Who Am I? Narrative Identity and Student Writing

Maximilian Toth's "Who Am I?"

Maximilian Toth’s “Who Am I?”

With the end of spring break comes the beginning of my students’ explorations in narrative identity. For the past 10 weeks, they have contributed to the #WalkMyWorld project and their blogs; both have given them opportunities to express, understand, and even struggle with the concept of self through their writing. In first-year composition (FYC), I’ve often felt that students struggle more with integrating their internalized, evolving perspectives into their writing than with basic grammar. My class has heard me say on more than one occasion, “I’d rather have a poorly written response on a profound topic than a perfectly constructed response on a stagnant topic.” Of course I’d prefer both, but teaching grammar is much easier than teaching narrative identity, so we spend more time on the latter.

What is narrative identity?

McAdams & McLean (2012) define narrative identity as

a person’s internalized and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to provide life with some degree of unity and purpose.

This stated unity and purpose serve as an elevated reason for students to form unique perspectives when responding to texts. Using past events, present perceptions, and imagined future outcomes, student writers are taught to view writing as a story which is on-going and all-encompassing. Their identity is shaped because of a story that has been unfolding continuously, and understanding where they do or do not reside within this narrative helps them identify their identity.

Why teach narrative identity?

If you have students that know how to work the academic writing system (i.e. form a thesis, develop five paragraphs, plug-in generic support) then narrative identity is missing from their writing repertoire, and understandably so. Unfortunately, education propagates cookie cutter academic writing; we are rewarding robotic retorts. This is a travesty for the function of writing as an act of art. If we do not encourage narrative explorations, student writers will continue to push the boulders of monotony through the hallways of education, and as much as some instructors would be satisfied with this status quo, focusing on narrative identity development will teach redemptive qualities that will surpass the time allotted to a degree plan.

In several studies (check out Baumberg’s (2010) “Who am I? Narration and its contribution to self and identity”) scholars have noted the importance of psychological adaptation and development in pedagogical practices when student narrative identity is questioned. For example, relating reading and writing to student-self (How does this text relate to me?) has a stronger impact than teaching writing as a process (informative, persuasive, compare and contrast, etc.). Student writers who find redemptive meanings in thematic readings, and who construct narratives of exploration, tend to enjoy higher levels of class engagement and maturity with topics.

Visit my classroom during any of the student-led discussions and you will see student-self exploration in practice. (Yes, I am tooting my students’ horns.) They enjoy narrative exploration when it is self-driven, and they respond in writing with a vividness that is often lacking when instructors select topics. Because narrative identity is emphasized, lack of topic generation among writers is void, as is the dullness often associated with English Composition 101.

In short, students enjoy reading things that are relatable, and don’t we all? Let student writers read and respond to texts that ask them the important questions in life: Who am I? and What do I have to say to the world? In the end, these points of narrative identity inquiry are far more important than learning the placement of a comma.


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3 replies

  1. […] A collaborative social media experiment, #WalkMyWorld, taught me that my students struggle with narrative identity beyond print-based text. But don’t we all? The project gave my first year composition (FYC) class a more personal feel, and students bonded quickly with each other because they were privy to other pieces of each others’ lives. You can read more on forming narrative identity in Whom Am I? Narrative Identity and Student Writing […]

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