Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Relationship Between Writing and Literature.

In reading back through your papers and my blog, I realized that part of the big picture I hadn't offered you is the relationship I see between the study of literature and the study of becoming a better writer. Also, I haven't let you see me writing for audiences other than the class.

The following response will help correct both oversights. It's written to colleagues--that is, college professors-- who teach freshman writing, and it's part of an ongoing conversation about the place of literature in the 101/102 sequence of courses you're currently taking. In fact, it might have some impact on how 101/102 gets taught at UAT, so feel free to wade in via the comments if you want to offer a student perspective. One of the lessons I've taught you is that what you say is driven by the audience for whom you write, so you'll find this post heavily laden with jargon and ideas specific to the discipline and profession of English. Don't worry about getting a handle on each and every idea. Do spend some time thinking about the moves I make in framing my argument.

I expect my audience to be unreceptive to the idea of not using literature as the basis of teaching freshman writing, so I work to limit and distance myself from the very arguments I introduce and want them to believe. By distancing myself and introducing each idea as tentative but well thought out, I'm hoping readers who are opposed to my stance will have faith in how I think and, hence, give my ideas more thought and closer attention.

I'm also working to frame my argument as a tentative position in an ongoing discussion. I make this move because I don't want my audience to feel they *have* to take a position in response to my argument and defend it. My purpose here is to get them thinking and, as a by product, get them questioning some of the assumptions on which their current position is based.

In part, this is an ethos move. I'm a long term member of this discourse community, and I don't want to create clear areas of intellectual turf which *have* to be defended. Mostly, it's positioning myself as a member of the community who is willing to be reasonable and change my mind, that is, if I'm given enough good reasons to so do.

In assuming this stance as an author, I encourage readers who oppose my argument to take a *higher* moral stance in which they are even more willing than I to change their minds. I encourage readers who share my position to feel good about the ethos of "our crowd," and I show readers who are undecided that my side and, in particular, I know how to participate in public, civil debate. In other words, regardless of how my opponents respond, I come out looking reasonable, possibly more reasonable than do they, and well positioned to concede any ground I need to concede.

Finally, the post may well give you some useful insights into why I designed the course as I did and where the knowledge I presented fits into the larger picture of your English curriculum.

As always, write with questions.

My post follows:

"Miles' passionate argument for the value to be derived from literary study has had me thinking a lot about my own take on how literature can be used to teach critical thinking and reading and in trying to figure out my uneasiness with using literature in my own freshman writing classes. As usual in such situations, I've fallen back on writing to try to articulate my own current thinking on the subject. Forgive a rather long post, and I share it with some trepidation, but the relationship between literary study and writing is at the heart of much of our current discussion as a writing faculty, and I wanted to spend the time it took to figure out where I stood, give Mile's argument the thought and reflection it deserves, and--most important--try to get a handle on the implications for students."

"The truth is, I don't remember ever having to come to love the "L" word. As far back as I can remember, I've been an English geek, and I've always loved literature. The desire to keep literature alive in society, more than anything else, was what brought me into the profession; and, in many instances, the insights I see students gain into their own lives through learning to interpret literature well are what have kept me going."

"My own passion for having useful stories stay in circulation is one of the reasons I love teaching American and Native literature. Listening to Native storytellers and writers, I've learned that literature isn't a nice add on for communities and individuals. It's an essential tool though which communities define their selves, survive in the face of challenge and change, and find a basis for a shared understanding of the world which unites. For me, literature isn't just one more aspect of culture; it is an essential aspect of healthy individuals, communities, and societies. Mary Lou Atawaka in _Selu_ and Leslie Silko in _Ceremony_ both write about how a shared wealth of story is "the stomach of people" and of how stories assist us in remembering who we are and in finding our place in the world."

"To help her students understand a Cherokee take on the place of literature in their lives, Atawaka shares a corn seed with each of her students . In the discussion which follows, Atawaka tells the story of Selu, the Corn Mother, and the lessons Selu has for the people. One of these lessons is:

"Eat the individual corn seed, and it will help sustain you. Plant the same seed with those of your classmates, cultivate them together, and the seeds which will sustain one of you for a short time will sustain the whole class and others; indeed, the crop you can grow will provide not only food but seeds for the community which, in its turn, will grow and prosper. But corn needs a special kind of cultivation. If a seed is planted and cultivated alone, a corn plant will grow, and it will flower, but it won't be able to produce more corn. In the kernel of corn lays the stomach of the people. To be productive, each kernel needs to be cultivated among other corn plants, and each will help pollinate the other. Literature is corn, and story lays at the literature's kernel. Both are sacred. From them we can derive harmony, the food of the individual and community, and the sharing which is the basis of each."

