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Lit for Comp

posted: 2.11.11 by archived

This semester, for the first time in several years, I am teaching a section of second-semester composition, which at my college is titled Writing about Literature. Its course description sits uneasily between comp and lit:

Students read and respond to diverse literary texts while continuing to build on the critical thinking and writing skills developed in ENG 101. This course provides a foundation for the study of literary genres, including poetry, drama, the novel, and the short story. Students apply literary terminology and theory and use evidence to support their responses through a variety of writing assignments. In so doing, they make connections between their lives and the world.

I won’t address the appropriateness of this as second-semester comp class, since that battle has been fought already (at least locally), but I have practical concerns about exactly what literature to assign in the course.

Many of my colleagues use standard anthologies, with their familiar selections of short fiction, poetry, and drama (Updike’s “A & P,” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”). I understand the pedagogical goals: to introduce students to some time-tested (or rather English-classroom-tested) literature and to teach the skills that compose careful reading. These anthologies also have the convenience of providing in one volume both familiar texts and an introduction to literary terminology and theory (cf. course description). And I was particularly struck by a colleague’s recounting of how thrilled one of her students was to hear mention in “the outside world” of some Robert Frost poem they had studied in class.

I have my misgivings about this approach, though. Take, for example, Faulkner’s  “A Rose for Emily.” I’ve had several recent conversations with students befuddled about that particular short  story. I spoke to them in vague terms about reading carefully and making note of things they didn’t understand. I did not, however, point them in the direction of all the available online help: 243 essays from 123helpme.com alone.  Even if students don’t give in to plagiarism temptation, the situation is uncomfortably close to the ethical concerns of enticement. How many students who know of such resources will resist the temptation to at least look? Maybe that doesn’t matter. Is it so different from literary scholars reading the criticism of others?

I believe the situation is entirely different, and can be especially damaging to less prepared students. “A Rose for Emily” is just the sort of “tricky” reading assignment that teaches these students that literature is code for which they don’t have the key. (I wonder about why these puzzle-piece stories and poems become canonical, and whether their appeal isn’t the same sort of pleasure that less sophisticated readers find in a story like “The Gift of the Magi.”) With such texts, class time too often becomes a lecture, with the teacher pointing out the clues students should have noticed. Students focus on getting the right answer instead of explaining their own response to the text and recording their own thinking process as they try to make sense of it.

I try to step back to remember the goals of my composition class, even within the confines of this literature-based approach. I want students to be able to connect the general and the specific, which they can do through applying literary terms to any text, canonical or not.  I want students to be able to support their view of character or interpretation of theme with text-based evidence, but I don’t care so much that their view match the conventionally accepted one. I would like students to gain more experience in the research process, but the research questions raised by literature do not have to involve literary criticism. I try to see the metacognitive skeleton that supports the work I ask them to do, to understand that literature allows the reader to slip into someone else’s mind and experience, to appreciate multiple perspectives, to recognize irony and metaphor. None of this requires they read the same texts I read as an undergraduate (or any time through my book-loving adolescence). In fact, choosing less familiar texts both lets me introduce material that will be more engaging for my students and prevents me from slipping into old habits of explaining texts rather than exploring them side by side with my students.

My choices in the past have included several thematic collections of short stories— My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead and The Seven Deadly Sins Sampler—both of which give thematic handles useful in approaching the stories, as well as multiple options for more tailored assignments that encourage original thought and reduce plagiarism temptations.

My non-anthology selections this semester are as follows:

If you use literature in your composition classes (by choice or not), I’d love to hear about your criteria for selection, and how you reconcile what I see as the sometimes competing goals of an Intro to Lit class and a composition class.

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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3 Responses to “Lit for Comp”

  1. Jack Solomon Says:

    You make an important point here. For many many years, the task of teaching composition was consigned to literature professors in English departments. Understandably enough, such faculty chose to teach what they knew. Of course, part of the rationale was that belletristic reading would lead to good writing, but as you point out, the classics of belles lettres are not invariably accessible, which rather contradicts the point, and good writing is by no means a certain outcome of reading “good literature.”

    And also “of course,” the days when all composition instructors simply presented their students with a literature anthology (or a volume of Shakespeare!) are long gone. In fact, much composition instruction has now been separated out from the English department and situated in a Writing Program staffed with faculty trained in rhetoric and composition. A plethora of thematic readers is available now to such faculty to provide just about any topic for student writers to write about, including the act of writing itself.

    But it remains a good idea to have an adequate background in the subject matter when choosing a thematic approach beyond rhet/comp, though that background need not be in literary criticism any longer.

  2. Steve B, U Delaware Says:

    Something important can be accomplished in writing about literature, such as reading a whole, extended text that represents literary fiction. Too few students will have this experience during college, and if not then, when? I think it would be important to choose a text that is not likely to be part of the high school canon. And it is important and difficult to find ways to ensure that students actually read the text. The choices of Room and Osage are interesting for taking students in new directions, as neither would likely have been read during high school.

    I wonder, too, if you can enlarge the definition of literary to include a work of long-form journalism? There are so many fine works to choose from, and the choice can be more than topical. The choice can reflect an appreciation for a writer in command of the language, who is willing to offer complexity of style and point of view.

  3. Holly Pappas. Bristol Comm. College Says:

    Thanks for the conversation! (and sorry to be tardy with my replies).

    Jack: I wonder how much the conditions at two-year vs. four-year colleges affect this whole situation. About 95% (guesstimate) of the English sections taught at my CC are composition, so the split between English dept. and
    Writing Program doesn’t seem feasible. Also, the CC reliance on adjunct faculty, who much more often than not come from literature backgrounds, plays a role as well. Thematic readers seem a good option to me, but standard lit anthologies are still the choice for most of my colleagues, both full-time and adjunct.

    Steve: Yes, I agree about avoiding the high school canon, and there’s another blog post (or book!) in this sentence: “And it is important and difficult to find ways to ensure that students actually read the text.” I’d love to hear some strategies for this; it’s one of the main reasons my preference is for teaching the first (non-lit) semester of FYC. For that first semester I have in the past used some nonfiction books (by John McPhee, Steven Johnson, Bill McKibben). I do like the challenge of an extended text. (I thought for a while about using something like Patti Smith’s memoir, though it’s not that extended…)