Autobiographical Writing in Philosophy Classes

cat blake cartoonOriginally published in Teaching Philosophy, 2006.

Autobiographical writing assignments can be useful tools for philosophy teachers who want to stimulate students’ interest in philosophy.  They can be delightful journeys of intellectual discovery for students.  And they can be opportunities for students to develop some of the less talked about but essential skills of philosophical creativity: metaphorical thinking, reading one’s own questions into a text, and engaging readers in one’s own writing.  For teachers interested in using such assignments in the philosophy classroom, I offer examples of student writing, a theoretical foundation of the approach, suggestions for integrating the practice into courses, and comments on a few practical worries.

Examples of Student Writing

In 1998, I gave the following assignment to students in an Introduction to Philosophy course at a four-year state university. [i]

In “Meditation Two,” Descartes finally reassures himself that he exists.  At first reading, this may seem implausible.  Try to find a situation you or others have experienced that makes Descartes’ doubt and his solution seem plausible.  In what situation might you (a) lose confidence in all the principles Descartes doubts and (b) be reassured by the knowledge that you can at least be sure you know you exist?  Describe such a situation.

Below are four students’ responses to the question.  Although the responses are all quite different from one another, each student successfully takes one of Descartes’ points, places it in the context of a personal experience, and learns something by so doing. Each student opens the door to an opportunity to think more deeply about Descartes’ project and about her or his own view of reality.

Response #1:  A similar situation to Rene Descartes’ “Meditation II” happened when I was in seventh or eighth grade.  I had an English teacher who was always looking for problems to solve that would make us use our thinking abilities to every extent.  One example she gave was the common mystery of whether or not a tree that falls in the woods makes any kind of noise if no one is around to hear it.  The first obvious answer was, of course it does because we can all see a tree fall and hear the noise it makes, so why would it be any different if no one were around?  Well, then we started to think, maybe it does not make a sound. I guess we could have done like Descartes and analyzed the situation with all of the senses, but to eighth graders it would seem a little silly.  I guess in the end, you could say that if we thought we were “real” and were the ones who could hear the sound, then of course the sound is always “real” and hearable, whether anyone is there to hear it or not.

This student is reminded of a similar philosophical discussion that took place in a different context, when she was less intellectually mature.  Her middle school class took the question, “If a tree falls in the forest…” as far as it could, and then abandoned it.  Newly introduced to Descartes, she understands his project in terms of the old question. Descartes, she decides, took this question to its logical extreme.  Her own philosophical issue becomes the lens through which she reads Descartes.

Response #2: My stepfather’s best friend committed suicide many years ago and I know he has had many doubts and questions.  This death caused him to question if there really was a God.  If there was then how could he let his friend take his own life.  It also had him questioning if you really do have a mind.  If so then how could his friend rationalize in his head that things would be better if he killed himself.  My stepfather’s other big question was if he had a soul, how could he end his own life and not consider his friends’ and family’s feelings.  No matter how bad things were, could he not feel the love that everyone had for him by their touch, actions or the words he heard come from them?  So as you can see, my stepfather was very doubtful of most things at this point.  The only thing he did know was that he exists because he was feeling so much pain and had so much anger inside.  And that his friend did not exist anymore because he was dead.[ii]

This student’s response moved me emotionally.  She takes Descartes a step out of the intellectual field he sets up and into the realm of the emotions.  On the emotional level, radical doubt and longing for an anchor are processes she has observed closely.  She uses Descartes’ vocabulary for talking about knowledge to describe a related but different phenomenon of consciousness.

Response #3: Before I became saved, I doubted that there was a God, who made us and our surroundings.  Sometimes I would think too hard, and wonder where did we come from, how we were made, and what our purpose was on this earth.  I believed then that I solely controlled everything within and around me, that there wasn’t really a God.

Then I realized man (sic) didn’t make everything surrounding me: earth, sky, moon, stars, etc.  When I started going to church, I learned about the Bible.  I learned about the Almighty God. Through reading the Bible, many of the doubts I had were being answered.  Through God’s word I learned many things that man couldn’t explain.  The Lord is my sole provider for everything.  He made me and my surroundings. After accepting the Lord as my Savior, He made me see things from a different perspective (his ways).  He made me realize that I am real, put here for a reason to do unto him.  Whether today, tomorrow, or a year from now, the Lord always answers my questions-prayers.  Why I believe there is God, and that I am real, is for the simple fact that God has given me the guidance and blessings through his word to live each day of my life.”

