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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 507-525

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Preparing Graduate Students to Teach Literature:
Composition Studies as a Possible Foundation

John Schilb

In a still-crowded job market, many graduate students in literary studies think that they will never land a tenure-track position unless they churn out conference papers and articles. As John Guillory (1996) notes, their drive to establish research credentials amounts to "preprofessionalism," for they feel obliged to prove themselves as scholars even before they become full-fledged members of a discipline. Understandably, this imperative has been decried by faculty who observe it and by the would-be faculty who suffer from it. A common complaint is that to generate truly fine literary scholarship, graduate students need more time than the market allows. But its pressures also discourage them from pursuing a potentially more valuable form of preprofessionalism: developing theories and strategies for teaching literature.

Even graduate students interested in literature pedagogy may find their departments unresponsive. True, most English graduate programs do provide their students with the opportunity to teach undergraduate literature courses at some point. But having a chance to teach literature is not the same as having a chance to reflect on the process. Ideally, graduate students would meet regularly with veteran faculty to ponder issues and challenges that the teaching of literature involves. Unfortunately, many graduate English programs have not bothered to launch such exchanges.

Elaine Showalter (1999) refers to this shortcoming in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about her efforts to help graduate students teach literature. [End Page 507] Showalter describes a pedagogy seminar she conducted at Princeton University for the teaching assistants (TAs) of her undergraduate fiction course. Significantly, the seminar was noncredit, an indication of how the graduate literature curriculum tends to marginalize teaching. Showalter argues persuasively that teaching deserves more attention in the graduate literature curriculum, and her seminar seems one good model for reform. Moreover, she identifies various texts about teaching that she and her TAs found useful.

Yet Showalter (1999: B4) can be chided for hyperbole when she claims that "everyone complains these days that we don't train graduate students to teach, but no one ever seems to do anything about it." Just in the discipline of English, plenty of faculty have dedicated themselves to helping graduate students develop as teachers. These mentors are especially apt to be found among an English department's composition staff, taking responsibility for turning graduate students into teachers of writing. After all, most English graduate programs feel obliged to prepare their students, including specialists in literature, to become writing instructors. The training ranges in length and quality, but at any rate it exists.

Obviously, the attention paid to composition pedagogy reflects the heavy reliance on graduate TAs in first-year writing courses. When the Association of Departments of English Ad Hoc Committee on Staffing surveyed 123 English departments in 1997, it found that eight out of ten sections taught by TAs were in first-year composition ("Report" 1999: 13). In Ph.D.-granting English departments, first-year writing accounted for 71 percent of the teaching done by TAs (17). These numbers do not signify that graduate students are immediately able to teach writing well. On the contrary, the average English graduate program assumes that while it needs its students to teach composition, most of them bring little background to the task. Hence some formal training for it has to be in place.

These statistics suggest that literature is rarely the first subject that graduate students teach. They are likely to have first taught courses in composition and been formally trained to do so. Any subsequent training in literature pedagogy should, I would argue, build on this experience. Indeed, as a field, composition studies has been much more willing than literary studies to see pedagogy as a real subject, worthy of serious analysis in its own right. If, in compiling her bibliography on teaching, Showalter had looked to composition scholarship, she would have found hundreds of relevant publications. Her failure to acknowledge this body of work is a reminder of the...


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