Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines: A Reader
Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines: A Reader

Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines: A Reader



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822332008
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/23/2004
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Diane P. Freedman is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics, editor of Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal, and coeditor of The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority, and Identity in the Academy.

Olivia Frey, retired from her position as Professor of English at St. Olaf College, is now the lead administrator at the Village School in Northfield, Minnesota. Freedman and Frey are the coeditors (with Frances Murphy Zauhar) of The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt

Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines

A Reader
By Diane P. Freedman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Diane P. Freedman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822332008

Chapter One


Finding the Right Word:

Self-Inclusion and


It is becoming more important for academics to include part of our self-knowledge in work we present for collective endorsement. Many of us want to speak more deeply from personal experience, to add this dimension to the habits of scholarly citation and critical interpretation. Our desire for self-inclusion has led to new genres of writing, new styles of knowledge. We are starting to integrate into professional writing our changing, complicated senses of who we are. Perhaps we can feel more comfortable with "professing" if academic ways of speaking and writing feel connected to the underlying styles of our language use, which have rich affective and intersubjective features not usually found in academic writing. Some of us would like the comfort of affectively relaxed social exchanges, found ordinarily among family members and friends, to be a regular part of scholarly,critical, and scientific exchanges. We have also tried to find new ways for the stories of individual lives to participate publicly in collective interests. Toward these ends, we have begun to include autoethnographic genres in our contributions to academic publications. We have begun to include ourselves in what we know by writing ourselves into what we say.

I had developed academically as a literary-response and hermeneutics "theorist," but that did not seem enough to be called an identity. Now I feel more satisfied with calling myself a writing teacher, but I notice that I use this term writing teacher unconventionally enough so that people may not think of me as having that identity. I am really: a student and teacher of writing and language use as they appear in all texts; I teach and learn in a university, but I try to reach anyone who is interested by writing books and essays for public forums. In writing this essay I want to present a basis in autoethnographic reflection and in the study of other people's work for explaining my version of the "writing teacher" identity, to discover what thoughts others in my position may have had. I address those who teach writing, language, literature; I also address those interested in these subjects but who include themselves in a variety of related academic projects.

My mother taught me how to write. Not directly. Not early. But eventually. She did it by communicating what it meant to find and use "the right word": the word that reached you and made you pay attention; the word that changed how you thought; the word that made you want to feel your heartbeat and your backbone when you speak and write. In college, I was surprised to learn that one can get a job teaching others to find and use the right words.

My mother was an immigrant and spoke English with an accent. When I was a boy, she told me to read but I did not take the advice seriously. She did not nag me; she did remind me often. She did not teach me to write until many years into my professional life, after I had written things about which she did not care. When she read an early essay of mine citing the literary responses of an undergraduate student-the topic was lying-she said, "You made this up, didn't you?" My mother read my essay about self-deception and the psychology of lying and said that is what I did. Her view of academic life was that it was mendacious, another understanding (of her view and of the fact) I did not achieve until many years after she reacted to my essay. I started trying to write differently after I understood better what she was getting at. In Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin says,

Academics lock books in a tangled web of mindfuck and abstraction. The notion is that there are ideas, then art, then somewhere else, unrelated, life.... Because there is contempt for the process of writing, for writing as a way of discovering meaning and truth, and for reading as a piece of that same process, we destroy with regularity the few serious writers we have.

Those of us who love reading and writing believe that being a writer is a sacred trust. It means telling the truth. It means being incorruptible. It means not being afraid and never lying....

To keep the sacred trust of the writer is simply to respect the people and to love the community. To violate that trust is to abuse oneself and do damage to others. (24-25)

My mother and Andrea Dworkin thought the same things about academic writing-mindfuck and abstraction. But my mother treated her thoughts with more resignation and the mendacious thoughts of others with a defiant sarcasm. She did not allow herself to get as angry about this situation as Dworkin did. She read all the time, all the time. She loved reading, and believed, like Dworkin, that reading put one in touch with the truth, regardless of lies that were told. When she read the late Meg Greenfield in Newsweek, she said (in Yiddish), "She writes with backteeth [the ones that crush and grind]." My translation: Meg Greenfield prepared the food of experience thoroughly for our digestion. Writing is cooking, and has to be done with the same sense of responsibility and duty.

My mother taught me how to write by not getting angry at me, the academy that paid my salary, or "the world" that produced lies and pain. She taught by speaking, by finding the "right word" for everything and everyone, especially those who deserved it. She knew the right words in Yiddish and in English and she taught them to me. In Yiddish, however, the right word sounded better and more authoritative than it did in English. It took me a long time to learn to write because I did not know that I knew the right words in Yiddish but not in English. I am still learning, as from Dworkin, how to find the right word in English. I am still learning from the Yiddish language, now more deliberately.

Sometimes, when you tell a story of your life in this informal way, it seems like either bullshit itself or secondary bullshit, or it makes academic writing seem like bullshit. The writers I discuss in this essay teach that this separation and threat of insincerity need not materialize. By urging us to speak more responsively to those outside the academy, they help us to be better teachers inside our classrooms.