This student has taken Descartes’ ideas and restated them in language characteristic of fundamentalist Christianity, a language that philosophy teachers often judge to be incompatible with critical thinking.  For the student, however, the ability to restate Descartes in religious language legitimates the study of philosophy.  The student sees Descartes’ quest as identical with her own.  And the student’s restatement in fact anticipates Descartes’ proofs of God in the Third Meditation.  Like Descartes, this student suggests that certainty of God’s existence provides a foundation for knowledge of inner and outer worlds.  Just as Descartes says God stamps creatures with the idea of God so they will be aware of their creator, this student also knows God through the experience of inner awareness.

Response #4: Descartes give[s] an example about wax from a candle.  He explains that although the candle goes through a lot of metamorphosis it still has the same basic buildup.  Descartes wonders what he is because he knows he is real but what if his life is like that candle where it changes forms.  All he knows is that he thinks with his mind.  I think the situation I am experiencing is my stay here in the United States.  I feel like I am something that is having an out of body experience because although I live here I cannot function like an American because I do not know the language.  People speak to me and they think I know everything that they are saying but I really can pick up on about a third of what the actual conversation is about.  I feel like I am in somebody else’s body.  I know I exist when I talk to other Koreans here in the United States because they are going through the same things that I am experiencing.  So that is how I know I exist here in the United States.  If I did not have this luxury I would probably, that is mentally, cease to exist.

Of the four, this student departs most radically from a literal reading of Descartes, and from a one-on-one mapping of the steps in Descartes’ thought onto his experience.  He creatively reads the wax, a public physical object, as a metaphor for Descartes’ mind, an inner mental substance.  He dos this because his experience of doubt is one in which his public, outer self has seemed to change shape.  When he is uncertain about his outer world, he becomes uncertain about his inner world.  This student’s response challenges Descartes’ view that one can anchor certainty in the inner world alone.

Without a larger context these examples are intriguing fragments, raising questions about how to integrate autobiographical writing into a philosophy course.  Answers depend upon the skills philosophy teachers would like to help their students develop, and teachers’ goals depend upon their conception of philosophical thinking.  On one end of the spectrum, autobiographical writing can be used to develop skills in precise thinking as well as close and careful reading of primary texts.  On the other end, it can also be used to develop skills in creative, metaphorical thinking as well as skills in reading texts for relevance to one’s own life and questions.   My own practice in using autobiographical writing is to emphasize the latter.  Before I go on to discuss that at some length, I would like to comment on using autobiographical writing to develop skills in precise reading and thinking.

In the above examples of student writing, the analogies drawn by students between their experiences and Descartes’ view do not always stand up under logical scrutiny.  Student #1 said that doubting the senses is like wondering about a tree falling in the forest.  But Descartes is not wondering whether the world exists when he is not sensing it; he is wondering whether the world exists when he is sensing it.  Student #2 said that radical intellectual doubt is like losing one’s emotional center through grief. But Descartes might reject the notion that his intellectual whirlpool is anything like an emotional whirlpool; he might say his doubt comes out of careful reasoning alone.  Student #3 suggested that finding an intellectual foundation is like finding God.  However, Descartes might say that religious foundationalism is entirely inadequate for understanding his project of rejecting foundations.  And student #4 implied that watching wax change shape can be like watching your own self try to adapt to a foreign culture. Yet Descartes would surely disagree that the thinking, judging self actually changes when others respond to it differently.

If a teacher’s aim were to develop skills in precise reading and thinking, students could be encouraged to focus on these dis-analogies.  Autobiographical assignments could function as a way to identify a point of entry into a text that interests a student.  Once the student has identified a point of interest, the student could be encouraged to explore Descartes’ view on that point by carefully noting how Descartes might agree or disagree with what they have learned from their experience.  In my own practice as a teacher, however, I tend to avoid this use of autobiographical writing.  From a practical perspective, I worry that it can shut down students’ engagement.  They may feel that I have asked them to share of themselves only to dismiss them.  From a theoretical perspective, my aim is to explore other dimensions of philosophical practice besides close reading and precise logical thinking.

