24 January 2010

Sunday Salon: Get 'em readin'

The Necessity of Literature Courses for College Freshmen and Sophomores

The current trend in English is to divide the program into composition and literature, a practice I am in support of as each deserves its own place in the curriculum.  For too long, English courses centered on literature, focusing its efforts on the creation of cultural background - shared experiences in reading - and neglected the skill of writing as differentiated from reading.  This focus left students ill-prepared to deal with the academic rigor of writing in non-English courses; apparently skill in book reports (the focus of many high school English programs) does not help one analyze the effects of eminent domain or critically discuss the ideological differentiation between The War of Northern Aggression and the Civil War.

I am not saying that literature does not help one think; obviously I am a proponent of reading.  I do, however, believe that the backseat composition took to literature in English programs for decades was detrimental to overall critical thinking abilities. Reading, of course, can be essential to critical thinking abilities, but writing (something other than a book report) forces those abilities to the forefront.  It is entirely possible to read a book without any serious effort of thinking.Unfortunate, but true. So, bravo for the major philosophical and pedagogical shift that gave composition its proper place in English programs.

Unfortunately, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction.  We have gone from the extreme of literature only to composition only with freshman and sophomore undergraduate English courses focused almost solely on composition: informative, analytic, and persuasive essays.  And now our students are learning how to write but forgetting how to read.  The removal of literary works from the first two years of English means that students rarely have to read anything other than their textbooks, meaning of course that only a very, very small percentage are reading at all for school.  And reading for pleasure?  Don't get me started.

I believe the most recent statistic is that roughly 50% of Americans never read for pleasure, only one in four Americans even read a book in the last year, and the average is only four books a year for those who do read.  Statistics like this make me even more adamant about the necessity for including literature in the undergraduate curriculum.

The problem as I see it is that the differentiation between literature and composition can be a false barrier.  If we think of Writing with Literature rather than Writing About Literature, we can easily fuse reading with composition studies.  Students can read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, but instead of then assigning a paper about the book, instructors can assign a paper about the role of African-American female writers during the Harlem Renaissance.  Or a paper on the difficulty of maintaining the individual self while in a romantic relationship. The eventual paper may never even mention the book that was read.  Books are about ideas, and ideas spark writing.

By separating Book Reports, Book Reviews, and Literary Criticism from the act of reading, we can re-merge reading and writing, and in my opinion, our students will be better for it. Not to mention the fact that including literature in the curriculum exposes students to cultures other than their own, to new ideas and experiences, and to one of the most wonderful hobbies a person can have.

I could go into all the reasons reading is important, but I think I would preaching to the choir here.  So instead, I'd like to hear from you.  Do you think it is important to include literature in freshman/sophomore undergraduate writing (er...English) courses?  If so, why?  If not, why not?


  1. I can tell you that I was definitely cheated out of both in high school and in college. Granted, I was an Accounting major but still! I was in no way prepared to be able to write anything cohesive, and had to learn on the run once I got a job. Even Accountants have to write!

  2. You have a lot of meat to digest in this essay :) It is very thought-provoking and I must say that I agree.

    I teach English at a very small private high school, so I teach 7th - 12th grades. I strive to balance these classes with appropriate grammar, vocabulary, writing and literature studies. I strive to give writing assignments that require students to think (which I personally believe is becoming a lost skill) rather than just summarize plot.

    I think Sandy's comment is wonderful and I plan to use it in my classes: even accountants need to write!

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I look forwarding to reading more of your posts in 2010.

  3. I like your idea about reading the book but not focusing the writing on JUST that specific book. I didn't have to read any literature for my college classes. And I really think the only reason I read as much as I did in high school is because I was in AP classes. I definitely think that by separating the two people will be more interested in reading or at least won't be so opposed to it.

  4. Sandy - Awwww! See both writing and reading should be mandatory for all majors!

    Molly - I'm glad you agree! And I agree that thinking is becoming a lost skill.

