Teaching Literature in Composition Courses

The debate over whether to include literature in the composition classroom, or how the integration may be best negotiated, is a topic which has occupied debates in academia for decades. While many scholars argue that literature and composition should be kept in separate classrooms, many others point toward the value of literary study in aiding students with a variety of topics that share affinities with composition studies. The following resources frequently offer emphatic arguments for and against including literature in the composition classroom, as well as ways in which literature might be successfully integrated in writing curriculums and pedagogy.

Eberly, Rosa. Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres. Champaign: U of Illinois Press, 2000.
Relying heavily on what Eberly terms “publics theory,” Citizen Critics focuses on the public arguments made by readers of four novels, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, American Psycho, and Mercy, in order to argue about the effects that public discussions of books (and other cultural ideas) have on social norms. Eberly uses the controversial receptions of these texts to examine how public spheres of discourse are created, the types of rhetoric used by “citizen critics” when discussing these works, and the role that rhetorical theories play in the creation these spheres, building on theories by Habermas (among many others), to provide a model of empirical study of the effects these public debates had on society. Eberly describes a “citizen critic” as one who produces this discussion from the point of view of a citizen above all and the work focuses on public debates on censorship, publicity, social values and personal rights. Citizen Critics promotes the importance of public discourse to the improvement of democracy, and sets up the classroom as the “protopublic” space where this type of discussion can take place. The work offers a new pedagogy that uses literature to focus on these public spheres and promotes understanding of the role of rhetoric in these spheres, as opposed to traditional literary criticism, replacing a focus on reader or audience with a focus on publics.

Elbow, Peter. “The Cultures of Literature and Composition.” College English 64.5 (2002): 533-546.
In this article, Elbow discuses what he feels Literature and Composition departments can learn from one another. He highlights the high and low points of each discipline, looking particularly at what he calls the intellectual and psychological aspects of the field, stressing the cultures and identities that the disciplines seem to facilitate. Elbow concludes his argument by mapping the directions that both departments are moving in, calling for cooperation and collaboration between Composition and Literature and providing a hopeful observation that there already seems to be movement in this direction. Although the author’s allegiance seems to sway between the two areas, he ultimately seems to call for a balance between the sophistication and tradition of literature and the openness and usefulness of composition, taking what he feels are the better qualities of each discipline and combing them. Though this article seems a bit idealistic, it does offer an interesting critique of both fields and positive possibilities for facilitating two strong, cooperative disciplines.

Gamer, Michael. “Fictionalizing the Disciplines: Literature and the Boundaries of Knowledge.” College English 57.3 (1995): 281-286.
Gamer contends that the use of imaginative texts should not be accounted for the cause of bad pedagogy and teaching. He further argues that imaginative texts have a legitimate place in the composition classroom as they promote “multidisciplinary thought.” The distinction between fiction and nonfiction writing has been blurred, he states, as departments view all writing as texts. Composition classes should teach texts as sites constructing diverse readings of texts that are no longer viewed as written objects. He references David Bartholomai and Enthony Petrosky’s Ways of Reading to highlight how literary analyses is similar to the way we analyze nonfiction prose –that stories in literature stimulate thinking in a similar fashion as stories in nonfiction texts. He further emphasizes that we need to be wary of introducing critical theory into the writing classroom and watch for teachers who teach theory at the expense of silencing their students as authors of texts. He further argues that carefully chosen imaginative texts can help students become familiar with trends in critical theory by providing a method for interaction with arguments and the writing through storytelling. Imaginative texts can provide different perspectives or ways of seeing embedded agendas. Furthermore, he argues that imaginative texts help students understand abstract concepts, such as civic responsibility, rights, and violence, by relating those ideas to their own experience. Frankenstein, for instance, addresses issues of science and responsibility that are both personal and emblematic. Finally, he argues that imaginative texts allow students to engage in a dialogue with multidisciplinary texts.

Horner, Winifred Bryan, ed. Composition and Literature: Bridging the Gap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
This collection of essays explores various topics concerning the connections and gaps between the teaching of composition and literature. Several authors are concerned with granting legitimacy to the subject of composition by severing the teaching of composition and the teaching of literature. Some essays, notably “‘LITCOMP,’” “Discerning Motives in Language Use,” “Literature, Composition, and the Structure of English,” and “Literacy and Orality in Our Times,” argue that the inclusion of literature in a composition classroom can offer students a clearer understanding of “audience” and “voice” while building their cultural literacy. While some of the issues taken up by the authors of these essays are outdated, there are compelling arguments made for and against including literature in a composition classroom.

