Embodying “the Other” in FYC Assignments

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Today’s featured Bedford New Scholar is Rachel McCabe, a PhD Candidate in English at Indiana University Bloomington. She expects to finish in 2019. She teaches Analytical Reading, Writing, and Inquiry, and has taught multilingual and online versions of the course in the past. She also designed her own FYC theme-based course which focuses on the grotesque. She is an Assistant Director of IU’s FYC Program as well as their Professional Writing course. Her research interests include the relationship between reading and writing, affect theory and its impact on the reading and writing process (especially when using fictional and multimodal texts), and how shock and discomfort can be utilized as pedagogical tools.

In first-year writing courses, students often struggle to conceptualize the new ideas and perspectives they encounter through course readings. As Robert Scholes explains in his 2002 article, “The Transition to College Reading,” college students absorb reading material as though it reflects their world view. Rather than allowing the text to make its own argument, they force a connection between the way they see the world and what is written on the page. Scholes explains, “The problem emerges as one of difference, or otherness—a difficulty in moving from the words of the text to some set of intentions that are different from one’s own, some values or presuppositions different from one’s own and possibly opposed to them” (166). In breaking down this problem into contributing factors, Scholes concludes there are two central difficulties: “One is a failure to focus sharply on the language of the text. The other is a failure to imagine the otherness of the text’s author” (166).

Indiana University’s First-Year Composition (FYC) program has utilized a multitude of practices to help students separate themselves from the texts they read. We implement heuristics in the standard syllabus to get students to slow down when reading and notice small patterns and anomalies they might not otherwise pay attention to. We also use a collection of readings that specifically highlight a variety of perspectives, including Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and Susan Wendell’s “The Social Construction of Disability.” We also practice “using a source as a lens,” a heuristic from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. This heuristic helps students figure out how to extract the perspective demonstrated in an author’s work and then use this concept to reconceptualize other materials.

These practices were in place before I joined as Assistant Director of Composition, and I took note of the ways in which they helped students to separate their identities and ideas from the ones represented in the readings. However, in structuring my own version of FYC, I wanted students to be able to practice this objectivity from the start of the semester onward rather than learning to do so by the middle of the course sequence. This was critical to the development of student analytical skills in my course, which focused on defining the term “grotesque” as well as its use and appearance in American culture and art. Since this course asked students to begin by understanding a definition, their ability to apply the term to primary texts was critical to the assignment sequence. As a result, while my first of three units grew out of the standard syllabus at Indiana University for “W131: Reading, Writing, and Inquiry,” it implements “source as a lens” as one of the first heuristics of the semester.

For our first two course readings, students analyze an excerpt from Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature and Michael Steig’s “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis.” These two texts not only provide introductory definitions of the term “grotesque,” but they also demonstrate how academic conversations develop, as Steig builds his definition from the work provided by Kayser. Students then craft a “lens” from one of these two texts. In our class, this means re-evaluating texts including William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” through the perspectives provided by Kayser or Steig.

Students are encouraged to start their essays with their initial interpretations of the short story or poem, using textual analysis to determine why they initially viewed the short story or poem in a particular way. Then, their essays go on to explore how the student was able to re-see the primary text in a new light with the help of Kayser or Steig’s lens. This structure asks students to differentiate between their reading of the text and the reading that might be provided by either of these other authors. In order to adopt this lens, they first practice summarizing the texts and understand its main claims. They then use this knowledge to see the short story or poem from a perspective other than their own.

This heuristic ultimately serves as an approachable way for students to consider Kenneth Burke’s concept of the “terministic screen.” It alerts them to the ways in which their perspective is just one way to read any text or situation. As Burke explains in Language as Symbolic Action, people move through the world with their own unique perspective and interpretations. As a result, “many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made” (46). Moving between these screens constructed by our own terminology and experiences provides the flexibility of imagination to imagine another person’s perspective. By starting out with this exercise, students know that our writing course emphasis is not only on rhetorical analysis of texts, but also on broadening our points of view.

To view Rachel’s assignment, visit The Grotesque in American Culture: Essay 1, Applying a Definition. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Language As Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. University of California Press, 1966.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.

Scholes, Robert J. “The Transition to College Reading.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 2 no. 2, 2002, pp. 165-172.

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