Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 263-287
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A First-Semester First-Year Course
There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.
Recently Robert J. Scholes (2002: 166) wrote in this journal that in our teaching of first-year college students "the natural reciprocal of writing—which, of course, is reading—ha[s] somehow disappeared, apparently subsumed under the topic of literature." He goes on to say that "this division of the English project" is the way most college English departments today think of their enterprise. This unfortunate split in our pedagogy has become so widespread that many people have sought strategies to counter it. For example, the Modern Language Association recently accepted a proposal to develop a volume on "Integrating Literature and Writing Instruction in First-Year English."1 Scholes would like to replace "the word literature with the word reading" as the proper reciprocal of writing and would prefer to see students read more argumentative texts, including literary criticism (166, 169-70). I have no doubt that large-minded Emerson would have included nonliterary texts in his definition of a book that is read creatively. However, I would like to argue, mainly by example, for a beginning course focused intensely on the creative reading of literature as we usually understand the word. Although it is only [End Page 263] one sort of course among many that combine reading and writing for first-year students, I believe it can achieve some of the objectives Scholes outlines in his article.
There is a well-established tradition in college teaching, extending back at least fifty years, of asking first-year students to treat their reading of literature and their writing about it as two aspects of the same thing. It began at Amherst and Harvard in the 1950s under the guiding spirit of Reuben A. Brower and later spread to other liberal arts institutions. The Amherst course has undergone several permutations but continues to this day with most of its original features intact: staff collaboration on the syllabus and shared exercises, weekly meetings to discuss classes and exercises, frequent writing assignments insisting on specificity, and a constant emphasis on close reading, which Scholes (2002: 165) and others regard as the skill most lacking in entering students.
In this essay I want to describe our present version of this course. It not only avoids the pedagogical split that all too often becomes institutionalized as Comp 101 and Lit 101, but also has its own intrinsic merits. Because it requires, and explicitly focuses on, students' active engagement with the texts they read and the texts they write, it is less indexed to their high school preparation than a literature survey needs to be, and I would argue that courses like it should be taught more frequently. Like my students in their own writing, I can support my claims only by detailed illustration. So I will describe the principles and design of the course and then the specific conduct of my own section in the fall of 2002. I will also try to state clearly the values that underlie our choices of texts and the questions we ask about them.
First I need to explain more fully what the course is not, and how, in taking an aesthetic approach to high literary texts, it addresses what I consider to be Scholes's most important objectives. It is not a first-year requirement, though it can be counted toward our English major. It is not conceived as part of a "writing across the curriculum" initiative, although such an initiative is currently under discussion at Amherst. The students write weekly, but it is not a course in composition or argument or "the essay." Unlike first-year literature courses at some other institutions, it is not an introductory survey. We go from short poems to longer works of drama and fiction with no thematic thread and with no...