"Each time I teach literature, I spend a day with the students talking about story, community, and society; and, I've used Atawaka's story of the Corn Mother and distributed my share of NDN corn. I tell you this, because I want you to understand the place of literature in my own life and world and to provide a basis for a discussion of why I don't teach Western literary analysis in my writing classes."

"In other posts, I've discussed how our very love of literature can undermine the task of teaching writing. To equate literary writing with good writing or to equate literary analysis with good reading is a dangerous equation for students of writing and critical reading to adopt. Why?"

"1) Our understanding of literature and how to form our understanding of it is very much connected to our Romantic, Modernist, and Post-Modern roots. The essential lessons of each philosophy are so bound up with how literature is taught and understood in the academy and society at large that it is difficult, if not impossible to tease out the dangerous ideas from the useful. I don't want to get sidetracked too much here, but a brief overview of what I mean might be useful."

"1a) One legacy of Romanticism is the view it propagated of the author as genius. While great writing *may* be the product of genius and talent, anyone with the drive, discipline, the right rubrics and schema, and the chance to practice can produce good, solid, craftsman like writing. By good writing, I mean writing so crafted as to allow the author to accomplish his or her purposes with a text."

"Tied up in the Romantic view of the author as genius is the belief that the ability to write well is governed by talent. It isn't. Also, tied up in Romanticism is the dangerous notion that one is either right brain or left, good in math or in the humanities, and if one is good in the sciences or technology, one isn't good in English. We've all dealt with the legacies of this last, but the single most dangerous legacy of the Romantic view of author is the arrogance which accompanies the Romantic author's view of his or her self. Whenever we provide a basis for the individual to cultivate the belief they are of higher sensibility (however you want to define that last), we are on dangerous ground. Think of Hitler and Superman here if you want. I usually think of Elias Boudinot and how his view of himself as a Romantic author contributed to the death of most of two generations of Cherokees along the Trail of Tears."

"1b) If anything, the legacy of Modernism is worse. If literature is to have any use in the world outside of producing pretty words and insightful prose, not that these last aren't useful, it has to be part of how society works, not a separate category of thought requiring an elite, hyper-trained intelligence or an absurd amount of leisure. The Romantics began the focus on the individual at the cost of community engagement, but the Modernists brought the notion to full flower. With the Modernist, there's a nostalgia for the social role literature and the author once played in society, but too often it's a despairing nostalgia. I'm a firm believer that it was the Modernists view of literature which combined with a research orientated professorial chaste to make the study and appreciation of literature much more difficult than it needs to be. Add in author/critic Romantic arrogance, American Anti-Intellectualism, and the high vs low literature split, and you have a recipe for the study of literature being seen as irrelevant to how the majority of society lives. If you're looking for someone to blame for the increasingly marginalized place of literature in society, you could do much worse than to look at the Victorian 'Art for Art's Sake' crowd and the disciples of Eliot. We live with the legacy of making literature an intellectuals' sport rather than a lived part of the citizen creating a good life and a working community."

"1c) Post-Modernism is too easy a target. It is the natural by-product of the Romantics and Modernists. We communicate every day, and we manage to do things useful work with writing; but, Post-Modernism celebrates the breakdown of communication and an Existential and Linguistic explanations of why communication doesn't and can't work. These explanations, in turn, are derived from the false dichotomy of idealism and realism. Add in the emphasis our culture places on novelty, as opposed to the value of creation within a set of assumed limitations of genre, and you have folks assuming the paradoxical stance of creating works which celebrate the "new" insight that they can't be understood. Such Play is dangerous, that is, if it's taken to the extreme suggested by the logic of Relativism."

"1d) My point here is that students bring all these existing rhetorics to our English/writing classes which explain why literature isn't important and shouldn't be, and they can fall back on any of them to rationalize a lack of success and, worse, unwillingness to do the work required to become a good writer. Regardless of the truth behind these rhetorics, they allow students to view literary analysis is an elitist activity with little (if any) connection to their lived world and where many professionals are willing to admit 'right'--as opposed to 'better'--interpretations are impossible. From the right perspective, these beliefs are partly true and very useful. This is the main reason I find it easier to approach teaching writing as a separate field of study only tangentially related to the study of literature, and I actively work against the identification of English classes and the profession as a whole with literary study."

"2) My next point is an obvious insight, but it's one, as trained professionals of literary interpretation, we too often forget, namely, just as the use of genre or the assumptions about the roles of audiences and authors are specific to discourse communities, so to are interpretative rubrics. The theories of hermeneutics which govern how we construct interpretations in literary study are part and parcel of our discourse community and the ideas of the professional reader and critic which have governed it."