    Jenny - Thanks. I think that people see writing about lit as too focused on specific genres.

  5. I don't remember hardly any required reading at all in high school, but I do remember writing. That was an entirely different time and place, so I'm sure things have changed numerous times since then. I'm still trying to catch up on my reading today.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  6. What a provocative dissertation on the role of writing and reading in coursework.

    I think that I came way before current times, and therefore had a lot of experience at both writing and reading.

    But with my own children, I saw the deficiencies in the system...and sadly, my two youngest children find no pleasure in reading. My older two fared better.

  7. My high school curriculum was pretty intense in both required reading and writing. I will never forget the lessons I learned in my freshman English class, as I failed my very first paper I ever wrote. By the end of the year, I was getting A's and still use those same lessons for everything I write today.

    Having gone through my grad program as an adult and having had to participate in many group papers, in addition to editing my company's newsletter, I can tell you that there are some extremely poor writers out there. They often do not know how to identify the theme, let alone how to formally write to a certain audience. I do think that the lessons learned in writing about literature can extend to other subjects, but in order to become truly proficient in writing, one must write about many different subjects and not just literature. In other words, there needs to be a focus on both writing and literature in our educational system. Often, good writing can make or break a person's chances for getting a job. It is that important.

  8. Thanks for the very thought provoking post. Fortunately my high school AP classes in English put a great emphasis on both reading and critical writing, and I enjoyed the same at college. BUT, when I went back to college many years later to take some additional courses in a non-english class I noticed the shift in education. We actually made a trip to the college library once so that the students (freshman) could learn first how to do research and then how to put it all together and write about it!

  9. Yes! I think there needs to be more of an emphasis on critical thinking and formulating an opinion, rather than parroting the opinions of others.

    Also, I think penmanship needs more attention, too. Seriously! What ever happened to beautiful penmanship? Not that I want to bring back penmanship classes, but I'd like to be able to read everyone's writing!

  10. Wow! What a thought-provoking post. As the mom of a homeschooled high schooler and as a writing teacher, I am always curious about what sort of preparation traditionally schooled high school students are getting, especially in writing. I didn't know that they were writing too many book reports and not doing enough critical or persuasive writing.

    It sounds like teachers are thinking "Let's just make sure they're reading decent books, and good writing will follow." While I think frequent, varied reading often contributes richly to the quality of ones writing, I don't think one necessarily leads to the other.

    Good writing is an extremely complex skill, involving various kinds of sophisticated thinking, and it often requires careful coaching.

    I don't have any answers. I know my mom taught strictly writing in her college courses, and she spent a *lot* of time just strengthening the students' thinking skills -- they would have informal debates, on all kinds of topics, in class.

    Excellent discussion!

  11. I wandered off course and never answered the question. Do Freshman and Sophomore college students need literature courses in addition to being taught good writing?

    I have mixed feelings. On one hand, nothing can ruin a wonderful book like having it force fed to you at the wrong time in your life. While I was always an avid reader, I waited until I was in my 30s to read most of the classics, and I loved them.

    On the other hand, we want a college degree to *mean* something. Should you really be a college educated person without being well-read??

  12. Great points! I think your idea of writing a paper not necessarily about the book is great! but then how many people would actually read the book? I just think people (esp. 18 year olds) are lazy.

    I love reading, though, so I can't understand that.

  13. Kristy - Thanks for stopping by mine!

    Laurel-Rain - Well-taught lit courses have to encourage pleasure reading, so their absence is problematic.

    Michelle - Absolutely agree.

    Suzanne - Exactly! Trips to the library in college are now about research only.

    softdrink - Hahaha! None of my students can handwrite anything in my classes anymore because their handwriting is atrocious.

    Stephanie - Clearly you are in the same confused boat I am on this subject. It's a tough question.

    Rebecca - I suppose not giving them the paper assignment in advance and quizzing during the reading might work, but really good point.


Talk to me baby!