I have been surprised by what students are willing to reveal in their papers. Even though I explain at the beginning of any assignment that involves personal information that students should write knowing that someone else (I and other students) will be reading their papers, they continue to write about extremely personal events. I have had students write about unplanned pregnancies, physical abuse, and being abandoned by a parent. One semester I had three papers that told about being raped. In one case, the student hadn’t reported it, but had written about it for my class. I had to follow up by making sure the student reported the rape and got counseling.
I’m never sure what motivates students to this level of self-revelation. Is it because they have nobody to talk to, except their Composition Professor? Is it because of the cathartic power of writing? Do they simply not consider the information they reveal as private? It is certainly possible that these students who are from a different generation from me have different views of privacy. They come from the electronic age, with constant public attention through Facebook, twitter, and 24-hour news cycles. What seems personal to me must seem like public information to them.
Their writing raises other questions for me, too. The first, of course, is wondering what action is needed. In college, the students are adults, and I can’t even tell their parents how many times they have skipped class (I’ve had parents actually call me and I have to tell them to discuss it with their children). I can’t refer them to any kind of services or require them to attend. I can talk to them and give advice, but that is the extent of my role–and often it is beyond my realm of expertise.
The other issue is how to grade their writing. It is really difficult to tell a student, “This is obviously a traumatic and important experience, but you haven’t provided enough detail or organized your thoughts coherently.” It is difficult to separate the emotion the student feels from the writing skills the paper reflects. And I never know if a student is going to take critique of their paper and the grade they get as commentary on their experience–no matter how much I try to explain. I haven’t worked at a college or university that has a policy on this issue, so it may be that only a few teachers face it. It would be nice to know.