Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom
reviewed by Greta Vollmer - 2003
Title: Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom
Author(s): Jeffrey Berman
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA
ISBN: 1558493387, Pages: 312, Year: 2001
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Risky Writing: Self Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom could just as easily been entitled “Risky Teaching,” for author Jeffrey Berman advocates an approach to the teaching of composition that is both demanding and controversial. Berman tackles head-on what he sees as a deep-seated prejudice against the use of personal narrative and self-disclosure in composition classrooms, a focus that has been dismissed as sentimental, narcissistic and solipsistic by many of its critics. The author makes a case for creating a safe classroom environment in which students can write on issues deemed “too personal” for academic writing such as depression, divorce, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. As the final volume in a trilogy that explores reading and writing about traumatic subjects, Risky Writing offers case studies from 5 sections of Expository Writing (taught by Berman between 1995-1999) which focused on personal writing with the explicit goal of “exploring the educational, psychological and pedagogical implications of self-disclosure” (p. 13).
Berman notes that there is little scholarly inquiry into the topic of classroom self-disclosure, and much of what has been written focuses on risks rather than benefits. With this volume, he proposes to address that gap. A key tenet of Berman’s argument is that “shame is the key emotion in risky writing” (p. 9). While noting the prevalence of “shame culture” in contemporary U.S. media, Berman nevertheless argues that this media trend exploits and sensationalizes rather than explores feelings of guilt, shame and fear in a productive manner. The writing classroom, he suggests, is an ideal environment for encouraging students to write about subjects that are vital - and often shameful - in their lives, for he sees such writing not as confessional, but transformational in nature. “One must unmask one’s own shame, “ he believes, in order to heal, a process leading to self-awareness and growth (p. 32). But these are not the only benefits: “Personal writing can be intellectually rigorous, requir[ing] self-discipline and self-criticism” (p. 27). To make his case, Berman offers numerous student essays in each chapter, many of which are well-written and compelling. Underlying this philosophy, of course, is the belief that good pedagogy considers emotional health as much as intellectual growth, focusing on self-discovery as much as writing development. In Berman’s words, “effective teaching is affective learning; intellectual and emotional development are complementary “ (p. 199). These beliefs raise a number of intriguing questions, which Berman explores: Does self-disclosure lead to good writing? Can the aesthetic and the therapeutic coexist? What is the appropriate role of the teacher adopting this approach? How does one respond to student papers on personal topics? And most importantly, how does one protect students when asking them to undertake such an inherently risky task as writing publicly on volatile topics?
In addition to its discussion of student essays, Risky Writing is strong on practical suggestions for those interested in such an approach. Berman describes in detail his own classroom, addressing such nuts and bolts topics as his workshop approach, grading options, anonymity, student choice of topics, prescreening essays, appropriate referrals, and potential legal problems. Each chapter addresses a different “risky topic” explaining the assignment and student response to it. There is also an appendix which provides a course description and outlines the semester’s assignments.
Berman makes a thorough case for the use of self-disclosure in student writing and offers an insightful view into the implementation of his curriculum. Certain contradictions, however, remain unsettling to the reader. Berman acknowledges one such tension – the possibility of subtle coercion for students to self disclose. He offers some evidence (through student commentaries and survey results) that students did not feel pressured to write on risky topics and always had other options. Yet one sample assignment asking students to explore “the dark side of diversity” presents a three-page, single-spaced discussion of the topic and the assignment parameters, in which a single sentence notes that “If you do not like this topic, you can write on another” (p. 131). One has to wonder if students would see this as a real invitation to disregard the proposed topic, or simply a cursory nod in the direction of student choice.
Another unacknowledged tension lies in the assertion that classrooms such as these need to be safe communities. While self-disclosure may not inevitably lead to intimacy, Berman contends that students in these classes formed a tight-knit community of empathetic support for one another. This contention seems to be undermined, however, by Berman’s own comment that the trust built up in the classes may be due to the fact that “[the students] will never see each other again” (p. 200). Toward the end of the course, one student comments on “a group of males in the class” whose names he admits not being sure of, while another student writes to his classmates: “I won’t fool you and tell you…you’re all my new best friends and role models…You’re not” (p. 203). Finally, the end of class surveys elicited the belief that the course had “heightened their connection with classmates” from only slightly more than half (53%) of the students (p. 235). Given these inconsistencies, it seems that Berman might have examined more closely the classroom dynamics at work and his portrayal of them.
More serious than these tensions, however, are the broad claims made for this pedagogy which do not appear to be adequately substantiated. Berman is adamant in his belief that the revelation of private thoughts and traumas is “empowering” to students. He notes that “writing about painful or shameful experiences helps students to overcome the identity of being a victim, enabling them to take charge of their lives”(p. 162). Moreover, he sees his own role in similar terms: “ I feel most empowered when I can help empower my students (p. 19). True, many of the students quoted express relief, gratification and even joy at their success in writing about topics they had not dared to discuss or even think about previously, and this is not a trivial accomplishment. Yet the idea that writing an essay or sharing a shameful trauma has in some way allowed these students to “take charge of their lives’ plays into the facile jargon of talk shows and the unquestioned beliefs of the “confessional culture” that Berman so accurately critiques in his opening chapter.
Berman’s students were overwhelmingly positive in their assessment of these classes; one wrote, “Assignments like these really teach students, teach them about real life... issues that can change them forever” (p. 226). Even the one dissenting voice in this chorus of approval acknowledged that “most students love this class” (p. 179), which suggests that there is a real need for this kind of course offering. On the other hand, student comments that favorably equate the class with an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a “support group of sorts” and the student who writes that “what I will take away [from this class] is the emotional, not the grammatical” must give us pause (p. 175). While Berman sees these comments as positive, the positioning of the composition teacher in a therapeutic role – however carefully done – will be troubling to many. While no one will deny that acceptance and empathy are important traits in any teacher, many will remain unconvinced of Berman’s advocacy of teacher self-disclosure and a model of teaching that “approaches a therapeutic one” in its emphasis on fostering personal growth and confronting student trauma (p. 48). For those who are convinced of the merits of self-disclosure in the composition classroom, Risky Writing offers a helpful look into the potential difficulties and proposed benefits of such an approach. For those who are less convinced, Berman’s argument, while raising unsettling and provocative questions, nevertheless does not present an entirely convincing a case for a pedagogy based on self-disclosure.