Friday, December 14, 2012

Literature, in composition

Over the next while, I'll be writing a series of posts about ENGL 135, the main composition course at the University of Victoria. I'm the coordinator for the course, after having acted for one year as the Writing Advisor responsible for our department's writing courses (excluding our Professional Writing minor), and having spent the previous four years working closely with the previous Advisor to develop and modify the course. The actual Advisor is the one with authority over the course, but because of my experience coordinating and teaching the course (11 sections over the last three years), I've got lots to say about it, so I'm going to say some of it here.

In 2012/13, we're running 58 sections of ENGL 135, one of them online, that are being taught by 25 different instructors (23 of whom are sessional, offering 55 of the 58 sections). There's an enrolment cap of 36 students in each section, that's exceeded only in extremely rare circumstances. It's mostly a "writing across the curriculum" version of first-year composition (WAC), with a heavy emphasis on "writing to learn" activities: and yes, with 36 students, it's unwieldy at best.

Enough background: on to the actual post.

I gather that there has been some discussion recently of whether the course (as currently designed) could include a literature component, and whether it might be a good thing to include such a component. In brief, it's sometimes said that English is the one discipline excluded from the current version of the course, and that there are arguments for viewing a late-term literature unit as a kind of "reward" for both students and instructors.

First of all, it's clear that first-year composition courses at many universities include a literature component, and that some of them are entirely organized around literature. (Our own ENGL 146 is like this, for example.) However, these tend not to be WAC courses, so it's not an obvious fit for 135.

Further, any one section of ENGL 135 skips many, many different disciplines, not just English. Like every university, UVic has a very large number of distinct academic units. At the undergrad level, Sciences has between 6 and 9 programs (depending on how you read the subdivisions), Social Sciences has 7 programs, Human and Social Development has 6 programs, Fine Arts has 5, and Humanities has 10 departments and several interdisciplinary programs. Most ENGL 135 sections offer readings from 6-10 different disciplines, and at present UVic offers undergraduate degrees from 43 different departments.

To the extent that English literature usually isn't represented in the 135 curriculum, English is very far indeed from being alone in this respect. It's just that the course's instructors notice its absence more, because it's invariably the subject that they know most intimately.

Second, teaching literature (and writing about literature) is exactly what ENGL 146 is for: it's a literary studies course that meets the Academic Writing Requirement. At this point, Engineering is UVic's only other program offering a discipline-specific course that meets the AWR, so the very existence of 146 argues against including literary studies material in 135 on some kind of "special case" basis.

Really, it'd be imposing literature on students just because the course is housed in English, and I view that as inappropriate. If the course was run from another office on campus (with some obvious candidates being the LTC, the Director of Academic Leadership, the AVP of Student Affairs, or Student Services), the question would never come up. ENGL 135 needs to be administered as if its administration wasn't housed in English: we're running it on behalf of the larger campus community, not on our own behalf.

Third, in a variation on my second point, 135 is a refuge for those students without much of an interest in literary studies -- and there are lots of these students.

It's a significant selling point for them that ENGL 135 isn't a literature course, and that it isn't really an English course at all in the way they understand the term "English." There's no creative writing (which cheers those students with painful memories of having to write poetry), and there's no reading literature (which cheers those who've been dragged [especially those dragged poorly] through novels that didn't suit them or for which they weren't ready [or weren't equipped, which is a different matter]). Adding a literature unit would be in no way a "reward" for these students, as seems to have been suggested.

For me, there's enormous value in helping these students see that communication skills, both reading and writing, have no innate connection with English classes or with literature. If we embedded literature in an otherwise WAC-focused version of ENGL 135, we'd be implying an unhealthy association between "literature" and "disciplinarily appropriate communication," an imaginary association in my view.

Before I make my fourth and final point, it's worth noting that here in Canada, we have next to no disciplinary tradition of studying composition and/or rhetoric (go, Toronto!). Courses like ENGL 135 are invariably taught by literary studies scholars, and the hope is that they'll take composition seriously enough to set aside -- for just this one course -- their entirely reasonable affinity for, and their expertise in, literary studies. It's not at all surprising to me that instructors would want to teach in their subject area, in this case literature, but this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the aims of this course, and of WAC pedagogy.

Delivery of ENGL 135 shouldn't be about what's being taught, but about what's being learned, and I don't mean this as a cliche. The focus must be on the course's learning outcomes, and on each individual student's relative achievement of those outcomes. There's no room to "reward" an instructor by including a literature unit in this course.

ENGL 135, unlike every literature course we offer above the first-year level, isn't at all about what's being taught. Literary studies courses could easily be re-imagined as content-delivery vehicles, readily offered MOOC-style to cohorts of keenly engaged students, though of course the same challenges would arise for a literature MOOC as arise for MOOCs about, say, robotics or computer programming. (And I'll have lots to say about MOOCs in a future post, so please don't count me among the supporters, as interested in them as I am.) Composition courses, though, are simply not amenable to a content-delivery approach. The distinction between a standard literary studies course and a WAC-focused first-year composition course is more absolute than most pure literary studies scholars understand.

In other words: no, I don't like the idea of including a literature component or unit in ENGL 135.

No comments:

Post a Comment