How College Essays Taught Me the Importance of an Authentic Audience

It is the heart of college application season in my school, which means one thing: college essay after college essay after college essay walking through my door. It would not be hyperbolic to say that I have looked at well over 100 different college essays in the last three weeks, many of them two, three, or four times.

Further, I have seen many seniors pour themselves into these essays–often revising them more than ten times–in ways that I’ve never seen them approach work in class.

And when I ask them why they work so hard on these, they almost always give me the same answer: because this actually matters. Or put another way, while I understand how this will change my life, I don’t really see how most of the writing I do in class will significantly impact my life.

For years I’ve tried to take the energy and time students invest in college essay–and the massive amount of learning that comes with it–and transplant it into my day-to-day writing classes. This hasn’t been easy, as many of the students in my college town have been thinking about getting into college since they learned to walk, but I have found some success by constantly thinking about the one thing that makes the college essay so different from many other papers that students write: its meaningful, authentic audience.

Before moving on, I should mention that “authentic audience” is a term thrown around a lot these days and used in a variety of ways, but for me it is actually a very specific thing. In my eyes an authentic audience is less about who is looking at it, as there are plenty of ways to have all sorts of non-teachers inauthentically look at something, and more about what the assignment means to the writer and the reader. If the assignment means something to the writer and it truly matters to the writer what the reader thinks of it, then I consider that to be an authentic assignment. For example, when it comes to the college essay, it is authentic because it means something to most of the students to tell their stories and it really matters that the admission officers like the pieces.

When it comes to finding authentic audiences, the suggestions I see most often are for student blogs, social media posts, and letters to the editor, and while those can match my definition of an authentic audience, they aren’t slam-dunks. A letter to an unknown editor can feel a lot like a letter to a teacher (just another literary authority figure) and a blog post can feel like an extra hoop if no one is really going to read it of their own accord. Further, I believe a standard classroom paper can actually be authentic if thoughtfully designed.

With that in mind, I encourage you to really think about your assignments and how authentic each is. I find there to be a close correlation between the level of authenticity, the effort students will put in, and the growth they make, with the most authentic assignments packing two or three papers’ worth of growth into one piece. Here are three of my favorites that do that really well:

Ah-Ha Festival


I can’t take credit for this, as it was created by my brilliant colleague, Robert Morgan, but the AH HA Festival (which stands for Ad Hoc High School Festival) is a yearly competition that Robert hosts where his students use rhetorical and argumentative tools to argue an absurd argument of their choice. Some of my favorite topics have been how the small marsupial, the Potaroo (see right), has been controlling presidential politics for centuries and why dogs aren’t ticklish. Other classes are always invited to this competition, and it has become quite the event, with an audience of a couple hundred last year. But what I love most about it is that in the end, the students are writing an argumentative essay with a thesis and supporting points, but they pour so much more into it than they put into the standard essay because they all want to win and not look silly in front of the audience. If you are curious about the whole set up of the AH HA Fest, here is a link to a review/video of its first year that sets it up pretty well.

The Narrative Book

Narratives are underrated, as knowing how to tell a good story is one of the most potent argumentative techniques known to mankind. For this reason I teach narratives in nearly all of my classes, and when I do, I have students write “their story,” which goes into a (now) series of classroom books that hold all of the stories of all of my students. These books sit on my bookshelves and are available to any student who wants to look at them, and I am always amazed at how interested they are to read each other’s stories. I am also always amazed at how this little shift from a narrative to a narrative that sits on a shelf makes a massive difference in how excited they are to tell their story and the polish that they put on it so that the future readers get to see the real them.

The Bluest Eye Argumentative Paper

This paper came about when a student teacher of mine was teaching The Bluest Eye a few years ago. For those who haven’t read it, The Bluest Eye has some of the most difficult content matter of any book I can think of. In the first ten pages it discusses sexual assault, incest, and shocking abuse, and these three central themes follow most of the characters through the book. At first, many of the students struggled with this content matter, and my student teacher struggled to get them to engage with the book. This all shifted when we did a lesson together where we mentioned the fact that The Bluest Eye is banned in many districts that surround us because of the content matter. We then engaged in a class debate about whether this book should be banned, and, in the face of censorship, many students who were wary of the book suddenly became its biggest supporters.

This debate has since turned into a yearly part of my American Lit class where each student writes an essay where they weigh in on if they think The Bluest Eye should be a part of the American Lit. curriculum. While in some ways it is a risk to allow students to question whether a book belongs in class, I find that both supporters and detractors go deep into the book’s themes, lessons, and style to make their cases in ways that I only used to dream of when I previously assigned more traditional styles of essays.

In the end, the best way to find an authentic audience is to try and marry your purpose and the students’ purposes. When the two align–like in the examples above–there are few things you can do as a writing teacher that will generate the same types of growth!

Yours in (authentic) teaching,

MattScreen Shot 2017-08-07 at 3.17.22 PM

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