Archive for February, 2011

Using literature to teach writing, Part 2

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Here is my handout for my co-teaching in English 759. I’ve probably already talked about some of the strategies for using literature in the composition/writing intensive classroom in part 1, but many of these are new. If you find these interesting, I highly recommend you check out the book edited by Art Young and Toby Fulwiler. The citation is below.

When Writing Teachers Teach Literature: Bringing Writing to Reading. Art Young and Toby Fulwiler (eds). Heinemann: New York, 1995. Print.

Overview: This collection of essays focus on pedagogical tools that can help teachers with writing instruction through the use of literature. The book is divided into parts that each has a particular focus. This handout gives emphasis to each part and describes some pedagogical strategies from each section. Note that I haven’t discussed every essay/pedagogy in the book.

Part 1: Conflicts in the Contact Zone

These essays talk about how to deal with difficult topics in the classroom. These can include difficult themes to discuss in literature (e.g. rape) or misconceptions students carry about what English means.

This first part focuses on why students “take literature” courses. Most students expect to bring them further “awareness” of cultural issues and, more broadly, make them “better people.” (like the rhetorical question—“Is the good speaker a good person?”) Trimbur focuses on why students “take English” and gives some good ideas to have students explore what literature means by having them describe their prior experiences with literature and what they expect to learn in a literature course. (You can easily turn this around and ask what their previous writing experiences are and what they expect to learn in a writing course. It will help get the course off on some solid ground.) Essays that follow discuss pedagogical strategies for teaching writing and literature and I have highlighted a few of these below:

  • After students read a work of literature, ask them to rewrite that work of literature in a new way. I currently do this in my world literature course where students will write a poem retelling Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” for example. This demonstrates to students that literature is not static, but malleable.
  • Ask students to write a letter to the editor (or some form of more formal or informal writing) that places themes from the story/poem into a contemporary setting. For example, if they read Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan” a student could write a letter to the editor of the student newspaper about rape on campus.
  • Use literature in a way to challenge students’ current misconceptions. Have students Freewrite on their past experiences with a certain (perhaps difficult) topic and use these to lead into discussion. Works well in classes where you are talking about difficult themes/ideas.

Part 2: Student Writing and Teacher Learning

In this section, student writing is the main focus where students can use their own experiences to guide the classroom situation.

Pedagogical strategies:

  • In one class, students created their own “textbook” for the class of their own writings. This would be a good thing to do in a 120 class or in a creative writing course. You could use this textbook for other classes so they could learn the genres or have it be a sort of “class portfolio.” All students would contribute their own work or work collaboratively on this as a class. (Group writings, for example with an “editing group.”) This gives students power over the class and their own writing.
  • Reader response is a focus of this section, so another pedagogical move would include having students write their own interpretation of a story or poem. I know we, as teachers, sometimes step over students to correct interpretation (especially if we feel strongly about a work of literature or author), but the goal here is to let students express their own reading of the text and contribute to a “critical edition” of that work. (I think Dr. Totten has done this kind of assignment in 358, so he would have an assignment sheet on this if you were interested.)
  • For exercises in imitation, students can mimic the sentences of an author. (We have talked about this.) Students can also practice summary by writing a summary of the plot of a novel read in the course.