"While many of our practices, like close reading, can translate well into other disciplines and ways of looking at the world, they are far from the only useful ways of looking at the world, that is, the only critical thinking and reading rubrics which need to be learned. On a related note, our students often bring extensive training in the interpretative rubrics of literary analysis. Talk to many of them, and they'll describe high school English as a series of courses which consisted of little writing and much reading of literary texts, classroom discussion of these texts, and attempts to learn rubrics and the use of rhetorical device such as irony, tone, and symbolism."

"The fact that this focus on literary device and writing which is aware of itself as high literature is a product of Modernism and New Criticism--that is, the product of hermeneutic and professional legacies specific to literary study as a discipline in the 20th Century--is lost on most, if not all freshman. A nuanced view of how we as a discourse community interpret literature as just one among many competing theories of how to construct interpretations isn't a view easily fit into a writing course, that is, without spending a *lot* of time on the history of literary study, information which most students will never need to know."

"As a side note, one reason I get so excited about the Reynold's Learning Communities and Writing Across Communities is that I can borrow a focus on other critical thinking and interpretative rubrics or, more precisely, I can let other teachers focus on these rubrics, and I can spend my time teaching writing and its interpretative rubrics instead of how to construct a good literary interpretation."

"3) All this brings me to what I consider the most essential point, namely, there are enough reading rubrics specific to rhetoric and writing to take up any one year of the curriculum; and, for most students, freshman writing will be one of the few moments in a crowded curriculum where they will get exposure to writing specific interpretative rubrics and get a chance to practice them with an informed teacher grounding their study. I find it enough to do to get students to understand the author/audience/text triad and how it forms successful communication. Add in the ethos, logos, pathos triad; how to figure out an author's purpose and its effects on how a text is constructed; researching genres; the notion of discourse community; audience analysis; process writing, and you quickly come up with a rich set of critical thinking rubrics which are writing and rhetoric specific."

"At most, we've got a limited number of assignments which will fit into any 112 or 111. Here's a set of my current set of favorites:

*Research a discourse community and write a description of the kind of writing which is done in the community. Here, I try to get students to focus on a discourse community of which they are a member or which they want to join as a professional.
*For each piece of formal writing and some of the informal, write an analysis of who your audience is and what you want to accomplish with your text. I find personal metadiscourse blogs useful for this kind of writing about writing.
*Research a genre and how to write effectively in the genre. As part of this assignment, develop a format the class will follow in producing successful examples of this genre of writing. I usually ground this assignment in a researched, online review and individual, group, and class writing and discussion.
*Research an area of the writing process or your most common surface level writing problem and write a "how to" process paper in which you describe to an audience of your peers how to recognize, fix or improve your "problem."
*Write a process paper in which you describe a process you currently use. I follow up on this assignment with a discussion of process writing and Kaizen, by getting students to identify one aspect of the process they describe which they could improve via a small, high impact change, and, increasingly, with a self description of the process they have used to create a specific genre of writing and of a specific, small change to the process which could make to become more effective or efficient writers.
*Research and write about the ideas of ethos, logos, pathos, and telos. Using these terms, analyze a common communication situation such as dating, the job interview, or the teacher/student relationship.
*Using the description of the learning outcomes described in the syllabus, do an inventory of where you are as a writer and how your knowledge and skill set compares to that expected of freshman writers. Update your response to each outcome as we discuss and complete the formal writing projects in the class. As you draft and revise this inventory, make sure to make clear claims about your learning and the outcome and to support this claim with discussion, illustrations, and examples from your own writing.
*Write a cover letter for a class portfolio in which you reflect on what you have learned in the course and what you have found to be most valuable. As part of this letter, make a claim concerning the grade you believe you have earned, and provide me with sufficient reasons and examples from your work this semester to believe your claim.
*Pre-writing, proofreading, and revision exercises as part of each of the assignments."

"That's a lot to fit a year of any curriculum. Add in a growing, articulated, nuanced definition of what constitutes good writing, and there's enough to teach and do without ever once talking about high literature."


PS As a kind of footnote, I should add that I don't believe in a clear division between rhetoric, writing, and the study of literature, that is, if we see and teach literature as including a broad range of texts and literary analysis as making sense of the author's intentions and the historical and social situations in which a text did its major work. In fact, I've come to distrust easy categorizations in general in favor of the value I find in forums like this where inquiry is dialogic and insights derive from debate, messy, muddled explanations, and each insight flows out of continual discussion and reflection. My current take on the relationship between literature and writing is that both are best seen as aspects of rhetoric whose hermeneutic and composition practices interpenetrate one another. This take has me focusing on rhetoric as the more fundamental and useful methodology through which to teach writing at the freshman level, but it is just my take, and it is just my take at this moment.

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