Harvard Educational Review
  1. Bodily Discourses

    When Students Write about Abuse and Eating Disorders

    By Michelle Payne

    Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2000. 166 pp. $20.00.

    In Bodily Discourses: When Students Write about Abuse and Eating Disorders, Michelle Payne reports on her dissertation study of twenty-five college student compositions about sexual abuse, physical abuse, anorexia, and bulimia. In addition to analyzing the texts, Payne interviewed many of the students, members of the writing faculty, and campus counselors. She also observed two of the students for ten weeks of their first-year composition courses. Students were referred to the study by their teachers after submitting an essay on one of the topics in their writing courses. Payne also analyzed some historical documents written by women about their experiences of abuse.

    This book responds to teachers’ concerns and questions about how to assess essays in which students describe painful or traumatic experiences. For example, many teachers wondered how to offer suggestions about the writing without hurting a student perceived as sensitive and vulnerable. As one teacher told Payne,

    I’m not a therapist. I don’t feel qualified to deal with this, but I don’t want to shut her out and tell her never to bring it up again. . . . How do I respond to a paper like this? Ask her to go into more detail in this paragraph? That doesn’t seem right. I can’t deal with this paper as a piece of writing. I don’t want to hurt her in any way. I’m concerned about her fragility. (p. xvii)

    Teachers may feel they should respond to papers about trauma, violence, or suffering differently than they would to other papers. Payne explains that many teachers may be “concerned that focusing on style, genre, argument, or detail may be interpreted as insensitivity to the emotional and often traumatic experience the content may describe” (p. xviii). Furthermore, she argues,

    these types of essays confront teachers with their very raison d’etre: If I don’t want a student to write about this subject, then why do I want her to write about others? On what basis am I deciding what is appropriate in my classroom? In what ways am I using my authority and power? What am I teaching about language and communication? (p. xvii)

    As a graduate student, Payne recognized that “teachers rarely discuss publicly their struggles with students who write about abuse — experiential knowledge . . . is hidden within their offices, rarely integrated into the community discourse” (p. xvi). Bodily Discourses interrupts this unhelpful silence within the teaching community and provides teachers with a thoughtful resource to help them reconsider their approach to written work about sexual and physical abuse, eating disorders, and other forms of suffering.

    One of the strengths of this book is the way it critiques and challenges usual assumptions about what constitutes appropriate academic student writing. In chapter one, “This Weepy World of Confessions,” Payne discusses some teachers’ vehement opposition to “confessional writing” in the classroom. These teachers may assume that writing about experiences of suffering, trauma, or abuse will have ”little critical reflection or framework” (p. xxiv) or, as one author quoted by Payne writes, that they are “a fundamentally egocentric sort of self-absorption . . . teeth-gnashing and soul-baring . . . [that] will do little in the way of developing a sophisticated communicative ability, analytical skills, or a clear-sighted understanding of the world” (p. 2). One of the themes of the book is that students’ writing about bodily violence was not necessarily subsumed by unreflective emotion. Rather, many of their texts followed customary academic writing conventions and patterns, making it reasonable for teachers to consider using at least some of their usual responses to student writing. Payne questions the notion of what is considered “personal” writing and reveals how some emotions are deemed more “personal” than others. Furthermore, she criticizes the dichotomy between reason and emotion and demonstrates that many of the students “are engaging in sophisticated analyses and critiques of the social and institutional contexts in which they live their lives” (pp. 23–24). In chapter one, Payne also discusses the relationship between writing and emotional control. She challenges the idea that a psychotherapeutic lens is the only appropriate means of viewing writing about bodily violence.

    Another assumption Payne challenges is that this type of student writing is “solicited by teachers who use an expressivist approach” (p. 9). In fact, Payne found, “the students in this study wrote about bodily violence regardless of the kinds of assignments required . . . and regardless of whether the teacher focused on personal or academic essays or on any combination of the two” (p. 23). Contrary to her expectation that developing comfort or trust with the teacher is a determining factor when such essays are submitted, Payne found that students tended to submit these essays either near the beginning of the semester or at the end.

    Chapters two, three, and four focus on writing about sexual abuse, eating disorders, and physical abuse, respectively. In chapter two, Payne reports that “a recurring theme in the student essays . . . is the process of sorting through conflicting notions of truth” (p. 40). Payne recommends introducing students who write about sexual violence to the “long discursive tradition” (p. 33) of such writing. She analyzes some historical material in this chapter, in particular The Memoirs of Mrs. Abigail Bailey, written by a woman in 1792. Payne suggests that historical resources will help students consider alternative approaches to writing and new ways to think about their own experiences. Payne reiterates similar recommendations — “to introduce [students] to the writing tradition they are becoming part of” (p. 74) — in later chapters as well.

    While Payne saw a variety of student approaches to writing about sexual violence, “the essays about eating disorders made similar arguments, followed similar organizational patterns, and rendered their writers almost indistinguishable” (pp. 50–51). This form tended to follow a “crisis/resolution plot” (p. 70), narrating the events from the beginning of the eating disorder through the damage caused to relationships and self and finally to recovery. Payne notes, “These writers pay close, detailed attention to the particulars of their rituals . . . and of their bodies. . . . And they never fail to note how much weight they have lost” (p. 62). The essays “are often intended to be warnings for other women” (p. 62).

    In chapter five, Payne focuses intensively on one student and her writing teacher. The student wrote an initial essay about her experience of being physically abused by her boyfriend. Payne conducts a detailed analysis of this essay. Meanwhile, she explores the writing teacher’s approach to teaching based on classroom observations and interviews with the teacher and tries to make connections between the student’s development as a writer and the teacher’s pedagogy.

    Throughout the book, Payne models how she would respond to students’ writing about bodily violence and acknowledges some of her own uncertainties and hesitations. She also models a way of reading these essays as critical texts, examining their structure and analyzing the details of the writing, not simply reacting to them from a psychotherapeutic framework. In the conclusion, Payne offers additional suggestions and specific examples of ways to respond to student writing about bodily violence. Bodily Discourses is an asset for all those who teach and read students writing. Hopefully this book will lead to more dialogue among teachers and further scholarship in this area.

    M.P.H.
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