Part 3: Writing and Rewriting Literature

Self-explanatory title. 😉

  • This was an example from a poetry class: The teacher assigned multiple genres of poems (rap, sonnets, etc) and had students write their own versions of these forms of poetry, along with talking about how the “form fits the meaning.” This gets students to think about genre as well.
  • One teacher in this section discussed how he had students “rewrite” a story or poem in a way that it fit modern times (or however the student wished to rewrite it.) Students also played around with writing alternative endings or adding new characters. This would work well in a creative writing class. You could also use this in 120 by showing how literature can be made relevant today (rewriting a story/poem into present day) and also teach about genre and how genre is culturally constructed (something I make a point to do in 358 and 120).
  • When critiquing literature, have students talk about the writing too. Why the writing works or doesn’t work. Use this to teach students about diction and descriptive writing. (I have an exercise on a Robert Hayden poem I did where I taught them about using diction and descriptive writing. I also showed them his multiple drafts to show how the poem changed via the word choice and descriptions. I’d be willing to share.)
  • Have students write personal essays in response to literature. This can work well (but also potentially backfire) if a student has a strong reaction to a work of literature. The example used was Maya Angelou’s Why the Caged Bird Sings rape scene. A student wrote about her own experiences on this topic. (Would be good for creative writing or 120, but I also think this is a very delicate subject, but if done well could be a very forceful and successful assignment. But you would want to know your class well and make this a later assignment.) This also shows them that literature isn’t an “outside” entity but something they can relate to on a personal level.

Part 4: Writing for Personal Knowledge

These essays all discuss ways students can discuss literature in a more personal way, mainly through journal writing (I felt the last essay from Part 3 fit more into Part 4.)

  • Have students keep a journal or blog where they write about their personal responses to the readings. Journals or blogs will offer a safe haven for students to talk about their personal reactions to a given creative work.
  • A problem with journals is that they can be “unfamiliar territory” to some students, so you could use journals to show how they are private discourses to better understand a story, poem, or novel. Students would use these to discover ways of understanding the reading (writing to learn) and bring these ideas with them to the next class period.
  • In using technology, you can set up an email listserv to talk about the literature. (This may seem outdated today, though.)

Part 5: Writing for Critical Literacy

These essays focused on more comprehensive ways students learn through literature and writing. It discussed ways to get students personally and critically engaged in the readings.

  • Portfolios. We already do this here, so it would easily fit. With portfolios, students would have their personal responses (a response or journals) to a reading and then have a critical piece of writing on that reading following it (analysis, close reading assignment, etc). This way a student could see how his or her knowledge of the readings changed over time.
  • Another teacher discussed the possibility of grading student freewrites at the start of class. He called these the “ten minute writing assignment” and 40 percent of the student’s grade was based in these assignments. They are basically like informal response papers to the readings due for that day. I thought it was an interesting idea to make sure the students were doing the reading and giving credit for that in a tangible way. This also easily helps bring about discussion of literature in the classroom.

Because they don’t work, it is not clear what they are for

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Perhaps this is why we are to believe all kinds of sinister things about children, since they seem like a half alien race in our midst. Since they do not work, it is not clear what they are for. They do not have sex, though perhaps they are keeping quiet about this, too. They have the uncanniness of things which resemble us in some ways but not in others. It is not hard to fantasize that they are collectively conspiring against us, in the manner of John Wyndham’s fable “The Midwich Cuckoos.” Because children are not fully part of the social game, they can be seen as innocent; but for the same reasons they are regarded as the spawn of Satan. The Victorians swung constantly between angelic and demonic views of their offspring

Terry Eagleton, On Evil.


I’ve just started reading Terry Eagleton’s new book because Evil is a topic that I am considering for my dissertation (the rhetoric of evil in a post-9/11 society, which would also mean some deep research into cultural perceptions of evil, past and present). What I find most interesting about this passage isn’t necessarily about children, but occurs in the second sentence where Eagleton writes, “Because they do not work, it is not clear what they are for.” When I read that sentence I stopped and thought, that is exactly what a friend of mine has said before about who we are and what that means.

I don’t remember how the topic came up, but I know I had been talking about teaching. (Is there ever a day I don’t think or talk about teaching? I highly doubt it.) The question came up in conversation that because we are both teachers, is “teacher” what defines us as humans. Ultimately, we decided no, we are many faces, but we both did agree that the wider world does view us as teachers. When we are seen in public, it isn’t through our scholarship, but through our teaching. Thus, we begin to define ourselves in conversation as “What do I do? Well, I’m a teacher…” before we say anything else about ourselves.