Isaacs, Emily. “Teaching General Education Writing: Is There A Place For Literature?Pedagogy 9.1 (Winter 2009): 97-120.
Isaacs argues that there is indeed a place for literature in general education writing. She points out that although many arguments against the usage of literature in the writing classroom are legitimate, she also points out that many of these arguments come from full-time faculty at large institutions where the focus is on research over teaching, whereas a large number of full-time literature faculty at smaller institutions regularly teach introductory writing and most graduate students in literature are trained to teach writing as part of their programs. Isaacs details a program that her institution, Montclair State, started, in which the second composition course integrates the study of literature with an emphasis on cultural rather than aesthetic concerns. She argues that in this context, “students read literary texts in much the same way as nonliterary texts are read and written about in our first course, College Writing I” (111). While this article does not resolve the issue of literature in the composition classroom, it makes a compelling argument for its practical applications.

Lindemann, Erika. “Freshman Composition: No Place for Literature.” College English 55.3 (1993): 311-316.
As the title would suggest, Erika Lindemann’s article argues that literature should not be used as a point of focus for learning to write in the composition classroom. She further discusses the importance of examining what the writing course itself is supposed to do, before focusing on whether literature should be part of it or not. Lindemann criticizes classes formed around “the essay,” “great ideas,” and social issues that do not move beyond the essay, instead calling for a first year composition course that is focused on process. The article goes on to discuss five reasons why literature is inappropriate in the composition classroom, critiquing chiefly the way literature is taught, experienced, and written about in a humanities classroom. Lindemann concludes the article with a call to leave the comfortable space that literature provides and create a classroom that is focused on student writing, not lecture or discussion of interpretations of a literary text.

Lindemann, Erika. “Three Views of English 101.” College English 57.3 (1995): 287-302.
Lindemann goes over the main arguments of her essay, “English 101: Three Views,” to defend the notion that the three views of writing, as a process, product, and system, are not limited perspectives of three types of teachers but exist as institutional practices. To a certain extent, the essay is also a response to Jon Rounds’ criticism of her essay, “English 101: Three Views,” in which he accuses her of caricaturing teachers who subscribe to the traditional view writing as product-centered. Though she finds Rounds’ overarching recommendation to synthesize product and process-centered writing useful, she criticizes him for failing to offer a method for how teachers might implement the goals and aims he suggests. She concludes by claiming that Rounds’ eclectic or synthetic approach to writing makes the hasty assumption that embracing the concept of eclecticism will lead to methods that will eventually adopt this idealistic, untried approach to writing.

Peterson, Jane.”Through the Looking-Glass: A Response.” College English 57.3 (1995): 310-318.
This article was written in response to articles presented at the “Symposium: Literature in the Composition Classroom” conference. After presenting the arguments of several writers and professors in the symposium, Peterson addresses an issue she believes has been neglected in the conversation about the application of literature in the composition classroom. She first questions why teachers have presented a sharp division between fiction and nonfiction writing when genre lines are blurred by the diverse set of texts introduced in composition books. She then proceeds to question why presenters have not discussed important questions of how they want to students to receive and interpret texts, whether they are expository or literary. Her central argument questions how a “disciplinary-structured” discussion, informed by the goals of departments, institutions, and administrators, will provide some common ground and purpose to the symposium about composition courses. Thus, she urges the presenters to agree on the nature and goal of not only the freshman composition course but also of English Studies. Based on the 1987 English Coalition Conference, she provides an example of how a disciplinary-centered discussion has, in the past, successfully identified the diverse views of participants and a common goal for freshman programs. After giving a summary of the results and achievements of this conference, she concludes that a contextualized conversation about freshman classroom, one informed by theoretical developments within the discipline, is necessary to reach a consensus about the application of literature in freshman composition courses.

