There’s a Way to Help Students See the Value in Studying Literature, But It Might Not Be What You Think

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Earlier in my career my teaching assignments, which were primarily introductory composition courses, had me working with students who elected any major other than English. These days I more often teach students who have chosen to major in English, but even so I regularly have students in my courses who would really rather not have to write about literature. They’ve been attracted to the English major because they love creative writing or love reading, but not writing, or are frankly not entirely sure why they’ve found themselves in this pursuit. I’ve thus always had to make a case for why writing about literature is valuable to students.

I first tried a very common approach—the “reading literature makes us better people” approach—and found it as inspiring as any “take your vitamins” persuasive speech. This may be because I am no Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society, but it also might be because while on some levels I believed what I was saying, on other levels I did not. I do truly believe that the patient unpacking of literary texts plays a role in our leading thoughtful, reflective and even ethical lives. Interpreting literature often involves exploring how we should live in complex circumstances or understanding how our culture came to shape our identities. Doing this in ways that respect texts and their writers requires an ethical attention to detail and a willingness to truly listen and consider possibly layered and simultaneously conflicting understandings of what a text means. All that said, understanding how literary study affects our values is such a complex terrain that we would be wise to tread cautiously in making quick claims about a one-semester course contributing to the shaping of all students’ belief systems. I am also too aware of the fact that throughout history a liberal arts education that has placed literary study at its center has surely yielded some of humankind’s greatest thinkers, but also some of humankind’s most despicable despots. It isn’t so easy to say that simply studying literature makes us better people.

The approach I have found more persuasive, both to myself and to my students, is to work on honestly revealing how the enterprise of writing about literature is a “real world” practice, not only or merely a classroom practice. To understand this “real world” practice means we have to explore how literary analysis is both a task and a genre owned and used by literary scholars. The MLA, for instance, is not merely a citation style, but an actual association filled with people who deliberate, share ideas, have some common goals and, yes, develop and constantly revise some conventions for doing things like crediting the texts they use. It means we draw on the idea of a “discourse community” from rhetoric and composition in order to see that the writing we engage in and the tools we use to interpret have very human histories to them. Newcomers—students—need to learn these ways, tools, and genres in order to participate in such a community or risk unintentionally flouting convention, offending, or misunderstanding the enterprise they are engaged in.

Taking this sort of anthropological approach to seeing our work as quite consciously entering a new community has obvious “buy in” with students who readily wish to enter this community and become literary scholars. But again, I know few such students. What is more interesting is considering how this approach works with students who have no intention of going on to become literary scholars themselves. While they may not wish to enter permanently the discourse community of literary scholars, they do wish to enter other professional discourse communities, and they do have past experiences with joining and learning to navigate other discourse communities. Helping them see that what we are doing is no different allows them to draw from these past experiences, to clarify for themselves what they learned from them, and to train their vision for what to pay attention to in order to successfully navigate the communities they wish to join later. While the genres, conventions, tools, and ways may differ from community to community, the rhetorical savvy needed to analyze the new situations and draw upon this analysis to make successful contributions is not.

What I most like about this approach is that it reframes the sometimes frustratingly difficult experiences of learning to write about literature. Instead of interpreting this frustration and difficulty as a sign of failure or lack of intelligence, we can interpret it as a normal part of the process of learning the ways of an unfamiliar yet long-established community. I encounter this frustration myself when I am called upon to write in an unfamiliar genre for audiences my usual reading and writing habits have taught me little about—things like grant proposals or obituaries. When I see the difficulty as one that’s normal, and that I can overcome with some research and help from discourse community “insiders,” I am less demoralized and more motivated to tackle the challenge. I’ve seen this in my students as well. Suddenly they see “real world” reasons for some of the otherwise seemingly nonsensical conventions of writing about literature (present tense verbs, anyone? No plot summary allowed?). The professionalism of our whole enterprise increases even as it remains fun. We playfully explore many possible meanings of texts while also engaging in a rigorous seriousness as we genuinely try to motivate members of this discourse community to accept still further interpretations. This mixture of play and professionalism prepares students for other “real world” writing contexts for which writers have to offer novel contributions that their audiences will take seriously. So if literary study does make them better people, they’ll be better equipped to share that wisdom with others.

About the Author
Laura Wilder (Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin) is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, where she teaches courses in rhetoric, writing, film, literature, and composition theory. In 2014, her Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies: Teaching and Writing in the Disciplines (2012) received the Research Impact Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and in 2015 she received both the President's Excellence in Teaching Award from the University at Albany and the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching from the SUNY system.