These writers led me to speak in public the way my mother spoke in private. They communicate in a forceful, "backteeth" style regarding a fundamental unfairness in the basic arrangements of society. This is one of the meanings I read in Dworkin's contempt for public lying. Mindfuck and abstraction are derogations of language that amount to political practices that harm most of society. I learned my mother's values through the combination of childhood memories and adult contact, as I was her principal custodian for the last fifteen years of her life. When I informed her (because she did not remember any more) that she turned ninety years old, she said, continuing to find the right word, "That's ridiculous." Her personal generosity, her disciplined values about eating and cooking, her self-sufficiency, her impatience with being dependent on me, her wisecracks communicated her resignation to a situation that should have been different. She walked up the hill until she broke her hip. She walked again until she had a stroke. She ate her dinner until she could not swallow. Her remarkable perseverance is a trait she shared with my father, and it represented, in part, a value she got from being a Jew.

To write, to speak, to use the language, native or adopted, was an inroad to assimilation and to the retention of one's historic identities. That the main language was Yiddish helped dramatize its double role and the flexibility of language use as a means to hold many identities in a heterogeneous society. "The Wandering Jew"? At once a slander, a description of how to survive, and a statement of what happens to all people who necessarily "wander" from one stage of life to the next. There is something to celebrate, I learned from parents who as Jews longed not to fear being public citizens, if you can make your language tell the truth and win you citizenship at the same time. That is what the right word does.

I found myself more deeply involved in this perspective when I found (thanks to Sandra Runzo) Adrienne Rich, who wrote the following in 1972:

I know that the action ... of becoming that person who puts signs on paper and invokes the collaboration of a reader, encounters a corresponding check: in order to write I have to believe that there is someone willing to collaborate subjectively, as opposed to a grading machine out to get me for mistakes in spelling and grammar.... The whole question of trust as a basis for the act of reading or writing has only opened up since we began trying to educate those who have every reason to mistrust literary culture. For young adults trying to write seriously for the first time in their lives, the question, "Whom can I trust?" must be an underlying boundary to be crossed before real writing can occur. ("Teaching Language in Open Admissions" 64)

At first I read this passage as part of the "movement" toward collaboration, but gradually I felt something different. Here, before political consciousness was widely recognized, Rich is portraying the lived experiences of the disenfranchised coming to school for the first time: a class of people trying to assimilate by coming to our classrooms. People lie (prevaricate) in writing because there has been a failure of trust. My mother must have thought that academics don't trust each other, nor do they trust the public; that is why they lie. Collaboration is an ideal: the practical issue is trust. When my mother said the right word to me, it was because she could trust me, a child, to understand its "rightness."

Cultural assimilation is the process of becoming included into a "mainstream" way of life. It could mean "becoming like everyone else"; mostly it means achieving the status of the established classes of citizens. Self-inclusion could mean knocking at the door; it could mean entering without knocking; but it could also mean "what applies to others, applies to me too." It means, "I am responsible for myself, you for yourself, and we for each other." In coming out as a lesbian and as a Jew, Rich becomes more candid and forceful and the codevelopment of self-inclusion and political understanding stand out more as themes. Rich's essays are a model of how to think out of and for oneself, yet also to translate those thoughts into principles and values whose general applicability create their status as knowledge.

In one of her later essays, Rich included herself in Rabbi Hillel's formulation of ethical principle, which she then enlarged. She summarizes the tasks of speaking out and self-inclusion by adding a question to the frequently quoted three questions asked by Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who is? If I am only for myself, what am I? and If not now, when?" The appended question is "If not with others, how?" It is the title of an essay that comments politically on the and rocentric Jewish tradition, en-Rich-ing it. However, before this 1985 essay, the theme of each person's implication in the lives of other individuals and groups was present in her work. Rich is among those who regard the collective character of language3 to account for language use. Rich has combined the priority of ethical collaboration with the assimilative roles in the study of language. She is thinking through the task of assimilation and changing the society into which she is to assimilate.

Rich recreates the perspective of what is ordinary to writing-the process of internalizing the collective characteristics of language use. However, this fundamental, prelinguistic process is challenged by the "control" elements in school that put students in a position to be trapped by the linguistic cosmeticians-the grammar-and-grades philosophy of writing pedagogy. Rich rejects the inhibiting teaching conventions by viewing the scenes of writing in terms of their emotional bases of trust and their social bases of subjective collaboration.