Schlib, John. “Preparing Graduate Students to Teach Literature: Composition Studies as a Possible Foundation.” Pedagogy 1.3 (Fall 2001): 507-525.
Schlib’s article points out that although composition studies encourage discussions about pedagogy and many English departments offer teacher training for composition, the same can’t be said about literary studies. He then describes “an experiment in graduate education” by his institution to develop a program of literary pedagogy for their graduate students (510). His program paired an undergraduate course with a graduate course that specifically explored literature pedagogy in the context of the undergraduate course. Schlib discovers that the graduate students’ previous training in composition pedagogy gave them a foundation for developing literary pedagogy, but still encourages more support for literary pedagogy in graduate departments.

Sommers, Jeff, and Moria Casey. “Exploring the Social Nature of Reading: The Literary Interview Assignment.” Lore (2009).
Sommers and Casey build on a call by Nancy Comley and Robert Scholes to overcome the boundaries that separate composition and literature through the development of new types of assignments to be used in introduction composition and literature courses. Sommers and Casey present the literary interview assignment, in which one student interviews another student about a piece of literature read in class and constructs a text around this interview. The article offers a variety of ways this interview assignment can manifest itself, including assignment descriptions, each working toward enhancing reading and writing in the literature or composition classroom, or particularly, the composition classroom that uses literature. The article also discusses the ways that this assignment works toward helping students understand disagreement and write about it in a productive way. The literary interview provides, in Sommers and Casey’s eyes, a way for literature to be taught in the composition classroom that encourages developing multiple interpretations of a text and using these differences (as well as similarities) to fuel productive discourse.

Steinberg, Erwin R. “Imaginative Literature in Composition Classrooms?College English 57.3 (1995): 266-280.
Steinberg discusses the long-standing conflict between literature and composition and cites several critics’ arguments in favor and against the inclusion of literature in composition classrooms. His pointed observation that the adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants teaching composition courses are typically trained in literature rather than composition and rhetoric remains an interesting contradiction in English departments. Steinberg concludes by arguing strongly against the usage of literature in the composition classroom, citing the “seducingly distracting” quality of imaginative literature when teaching writing.

Tate, Gary. “A Place for Literature in Freshman Composition.” College English 55.3 (1993): 317-321.
In this article, Tate is speaking from the perspective of the early 1990s development in composition pedagogy. He suggests that rhetoric replaced literature in freshman composition courses and that the prevalence of rhetoric, or the “rhetoric police,” has overshadowed the conversation about use of literature in the composition classroom. He suggests that we have not only lost traditional, imaginative texts in the canon but also imaginative texts by students and young writers. What he is particularly bothered by is the way in which composition courses have become service courses that enhance and implement writing skills across disciplines and prepare students for academic discourse. He then speaks from a personal perspective on teaching, emphasizing an effort to confront private and public issues that transcend conversations in various disciplines. Although he does not advocate the use of literary texts as a sole instructional guide in the composition classroom, he claims that students should not be denied resources found in literary works.

Tate, Gary. “Notes on the Dying of a Conversation.” College English 57.3 (1995): 303-309.
Tate proposes that we reconsider the reports published during annual CCC meetings conducted in the 1960s about literature and composition. This will give us a better sense of what teachers were saying about the use of literature in freshman composition programs, rather than what individual scholarship proposes. Furthermore, he qualifies the rhetoric of his previous article, admitting that the claim he made about literature being driven out of the composition classroom in the 1960s was symptomatic of his personal experience and the experience of teachers he knew. It was not, he admits, indicative of a national trend. Although his prior claim of literature disappearing from the composition classroom was unqualified, his claim that there is no discussion about the use of literature in composition studies deserves attention. A reading of these workshop reports, he suggests, might provide some hints as to why this was the case. One reoccurring theme in these reports was the insecurity felt by teachers with a literature background; naturally, they preferred teaching content they were more familiar with. Another was teachers’ fear of introducing literature in the composition classroom as they believed it would reduce literature to a technical, writing process. Some reports advocated the limited use of literature in composition courses as a means of furthering the goals of writing and of promoting clear expository prose while others, such as Wayne Booth, contested this practice and argued for the implication of carefully chosen imaginative texts. The pro-literature forces were overturned by the pro-composition forces, and thus, there was little development and no common language that would enable teachers of literature to argue beyond the unsupported claim that literature is valuable for freshman composition students. He concludes that the conversation thus lead nowhere and did not change significantly during the 1970s and thus needs to be readdressed and reconsidered.


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