Metaphorical Thinking as Philosophical Thinking

The type of philosophical work I encourage students to explore through autobiographical writing can be described using at least seven different theoretical orientations.

Metaphorical Thinking. Educational psychologist William J.J. Gordon wrote that metaphors are useful in learning what has already been discovered as well as in creating new ideas or solutions.[iii]  When students use a familiar metaphor to help them grasp a new idea, they are using metaphor to make the strange familiar.  When an inventor re-describes a problem metaphorically and thus comes upon a new solution, the inventor has used metaphor to make the strange familiar.  In using autobiographical writing, students have the opportunity to engage in both of these processes.  Their own experience becomes a metaphor for the philosophy they are studying.  They can more easily understand philosophy using their experiences, and reinterpret their experiences using philosophical concepts.

According to existential phenomenologist Gabriel Marcel, the entire practice of philosophy is proposing, extending, and examining metaphors.[iv]  Life, says Marcel, is a philosophical mystery.  A philosopher begins to examine the mystery by finding a way to talk about it, or, in other words, by capturing it in a concept that can be discussed.  But all ways of talking about life’s mysteries are approximations or images.  They are metaphors.  Thus philosophers, when they theorize, propose metaphors and invite others to walk around in them.  On Marcel’s view, students who practice autobiographical writing are actively creating philosophical theories.

Historicity.  Autobiographical scholarship as a genre is increasingly accepted across the humanities and social sciences as methodologically sound, because it is expressive of certain intellectual assumptions of our age.[v]  Intellectual positions are recognized in this postmodern age to be relative to a person’s social and historical circumstances in ways that are sometimes but not always predictable.  The best way to come to understand the relationship between historical circumstance and intellectual study is to make it explicit.  On this view, when students offer autobiographical metaphors for understanding philosophical ideas, they are making explicit relationships between history and theory.

Multicultural Voices.  Multicultural and feminist theorists, accepting the principle of historicity, have pointed out that too often we hide behind abstractions, speaking in the passive voice as if truths exist rather than get held or advocated by people.[vi]  One of my favorite examples of such an abstraction is the statement “slavery was widely accepted before the seventeenth century,” which leads one to wonder who accepted it, the conquerors who enslaved those they conquered or the enslaved people themselves?[vii]  With autobiographical writing we speak from a particular position, revealing what in our experience led us to our views.  On this view, student autobiographical writing opens up a multicultural conversation.  It gives students and teachers an opportunity to explore the claim that such a dialogue is fruitful.

Textual hermeneutics.  Paul Ricoeur distinguishes between meaning as constituted by the double meanings of words and as constituted by the double meanings of texts.[viii]  A focus on the double meanings of words encourages readers to see a text as an assembly of words and concepts.  Readers study the meanings of those words and concepts and construct a view of what the author intended to convey.  A focus on the double meanings of texts encourages readers to see a text as a whole that transcends its parts.  We as readers thus grasp a gestalt of the text, constructed out of images near and dear to us.  We enter that gestalt and so understand the text.  On this view, students using autobiographical writing to enter the text are using a type of reading that supplements a more analytical reading. 

Metaphysics of experience.  Is experience a subjective inner process, or a construct based on social, political, and educational conditions?  Or is it, as Paul de Man argues, a constant conversation between the two in which our inner and outer worlds metaphorically express one another? [ix] On this view, writing about personal experiences reveals the way events both shape and are shaped by the ways we think about them.

Logic of Discovery. To talk about the process of making philosophical theories, one could borrow Karl Popper’s distinction between the logic of discovery and the logic of verification.[x]  Traditional philosophical writing is guided by the logic of verification, as we use familiar argument forms to prove in a discipline-sanctioned way that our view has merit.  Personal writing lingers on the logic of discovery, which is associative, drawing on whatever contents of consciousness press themselves forward in their attempts to be articulated.  Viewed this way, personal philosophical writing allows students to develop important creative skills in philosophy.

