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Responding to Religion: Facilitating a Spiritual Voice through Response and Revision in the Composition Classroom I have a confession to make.

I teach at a religious university, but I cannot 5wmach students' religious writing. In fact, at the beginning of each semester, I tell my composition students to avoid spiritual topics altogether I offer them the pretense that 1 do not want to be in the uncomfortable position of evaluating their testimonies, confessions, and intimate beliefs. :'" f""r This is true! I do feel uncomfOltable evaluating testimonies, I hate to think that in rendering a C to Brittany's average paper about her faith in Christ that I might cause her to think that she has average faith or that I do not value her ideals. I would he awake at night thinking that I had thrust Brittany into a full-blown existential and spiritual crisis While spiritual crises are certainly one reason for outlawing spiritual topics, at the heart of this rule is my disdain for the way students render their religious fervor. My students tend to write poorly when they discuss something as intimate as their religious beliefs, and rather than confront this authentic issue, I sidestep the problem by telling them to write about other topics. Before I established this policy, the trouble would start right at the beginning of the semester with our reflective essay. I would instruct the students to relate a personal experience using narration with descriptive detail to help their readers experience the story vicariously Equally important, they were to develop an insight for the reader in relating the story, a surprising observation, a lesson learned, a comment on humanity, life. etc. Invariably, a majority ofthe essays would relate a story, and then in the last paragraph or two confess how their story instilled faith in them. I would attempt to preempt this problem with in class discussion, examples. and prewriting. Still. students found the confessional form their church natural and easy_

For example. James tells the harrowing story of his near fatal traffic accident from which, Officer Bob confirms. it's an absolute miracle that anyone walked away. He writes as ifhe is trying to create a movie script, highlighting the action and adventure of the accident. James fills the essay with the minutia of detail leading up to the wreck. and then bludgeons the reader with vivid descriptions of the damage to his cherry red. 2003 Honda Civic. In an extended paragraph, James laments the loss of his beloved car, the one his parents had given him as a pre-graduation present. The essay centers on the action of the accident and the tragedy orthe wrecked car. In the conclusion. James attempts to magically tie this all together with his testimony that the experience helped him to see that his Heavenly Father watches over and protects him The accident changed James forever because he knew in that moment that there was a kind God who managed his life. I am left asking myself how to respond to an essay such as this without ridiculing his ideas or beliefs. You can tell by my attitude in relating this anecdote that 1 had no business evaluating essays such as James' because ( could not value the students' ideas in the way they presented them. The essays were written poorly, but lately I have come back to this issue and questioned whether I made the right decision in banning religion from their writing. I sympathize with Wendy Bishop when she says Spirituality is a troubling word to me. I tend to shy away from spirit even as I'm drawn to it" (129). At least in terms of teaching, I share her feelings, but in recent scholarship, J have found theorists who comend that writing can be an excellent medium for students to explore their spiritual identity, and in denying them the opportunity to explore, que~tion. and define their spiritual selves, I am closing down a rich avenue for growth and maturation. In other words, as a writing teacher I am sidestepping my obligation to help students share their ideas effectively by mandating topics that will be easier for them to write about. Or, I tell them not to write about spiritual topics because they make me feel uncomfortable. 1 have concluded that the problem is not the spirituality in the writing, but the techniques novice spiritual writers use to approach and persuade their audience. To remedy this audience ;l; , I problem, l'suggest three techniques that I think will help students write effectively about their spirituality. The value of spiritual writing seems to counter current trends in composition and rhetoric which promote a more liberal political agenda. Rather than contend with this agenda for a composition course, I will explore scholars who feel that spirituality should

