Composing Carnivalesque: Writing About Writing and Bakhtin’s Carnival
BIO: Judith Chriqui-Benchimol is a Ph.D. Student in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and teaches first-year composition at Marymount Manhattan College. Her research interests include Writing Apprehension and Composition Pedagogy, particularly as they relate to first-year learning communities.
“What I have to write is never good enough.” These words, written in an essay by one of my first-year writing students last year, echo a sentiment I know many first-year writing professors have encountered before. But what I love about Writing About Writing (WAW) is that it doesn’t shy away from these sentiments. WAW asks students to take it a step further by examining their often negative associations with literacy, looking at them through other lenses, and even challenging them.
The first time I taught WAW in my first-year writing classroom also happened to be my first semester as a Ph.D. student in English Education at Teachers College. During the day my first-year writing students and I would crack open Wardle and Down’s WAW textbook, and at night I’d pore over essays of twentieth-century literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin for a pedagogical theory class I was taking. At first I didn’t think WAW and Bakthin had too much to do with each other. Then one week, my professor introduced us to Bakhtin’s concept of Carnival, and a light switched on.
Bakhtin was fascinated by French Renaissance writer Rabelais and the influence Medieval European carnivals had on that writer’s work. These carnivals were sanctioned, over-the-top, celebratory occasions that, for a short while, suspended the traditional power imbalances by inviting people from all social classes into the same space. These spaces also welcomed different variations of the common language: the socially-accepted and the rejected discourses, the formal and informal, all had the same volume; everyone was heard. Carnival, then, was not only a way of unifying the otherwise divided, but it was also a form of liberation from authoritative discourses of the time.
WAW, much like Bakhtin’s Carnival, is a form of liberation from the rigid hierarchies of academic English. WAW embodies the carnivalesque by asking students to examine and eventually challenge the standardized writing practices that have affected them (often negatively) academically, socially, and even economically.
As part of a research collaboration about two WAW classes, my colleague and I wanted to see what would happen if we invoked Bakhtin’s Carnival by inviting two opposing ideas into the same space. What would happen if we permitted non-academic writing in the classroom, a space it (supposedly) doesn’t belong?
So, I asked each student to create an Instagram account specifically for our class. Using their class accounts, they uploaded their classwork alongside posts from their everyday lives. This cross-posting method was designed for students to draw interdisciplinary connections between the course and writing contexts outside of the classroom. Many students were confused by this idea at first. One student called it “extremely weird. Almost contradicting.” But that unease led to very interesting dialogues and essays.
One of the most interesting essays came from the very student whom I quote above saying that what she wrote was “never good enough.” At one point, she makes a brilliant connection between Twitter and essay writing: “My mind associates academic writing with immense stress, but somehow typing out a thread of seven tweets about Bill Hader’s performance in It: Chapter Two is second nature to me.”
By acknowledging that it’s easier to write on Twitter and Instagram and harder to write an essay, she is acknowledging the academic writing hierarchies that often stifle student writing. How can professors help students feel that same level of comfort in the classroom? Maybe by bringing Carnival into the WAW classroom, we can challenge some of the perceptions that hinder students’ self expression, and, in turn, we can expand the possibilities of what it means to write an essay.