I'm always on the look-out for different ways to approach the personal essay assignment (which, I agree with Mike Arnzen, is important in the FYC curriculum, but nevertheless often seems problematic). One variation I've used is the tool essay, inspired by Scott Russell Sanders' often-anthologized "The Inheritance of Tools," asking students to use as the kernel of their essay some useful object in their lives (I want to avoid the embroidered-pillow-from-Aunt-Emmie-which isn't-really-all-that-interesting-but-it's-all-I-can-think-of sort of essay).
A couple other possibilities have presented themselves:
- I ran across an article about book-collections (of course, I can't find it now in my bookmarks, but will try to add later) and how the author supposed that her character was revealed by the contents of her bookshelves. I thought I might ask students to write about one thing that they collect (some class of things of which they possess multiple "samples"--CDs, friends, photographs): how did you start yr collection? how do you select and rate its elements? how do you store or organize or use yr collection? what does yr collection reveal about you?
- Collections of personal essays also seem useful as writing-triggers. A few semesters ago I used Judith Kitchen's Short Takes (note Amazon's price of $10.85!!). In a between-semesters orgy of bookstore-browsing, I ran into another anthology that looks wonderful for this purpose: the PEN/Faulkner Foundation's 3 Minutes or Less. It's organized into thematic chapters (Beginnings, First Love, Illusions, Heroes, Journeys, A Lesson, and so forth) and includes works by very well-known writers (William Kennedy, Jane Smiley, William Styron, Russell Banks, Gail Godwin, Annie Dillard--too many others to list). I'm not using this as a text this semester, but may consider it for the future. (I thought I might read a few essays out loud as prelude to some in-class journalling.)
Any other suggestions for approaches to the personal essay beyond the "significant event" narrative? (Or ways to elicit personal essays on topics other than car accidents and dead grandparents?)