simply be another voice in the classroom community, adding to diversity. In part, this exploration is an effort to convince mysclfthat this is true. Maxine Hairston., former chair ofCCCe. addresses this issue in her essay "Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing." She boldly attacks liberal agendas which might exclude discussions of spirituality and religion . ... religion plays an important role in the lives of many of our studentsand many of us, I'm sure-but it's a dimension almost never mentioned by those who talk about cultural diversity and difference. In most classrooms in which there is an obvious political agenda, students-even graduate students--are vel)' reluctant to reveal their religious beliefs_ sensing they may get a hostile reception. But a teacher who believes in diversity must pay attention to and respect students with deep religious convictions. not force them into silence_ (538) Hairston links diversity with a willingness to allow spiritual and religious voices in student essays. Since religion occupies such a central part of many of our students' experiences, excluding thaI voice from the classroom constrains diversity. Hairston's argument centers on the fact that in order to be truly diverse, we must hear all voices in the classroom, but other scholars have gone further, suggesting that restricting a student's spiritual voice actually does them harm_ Stephen Webb asserts that when ... teachers talk about moving their students ITom dogmatic and narrow positions to critical openmindedness, they treat them as victims of their religious backgrounds, and student passivity in the classroom is the inevitable result. Students lose faith in themselves when their beliefs are not taken seriously by their teachers. (109) If we force our students into silence about their beliefs, they become passive. They question themselves in unhealthy ways resulting in a loss of self esteem. While teachers should help students to analyze their beliefs critically, many critics assert that the most effective way to accomplish this is by allowing students to write_ Spiritual explorations through writing can stimulate intellectual grov.rth_ Marti Singer observes that in fact, the act of writing itself may provide a means of selffdiscovery for students and, consequently, selfrevelation, of which students are not always conscious" (73). Writing can help students articulate, question, defend, and revise rheir own views. This form of exploratory thinking assists our students in discovering who they are and critically evaluating why they believe the way they do. Ifbroadening and maturing their views is part of our intention, shutting them down with silence would actually hinder this development. By silencing

students, we prevent the self discovery and self revelation that Singer discusses. Susan A. Schiller confirms this slating that "Writing is a natural site for spirituality. Every time we pick up a pen to express language. sometimes language that stretches our reach., we push inward to discover new realms of experience" (36), To facilitate this growth, we must empower students to write, finding their authentic voice through language. Finding their voice requires courage because students take risks when they speak. especially about spiritual matters. Parker Palmer. in his book The Courage 10 Teach, describes the fcar that keeps students silent. Behind their fearful silence, our students find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard. A good teacher is one who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken-so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence" (46), Part of our responsibility to our students is to empower them to speak and write within a diverse community. We accomplish this by creating an open classroom where diverse ideas. even spiritual ones. are explored, and students are safe to speak. For Webb, "Giving students the freedom to speak means not asking them to give up what they value most highly in order to affirm a highly politicized vision of equality" (109), If we can move students beyond fear to speech, we benefit as well. While Wendy Bishop explained her reluctance to engage students' spiritual writing, she concludes that when students address spiritual matters "they have connected to us, made our day more whole, more human, more important_ We can wony over thcm and marvel at them-at their strength and survivor's skills, at their excitement nght now, at the way they have rewoven the spirit through writing" (135) Bishop describes a mutual engagement in the subject of student essays, and she suggests that even though allowing spirituality is risky and uncomfortable, the writing invigorates both teacher and student. Richard Graves also suggests that both writer and reader can be moved by grace, his term for spirituality_ "Grace can be found in an open, accepting audience that can itself be moved by grace Grace is a living reality, a force capable of teaching all aspects ofhurnan life" (22, 15), While I have yet to see these results, I feel that the potential described here merits further exploration_ Given the current climate in composition classrooms, valuing "affect. intuition, inner knowing, and connections to God, to the earth and to human beings" (Schiller 35) is an act of reform. Operating under the assumption that spiritual essays can help students evolve and develop. I return to my original problem-responding to student essays in a way that motivates them to revise effectively. This is no easy task. but it is an important one. Singer stresses our accountability in responding to essays such as these saying "Just as student writing comcs ITom students' experiences and concerns. so teachers' responses come from theirs. We must accept the responsibility and the challenges for the kinds of writing we elicit ITom students, for the responses we make to students, and for the effects these responses have for students" (75). This is where my hesitance comes ITom in responding to my students' spiritual writing_ Intuitively I sense the heavy responsibility in coaching my students to share their intimate beliefs effectively_ Rather than allowing fear or aoprehension to dictate my course policy, I should accept the challenge of engagmg students in their most sacred ideas and beliefs. Schiller suggests that to accomplish this, "Teachers have to lead by building flexibility and tolerance into our

