A Guest Blogger on Demystifying the Literary Text by Focusing on how Language Works

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Guest Blogger Sovay Hansen

Please welcome our Guest Blogger, Sovay Hansen!

Sovay Hansen is a PhD student in English Literature and a minor in German Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She is a Graduate Teaching Associate in the English Department where she teaches first-year composition and is a Research Assistant for the Writing Program. Sovay’s scholarship investigates the world wars’ effect on the modern novel’s representation of the home. Before beginning her PhD in 2015 Sovay earned her BA at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and spent a semester studying German Language at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, Germany. In the fall Sovay will teach an Honors English course called “Desperate Housewives: The Effect of the World Wars on the Home in Literature and Film.”


The Student as Critic and Creator: WID and Demystifying the Literary Text by Focusing on how Language Works

In the final semester of my fourth year teaching first-year composition at the University of Arizona, I finally went out on a limb and did an experiment: I wanted my English 102 course to move toward a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) approach and to represent the four programs (and thus, disciplines) in the Department of English: Creative Writing, Literature, Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, and Rhetoric and Composition.

My reasoning behind this can be traced back to my history of interdisciplinary and liberal arts education that has given me a preference for approaches to teaching that consider multiple disciplines.

Being a literature PhD student who specializes in British and German modern literature, the focus of my course was solidly grounded in reading such texts and writing about them; the major units of my course, though, were constructed with the purpose of allowing my students to inhabit multiple rhetorical situations as readers and authors of both “academic” and “creative” texts. Importantly, attention to the rhetorical nature of language and our role as rhetorically positioned users and interpreters of language can be seen in each unit of the course.

Major Units and Writing Assignments:

  1. Close Reading a Text. Students were in the role of the critic and learned to close read short stories and films and then wrote concise close reading papers in which they discussed the linguistic moves made in the short story. For this unit I drew upon L2 theories of reading literary texts in order to treat close reading a text in English as learning a new language (which it largely is for most first year college students). I have found that students allow themselves to be more playful with language when they are permitted to “be new” to the language rather than be expected to showcase their expertise. This unit brought together, then, the fields of literature and L2.
  2. Writing a Short Story. Students were in the role of the author/creator and got to make language do what they had claimed language can do in the first unit. This unit brought together the fields of literature and creative writing.
  3. Research Paper. Students played the role of the investigator and rhetorical analyzer and read about a critical conversation being had about an issue of their choice and added their small critical intervention into that discussion. It was important to me that students be allowed to choose their topic, though their idea had to in some way be inspired by one of the texts we read or watched and then analyzed as a class (which still ultimately made the potential research topics almost endless). My reasoning behind this was that I wanted students to witness the way literary texts always call attention to larger world issues (and other disciplines!) and are therefore fertile ground for asking new and interesting questions about the world.
  4. Portfolio. Students reflected on their learning over the course of the semester and how their different rhetorical positions gave them new and important perspectives on how language works and how it can be used for particular effects.

In reading students’ reflections on unit 2 it became clear to me that the sequencing of the first two units was highly effective for them!

The pervasive sentiment was that close reading a text in unit 1 showed them what language can do, while writing their own short story forced them to actually do that showing and creating: to prove what they had claimed language can do in unit 1 by creating their own literary text that played with language.

These two units had the effect of students having to prove their claims about language twice: once by textual evidence from the short story they analyzed (unit 1), and once by writing their own short story that did what they had claimed the language was doing in their close reading paper (unit 2). The act of creating, rather than only criticizing and deconstructing, was the act that solidified “what language can do” in their minds.

Wearing both hats of the Critic and Creator gave students a new command over:

1) how language can be used to create particular effects, and

2) how literary texts are a particularly rich site to witness this language play.

In the end, an important effect of this assignment sequence was the way in which the literary text was demystified for students: they came to find that the literary can be in the everyday and that they themselves can create such texts. In his Unit 2 Reflection one of my students wrote something that I think conveys how effective the progression of the first two units was: “This project showed me that I have the power to do all of the fun things that my favorite writers do when they create a story. I’ve never been encouraged to weave in any type of meaning, or a central message in a paper before. It helped me realize that not only can I analyze and pick out rhetorical devices in the texts I read, I am also more than capable of creating my own rhetorical affect in my own writing.” Teaching English is made richer, more interesting, and more effective for students when we draw on its subdisciplines to inform our own.

Have you experimented with scaffolding critical and creative work in the first year English classroom? How did you gauge the effect on students? What other disciplines have you brought into your English classroom and how did you use them?

About the Author
Susan Miller-Cochran, now Director of the Writing Program at the University of Arizona, helped shape the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University while she served as Director from 2007-2015. Her research focuses on instructional technology, ESL writing, and writing program administration. Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and she is also an editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press, 2009) and Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition (NCTE, 2002). Before joining the faculty at NC State, she was a faculty member at Mesa Community College (AZ). She has served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Executive Board of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators. She currently serves as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.