So the comment “Because they don’t work, it is not clear what they are for” really hit home for me. In this world, one of my main functions is to teach. Along with that, I think, I write, I read, I analyze, I evaluate, but those are all things related to school. I am many things outside of school, even though school and teaching are what takes up most of my time. I would argue, for instance, that this weekend I was many things.

But Eagleton’s sentence is a true and a sad one. We define people through what they seem to “do” out in the world. We often misjudge or misread people based on prior assumptions we have. For example, if we see someone sitting alone at a restaurant or at a party, we tend to think they are weird, a loner, aloof, lonely, or some other negative idea. In actuality, this probably isn’t the case. When I sat by myself for a while at my friend John’s party, it wasn’t because I felt suddenly like I was the weird girl or the loner. I sat down there alone because I wanted to listen to the Rolling Stones and just “feel” the atmosphere of the party. I really didn’t want to engage in conversation at that time. I needed a break. But the problem is most people wouldn’t see it that way and in about ten minutes, someone made it a point to come and talk to me because they were sad I was “alone.”

The world is a weird place and I don’t understand it much of the time, but I try to. In fact, I feel that understanding the world and those in it is part of my job as a human, especially in such a posthuman society where machines can solve problems and do the work for us, if we want them to. I also feel it is my job as an academic to pursue these ideas, this thinking. But I still feel that I am incorrectly defined and that most people are, too. It is just so easy to define others through the jobs they do in the world. Like a character on Mad Men said, “America is easy. Just pick a job and do it better than anyone else.” But then again, that job is all you will be to many in the crowd.

It is a rough draft, but it is a start

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

I know a lot more work needs to be done, but I feel like I have a good start with this. I’ve been reading and learning and learning and reading. It is good stuff.

(Draft) Proposal for Crossing Boundaries: Negotiating Literature with Writing Studies

Debates between compositionists and literature teachers on how to instruct writing have led to contested territory in English studies. The question arises on how we should be teaching students academic and professional writing. As a teacher who tries to balance the separate fields of writing and literature, I experience this division but want to show how these two fields can be combined to improve current writing pedagogies. My study will show how this linking can take place through pedagogical practices combining literature and writing. These pedagogies include collaborative writing and learning, individual writing and reading, analysis and criticisms of selected texts, and written responses from students. Creative writing will also be used as an avenue to allow students to further explore writing through understanding “writer’s craft” and further develop creative critical thinking skills.

My main thesis rests on the idea that literature and the creative arts in a writing classroom can lead students to improve their understanding of integrating knowledge and ideas because creative acts provide a foundation for understanding this integration. Literature does nothing if it does not integrate and teach larger ideas to the recipients. In this sense, literature should also not be viewed as a static entity, but something that is malleable and can be reinterpreted based on experiences and culture.

With the increasing use of technology in society and the classroom, it may also be time to explore how literature and other creative work can benefit the composition classroom. For example, Douglas Hesse in his article titled “The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies” from College Composition and Communication comments on how technology is increasing the need to contemplate craft in the writing classroom where craft is something often taught in creative writing. Hesse, however, feels this teaching of craft can benefit students in composition and other writing classrooms.

Furthermore, numerous books have been published on combining writing studies with literary studies, and the pedagogical approaches mentioned in these books have yielded much success in the classroom. Collections such as When Writing Teachers Teach Literature edited by Art Young and Toby Fulwiler and Teaching Composition/ Teaching Literature edited by Michelle M. Tokarczyk and Irene Papoulis have shown how literature and writing can be integrated. Though there have been other books, articles, and approaches, these two texts provide good examples of linking literature and writing in the classroom. Pedagogical approaches from these books have given students momentum not only to reach out the their communities, but also brought students a great knowledge of the humanities.

