Beyond the Narrative Mode in the Composition Classroom: Embracing a Return to the Personal Essay

Hayley Mitchell Haugen


Knoblauch and Brannon might suggest I pry loose the grip that ancient rhetorical tradition has on my modern classroom, but I’m not convinced I can so easily abandon the ancient rhetoricians. Learning to embrace the different, more creative, and less frequently acknowledged elements of this tradition may be the way for me to go instead. The ancient art of rhetoric recognizes and celebrates the ambiguity of language; rhetoric speculates about the world and invites others to make their own speculations. The essays we assign our students to write, such as the narrative essay, however, discourage ambiguity and speculation. They force students to write about what they already know about their lives or the world around them. Composition instructors should turn, instead, to the personal essay via the father of the form, Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s example encourages students to explore their lives and only attempt to make sense of them. Unlike the stiff narrative essay encouraged by modes-based readers, the personal essay is invigorated by creativity, spontaneity, and personal discovery. If we yearn for our students to experience writing in this light, we need to create a space in our classrooms that allows for Aristotle’s art of wondering and encourages Plato’s motley of ideas. We need to promote students’ ruminations about life, rather than privilege their explaining of it, in a space that allows for vulnerability and contradictions along their paths to discovery.


Essay; Personal Essay; Composition

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