Monday, August 15, 2011

The Stigma of Sharing the Private

Just three weeks ago, I sat curled up in a ball, crying on the bathroom floor. My boyfriend ended our relationship rather abruptly, and at the moment, it was intensely painful. At the same time, I was working in the city, taking a summer class, planning my syllabus, and figuring out how to pay my tuition.... or rather trying to do all this. Focusing was a near impossible task. I would try to read for class and my mind would wander. I would try to type, and I'd be distracted by pictures on my computer. Every thing reminded me of him and the fresh wound that he had just inflicted. For a few days, my life stood still. But I'm not writing this post to reveal to the world all of the ups and downs of my love life. I have a purpose.

While I was going through this emotional roller coaster, though, I thought of my students and their lives. This wasn't the first time I experienced a break up, and I know they experience them too. They experience lots of things that I'm sure hurt. People lose loved ones, are bullied, are betrayed by friends, fail when success is important, deal with the hard task of discovering who they are, and watch things fall apart. It happens all the time, every day. And while they're dealing with whatever comes their way, we just keep saying "separate your business/academic life from your personal life." We tell them to put away their problems and just focus on work once they get to school. I wonder whether that's for the best.

Our world has become increasingly impersonal. While we have social networking sites and blogs these days, almost our entire lives are compartmentalized. The things we need to talk about most are the ones we are told that we cannot share, though we let everyone in the world know our favorite bands and hometown. Maybe we're looking for connections, but not conversation. We want to recognize where we fit without taking emotional risks.

After beginning this post, I also started reading Nancy Welch's book Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized WorldThough she's talking about bigger issues in our society, like privatization and a lack of public representation, she emphasizes many of the notions that I am expressing in her book. Early on, Welch writes, "Individual privacy rights are meant to exclude some of most (personal) matters from public regulation and debate" (33). In other words, we give people a right to privacy to make it easier to brush hard-to-deal-with topics under the rug.

I admit that I abstain from having my students write anything that would be intensely personal. I stay away from topics like obstacles overcome or traumas experienced (which I have actually been forced to write about as a student). I'm not ready to make my students write about topics like that-- it feels to me more like I'm giving my students a grade on their confessions than their content-- but there must be some happy medium. Then again, I'm also wondering if I'm being selfish by not wanting to hear their confessions. Am I simply avoiding them because I'm uncomfortable? Or too lazy, perhaps, to deal with the uphill battle that comes when someone shares his/her private life with you? They are questions I am not prepared to answer.

For now, my goal is to reframe some of my assignments to help students "go public," as Welch calls it, to help them deal with the issues that are important to them without necessarily making them a private matter, make them active participants in their world.

I leave you think about this: by telling people to separate their "personal" from the "public" lives, who it is that we are really protecting? Are we protecting our students or our selves?


Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

I am so sorry to hear about this. I never know how much to share in my blog, on Twitter, with my students. I remember when my grandfather died, I was so overwhelmed, I had to share it with them, if only to apologize for my scattered thoughts (and why I was canceling class).

Have you read Red Lips and Academics? She gets into this idea of living in a confessional culture (and teaching within it):

While I am sympathetic to her (in particular, I think the personal reflection is grating), I still have my developmental students write a narrative essay (and that also sparked quite a debate on the rhet/comp listserv I follow). But, I want students to share about their experiences with education and with writing so that I can better understand where they are coming from and how to approach them. Having said that, I try to write one myself, too, to share with them (and allow them to edit).

Hang in there. This is a terribly rough thing, and at the worst time (is there a good time? No, but it seems to me a few weeks before the semester starts is pretty rough).

Take care of yourself. And we're here, if you do feel like sharing.

Unknown said...

It's been awhile since I taught comp (okay, 20 years), but I often wondered if the assignments that called for sharing the private disadvantaged those who like to keep the private in the private sphere. Good writing doesn't have to be confessional. A small suggestion for getting students to write about the issues they know without insisting that they divulge their innermost thoughts: The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, where I work, has started a project called The Big Q. It's an online forum for undergrads to discuss the big questions in their everyday lives. ( We post a case every week and invite students to jump in. There's a remarkably thoughtful conversation going on this week about virginity. We've also looked at cheating, helicopter parents, alcohol poisoning, etc. We'd love to have comp teachers use these materials--and encourage their students to post.