In a society that does not always view the humanities as a useful study, we need to promote the humanities as a useful tool for greater understanding of our world and ourselves. By further linking writing studies with the study of literature, we will not only strengthen the humanities, but provide others with a great understanding of the humanities. With the current educational and political emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), we need to show how these fields are not only imperative to a technologically vast society, but also show how these fields can promote humanism. For instance, Dr. Robert Coles at Harvard Business School has used poetry in his business writing classes to get students to think creatively for business writing assignments. David Whyte has also used poetry in professional writing seminars. These instructors are integrating creativity and literature with technical understanding that open areas for further student engagement. It is important to understand that technology can join us as much as it can divide us and so we must use these tools to our greatest advantage. With greater technology, writing and literature will change, but the purpose—that tenuous linking to humanity—will continue to persist.

Important reading

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011


I finally had some time to read the above link and think a. the argument is interesting and creative and b. I have to agree with it. I’m currently in the process of adding it to my research because I can see where it can easily fit with my literature argument. I also think the discussion of “writer’s craft” could add an important instructional/pedagogical element to any writing class, especially FYC.  I think beginning writers would benefit greatly from this discussion. You could also fit it into professional writing classes as well. You could show them how they can signal themselves out among other candidates not only for their writing skills, but their understanding of what constitutes effective communication in a business environment. By understanding that writing is a “craft” you can also lead into further discussion about what is genre.


After the first “big” grading session

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

I just want to make note of some problems/concerns after my first grading session of the semester:

  • My biggest concern: Students don’t write well for audience, but write well for themselves. When I say this, I mean they will drop in an idea that as the writer they understand well, but just leave the audience hanging. I have had them read about the importance of writing for audience and also discussed it with them. Perhaps we need more in class practice in writing for different audiences to bring this home more. Transition work could also be added to this and in so doing “kill two birds with one stone,” hopefully.
  • Wordiness. Big, ugly wordiness. I know I have a problem with wordiness in my own writing (gotta use up that page!) and as a result I’m always looking for it in the writing of others. I probably notice it far more than I should. But the in class activities on eliminating wordiness are soon approaching and this is a good thing.
  • Awkward sentences and other grammar errors. These things I am lumping into the category “I wrote this the day before and didn’t get enough time to proofread.” We can also call this category “I wrote this at the last minute and had no time to proofread.” We could even call it “I don’t proofread because it isn’t really necessary, is it?”
  • Point of view. Oh my goodness. I had some switch from first person to second person in the same sentence. Ah, the troubles with point of view. And the last essay I graded had so many point of view switches I had problems understanding what the writer even meant to say in some parts. (But the way the student used the genre was innovative, really. So it wasn’t all terrible, you know. I like to point out the good even with the bad.)

There were other errors, but those above were the ones I found repeated and errors I know I need to address in class and have them think and write about/on.

But let’s talk about the good, too:

  • Students understood the assignment overall, even to the point some experimented with genre and forms, which I thought was interesting. These examples of experimentation with form were well done. For example, a couple students saved their reflections on the genres for the end. One student built her genre memo around a specific class she would teach (she had the genres the teacher, herself, would use and the genres the students would perform.) Other students had reflection interwoven with description creating a nice flow to their document. (And a good showing of integrating knowledge and ideas, I think.)
  • Students demonstrated understanding of tone. Most documents sounded professional and included diction relevant to the field. With that being said, students knew their majors inside and out, which they should all understand at this point.
  • To follow with the above, many students (though not all) have been writing in genres relevant to their field in their major coursework. This makes me think that far too often us English professors/instructors feel that students aren’t writing enough is a bunch of hooey. Sure, not all students are writing enough or perhaps not all students are taking that writing seriously, but there is WAC/WID going on and sometimes where you would least expect it.
  • Cohesion. Most students understood that the genres had to relate to a specific career field or other way besides just in how “they are all in my major.” Though this was part of the assignment, students pulled it off well and in ways I didn’t always expect them to.
  • Citation. Most of the students know and understand citation, whether it is APA or MLA. I have a lot of APA citation going on, so I’m reminding myself of it all the time now. I haven’t seen Chicago Style yet, but I think the Chicago students are just using the MLA because I didn’t specifically mention using Chicago style in the class.