Rich describes how students achieve this understanding by coming to "some frontier of self-determination" as part of the project of distinguishing what is indigenous to the self and what is the "not-me." This is the process of assimilation. It is both an individual and a collective project; it has been demonstrated, retold, and reviewed repeatedly in the recent past how various groups of the disenfranchised struggle to find, in spite of the monotonous enforcement of Standard English, the idiom to correspond to the thoughts taking the form of many languages in their minds. In the teaching of writing, Rich observes, one finds the fundamentals of teaching:

Finally, as to trust: I think that, simple as it may seem, it is worth saying: a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else.... This fundamental belief is not a sentimental matter: it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be.... What interests me in teaching is less the emergence of the occasional genius than the overall finding of language by those who did not have it and by those that have been used and abused to the extent that they lacked it. ("Teaching" 66, 67-68)

Writing and the teaching of writing have in common the need for feelings of trust, the precondition for the "finding of language." Students need ties to society, to the teacher, and to other students, while teachers and students need to find trust by combining the personal and the professional in their relationships with one another. Relations of trust are the basis on which people find language or "voice," as some have put it. The cycle of language and trust connects teaching, language, knowledge, and society and describes how writing and the teaching of writing contribute to a revised view of academic life: the abstract ideals of knowledge and truth are present but are moving out of traditional academic ideology toward a situation in which there is no separation of teaching and scholarship. Because of the "flagrant deficiencies" of postsecondary pedagogical practice, one's task in teaching is to fashion the "tools and weapons for those who may live on into a new integration":

Language is such a weapon, and what goes with language: reflection, criticism, renaming, creation. The fact that our language itself is tainted by the quality of our society means that in teaching we need to be acutely conscious of the kind of tool we want our students to have available to understand how it has been used against them, and to do all we can to insure that language will not someday be used by them to keep others silent and powerless. (68)

Rich had been kept "silent and powerless" until circumstances let her "out." To have gone through marriage and parenthood, to have understood and publicly identified the meaning of lesbian existence in this society, to have inquired into the sense in which she was "split at the root" into a Jew and a Christian, to have added to Rabbi Hillel's perspective on social ethics -these are examples of "tool-using" in language. Rich's writing is her weapon in society-the last weapon before weaponry. By inscribing her own life in her political pedagogy Rich has cast poetry and essay writing as instruments of speaking out and joining in. My mother did not use the term weapon, but the right word is also the word as the truth and as a weapon, the one weapon that fights but keeps the peace and the conversation alive.

Rich's autoethnographic essays show the slow pace of self-inclusion. The processes of identifying herself truthfully changed her from one kind of person into another. The processes of self-disclosure were a combination of individual choice, social necessity, and growth. My reading of Rich entered this same slow process in my life, but it had not occurred to me until recently that I was also "split at the root." The "mixed" marriage I refer to was between my parents, a man and a woman. My mother and father were differently oriented as gendered people, as Jews, as social figures, and a strand of my development has been to mix two truthful views of life and society, a project I undertook by exploring subjectivity and socializing it as a pedagogical process.


Excerpted from Autobiographical Writing Across the Disciplines by Diane P. Freedman Copyright © 2003 by Diane P. Freedman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Foreword / Ruth Behar xiii

Self/Discipline: An Introduction / Diane P. Freedman and Olivia Frey 1

Language and Literature

Finding the Right Word: Self-Inclusion and Self-Inscription / David Bleich 41

Gender Tragedies: East Texas Cockfighting and Hamlet / Carlos L. Dews 68

Three Readings of the Wife of Bath / Merrill Black 85

Listening to the Images: My Sightless Insights into Yeats's Plays / David Richman 96

Activist Academic: Memoir of an Ethnic Lit Professor / Bonnie Tusmith 114

Following the Voice of the Draft / Donald M. Murray 129

Notes of a Native Daughter: Reflections on Identity and Writing / Carla L. Peterson 138


Tribute to Robert D. Marcus / David Bleich 159

Journey/man: Hi/s/tory / Robert D. Marcus 161


From God of the Oppressed / James Cone 189


Beyond Holocaust Theology: Extending a Hand across the Abyss / Laura Duhan Kaplan 205

Maternal Thinking / Sara Ruddick 216

Africana Studies

Altered States / Kwame Anthony Appiah 233

Art History

History of an Encounter / Eunice Lipton 257


Devouring Music: Ruminations of a Composer Who Cooks / Peter Hamlin 265


When the Body Is Your Own: Feminist Film Criticism and the Horror Genre / Julie Tharp 281

Filming Point of View / Deborah Lefkowitz 292


From The Broken Cord / Michael Dorris 311

Juban America / Ruth Behar 331

Close Encounters with a CSA: The Reflections of a Bruised and Somewhat Wiser Anthropologist / Laura B. Delind 349


The Death of the Profane (a commentary on the genre of legal writing) / Patricia J. Williams 365

English Education

My Father/ My Censor: English Education, Politics, and Status / Brenda Daly 375

Research Psychology

Adventures of a Woman in Science / Naomi Weisstein 397


Through the Looking Glass: A Feminist's Life in Biology / Muriel Lederman 417


That Disorder: An Introduction / Alice Wexler 435

A Textbook Pregnancy / Perri Klass 444

Math, Psychology, and Science Education

Personal Thinking / Seymour Papert 455

Selected Bibliography 467

Contributors 483

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews