoir in freshman composition, scholars and critics point to its myriad of benefits. Students look inward; they search their memories for meaning. Students discover and create new meanings for their experiences, but they also recognize and analyze the changing, fluid nature of the self. Students become suspicious of discourses that neatly package, commodify, and distribute the self. Students must find new, rhetorically effective ways of communicating these thoughts. All the while, students connect with each other through workshop and object-centered writing activities. And, perhaps without realizing it, students look outward and begin to make connections with the larger world. In learning about themselves, they learn about others, and come a step closer to becoming tolerant, empathetic, and engaged citizens.