English, Department of


Date of this Version

January 2001


Published in Public Works, eds. Emily J. Isaacs and Phoebe Jackson (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2001), pp. 26–34. Copyright © 2001 Greenwood Heinemann Publishing. Used by permission.


Th is chapter examines some of the ethical dilemmas I have faced when students make public their writing about community projects. Like many other compositionists (Bacon 1997; Herzberg 1994; Minter et al. 1995; Peck et al. 1995), I value community projects/service learning as a way for students to connect their academic learning with contexts beyond the classroom, and I view students’ writing about their learning in these contexts as critical for help ing them make sense of oftentimes confusing and contradictory experiences. One way that I value this writing in the classroom is by incorporating it as a public text, asking students to share their writing with other class members and placing students’ writing in dialogue with assigned class texts. Thus, students’ representations of their experiences become public texts that circulate in the classroom. It is this public nature of their writing that I discuss in this chapter. In particular, I focus on two ethical issues that have been raised for me with respect to the “public” nature of students’ writing in these courses.

First, I am increasingly conscious of how student writing about community inquiry impacts fellow classmates and, by extension, the community members about whom they are writing, particularly when these representations are often unchallenged by class members and unmediated by the com munity members themselves. Second, I have been challenged in responding to and assessing the writing that students create for their community projects, particularly in terms of the tensions that “public” writing raises in relation to my “academic” expectations for what these texts should be. By focusing on one of my student’s writing and experiences with community inquiry, I hope to show how distinctions between “public” and “private” texts are often collapsed when students do community inquiry, and that this collapse has implications for how composition teachers might more productively conceptualize and understand writing within such contexts.

To illustrate, I refer to a class that I taught in the fall of 1997, titled “Literacy and Community Issues.” It was a mixed undergraduate and graduate student seminar that focused on theories of literacy and their relationship to community contexts. In addition to reading from texts such as Toxic Literacies; Many Families, Many Literacies; Eating on the Street; Possible Lives; and the collection Perspectives on Literacy, students participated in weekly community projects related to literacy, which they either designed on their own or selected from a list of ongoing community programs. Th e thirteen students participated in a variety of projects, predominantly tutoring partnerships (with women refugees, ESL high school students, at-risk fifth-graders, an adult working for a GED), but also writing documents for organizations, such as a pediatric clinic and a local literacy organization. Th roughout the semester, students kept journals in which they described their experiences about their projects and which they shared in small groups and in full-class discussions. Half of each three-hour class was devoted to discussing issues that students were negotiating in their projects. As the semester progressed, then, students began to construct their writing as public texts, as writing that others would read and learn from and that provided them with opportunities to be authorities about their community sites.

From this class, I have chosen to focus on John, a white senior undergraduate Education major who worked in an Americorps-funded tutoring program for elementary-age students at the city’s African American Community Center, for two reasons. First, throughout the semester, John’s experiences at the Center—as represented through his writing and his oral contributions to discussions—became a primary public text with which the rest of the class engaged. Second, John’s writing challenged me as a teacher to reconsider my pedagogical assumptions about what constitutes “reflection” and “analysis” in writing about community inquiry, particularly when this writing is made public to audiences beyond the teacher.