Intersubjectivity.  On the one hand, historicists argue that objectivity in scholarship is unattainable.  On the other hand, normative accounts of scientific method argue that subjectivity is undesirable.  Perhaps, as anthropologist Ruth Behar asserts, the best compromise would seem to be intersubjectivity.[xi]  Instead of ignoring their biases, scholars can make them explicit, and the scholarly conversation can include reflection on the ways a researcher’s position affects their research.  When students propose metaphors and walk around in them, they are practicing intersubjectivity in several ways.  They are interacting with the text, fitting their lives into the shape offered by Descartes, for example.  They are conversing with Descartes as they might with a respected friend, trying on his point of view, and offering their own.  They are making explicit the thoughts and experiences they bring to reading Descartes.  And, perhaps more immediately, they are offering their lives to the teacher and possibly to classmates, hoping for recognition and response.

If we are caring teachers, we will recognize that the students’ practice of intersubjectivity calls to us to respond to them in particular ways. We will enter into their metaphors and walk around in them.  But — and here I hope I am not overusing the metaphor — we must be careful not to walk all over them.  We need to develop practical skills in evoking, encouraging, and responding to autobiographical writing in philosophy.

To that end, I shall share two different contexts in which I have used autobiographical writing successfully.  The first is an introduction to philosophy course, in which autobiographical writing is one component of a fairly traditional course.  In this course autobiographical writing is used to help students attend to their sense of wonder, to encourage their personal engagement with philosophy, and to discourage plagiarism.  The second context is an upper division undergraduate course for philosophy majors and minors, entitled Narrative Philosophy.  The purpose of the course is to explore autobiographical writing in philosophy.  The aim is to offer students an opportunity for extended philosophical exploration while developing elegant writing skills.

Introduction to Philosophy

The introduction to philosophy course that I shall describe, which I taught in 2001, introduces students to selected issues in ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and social/political philosophy.  The course includes some traditional components: reading essays that represent different philosophical approaches, short writing assignments in response to questions about the readings, mini-lectures, and class discussions.  The autobiographical component enters through two other assignments: WOW journals and original papers. [xii]   Together, the two components take students on the metaphorical journey described by Gordon.  The WOW journal helps students make the familiar strange, and the original papers help them make the strange familiar.  The WOW journal is described in the syllabus as follows:

Wow journal: This journal is designed to encourage you to notice and write about things you find special or unusual in everyday life: events, activities, feelings, thoughts, movies, music, etc. that make you say, “Wow!”  You will find that the topics we discuss in class make you notice at least some new and different things.  Please write a minimum of 1 full page per week in the journal.  Entries may be handwritten, as long as they are legible.  Describe the “wow,” try to put into words why the experience stands out, explain what it makes you think or wonder about.  “Wow” journals will be collected twice during the semester for informal feedback, and once at the end of the semester for a grade.  Also, during each class session in which there is no quiz, three people will be asked to read (or tell about something) from their “wow” journal, and other students will have the opportunity to respond.

My aim in the WOW journal is simply to cultivate in students a sense of wonder, to encourage them to notice when the familiar is strange.  I do not ask for deep philosophical observations, although as the semester goes on students increasingly offer them.  The WOW journal is just an opportunity for students to speak and be heard.  I arrange for them to be heard by their classmates as well.  Students sign up in advance for a date on which to read a journal entry to the class.  On the appointed days, we turn to the journals about twenty minutes before the end of class.  For each of the three students who read, we listen, and then I allow three students to comment.  After all three readings, I invite everyone in the class to write a personal comment to one of the three readers and deliver it to the reader before the end of class.  Interestingly, students have chosen some of their most moving and least innocuous entries to read: witnessing a murder, growing up in a country at war, worrying about discrimination as a foreigner after September 11.  Consistently they have reported to me privately that they receive supportive comments from classmates.

The original paper integrates the WOW reports with other ideas in the course.  The assignment gives students the opportunity to take the personal and put it into the context of course ideas.  Through this assignment, the strange new course material is connected with the familiar.  Here is an excerpt from the original paper assignment as it appears on the syllabus:

Original papers: These are opportunities for you to make connections between course readings, class discussions, and your own “wow” journals.  Each paper should address one central theme, weaving together ideas from the three sources listed above…. Papers are evaluated on the following criteria: logical organization; creative connections between ideas; depth of development of ideas; and appropriate use of course materials.  You will be asked to read your paper out loud to a small group of classmates… you will have the chance to rewrite it in response to my written comments and your classmates’ oral comments…

The assignment makes it possible for both concrete thinkers and abstract thinkers to write creatively — and makes it very difficult for students to plagiarize.  It also elicits some wonderful papers.  For example, a long distance runner writes about breath as a function that connects body and mind.  A foreign student writes about social freedom in the U.S. compared with his home country and how his experiences have affected his views on free will.  A cheerleader writes about the deep friendships between teammates that start as friendships of utility. These are students’ genuine observations about their lives, rooted in their experiences, thoughtfully refined through the process of reflective writing, and expressed using concepts characteristic of the discipline of philosophy.

