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Literature in the Writing Classroom

posted: 8.4.11 by Andrea Lunsford

This week, Inside Higher Education featured an interview with Martha Pennington and Pauline Burton about their new anthology, The College Writing Toolkit: Tried and Tested Ideas for Teaching College Writing. I was alerted to the interview by Sue McLeod, writing on the WPA list asking if others had read the interview or the book, and saying, “I think that the premise stated at the beginning, that college writing is usually taught through reading and writing about ‘classic literature,’ is unfounded—at least that’s what the research of Kathi Yancey and her colleagues showed.”

The research that I have conducted with Karen Lunsford also challenges that premise. Indeed, when Karen and I surveyed first-year writing classes across the country, we found that they were primarily focused on argument, often based on research; very few of the essays we collected dealt with literary texts or seemed to come from classes where “classic literature” was the focus.  My sense is that we have moved well beyond the “writing about literature” courses that were so pervasive thirty-five years ago:  today, students in first-year writing classes are engaged in inquiry about a huge range of subjects, many of them of their own choosing.  To my mind, this is a good change:  college writing courses that asked all students—no matter their own interests or prospective majors—to write about “classic literature” for an entire term or two were almost guaranteed not to connect with the majority of the students in them.

The always thoughtful and astute Jerry Nelms commented further on the list, challenging the assumption “that analysis is best taught through literary analysis, which personal essays are seen as having some (albeit indirect really) relationship to. Teaching literary analysis does one thing really well; it teaches close reading for textual support. Unfortunately, that one thing doesn’t transfer particularly well across disciplinary boundaries. Rhetorical analysis (identifying the purpose and the primary claim, even if assumed and hidden; identifying secondary claims used to support the primary claim; and so on) works better.” I agree that teaching literary analysis builds close reading ability, but rhetorical analysis—with its insistent focus on purpose and on full context—is an even more powerful way to analyze texts of all kinds.

In the Inside Higher Education interview, Pennington and Burton themselves go on to call into question the assumption that writing classes today focus on “classic literature,” noting that today many teachers of writing come from outside of literature departments, that students are increasingly multilingual and career oriented, and that writing courses need to address their interests directly. For this reason, they seem to favor the use of personal writing which, they say, “can provide a bridge between the students’ own discourse and the discourse of the university, which may be remote and unfamiliar to them.” This approach was most prominent in the 1980s, though research never provided compelling proof for such a “bridge” theory. Still, writing out of personal experience can certainly be powerful and can engage students in inquiry and in learning. Bronwyn LaMay is writing a (brilliant) dissertation based on two years of field research at an inner city school where she has worked with students almost completely disaffected from school and its ways of learning: through “life writing” they are beginning to tell new stories of their own lives, stories that they may then be able to inhabit. Such personal writing can bring about change and lead to deep learning. Nevertheless, in Karen’s and my research found that first year writing classes only infrequently assign personal writing.  Perhaps it’s time to take another look at the connection between personal narrative and more academic forms of writing—and to hear from those who are teaching with this model.

At any rate, I’m intrigued to read the essays in The College Writing Toolkit and especially to look at the assignments they describe since every writing teacher is always looking for that next new, exciting assignment to try out. I’m betting, however, that few of them will be literature based—and for very good reasons.

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Categories: Literature
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