assignments, We also have to share our spiritual life with our students and be willing to explore the oneness that can be found in learning from them as we teach them" (Schiller 38), While this pushes me outside of my teaching bubble where I feel comfortable, 1 see the value in helping students to develop their spiritual voices. To facilitate this development, I have devised three revision-based responses that I might apply to student writing to help them convert their essays from \)'riter-centered to _/, IT"'" "'i""'" A'( ""f"(~ b.r F !<e! fi.trhelf't.Hft fh'r <f~{: I' ':(, reader-centered spiritual essays. I will share an example from a student essay that I ~j/, A .... r (, f ..... a. 'd<--1. received last semester to illustrate the specific problems I see and to delineate the response strategies. When I assign the reflective essay, I stress that I want to see two elements: the narration of their spectfic personal experience with vivid description and detail and the analysis of the experience which develops an insight or a meaning in the story We discuss what we mean by insight and meaning, and I stress that as in Langston Hughe's essay "Salvation," they should blend the narration and the analysis together into a unified whole. Just as Hughe's essay develops the insight through the details of the story, I tell the students that they should not have one half which contains the story and one half which contaim; the insight. The two should be merged together into one. \\ie do prewriting work to help them accomplish this, In response to this assignment, Megan tells the story of her near drowning in a ~(lU..-\ y-!",/~ "I) swimming pool when she was a~L She starts off strong with a unique description and image_ "'I could not grasp the air." She moves ITom this strong opening into an awkward introduction where she attempts to set up the story and the insight she will develop. '-Water was enveloping my lungs as I struggled for breath. At that pomt in time, l was not thinking of how I could possibly learn from what was happening. However, life lessons can be taught in a variety of ways and experiences. As I have grown older I have recognized the significance of a certain event that happened in my life as a young child. This experience brought me new insight to the word." While this introduction

is clunky, I can see what she is trying to do. She sees the need to include some sort of a general thesis which scts up the story and the insight. Megan moves into the story which she describes as a "near death experience" when she was seven years old., living in Colorado. Her father tells her not to go near the deep-end of the pool, but as she begins playing, she forgets to monitor where she is at and slowly drifts close to the drop off Megan occasionally uses powerful descriptions such as "The cool water wrapped around my little feel:' "One slippery step sent me flailing into the deep end," and "That thin line where the air met the water seemed within my reach." She laments not having obeyed her father, and when she is safe, she says that "He just held and kept me close" rather than chastise her for not obeying him. She tries to use this as a transition into her testimony and confession which I will now read Our Heavenly Father held us close at one time. Through the plan of salvation he let us go into the world, trusting that we would be okay and would listen to his words. I.ike young children. we slowly move towards boundaries that should never be crossed. One false move we make can send us into the darkness. As we try to move forward back to safety, Satan has pressures that constantly push us down. This is why our Father gave us someone who was willing to go in after us "fully clothed" to save us from the "gulf of misery and endless woe." The Savior came to our rescue. As we cling to him, sorry fix what we have done, he brings us back into the arms ofa loving father; a Father who is happy that we arc now safe in his arms. He does not think of ollr mistakes, he just holds us and says, "It's okay." I wish I had realized the value of obedience my whole life. learned obedience is not just doing what I am supposed to do, but it is trusting that what I am told is the right thing. I now know listening to my father's guidance can save me in a time oftear. Rather, it can save me from having to learn a lesson the hard way_ From that small experience not only have I learned the significance oflistening to my fathec but I have also grown and reached a personal understanding of the atonement or Jesus Christ. Now, one might contend that the writing is just bad, spiritual or not. This is true. However, since Megan wrote about such an intimate subject, she could easily be shaken by comments that seem to attack her confeSSIOn. Responding to her in a way that will be positive and revision centered seems difficult, but I think it can be done. Looking back now, f would give Megan three connected pieces of coaching. will refer to this advice in general terms that might be applied to any essay with similar problems. In reworking this essay, Megan should: rewrite fi)r an educated audience oUlside her own religion or faith., rewrite 10 allow her story and description to illustrate her faith and testimony, and rewrite to substitute religious rhetonc with her own personal vOIce.