When I respond in writing to these papers, I am careful not approach them as if they are comments on course material (unless a student explicitly states that as their aim).  Instead, I read them as expressions of the students’ philosophies. My task is to enter into the student’s thought and try as hard as I can to understand what they are trying to say.  My comments usually summarize the student’s presentation, offer suggestions for how he or she can express or develop the thought more effectively, and add a personal comment on what the paper made me think or feel.  These suggestions are rooted in the grading criteria set forth on the syllabus: I make suggestions about how to improve or extend organization, synthesis, and development of ideas, and I comment on whether students have drawn from all three course components. I always assume that each student is trying to say something significant, even if it takes a lot of work for me to find the thread amidst poor writing or sloppy thinking. I never accuse students of trying to bluff their way through an autobiographical assignment.  I find that when I respond seriously, students rise to the challenge, and prepare assignments they are willing to have the teacher read carefully and thoughtfully.  Most students choose to rewrite in response to my comments, based in part on the grade incentive — but not completely so, as often students rewrite when the extra points will not affect their final grade.

Narrative Philosophy

Personal philosophical writing is not simply a tool for helping students engage with technical philosophies.  It is also a genre that offers delightful discoveries for both writers and readers.  Some students who enjoy creative writing are eager to explore it, and to this end I have designed the “Narrative Philosophy” course, and taught it regularly since 1997.  According to the university’s catalog course description, the course “Explores the use of autobiographical and personal writing in philosophy.”  For purposes of the course, we use the term “narrative philosophy” to refer to an autobiographical style of approaching philosophical thinking.  Students in the course must have a declared philosophy major or minor, and at least junior standing.  Thus, traditional philosophical terms and approaches are part of their academic vocabulary, they have done a fair bit of college-level writing, and they are actively interested in exploring their own relationships to ideas.  The course gives them a step-by-step opportunity to develop their skill as personal essayists in philosophy while exploring ideas and experiences important to them.

One key to personal essay writing is to learn to keep a reader’s interest. Readers who are not personal friends are unlikely to have any particular interest in an author who talks about herself or himself at great length.  Instead, readers are likely to be interested in their own selves, specifically in what they can learn from reading the essay.  A good personal essay describes an unusual encounter and tells us what the author learned from it and, by implication, what we can learn from it.  To a personal philosophical essay, I bring a more sophisticated expectation.  I want to learn something about philosophy, to broaden or deepen my philosophical thought.  Thus, I am not interested simply in what the author learned, but in what the author learned by thinking about the experience using philosophical concepts. By speaking about themselves in a good personal philosophical essay, students speak to others.  In this way, they are not practicing a detached objectivity, or a narcissistic subjectivity, but a conscious intersubjectivity.  They invite readers in, implying, “I’m a person, you’re a person, let’s chat about life and philosophy.”

There is no precise recipe for balancing the personal and the philosophical in this genre.  To help students develop the skills to find this balance, I try to offer them good models to read, assignments that evoke connections between the personal and the philosophical, and constructive criticism that is supportive and thoughtful.

The readings I use in the course vary but I usually draw them from five different categories, and include one staple.  The five categories are:

  • Famous philosophical autobiographies beloved by readers through the centuries[xiii] For example, Augustine’s Confessions (Oxford, 1998), Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Penguin, 1980), Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (Hackett, 1989).
  • Collections by popular contemporary essayists with a philosophical bent[xiv] For example, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperPerennial, 1998); Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task: Calling Animals By Name; and James P. Carse’s Breakfast at the Victory (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).
  • Philosophical novels narrated in the first person[xv] For example Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (Vintage, 1998); Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem (Penguin, 1993); and even the very challenging E.L. Doctorow’s City of God (Random House, 2001).
  • Writings by authors who see autobiographical writing as a way for multicultural voices to enter the philosophical conversation[xvi] For example, Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Harvard University Press, 1991); Maria Lugones’ “Playfulness, ‘World-Traveling’, and Loving Perception”; and Ruth Behar’s “Death and Memory: From Santa Maria Del Monte to Miami Beach from The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997).
  • My own efforts in personal philosophical writing

