Returning to the Past: Approaching Literature through the Disciplines

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I’m returning to the past—for this semester at least. Years ago now, as the First-Year Writing Program at NC State was in the midst of transitioning from a civic argument (first course) and study of literature approach (second course) to a WID-based model of writing instruction, our faculty grappled with ways to incorporate writing from a range of disciplinary communities into our courses, especially the second course. One of the ideas that emerged during that period of experimentation was to frame students’ experiences of literary texts with disciplinary arguments. We employed arguments from other disciplines, generally in the form of scholarly journal articles or book chapters, as lenses through which students could experience literary texts. This, we reasoned, was at least a way to have students engaged with writing from other disciplines in what was otherwise a course in the study of literature. Baby steps.

The instructional approach of our writing program eventually underwent an entire overhaul, but I’ve maintained a unit on reading and writing in the humanities in my WID-based course. I’ve also held fast to the expectation that this unit would introduce students to the basics of knowledge construction in the fields of the humanities, emphasizing the value of close reading and interpretation as integral elements to meaning-making in the humanities. To that end, one of the major projects I routinely have students respond to asks them to construct an interpretation of an artistic text, generally a literary one. An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing provides substantial support for such a project; Chapter 6 guides students through the process of crafting an interpretation of an artistic text while attending closely to rhetorical features conventionally associated with this frequently assigned genre.

To offer my students opportunities to engage with and study more routinely writing that occurs in other disciplinary domains, I’m mixing things up this semester and returning to the past. Though I’m maintaining the expectation that students will compose an interpretation of an artistic text (Assignment Framing Interpretations of Artistic Texts as a major project in the unit, this time around I’m asking students to frame their interpretations with other disciplinary arguments, as we did years ago at my institution. This approach is explored in detail in Arguing through Literature (2004), by Judith Ferster, a former Director of our First-Year Writing Program.

Here’s my plan to support this old/new approach to teaching the interpretation of an artistic text. I’m putting together some small readings clusters, or themed subunits. In each cluster, we’ll read two to three selected literary texts (though one or more of these could easily be substituted with other kinds of artistic texts). These artistic texts will be paired with a disciplinary text (scholarly journal article or book chapter) that, as a model for application, we can use to frame our exploration of the artistic texts themselves. Here’s a brief example of what one of these subunits looks like:


Reading Cluster A: War and Militarism

Disciplinary Frame

Eibl-eibesfeldt, Irenäus. “Warfare, Man’s Indoctrinability, and

  Group Selection.” Ethos: International Journal of Behavioural

  Biology, vol. 60, no. 3, 1982, pp. 177-198. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-


Artistic Text

Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

Artistic Text

Luigi Pirandello, “War”

Artistic Text

Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home”


Based on my past experiences, students’ success with this approach depends a lot on guided practice. Such practice begins by helping them read, grapple with, and understand the disciplinary frame. Once they have a solid grasp of the frame, then they are typically able to read the artistic text through the lens of the disciplinary frame with success. Although I provide examples of frame texts, and we practice the application of disciplinary frames to their interpretation of various literary texts in my reading clusters, my students will ultimately find their own frame text and create an original interpretation of their chosen artistic text in light of their understanding of the disciplinary argument.

I see a number of advantages to returning to this approach from my past. First, it provides another opportunity for students to interact with authentic disciplinary arguments, potentially from a wide range of academic fields. Secondly, this approach fosters originality in students’ interpretations. Since students must locate their own disciplinary frames, their interpretations are necessarily original. Most likely, no one else has ever before applied the same frame to their target artistic text.

Additionally, there’s a flexibility that allows space for students’ own areas of interest to guide their interpretations; as a result, the students themselves may be more invested in the project overall.

I’d be interested to hear what you think of this approach. Are your students writing interpretations of artistic texts? What challenges do you/they face? What do you think of using disciplinary arguments as interpretive frame texts?

About the Author
Roy Stamper is Senior Lecturer in English and former Associate Director of the First-Year Writing Program in the Department of English at North Carolina State University, where he teaches courses in composition and rhetoric. He is also academic advisor to the department’s Language, Writing, and Rhetoric majors. He has been recognized as an Outstanding Lecturer in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and is a recipient of NC State's New Advisor Award. Prior to his current appointment, he worked as a high school English teacher. He has presented papers at a number of local, regional, and national conferences, including the Conference of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the Conference on College Composition and Communication.