Missing Literature (or Can I Find a Place for you, Emily?)

Adjusting to my new teaching position has been interesting-- a lighter class load, only teaching 2 days a week (full-time), a night class, no office... There are so many differences between this position and the last, but perhaps the one that keeps haunting me is the absence of the beloved "Forms of Literature" course, a course that all full-time English lecturers had on their plate at my last campus.

My Forms course offered me the respite from paragraph workshops, topic sentences and the like. It was a place where I was allowed to introduce great works and spend time discussing with my students the value of such works. While there is magic in writing courses (no doubt), there is a special magic in a literature course that is unique. Students begin to make the big connections between literature and life. They begin to consider difficult questions through the eyes of the protagonist. I played devil's advocate many times in order to allow them to reflect on a character's difficult choice instead of simply hating her (Nora Helmer is a good example here). I recall students crying in my class, openly, because something we read dug up a memory in their life, and the writing was so effective in shining its' light on their psyche that they couldn't hold back. They connected with literature. I sighed with satisfaction.

My new campus has the Writing Department separate from the Literature Department, so teaching a lit class is a far-away possibility at this point. Oh, how I miss sharing Emily Dickinson!

I'm not sure when, but sometime in the last 20 years, FYC courses put the breaks on writing about literature, and in my new campus, there is a heavy emphasis on writing about writing. I am very excited about this. I see how effective this model can be, especially considering the type of student I see in the Rio Grande Valley. Assignments like a "Personal Literacy Autobiography" help establish a tone about the focus of the class, and certainly prepare the student writer to reflect on their writing  throughout the semester. Already, in this first week of class, I notice that students are pondering why they don't like to read, or why they are scared of writing, and perhaps this is entirely new to them and will lead us down a road of discovery that will lead to beneficial change and student autonomy. Within a large Google Drive folder a colleague at my new campus passed on to me, I discovered an article by Erika Lindemann, "Freshman Composition: No Place for Literature". In her article, Lindemann argues, "When freshman read and write about imaginative literature alone, they remain poorly prepared for the writing required of them in courses outside the English department" (311). Sounds a little like the phrase I heard a lot at my previous campus, "they [our students] are not English majors!" Translation: leave your lit at home, teacher.

As a writing exercise during this first week, I asked my students to free-write about experiences that helped shape their reading and writing identity, and what I found did not shock me. 100% of the time, a student who loved to write and felt confident about their writing also enjoyed reading fiction and had positive reading experiences with fiction. Never did a student solely love writing and not reading. Additionally, students who enjoyed writing recalled teachers who incorporated reading literature into writing courses. I identify with this from personal experience.

The dual-enrollment teacher who changed my life, and pointed me down the career I am now in is Ms. Maria Mckenzie. She made our tiny dual enrollment class of 4 students (the first of it's kind at our campus that combined Senior English IV and Comp I and II for college credit) a wonderland. We read. We read, and we read. It became addictive. She taught us literary criticism; she did headstands in class; she explained how Freud had everything to do with Hamlet. For those 2 and a half hours a day, I entered another world of characters and settings and plot that fascinated me, and I felt compelled to write about it in an essay, and I felt compelled to write my own stories. I began to understand how reading fiction allows me to understand myself and my world better. I left her class slightly dizzy with an experience that made me eager to return, eager to read and write more and more. Eventually, it led me to where I am now, an English lecturer.

 Lindemann argues there isn't a need to incorporate the "humanistic content" into a FYC course because "college students must take humanities, arts, and literature courses" (313). I guess her opinions are outdated indeed.

As I write this, the "sophomore literature" requirement is no longer required, and is competing with sexy elective courses like "The History of Rock n' Roll". Literature doesn't stand a chance, does it? Will a student exit a university with a four-year degree, and never read Shakespeare? Most people don't think it matters, anyway, right? The practice of focusing and engaging with writing that is transformative and inspiring or students learning more about themselves and their world through an innocuous journey with death via Dickinson?  Nah, not necessary.

If it's not necessary, why are more sciences looking for humanities majors?

So where does that leave me, the lamenting English teacher? While I will not teach Frankenstein all semester long, I do plan to have students blog about various short literature pieces this semester. I will select these pieces with great scrutiny. This may be the only chance at literature they will have in their academic careers.