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Hibsman Discusses the Use of Memoirs in Freshman Composition

Professor Tim Hibsman, Department of English, presented his paper “Memoirs in Freshman Composition: Diagnostic Tool for At-Risk Students” at the 2013 International Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Scholars and Mentors in Los Angeles, Calif., on June 1.

In freshman composition classes, we teach many at-risk students. Some writing teachers have challenged the inclusion of a memoir in freshman writing classes because it is “self-expressive” rather than analytical writing. However, the memoir serves many important diagnostic purposes, especially for students from difficult backgrounds.

First, it teaches students how to tell their own stories well, using description, metaphor, dialogue, and suspense. This allows them to appreciate a well-told story, and also identifies gifted storytellers, who can be encouraged to take creative writing and to read good literature.

Second, the memoir serves just as well as an analytical assignment to identify students with poor writing skills who need further help from an academic support center or writing center.

Beyond this, there is substantial research into the value of storytelling as therapy (see bibliography). Students writing the memoir often reveal traumatic experiences that might require professional intervention (e.g., experiences of violence, suicidal thoughts.) We have referrals for professional intervention.

Related to this, we teach many men and women who are serving or have served in the military. Memoirs based on combat experiences can also identify possible cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) needing professional intervention. In addition, veterans who choose to share their stories with others in the class can find the act of sharing itself therapeutic.

Further, memoirs can identify possible student mentors for other students. Someone who has overcome an obstacle often wants to help others do so, as well. These students can serve as formal tutors or as informal mentors.

Finally, memoirs enable students to express pride in cultural traditions and heritage. This is great preparation for sharing stories in a diverse workplace.

We have used the memoir assignment in freshman composition for all of these purposes and have student samples, as well as our stories, about each diagnostic use. We might need assistance “quantifying” these uses, as they are largely anecdotal. But we have proved that the memoir in freshman writing classes is more than “self-expression.” Rather, it is a talent-spotter, and also a diagnostic tool for remediation, therapy, and mentoring.

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