It is different working with juniors and seniors than with freshmen, for sure. It is nice to see students understanding citation and the importance of cohesive writing. It is also cool to see students experiment with genre a little bit, especially with the first assignment, and pulling it off well. And audience is something that is often struggled with. It is far easier to write for oneself than to write for others and it is hard to get students out of that thinking of “I am the writer” and leaving it at that. We need to remind them that “Yes, you are the writer, but who is the audience?”

Reflections on a new assignment (and where am I?)

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

For English 358 and to better understand the class structure, I created an assignment tentatively titled the Genre Memo (of which will become the Genre Letter for the online course this summer). I created this assignment because there was debate over genres that would be useful to students in a class full of social science and humanities majors. I also simply wanted to see what students valued as genre writing and why. (I had one student tell me already that she never saw designing and writing brochures as “writing” though she did see it as “designing.” Interesting.) The assignment aims to allow students to briefly describe their major ( in the introduction), list at least four types of genres in the main body of the assignment, and for each genre give a description of the genre (one paragraph) and a reflection on that genre (one paragraph), and then conclude the assignment by suggesting a way all these genres are linked (besides through the obvious in how “they are all genres in my field.”) Most students cap off this assignment by showing how these genres build off of each other or are all related to a specific career choice.

As for content, the assignments I’ve seen so far are done pretty well. Everyone understood the genre descriptions. I’ve seen a couple poor examples of reflections where a student just didn’t really want to say anything about the genre. (This might be due to the student just being unfamiliar with the genre and being unsure of how exactly to proceed in reflecting on that genre. Or I just maybe have badly taught/executed that part in some way, though most examples have been good. The problem here for me may be that I understand reflection far too well.)

As for design, there are a few things that could be improved. For example, I’ve seen font styles like you would use on a wedding invitation to serve as the title for the professional document. I’ve also seen bolded and pink font styles to signify a title (bolded isn’t a problem. Pink is the problem). I’ve seen quite a few very large fonts that serve for titles and just eat up the page, and this last one is the most often repeated. I have to admit the bold and pink style is the one that really threw me the most. The wedding font style I could see someone thinking as being “pretty and elegant” which somehow equals, in their mind, to a professional looking style. The bolded pink one was done mainly to irritate me, I assume.

Anyway, design will be something I will again have them work on. End of discussion.

But still, this assignment has really made me reflect on what kind of writing teacher I am and what I value in good writing and what I value in professionalism. As I discussed, I care a lot about the design of a document. I know I have a solid background in the humanities and therefore haven’t had much experience with design. All my prior programs were very traditional as in you wrote an essay and didn’t do anything related to design or C.R.A.P. (Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity). But I love teaching document design and thinking about dorky concepts like the use and role of white space and why that font style would never work for this type of document. I also want writing to be succinct and get to the point. I hate paragraphs that go on and on, even when they say a lot. I want succinct description with minimum, but necessary, details. Beginning writers often get lost in too much detail.

All these writing values I hold make me realize I’m much more of a technical writer than I let on or even understand. Technical writing is a job I never thought I would want, but I like what is valued in technical communication. And I’ve realized that, as a teacher, this is the kind of writing style I communicate. It has not only made me see my teaching in a new way, but has also caused me to better realize my concepts of good writing and professionalism.

And the joke to all this is, of course, that I feel I know nothing about technical writing.

More potential dissertation topics

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

While I’m working on completing my coursework for my degree, I’m also brainstorming for and about potential dissertation topics. I know I’ve shared a few ideas with some of you in the past, but I’ve recently been thinking about a literature dissertation. I’m lucky in that my present degree leaves me fairly open to pursue interests and thereby create an individual plan of study. Though my PhD only requires 15 credits of literature (and I already have that if you look at my MA degree, plus more), I think that a literature dissertation is more likely. Though most of my coursework will be in rhetoric, writing, and research, I think a literature dissertation still makes sense. (Rhetorical analysis of literature, diaries and letters, and travel writing are just a few examples that would provide me with a dissertation with a literary focus and yet still have that rhetoric feel.)

