Know Your Theory! – Literature and Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theorypart 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy, and part 5 concerns genre composition pedagogy.  

Literature and Composition Pedagogy

Last year a colleague of mine asked me to define the purpose of English. What is the essence of the discipline? What is its content? I fumbled for an answer. On a basic level students in my class read and write. They analyze texts, investigate language, and use literacy to interrogate themselves and their world. Yet other disciplines could claim the same basic objectives. In social studies, for instance, students use similar techniques to explore history and understand the push and pull of civilizations. So what makes English unique?

Anytime I tell someone what I do for a living, they invariably ask me about the books we’re reading. What novels do I ask children to read these days? I tell them that my classes don’t take part in too many whole-class novel units (Practitioner-scholars like Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle have helped cement the notion of student choice as a dominant theme in secondary English classrooms across the country). If you’re not reading William Faulkner, George Orwell, or any of the other white male authors from the canon, what do you all do in class?

We read and write. Literature and composition share a complex history together. The contentious relationship between the two deals with fundamental issues of literacy, education, and democracy. Your employment of literature in the classroom depends upon how you answer bedrock questions about the connection between curriculum and society.

Debates over curriculum and education’s purpose have been around in earnest since at least the Common School movement of the mid 19th century. Humanists wanted a classical education of Greek, Latin, and belles lettres. Social efficiency educators pushed for streamlined coursework in order to match up school curriculum with the skills demanded by employers. Progressives wanted school to prepare kids to be citizens, revolutionaries, and public servants. Literature can transform itself to meet any of these diverse needs.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about how teachers have struggled with integrating reading and writing for over 200 years. Unpacking the relationship between composition and literature benefits from a basic understanding of the growth of English as a discipline.

Up until the late 1800s there was no English. Universities offered rhetoric/oratory (speech) and belles lettres (literature studied for its aesthetic appreciation). 18th and 19th century academia was firmly situated within an oral culture. Although students were required to write, their compositions were to be memorized and delivered before the class. Writing was rarely taken beyond a rough draft. Students wrote only as preparation for the main event of presenting a beautiful and eloquent oration.

Charles Eliot, Harvard’s president during the late 19th century, introduced a system of electives that dethroned the dominant standardized university curriculum. Schools began offering different courses for students. As new courses opened up others receeded. The birth of English coincides with the downfall of certain higher education stalwarts such as Greek and Latin. As the influence of humanist curricula (Greek, Latin, the ‘classics’) continued to wane in the late 18th century, English rose to prominence as a new mainstay of the higher ed experience.

In time oratory lost its belletristic flourishes and became rhetoric. Rhetoric “gradually lost its oral emphasis, finally giving way to the exclusively written focus of English composition.” Now bereft of the traditional focus on oration, new composition classes needed something to study. So students began producing early literary criticism. Courses in literature moved towards the canon, employing literature as a high-brow product fit only for those pursuing a life of the mind.

By the early to mid 20th century, English departments were split between the study of literature and the teaching of writing. The legacy of separation and distinct curricular spheres for reading and writing remains potent in English classrooms today.

In a previous post I mentioned how it took 15 years for feminism to move from academia into composition classrooms. A similar case might be made for the relationship between composition courses and English Language Arts classes at the secondary level. Although anecdotal, I would offer that secondary teachers often privilege reading over writing. When writing is taught, it’s often approached through the lens of writing for high stakes tests. Test writing is a legitimate genre with its own conventions and forms. The fact that testing ends up narrowing the English Language Arts curriculum his should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with public education.

I think it’s fair to make the modest assertion that we are in the beginnings of a lit/comp renaissance. The rise of the mentor movement in secondary education offers English teachers an effective way to combine literature and composition. By mentor movement I mean the proliferation of books, websites, and articles focused on mentor texts. Popular practitioner-scholars are bringing renewed attention to the benefits of integration. Combine this with our 21st century understanding of a text as essentially any cultural artifact and you have new crops of teachers helping students read as writers, dissecting the moves authors make in order to enact them in their own compositions.

It’s my hope that the mentor movement, in tandem with what we know about textual artifacts from Cultural Studies, Genre Pedagogy, and Critical Pedagogy, will help students both analyze and create works of real power and meaning.




  1. Pingback: Know Your Pedagogy! – Process Composition Pedagogy Edition | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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