Archive for the ‘problem solving in humanities’ Category

Not everything should be considered a text

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Last week someone talked about how much she dislikes the word “text” to refer to literature, especially since we call everything else—even a coffee cup—a text where a text is basically anything cultural that can be analyzed. I thought what she said made an important point about our culture and English studies.

While I have no issues with someone spending a whole essay discussing the cultural relevance of a coffee cup (it is your life, not mine), I do wonder if we should be looking at literature and calling any work of imagination a text. Sure, literature is at its simplest form “words on a page,” which can easily designate the text definition. But if the coffee cup is a text and the poem by Robert Hayden is also a text, are we then devaluing literature? Are we telling Robert Hayden he just wrote a bunch of texts and yes, good work, sir? Possibly.

I think this is an important question to ask, especially at this time where literature programs and jobs are not exactly what people are lining up for. (Though I certainly would.) Perhaps we are devaluing literature by defining it as a text one moment, then turning around to discuss how the stop sign at the street corner is also a text. What would other audiences think of that? What kind of message are we sending by doing that?

It is confusing, for sure, and while I have no real answers, I am doing my best not to call literature a text anymore. This is a habit that is hard to change, though, especially after my MA in literature where every professor referred to a work of literature as a text. After a while, you call it that, too. I think back to how my world literature students were confused when I told them to analyze a “text.” They asked me, “you mean a story or poem we read for the class, right?” I said yes and everything was cleared up after that. I’ve had no more questions regarding this once I changed “text” to “any story or poem from this class.” Now, you could also argue I had not defined the word text for them and it was probably vaguely inserted, but in my mind I thought it made perfect sense, just like how it probably does in your mind.

In the end, literature can certainly exist as a text, considering how we define what makes up a text. But I cannot help but be a little concerned about defining the works of authors I greatly admire as simple texts. Literature has taught me how to be a good reader and a good writer. Literature has also helped me experience things I would not have experienced. Defining it as nothing more than a text really does seem to devalue it, at least for me.

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.

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.


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.

Do I sense a dissertation topic?

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

In trying to further understand the hybridity between teaching writing and teaching literature and how the two can help each other out (in more ways than what is just obvious), I received this book in the mail yesterday:

When Writing Teachers Teach Literature, a collection of scholarly essays on writing pedagogy and literature pedagogy and how these two can be brought together by Art Young and Toby Fulwiler. (FYI: You can get a cheaper version by using I haven’t done much more than glance through the content list, but it looks beneficial for me, particularly at the end when the essays discuss how we can bring these two fields together and strengthen our teaching.

For years, literature teachers who teach writing have always said that “reading good writing helps bring about good writing.” I think this is a very true argument, but a. I don’t think it is argued or implemented as well as it could be and b. there is just more to this story. With post-process, ideas in posthumanism, new media, and other technologies, writing is becoming an advanced, if not transforming, art form. Literature (in terms of reading it, understanding it, evaluating and analyzing it), I think, can help writing in this sense. For example, if we can deconstruct a work of literature, we can better deconstruct writing to evaluate its process and form and even create new genres and break the rules of existing ones. (Once you know the rules, you an break them, without too much alteration of the meaning.) Though literature is essentially static, and perhaps that is why it is not valued so much today, it can still help us to better understand ethical principles, human principles, and writing and its processes. (I bolded this because I think I am onto something here and I don’t want to forget it. 😉 )

Around here, people feel that integrating knowledge and ideas is not happening as well as it could be happening in student writing. While yes, I think this is true, I also think we understand how to integrate knowledge and ideas far too well so when we look at student writing that does it, we have a tendency to mark it lower than it should be during assessment and in our own grading. But I also think integrating ideas and knowledge in writing can be improved by having students read literature, look at popular forms of art (music to name one), do creative assignments, and overall use creative thinking in the classroom and in their approach to assignments (as well as in our approach to assignments–but that is a different argument, somewhat). Either way, I may be sniffing out a dissertation topic in this. I don’t know. I did tell Dr. Sassi that I imagine this paper/project I am working on in her class as a “literature review” so that I can start to get a feel for what is already out there.

There is a lot happening out here in academia. I promise.

But I’m excited to start to read this book.

Post on Problem solving for/in the humanities

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

An open door here that we all should start to walk through.