Some ideas

  • Death, Dying, and Disease in Jose Saramago’s fiction. I’d like to do a type of cultural/social context (rhetorical analysis) reading into his works. The only drawback to this is that he wrote in Portuguese and all I’ve read are translations. I was able to do this for my MA thesis (Franz Kafka), but I don’t know if the same rules apply for dissertations.
  • The abnormal and diseased in American Supernatural fiction. I’ve always enjoyed reading so-termed “weird fiction” and I think there are many avenues left open for interpretation. A rhetorical analysis type reading would work here with a focus on the cultural and stylistic aspects. Genre might be an interesting approach as well and my whole program is pretty obsessed with genre studies. And this would be something that would work for me to rhetorically analyze the concept of evil in American fiction, too.
  • The third idea would concern letters and diaries and I’ve been thinking about Edith Wharton’s letters. This is really just a new idea and I’ve never read many of her letters (not a whole collection, anyway), so I’m still playing around. But I love Wharton’s work and life and would enjoy the project.

Literature is a good choice because I work best with texts. That is why I did my MA in literature, after all. I feel comfortable with text-heavy materials and I always have. And I’m afraid if I had to do a lot of transcribing that it would take me double the time normally allotted for a dissertation to finish. The thought of transcribing frightens me for such a large scale work.

Using Literature to teach Writing, Part 1

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

I’ve been reading When Writing Teachers Teach Literature (Eds Art Young and Toby Fulwiler, 1995) and have gained some great ideas in the process, one of which I actually do in my World Literature course (and realizing that made me feel smart and excited 🙂  )

  • A way to start a class that is writing intensive but also uses literature (as a required reading, part of a lesson plan, etc) is to ask students to write on the following questions: 1. What is literature? and 2. Why do you think we are reading in a writing class? (you can revise the second question in a way to fit your class). These questions are great openers to get students to think about writing and its role with reading.
  • This second example is something I do in my World Literature course. To explain a little better, I give students the option of writing one of their larger papers as a “creative paper” where they re-write a story or poem they read as the opposite genre. For example, if they write a creative paper on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis they would retell that story in the form of a poem. (Prose poem would be acceptable, but most students are not students of English or literature and so the question never comes up, but a prose poem would indeed be acceptable.) So a way you could do this in a writing-intensive class would be to have students “revise or reconstruct” something they read by reproducing it in a new genre. You could also have them play with style or voice in their retelling. (For instance, how would the story change if told by another character? would it change at all?) This would get them thinking about genre, style, voice, audience, and purpose.
  • Another important thing to realize, and this idea applies to all concepts of teaching literature in a writing class, is to realize all texts are malleable and explorable. This translates to the idea that even literature from dead men or women is not static, but can be recreated and reinterpreted based on experiences. With this in mind, a good exercise to try might be to have students rewrite a piece of literature (poem or short story) for the present day. Have students think about how the issues have been solved, changed, or even made greater by technology and the natural progression of society. You could have students rewrite the work as a way to address the author’s concerns or ideas. You could even have them practice professional letter writing by having them write a letter to that author discussing how times have changed and why.
  • Finally, (and this one is an obvious answer) is that you can have students explore issues they read about in the literature through writing. For example, with the poem “Leda and the Swan” by W.B. Yeats, they could write a piece about rape on campus for the university newspaper. This would combine literature with a more “professional” style of writing and would also get students engaged in conversation with a larger community, in this case the campus community.

All in all, I find these ways to use literature in a writing classroom as pretty exciting stuff. One thing to remember (if you do read this book yourself) is that this book is geared towards writing teachers who end up teaching literature, so sometimes you encounter ways of teaching that you have to slightly alter to make it fit your classroom. Even so, this book is a great resource for teachers in English.