The staple of the course is Plato’s Symposium, for reasons of both style and content.  The Symposium approaches its topic through the voices of eight different speakers.  Each speaker uses a different style, and the styles include autobiography, myth, metaphor, everyday experiences, and theoretical concepts.  The subject matter of the Symposium, love and sex, rarely fails to move a student to reflect on her or his life experiences.  Before each class, I prepare questions and activities that encourage interpretation and evaluation of the assigned readings.  Students, however, often come prepared to share their own reflections on the texts’ substance and style.

The writing assignments are designed to build skills increasingly sophisticated skills in autobiographical philosophical writing.  The first paper is a short philosophical autobiography, and the second could be described as a WOW journal entry followed by philosophical reflection.  The third paper asks for an autobiographical response to a specific text, and the fourth invites an original paper in the style we have studied.  The papers are described in the syllabus as follows:

Paper #1: What made you interested in philosophy, and what ideas would you develop if you were not constrained by writing formal philosophy papers for classes? (3-5 pages)

Paper #2: Describe an ordinary life situation that led you to think of philosophical ideas, and present the philosophical ideas that flowed from it.  (3-5 pages)

Paper #3: Write an autobiographical interpretation of the Symposium.  In other words, describe a personal experience that illuminates some section of the dialogue and explain the meaning your experience gives to the section.  (5-7 pages)

Paper #4: Write an original piece of narrative philosophy.  (8-12 pages)

Because of the intersubjective nature of the course, students present a short summary or excerpt from each paper to the class, and respond to one another’s presentations, sometimes in structured formats.  Because we are working on philosophical skills that favor the often hidden dimensions of philosophy — metaphorical rather than logical, personal rather than public — we end the semester with a discussion of definitions of philosophy and its methods.

The final papers are often extraordinary.  They can be humorous as, for example, a student explores free-will and determinism, and with subtle irony blames his poor decisions on circumstances that obviously did not cause them.[xvii]  Or they can be poignant as, for example, the mother of an autistic child explores the relationship between mind and character.[xviii]  The Symposium papers range from exercises in self-discovery and self revelation as, for example, a student comes out as bisexual; to elegant analyses of the structure of the Symposium as depicting love across the life cycle; to outpourings of passionate love for philosophy and art.  When I comment on student papers in this course, I use the same principles I use in commenting on autobiographical papers in Introduction to Philosophy, asking myself, what is the student trying to say and how can I help them say it more effectively.  I try to be honest: here I have lost your point among the details of time and place.  Here I can’t follow a step you seem to be taking in your thought.  Here I don’t understand how you see your point as paralleling Plato’s.  Here I wonder: do you want to talk?

This is simply the most rewarding course I teach.

Practical Barriers

Teachers interested in using autobiographical approaches in teaching philosophy tend to articulate a typical set of worries.  They ask, isn’t this time consuming? How can I use personal writing if I don’t know a lot about this genre?  Can I require students to self-disclose, and what do I do when students disclose upsetting information?  I would like to say a word about each of these worries.

This approach is time-consuming.  When responding to student writing, there is no way to prepare an answer key, or give out “sample good answers” as models.  A teacher simply has to read student work carefully and lovingly.  If the teacher doesn’t understand what the student is trying to say, the teacher must read the assignment again, more carefully.  Because this approach is time-consuming, teachers should plan their workload, and avoid experimenting with it for the first time when their other preparation responsibilities are heavy.

