It is interesting that on the day I left Laura’s office reconsidering the use of personal writing (in the classroom) as political, I opened up the latest College English to find Timothy Barnett’s article ” “Politicizing the Personal: Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and Some Thoughts on the Limits of Critical Literacy”. Although I must admit that it did not renew my hope in personal writing in the way I was hoping for. It is funny because I keep thinking to write “expressivism” in all the places where I’ve written personal writing. And it’s funny that Barnett rarely, if ever, uses the word expressivism in his piece. Instead he equates personal writing (as political) with the tenets of critical pedagogy. I don’t understand this as one of the goals of critical pedagogy per se.
He begins the article: “The idea that ‘the personal is political’ is both a commonplace in composition studies and something we have not yet fully theorized” (356). I am all for fully—or even partially--theorizing the idea of personal/political writing in composition, but I don’t see Barnett as having achieved this goal by the end of this essay. Instead, it seems to be a standard, overused defense of personal writing as valuable in a political way. Granted, he does suggest that both critiques of and arguments for the personal seem to miss “the deep links between personal writing and social critique” (356). And he acknowledges the critique of the personal as being too focused on the individual. Barnett responds to these arguments by saying they undermine “some basic tenets of critical pedagogy” (356). And then writes, “From the viewpoint of critical pedagogy then, personal writing can help students understand personal lives as linked to and reflective of social and political norms.” He accuses critical pedagogues as not fully exploring “a critical pedagogy tied to personal experience.” I guess that this then accounts for my confusion over whether or not this is part of a critical pedagogy, but to me it seems as though Barnett is forcing critical pedagogy to merge with expressivism in order to create an argument in favor of expressivism that somehow fits into “today’s” composition theory after a number of years of critique of expressivism.
Barnett does seem to make a critical pedagogy “move” when he compares/equates his students to Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass (instead of Brazilian peasants—let’s say).
The center of Barnett’s argument is that we need to understand the personal “as necessarily linked to the political” (357), and I tend to agree that it is. But, in my mind, the goal of critical pedagogy would be to have students make that move—that connection to the political within or maybe in response to (analysis of) their own/personal writing. With Barnett’s student, “Heather,” we never see this move. It begins and ends on “Heather” in a seeming celebration of the therapeutic effects of writing, which only further fuels the critiques of the personal as focused on the individual with a romanticized notion of individuality/subjectivity—the autonomous subject. I get that all of Heather’s writing, as a part of Heather herself, is socially constructed. But without the “unveiling” of that construction, I’m not sure I see how this fits into the framework of critical pedagogy.
I am left thinking that maybe Barnett is right—maybe critical pedagogues haven’t given enough thought to personal writing—but maybe that isn’t their goal.