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Teaching Literature in Composition Courses

posted: 1.17.13 by Andrea Lunsford

Earlier this month there was a long and provocative conversation on the Writing Program Administrators’ (WPA) list, at least 75 postings long, on the question of whether to teach literature in composition courses.  I read most of the posts and was struck by how many people have written passionately on this topic, coming at it from many different directions.  Some of the early posts alluded to the so-called “debate” over this issue between Erika Lindemann and Gary Tate decades ago.  Edward P. J. Corbett, Maxine Hairston, and many others also addressed the subject in the past.  Others focused on arguing either for or against the use of literary texts in our writing classes, and still others argued over distinctions between literary and non-literary texts. 

While I took away many good points from this discussion, the most telling one to me was written by Beth Daniell, who urged that we teach any and all texts in our writing classes from a rhetorical perspective. That is, that we teach them as texts embedded in complex situations, using strategies aimed at reaching audiences and making arguments through their presentation and delivery as well as their “content.”  This makes perfect sense to me, especially as the co-author of a book called Everything’s an Argument.  I do believe that all texts make arguments, including literary ones.  In fact, when I was visiting a 12th grade class and talking with students about this subject, I took on a challenge the students laid down:  “Take this poem,” they said, “and show us how it makes an argument.”  I can’t recall now what poem it was, but I remember using my knowledge of rhetorical analysis to deduce an argument that the students bought; they even joined in and helped me with the analysis.  (Lucky me!)   So while I could easily include literary texts in my writing classes, I do so infrequently (with the exception of graphic narratives, which I have been including for about a decade in order to study the way images and words work together and get students thinking about how to use images to best effect in their own writing).

But at about this point in my musings on the WPA discussion, I realized I had been drawn into thinking with the terms supplied by those posting – and that included thinking with the binary of literary / non-literary.  Now that’s a binary I don’t really believe in, precisely because I view all texts as arguments made in particular situations to particular audiences using particular genre and media.  Especially in a period where new genres are emerging daily, it seems unproductive to cling to old categories, especially those arranged in a hierarchical binary (and many still privilege the “literary” over the “non” literary).

What makes most sense to me in any writing class, then, is to choose whatever texts are to be read with an eye to how they contribute to the topic at hand, how they demonstrate and embody rhetorical principles I want students to understand and engage, how they stack up in terms of rhetorical effectiveness, and how they can instruct and perhaps inspire students in their own writing.  But choosing such texts can be a tall order, since I’m essentially asking that every text we read do double or often triple duty in the classroom.  Fortunately, in my writing classes we don’t need a large number of such texts, just a few very rich pieces that we can come back to again and again as we progress in making arguments of our own.   And once the class really starts to roll, students find themselves producing texts that stack up pretty well themselves.  That’s when the fun really begins!  So I say why continue to fret over literary versus non-literary texts in the composition course:  just choose texts that work, and let the students do the good work of finding out just how that happens.

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2 Responses to “Teaching Literature in Composition Courses”

  1. Derrick, Midlands Tech Says:

    I just started teaching at a new college last semester that teaches Composition 2 with literature. Before that I taught for the first four years of my career using standard arguments and textbooks similar to _Everything’s an Argument_.

    I made this clear during the first week of the class and I explained that I believe both methods work just fine. But one of the advantages of using literature occurred to me as I prepared for my course.

    One of the aspects that I like to stress to my students is that Academic writing is writing as an Expert–or learning how to write as an Expert–in a particular field.

    Teaching writing about literature allows me to guide them in this aspect of writing much more effectively. I can still focus on aspects of argument but I get to talk about literary arguments in particular. And I get to move my students into the realm of formal, academic writing using a specific subject that I know well. When I taught the course with “non-literary” texts I had to become an expert with them on all sorts of smaller topics in politics, culture and society.

    I think teaching with literature will be much more fun and interesting. And I don’t have to read so many papers about abortion and gun control and legalizing marijuana, which, to be honest, are getting old.

  2. Andrea lunsford Says:

    Hi Derrick

    Thanks for your thoughts on this complex issue. Sounds like you have a great class going, one that teaches academic writing while engaging students with literary texts and the disciplinary discourse that surrounds them.

    All the best!