A recent article in the The New York Times (“Writing Your Way to Happiness”) talked about the research by psychologists such as Timothy Wilson who maintain that writing can lead to changes, not only in mood, but also in our perception of self. There has, for a while, been research to indicate that if we write about how we’re feeling, there can be a benefit to how we handle trauma, or just our daily emotions. But the work of Wilson and others argues that, in addition, if we reshape the story we’re telling in our writing, that can have positive effects on our perceptions of self. To quote the article:
“The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.”
The article discussed several studies in which people, after thinking and writing more positive narratives of particular circumstances, ended up with more positive experiences and outcomes than those in control groups who did not do the same kind of writing.
As a writing and literacy teacher, I thought immediately about the literacy narratives that are often assigned to students in both K-12 courses and in universities. The goals of these assignments vary, but often consist of having students reflect on the events that shaped their identities as writers and readers. I’ve assigned these kinds of essays in a number of different courses (and tweaked them for different purposes, sometimes including criticism of cultural constructions of literacy and institutions) and have found the stories students told sometimes reassuring, sometimes disheartening, but always endlessly fascinating.
But what the research by Wilson and others made me think about was a new way of conceiving approaches to revision with literacy narratives. Rather than simply work with students to help them make the draft more focused, more coherently organized, etc., is there value in having students rewrite the drafts in ways that retell the stories about their reading and writing experiences? The point is not to have them create fictions about their past. But what if they considered alternative explanations for what happened? What if, rather than seeing themselves as the victim of experiences that have consigned them to the identity of a “bad writer” they re-interpret those experiences? Or, what if, in addition to the literacy narrative about the past, they write one about the future that tells a different narrative in which they regard themselves as effective writers? Can we have an effect on the confidence of student writers in this way?
How do narrative, memory, and emotion work together to shape our perceptions of agency as readers and writers? (Still working on that one…)
In the work I’ve been doing this spring I keep coming back to questions of agency. What allows – or constrains – people from engaging in literacy practices. And more precisely, as part of this larger project, I’ve been thinking about how perceptions of agency figure into to the factors that determine agency. When do we feel as if we can participate, or that we can’t? As Lalitha Vasudevan said at a presentation last year, “How does it feel to be literate?” Although perceptions of agency are shaped by many forces, including power, technology, rhetorical awareness, and material conditions, I’ve been focusing this spring in thinking about how embodied experiences and the emotional histories created through such experiences are often powerful influences on how people understand their abilities to engage in reading and writing. I see people who are empowered and engaged in one setting, suddenly become reticent and unable to participate in another, before anyone has even told them they can’t.
The focus of much research in literacy studies in recent years – including my own – has been on the social and institutional factors that shape literacy practices. This has been important work and I am not in any way writing against this scholarship. Yet while we’ve learned a great deal about literacy works as a function of culture and power, we’ve been less willing to engage in questions of how individuals perceive – and feel – a sense of agency in writing situations. The perception of agency, as opposed to measurable skills, is important in terms of how people respond to writing situations. In particular we have not explored emotion as much in terms of agency. I think people like Marilyn Cooper and Laura Micciche have done important work on emotion and agency (work I will discuss more in a coming post), but I think there is still more work to be done. The emotional histories and the emotional stakes for students in the classroom, for example, have a direct influence on students’ perceptions of agency, and consequently on their ability and willingness to engage in any writing task.
Talking about feelings, even if we call them emotion or affect, tends to make academics nervous. We can’t really measure them and we fear getting dragged off into the sentimental or irrational if we bring them up at all. Tom Newkirk has written persuasively about how emotion makes us nervous, and how that anxiety leads to particular ways of conceiving of writing and responding to students. And certainly in all the writing I have done on issues of literacy and identity over the years I have been more comfortable writing about social factors such as class or race or gender than I have about emotion. Yet every experience, every decision, every perception, is filtered through emotion. Every action has an emotional component that is social and rhetorical – even if it is the display of detachment and rationality (also embodied emotions). As I have talked about this work this spring, I have found the responses of people to be thoughtful and generous and lead me to believe that I am moving in a productive direction. So my posts in the near future (if I keep my promise to myself to write more posts) will be exploring these ideas about emotion, embodiment, transformation, community, and perceptions of agency (among other things). Stay tuned.