By Robert Craig
After Beckie Northwood graduated high school, she was excited to begin college. But despite an earnest desire to study public health, her current major, Northwood said she did not anticipate the rigorous study of literature in her English Composition II class.At DCCC, most students must take English Composition II: Writing about Literature, otherwise known as ENG 112, to transfer or earn an associate’s degree.“Having such a strong focus on literature made writing the papers a lot less interesting for me…,” Northwood said. “My papers lacked any true depth due to the fact that I was simply uninterested in the topic.”
For more than 20 years the best way to teach college freshman composition has been a debate among scholars and professors of English. In a scholarly article titled “Freshmen Composition: No Place For Literature,” written in 1993, author Erika Lindemann writes that freshman English should provide opportunities for students to master the genres, styles, audiences and purposes of college writing.
However, Lindemann maintains that studying a work of literature and focusing on writing an essay about it can amount to collapsing the discourses of the academy into one genre (literature). This can limit the students’ abilities to practice other forms of writing and experience other perspectives because of too strong an emphasis on analyzing the literature, rather than solid writing training, she believes.
Some English faculty at DCCC agree, saying that students would be better served by offering them a choice. Consequently, these faculty are attempting to implement a new, non-literature based writing course, ENG 113: Persuasive Writing, which is the course’s working title.
According to Shannon Bullock, the College Advisory System (CAS) faculty delegate, ENG 113 focuses on rhetoric and argumentation, not literature, as the central focus for teaching students how to write. “It is intended to be a continuation of critical thinking and writing skills that would serve as an alternative to ENG 112,” Bullock said.
This course is currently under review by the CAS, but the college is drawing closer to a decision. It has not yet been submitted for the final formal evaluation, but Bullock said that if and when it is approved, the course could be available for students as early as Spring 2015.
Meanwhile, ENG 113 has been approved for transfer to area universities as a second-level composition course. “West Chester University, Shippensburg University, Nuemann University, and Harcum University have deemed ENG 113 worthy of transfer credit,” said Dr. David Freeman, assistant professor of English, in an email.
But according to Bullock, ENG 113 will not meet the prerequisite requirements for DCCC’s higher level literature courses such as Children’s Literature, Contemporary Literature and World Literature.Although ENG 112 will not be removed from the college’s course catalogue, ENG 113 will be a second option for students who would rather not focus on literature in a writing course, Bullock said.
Some English faculty believe that there is always a place for literature in the study of English composition. But, according to Matthew Wilsey-Cleveland, assistant professor of English, there is also room for a second choice.
“The curriculum for ENG 113 would include more rigorous and complex research-based assignments that focus on more sophisticated registers of critical analyses,” said Wilsey-Cleveland in an email. “Rather than literary analysis and fictional texts covered in ENG 112, the new ENG 113 would be driven by composition and rhetorical theory and purpose real world and professional contexts.”
According to Wilsey-Cleveland, to further the intense study of rhetorical analysis, ENG 113 can offer students the study of document design, visual rhetoric, technical communication conventions in business and scientific fields, and body language.“My perspective is that students would greatly benefit from engaging in such study precisely because the knowledge and skills they acquire can be directly applied to the world they live in and the careers they are striving to realize,” Wilsey-Cleveland added. “Good writing varies from genre to genre. A compelling business proposal or scientific report won’t have all the same qualities as a moving novel. There are certainly crossover skills but by and large different types of writing require different focuses and mastery of different skills. Literature offers many things technical writing does not, but the reverse is also true.”
While many professors of English at the college are interested in being a part of this shift from literature to rhetoric, some professors believe that literature still has a place in college composition courses.“One of the reasons we study literature is to understand the human condition,” said Elizabeth Gray, assistant professor of English, who received a Masters of Fine Arts degree in poetry. “I think studying literature gives students problem-solving skills… as well as an in-depth look at the things that connect us, that make us human.”
Although Gray does understand the relevance of literature in composition courses, she also believes that the potential implementation of ENG 113 isn’t such a bad idea because it would allow for more flexibility for the faculty who create program curriculums. “I think that anyone could benefit from studying literature and the beautiful part is that you can never truly know what a student will take away from a particular work,” Gray continued. “But I do think that any student can benefit from looking at writing as a problem to be solved. I see that as the role of ENG 113, a further practice of problem solving.”
Gray also suggested that studying literature gives students an opportunity to examine great models of writing. In a second scholarly article published in 1993 titled “A Place For Literature in Freshman Composition,” Gary Tate promotes the same idea when explaining what happens when literature is taken out of English composition courses.
“We have denied students who are seeking to improve their writing the benefits of reading an entire body of excellent writing,” Tate writes. “It is not unlike telling music students that they should not listen to Bach or Mahler.” Northwood, like other students, said she did not get what she hoped for in ENG 112 and wishes ENG 113 had been an option when she was taking English Composition II.
“Most of my assignments were to read, analyze and write a paper on a short story that seemed irrelevant and did not do much in assisting me to improve myself as a writer which I ultimately was more interested in,” Northwood said. “If I had the opportunity to take a different writing class I would have in a heartbeat.”