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  • Scott L. Miller (bio)

Several semesters ago, I was surprised to learn that my Introduction to Literature course would be held in a computer classroom, a room dominated by the cold and impersonal hardware of computer terminals, despite my course objectives: to develop "the student's appreciation and enjoyment of selected works in fiction, drama, and poetry." It quickly became evident that giving short lectures and having large/small discussion groups would have to be held to a minimum. Of necessity, the physical makeup of the classroom and the constant humming of the computers made my usual teaching practices less workable. As a result, much of the work of teaching and learning about literature would have to be done on the computer. To do so, I incorporated into my daily curriculum multiple "low-stakes writing" assignments, which Peter Elbow (1996: 286) defines as writing that is "supplementary and experimental" and not necessarily graded.

Compositionists (Horner 1983, McQuade 1992, Elbow 2002) have long discussed both the institutional and pedagogical split between literature and composition that sees writing and reading as opposed activities. However, influenced by new theoretical approaches to literature, especially reader-response theory, some critics (Bizzell 1986, Elbow 1996, Schroeder 1999) have tried to stress the linkage between reading and writing, which [End Page 111] Patricia Bizzell (1986: 176) characterizes as "meaning-making activities [in which the writer] generates ideas through the process of writing" while the reader similarly "generates his own version of the text through the process of reading." Elbow (1996: 280) contends that giving "more centrality to writing" would enable students to see "how meaning is slowly constructed, negotiated, and changed," which would, in turn, help them understand that the same dynamics exist in reading. To make that connection more explicit, I turned to "low-stakes" writing.

To clarify my methods, I narrow my focus here to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (2000). As most people know, Hansberry's play dramatizes the conflicts taking place within the Younger family, an African American family living in Chicago whose members all have individual dreams about getting ahead. The play also dramatizes the family's external conflict of purchasing a home in a white neighborhood where they are not wanted. Because A Raisin in the Sun is so highly anthologized, many of my first-year students were already familiar with it. However, I expected them to read (or reread) along with their classmates and bring to each class a written response analyzing a specific scene or idea. This writing, completed outside of class, represented students' initial reactions to the text, and it provided background for the daily low-stakes writing assignments. Four examples of these assignments are described below.

One of the first low-stakes assignments was to analyze Hansberry's preliminary commentary because students too often gloss over such commentary and go directly to the first bit of dialogue. Hansberry's introductory comments are rich, and so I assigned each student a different paragraph, asking that they pay careful and close attention to Hansberry's description of the physical setup of the Younger household and how her language choices might reflect her larger authorial choices. Consider the following: "Now the once loved pattern of the couch upholstery has to fight to show itself from under the acres of crocheted doilies" (782). When students spent time analyzing a layered and complex sentence like this one, they began to see that language choices can reflect the characters' economic circumstances and, further, that the choices support Hansberry's overarching aim in writing. This writing exercise also worked to destabilize students' initial thoughts about the play and to make room for new ideas they saw evolving through their writing. Thus, they began the first step of discovering how to generate meaning about a text through writing.

Another early low-stakes writing assignment was to take on a character's persona and describe his or her interactions with other family members. [End Page 112] This exercise proved especially productive for students who wrote from Walter Lee's perspective. After all, many students can't relate to Walter Lee. With their middle-class backgrounds, they don't understand why he...


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