h~l Rewrite for an educated audience outside your own faith or religion. Part of the problem with MeganOs essay is that she makes huge assumptions because she knows that I am of her faith. This oversimplifying of audience happens with novice writers regardless of the subject or the audience_ In Megan's case, the result is that she tacks a testimony onto the end of her essay in the same way she might at a church meeting. She fails to understand that the audience for a collegelevel essay is entirely different than the congregation at a church service. By encouraging her to rewrite for an audience outside her faith. she will be forced to really consider the reader she invokes. While this may not convince her to eliminate the testimony altogether, it will certainly help her to tone down and redirect the testimony. ?/,J Rewrile to allow your story and description to share your faith. Schiller counsels that in spiritual writing, "The reception of the essence must result in a lived-through experience for the reader if the writer is effective" (40)_ This is a version of the time-worn English teacher advice to "show rather than tell" Megan wants to tell her readers her faith in the testimonial format. She finds this easier than trying to pull the reader into the story and experience her faith vicariously through the events. It is far easier to simply tell her reader the moral to the story in the end rather than developing her insight throughout by using carefully crafted descriptions in telling the story. In rev.Titing to allow her story to do the work, Megan will more than likely get rid of the didactic, testimonial conclusion. 1~:r) Rewrite to substitute religious rhetoric with your own personal voice. In relating her testimony, Megan uses borrowed rhetorical phrases which substitute her own unique voice for the voice that she has heard in church over the years The result is language which tends to exclude individuals within a diverse audience. Examples are: 'the plan of salvation," "Our Heavenly Father,"" the arms ofa loving falher." and "the atonement of Jesus Christ" While many of these will be eliminated with the two previous revisions, calling these phrases to Megan's attention will help her find her own voice rather than the voice of the pulpit. The common thread nmning through all of these revision strategies is that Megan's writing becomes more effective for a wider, more diverse audience. Maxine Hairston suggests that this is essential when encouraging students to write about spiritual experiences because As writing teachers, we can help students articulate and understand that experience, but we also have the important job of helping every writer to understand that each of us sees the world through our own particular lens. one shaped by unique experiences. (n order to communicate with others, we must learn to see through their lenses as well as try to explain to them what we see through ours. (538) Megan's writing will be more effective and powerful if she can approach a more diverse audience. She will be more subtle. persua5ive, and powerful. These rC5ponse 5tratcgies make me feel more comfortable in responding to spiritual essays because they turn the f{)CUS away tram the beliefs of the students and towards questions of audience and rhetoric

I wish I could have generated these responses a little sooner so that I might have more effectively responded to Megan. In helping her to find a powerful spiritual voice. might have also helped her to think through and analyze her beliefs. If we truly want students like Megan to broaden their perspectives, we must work with them through their writing. While allowing spiritual essays creates problems for me as a teacher, the potential benefits for my students outweigh the risks. Works Cited Bishop, Wendy "Teaching Lives: Thoughts on Reweaving Our Spirits" The .)1);I";I'lIal ,"'ide (!f Writing Eds. Regina Paxton Foehr and Susan A. Schiller. Portsmouth. NI-I: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997. 129-135. Graves, Richard L. "'Grace, in Pedagogy." The 5jJiriflial Side (~fWrit;flg. Eds. Regina Paxton faehr and Susan A Schiller. Portsmouth, NH Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997. 15-24. Hairston, Maxine. "Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing," Composition;1I FOllr Keys: Inquiring in10 the Field. Eds. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason, and Louise Wetherbee Phelps. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1996. 5300540, Palmer, Parker 1 Ihe Courage (0 Teach Exploring the funer land' . cape (Jfa Teacher's Ule. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass, 1998. Schiller, Susan A. "Writing. A Natural Site for Spirituality." The '~J)irifllal Side (d' fVriling. Eds. Regina Paxton Foehr and Susan A Schiller. POItsmouth, NH . Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997. 34-43. Singer, Marti "Responding to Intimacies and Crises in Students' Journals." Rng/ish Journal 79(1990),7275. Webb, Stephen H. Taking Religion 10 Schoo/: Christian lheoloRV and Secular Felucation. Grand Rapids, MI Brazos Press, 2000.