what should you read in a composition course?

Inside Higher Ed has this mildly amusing article about a community college instructor teaching literature in her composition course. I find it amusing for several reasons. First, the article doesn't report some heroic pedagogic transformation, only that the students seemed to like the novel and their writing was no worse than in other courses the instructor had taught (i.e. no harm was done). Second, the suggestion seems to be that the appearance of literature in composition is unusual. To the contrary, this is the quintessential dog bites man story. Sure, the mainstream rhet/comp scholarship on pedagogy shifts us away from the practice of teaching literature in these courses, but the average FYC instructor isn't part of the field.  Third, the apparent decision that is to be made here is between reading and discussing canonical literature and reading and discussing popular nonfiction (e.g.Freakonomics). 

Let me clarify a few things. This isn't about whether reading and studying literature is a good thing to do. Let's assume that it is. One still doesn't see literature assigned in most courses at a university, right? I think we can agree that studying math or science are also good things, but we don't do either in composition or literary studies. So the fairly obvious question with FYC, or any course, is how do the readings one assigns contribute to achieve the course's goals?

To that end, I'm not sure what reading and discussing Freakonomics does. In other words, fundamentally, the question is what role should reading play in FYC?

Typically one will hear arguments that reading and writing are integrally bound, that one cannot teach writing without reading. Such comments appear following that article. They are ubiquitous in this conversation. This, of course, is a joke. How many giant lecture courses are there with tons of reading assigned and virtually no writing? Western Civ? Shakespeare? Intro to Psych? The average literature course devotes little or no time to the discussion of writing: some will require essays, others just exams. If writing and reading are so integral to one another, how come we can read without writing? The underlying motive for this argument is far simpler. Assigning a reading and then discussing it in class is easy for our faculty to do. As trained literary scholars this is what they know how to do, and it is a valuable ability. Teaching writing is something different.

That said, reading and writing are clearly intertwined. In order to write in a given genre, you have to have read in the genre and had some familiarity with its features. More generally, one needs knowledge of a subject in order to write. Yes knowledge is built through writing, but you need some raw material to work with. I often use an iceberg metaphor in my class. What you can make visible in your writing is just the tip of the iceberg. As you accumulate more knowledge/experience you can float more in your writing. From this perspective, whatever you read in an FYC class will not make a substantive difference to a student's writing ability. It's just a drop in the bucket.

Admittedly, if one seeks to create some sense of a writing community in a classroom, there needs to be some shared discourse. This is, in my view, the primary reason for assigning some topical reading, but not much: a couple brief accessible essays maybe.

On the other hand, there is a different kind of reading that could be essential to an FYC course. It would be reading that serves the same purpose as readings in virtually every other course in the university. That would be readings that address the primary content and knowledge of the course: i.e readings that introduce concepts of rhetoric and composition. In FYC do we want our students to learn about economics or pop culture or advertising? That's certainly not the goal of course. Do we want them to learn about literature? That's not the goal of the course either. Do we want them to learn about audience, purpose, strategies of argument, revision, etc., etc.? Yes. So what should our primary readings address? duh. Furthermore, when we assign those few topical readings, we should be discussing and analyzing their rhetorical features. What modes of persuasion are used? What kinds of evidence? How does the author address the audience? How does the text meet or depart from the expected conventions of the genre?

We want our students to be able to write in conversation with a topical reading, to engage the subject matter content of their research projects, but we also want them to come to class and discuss the rhetorical choices made by these authors, their peers, and by themselves.

Along these lines, the Writing Spaces volumes (available for free download) provide excellent essays written by rhetoricians and aimed specifically at FYC students to discuss the rhetorical challenges students face.

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