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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 399-425

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A Method for Teaching Invention in the Gateway Literature Class

Joanna Wolfe

In the spring of 2000, following the completion of a Ph.D. specializing in rhetoric and composition, I taught my first literature course: a writing-intensive survey of African American literature. The course, open to all students, regardless of major, used both traditional literature assignments, such as close readings, and more rhetorical assignments that asked the students to "join a conversation" on issues such as gender relations and African American education. After years of teaching argument in rhetoric and composition courses, I was excited about bringing some of the methods that had proved successful in this environment to the literature curriculum: peer review, audience analysis, guidance through the writing process, intensive revision, writing conferences. These were elements of writing instruction that I felt had been missing from my own undergraduate study in English literature, and I was eager to share them with my students. I envisioned transforming the lower-level writing course in literature by guiding students through the writing process and encouraging them to think of their writing in terms of the impact it would have on specific readers.

The result was a disaster. Strategies that had elicited thoughtful revision from my rhetoric students fell flat in the literature classroom. For instance, I had had wonderful success with a peer review technique developed by Barbara Sitko (1993) in which students read a peer's paper aloud and paused at the end of every sentence to summarize the main point of the essay and to predict what would appear next. My composition students had found this [End Page 399] method helpful for identifying places where their essays needed more elaboration or evidence. In the literature classroom, by contrast, the students were far less successful at identifying places that needed elaboration, primarily because their essays often lacked a viable argument altogether. Similarly, another peer review technique that had been popular in my composition classes, in which the students played devil's advocate by challenging one another's claims and encouraging one another to develop more sophisticated arguments, led to little insight in my literature classroom, because these students' essays often lacked claims that one could disagree with. Along the same lines, an exercise in which students received opening paragraphs of mixed quality and tried to identify which had been written by high school students and which by college juniors and seniors was ineffective in my literature class: even good students in the class tended to focus on relatively minor issues of syntax while ignoring differences in the complexity and sophistication of the theses.

The failure of these exercises underscored a fundamental problem in the literature course: the wide divergence between my expectations as an instructor and my students' understanding of the criteria by which literary analyses should be judged. Despite extensive individual conferencing, I never bridged the communication gap that separated my awareness of what "counted" as literary analysis from the enthusiastic plot summaries, the personal responses, and the shallow character analyses that dominated many students' texts. Even when I tried to show my students in detail how to progress to more complex literary analysis, this gap persisted. Several students complained on their end-of-semester course evaluations that I had co-opted their voices by telling them what to write. Other students had indicated during the semester that they saw in general how my suggestions would improve their essays but had no idea what specific steps to take to move from the elementary arguments in their drafts to the in-depth analyses I was trying to elicit. I had tried to conduct writing conferences as a joint process of discovery between me and the students, but clearly I had failed to clarify the disciplinary conventions and methodologies that distinguished successful literary analysis from other types of writing.

I still believe, however, that the discipline of rhetoric and composition has something to offer the introductory literature curriculum, although what it might be is not nearly as obvious or straightforward as I originally and naively...


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