Teachers who use autobiographical writing assignments should prepare by reading in the genre and experimenting with writing in it.  Only through research and practice will teachers learn how to encourage and evaluate good personal writing. Resources are available to help faculty learn to use this approach.  The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Philip Lopate offers examples of personal essays from the last few centuries, along with an introductory essay analyzing the purpose of the genre.[xix]  Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines edited by Diane P. Freedman and Olivia Frey offers contemporary examples of scholars in the humanities and social sciences including the personal dimension in their scholarship.[xx]  The Performance of Self in Student Writing by Tom Newkirk gives examples from personal essays by students at various stages of development as writers.  Newkirk explains the aims of teaching personal writing, and suggestions that help teachers meet the aims.[xxi]  Philosophy and Everyday Life edited by Laura Duhan Kaplan, is a collection of autobiographical essays by philosophers exploring traditional and nontraditional philosophical problems.[xxii]

And no, of course a teacher cannot require students to disclose anything deeply personal in a college-level writing assignment.  Every assignment must allow students some choice of subject matter.  This can be accomplished by broadly defining the topics they can choose, or by allowing them to write about the experiences of others as well as their own.   At times, students do disclose sensitive or upsetting information in their personal writing.  Teachers can prepare for such situations by becoming acquainted with the resources for student services on their campus.  Campus counseling centers are usually pleased to consult with faculty, and consider it responsible behavior for faculty to refer students.  The Dean of Students Office can also help faculty sort out information from students and make responsible decisions about responding to it.  Also important are the rules governing confidentiality.  The Family Educational Records Protection Act (FERPA) gives guidelines for when and to whom education professionals can disclose information.  And each state has confidentiality guidelines for human services professionals that dictate the situations in which confidentiality must be breached.  In doubtful situations, a teacher can also consult the campus attorney.   While this sounds quite serious, it is important to remember that students do have resources for dealing with their problems, and that, in most situations, all we can do is urge to them use their resources.  And awkward situations can even have a humorous edge.  The most awkward situation I have found myself in is one in which I was barred by law from disclosing to another health professional information essential to understanding a student’s situation — and the health professional happened to be my spouse!

As long as resources of faculty time, faculty learning materials, and student support services are available, philosophy teachers can feel empowered to experiment with autobiographical writing assignments.  These assignments offer teachers a way to spark and cultivate the inner processes that birth philosophical reflection.  Most students will appreciate the opportunities to enter the subject matter in interesting ways, express a sense of wonder, think and write creatively, be heard by others, and learn about the diverse life-worlds of fellow students.  And many faculty will find themselves enjoying the opportunity to teach genuinely interested students who offer endless new perspectives on familiar subject matter.

[i] These examples appeared previously with a different analysis in Laura Duhan Kaplan, “Personal Narrative in Philosophical Writing Assignments: Engaging with Descartes’ Meditations.” American Association of Philosophy Teachers News (Summer 1998).

[iii] William J.J. Gordon, The Metaphorical Way of Learning and Knowing (Cambridge, MA: Porpoise Books), 1971.

[iv] Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being (Chicago: Regnery), 1950.

[v] Ruth Behar, “Foreword,” in Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines, ed. Diane P. Freedman and Olivia Frye (Duke University Press, 2004).

[vi] including Claudia Card, “The Feistiness of Feminism” in Feminist Ethics, ed. Claudia Card (University Press of Kansas, 1991), 3-33; Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought, reprint edition (Routledge, 2000); Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology (Beacon Press, 1978); bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center 2nd edn. (South End Press, 2000); Maria Lugones in “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling and Loving Perception,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 2:2 (Summer 1987):3-19; and Janice Moulton, “A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method” in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, eds. Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 5-20.

[vii] I cannot remember where I first read this example.

[viii] Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press), 1974.

[ix] Paul de Man, “The Epistemology of Metaphor” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 11-28.

[x] Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, reprint edition (New York: Routledge), 1992.

[xi] Behar, ibid.

[xii] The idea of a WOW journal was introduced to me by Rabbi Marcia Prager, who uses it to engage teenagers in the process of preparing for their bar or bat mitzvah.

[xvii] James Adrian Marshall, “The Wrong Moment to Exit” in Philosophy and Everyday Life, ed. Laura Duhan Kaplan (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002), 239-244.

[xviii] Margaritha Harmaty, “What is the Mind?” in Philosophy and Everyday Life, 163-181.

[xix] Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology From the Classical Era to the Present (Anchor, 1995)

[xx] Diane P. Freedman and Olivia Frye, eds., Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines (Duke University Press, 2004).

[xxi] Thomas Newkirk, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (Boynton/Cook, 1997).

[xxii] Laura Duhan Kaplan, ed., Philosophy and Everyday Life (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002).


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