Why aren’t 1105 & 1106 more literature-centered?

“There are many reasons why it is no longer the norm to teach literature in composition courses.  This debate has a long history.  If you’re really interested in knowing the details, you could do some research, beginning, perhaps, with the Lindemann-Tate debate.  Below are some of the reasons Lindemann offers for not teaching literature in the comp classroom.  I have filtered them through my own thinking.

“1. Most literature courses focus on writing as a product rather than writing as process.  Attention in literature-heavy classes usually turns to figuring out how a piece of literature works, and this often means less time spent teaching students how to work through the processes that will help them become better writers. It is HARD to design and teach a comp course that really focuses on student writing.  Student writing can be broken and ugly and just hard to deal with.  Of course we’d rather explain why so-and-so is such a great writer or why a particular piece of writing changed our lives or deserves our attention.  This is the threat that accompanies any writing course that is too heavy on reading.  If there’s a way to retreat from the often difficult work of dealing with student texts, we usually find it.  It’s understandable.  But I think we need to teach students how to make texts, not just interpret the pretty ones that already exist.  For an interesting articulation of this very point, look up J. Hillis Miller’s recent contribution to the journal Critique.  (Well, early 2000s, so not too recent).  Miller is a famous literary critic and theorist of reading, so his take on this issue is particularly noteworthy.

“2. Studying literature isn’t the ideal way to prepare students for the kinds of writing they will be required to produce in other courses and on the job.  Face it, most students are not going to need to write poems, stories, or novels in order to do well in college or in a career.  No one who makes this argument is saying that writing about literature doesn’t make students smarter.  But, literature is just one small fraction of the kinds of writing that exist in the world.  And they can learn a lot from those other kinds of non-literary writing.  Some find this particular argument kind of distasteful, as though it’s bad to be so “utilitarian” and un-humanistic.  But teaching non-literary writing is not, by definition, a utilitarian enterprise.  And it is not less rigorous than teaching literature.  Finally, if we’re concerned with undermining the tenets of a strong liberal arts education, it’s worth remembering that rhetoric, as a part of the classical trivium, is central to that education.

“3. As a field, rhetoric and composition (or rhetoric and writing or writing studies or rhetoric studies), looks primarily to classical rhetoric as its historical antecedent.  Those who studied rhetoric in the classical era were concerned primarily with civic forms of discourse.  That’s not to say that every composition course in existence today is about civic discourse.  But if you’re not getting why the tradition in composition is to not teach literature, then it might help to think about the relationship between the composition course and the field of rhetoric and composition.  In other words, it might be helpful to think about how the composition course is related to the academic field of inquiry that developed around (and actually before) it.  Rhetoric and composition is not the study of literature.  This does not mean that these two field are completely distinct or don’t have anything to do with one other.  There’s plenty of crossover, but in general, the banner of English Studies has gotten much wider since the mid-twentieth century, allowing scholars to focus on cultural studies, philosophy, civic discourse, legal discourse, environmental discourse, medical discourse, discourses of technology, and so on.  So, if we believe that literature should be taught in composition because we assume that the terms ‘literature’ and ‘English’ are coterminous, then we’re working with a faulty assumption.”

“The idea is for students to learn how to write in ways that will be helpful to them in other classes and even maybe on the job.  For example, they’ll need to think through audience and genre conventions, as well as what counts as effective evidence or reasoning in every writing situation.  So, rather than teach them to “just” write about literature, freshman composition asks that they write in ways are flexibly adaptable to lots of situations—professional, public, etc.    Of course, they would learn some version of this stuff from writing about literature, but the idea is that they are learning to be accountable for a wide range of topics of significance to their roles as inquisitive and responsible citizens, rather than topics within one discipline.”

“Writing is something we do. It is a behavior.  And all behaviors are improved best by what is known as ‘specificity of training.’  If you want to run a fast marathon, you don’t train by doing sprints; you train by running long, long distances.  Poems, stories, novels, and all sorts of other genres are excellent events, but they are not the events the students are training for in 1105 and 1106.”

“Are you insane?  It is a composition class!  That means that students compose their own pieces.  If they are reading great works of literature, they are bound to write about that literature, and are likely to be stunted by it, overwhelmed by it, and ultimately depressed that they cannot write like Dickinson or Whitman—and why would they want to?  What they should be reading are essays that model the type of essays and other forms they will be writing/producing in the class, by both students and professionals.  If the students want a literature class, they should take one.  If the teacher wants to teach a literature class, wait until that is in fact the case.”

“It’s natural to want to teach what you like. But is it what the students need? The aim of first year writing is to ground reading and writing in rhetorical—rather than aesthetic—contexts. That is, while reading and responding to literature will doubtlessly make students better readers and responders to literature, a more rhetorical approach that addresses concerns of purpose, style, situation, audience, etc. will serve them better in settings outside the English classroom.”


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