"[N]o college instructor should have to march to the beat of anybody else’s pedagogical drum…"

pedagogy

essays

Nuala Lincke-Ivic
Academic Freedom: The Benefits of Reading and Writing Fiction in English Courses

nualaAn associate professor of English at West Los Angeles College, Nuala Lincke-Ivic is the editor of West. In this essay, she contends, “[N]o college instructor should have to march to the beat of anybody else’s pedagogical drum.” She supports the right of English instructors to have students read fiction—and even write fiction—in all English courses, claiming that“[w]hen we do not quarantine reading fiction to literature classes and writing fiction to creative writing classes,” students can not only become better writers, but also develop a better self-esteem. “The means by which we English instructors help our students to achieve SLOs in first-year courses and all English courses should be up to us,” she asserts, “as long as these means help us to accomplish course objectives.”


Back in the early 90’s when I was a graduate student in English at the University of West Florida, one of my writing professors gave our class two student essays to read about the same topic; an American student wrote the first essay, and an Irish student wrote the second essay. Both essays were “A’s”—but the American student’s essay was turgid. Filled with grandiloquent academic prose, its sentences completely devoid of charm, the essay was the unhappy result of the then de rigeur essay writing rules that so many American writing instructors seemed to insist that students follow. Rule One: Never use the first person (I, me, my, mine) so that you, the writer, seem authoritative. Rule Two: Clog sentences with unnecessary literary terms to make you, the writer, seem erudite. Rule Three: Quote in every paragraph to make you, the writer, seem like you have plenty of convincing support for your thesis. Ohhhh! What torture to write, and what agony to read! The American student’s essay attested to this fact. In contrast to the turgid, charmless prose of the American student’s essay, the Irish student’s essay was a lively read. The judicious use of the first person did not make the writer seem less authoritative—and helped the writer to avoid making clunky assertions in the third person; literary terms were used to make a point clear—not to proclaim erudition; quotes were not crammed into every paragraph—cluttering them, like plants fighting for their lives in a too-busy flowerbed. Instead, the writer paraphrased critics’ more prosaic thoughts, and inserted thought-provoking and particularly well-written key quotes into every third or fourth paragraph. In the Irish student’s paper, the writer and not “the rules” seemed to be in control of the paper’s prose, which (especially in contrast to the American student’s prose) seemed effervescent, flowing, seamless…elegant.

English usage rules—including rules regarding how to document sources—should exist to aid in the art of communication. They should not impede a student’s ability to articulate his or her thoughts well. That lesson is what my professor taught our class when she gave us the two essays to read. This kind of (it seems to me) common sense approach to essay writing should also apply to student learning outcomes (SLOs) in first-year English courses. Instructors should help students to achieve SLOs in ways that enliven the learning process and challenge students. Therefore, instructors should not be required or even encouraged to follow rules—such as using specific non-fiction texts—that do not allow them to teach as well as they could if they were allowed to choose different texts—texts of their choice. The means by which we English instructors help our students to achieve SLOs in first-year courses and all English courses should be up to us—as long as these means help us to accomplish course objectives and do not condemn, demean or harass students or threaten their health and safety—the latter stipulation the standard caveat embedded in any discussion of academic freedom.

Scott Jaschik’s January 11, 2011, article “Unafraid of Virginia Woolf” in Inside Higher Ed describes my colleague Dr. Katherine Boutry’s use of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours in English 103, a critical thinking/composition class at West Los Angeles College (WLAC), where Dr. Boutry and I are both members of the English Department. Rather than using only non-fiction texts in this first-year English course, as is the norm, Dr. Boutry elected to focus mostly on these works of fiction, exercising what I think should be her unquestioned right to academic freedom as a college instructor. Indeed, I contend that no college instructor should have to march to the beat of anybody else’s pedagogical drum. But why are college instructors frequently required or encouraged to march to this beat, especially in first-year English courses—and by so many experienced English instructors?

Many experienced English instructors prefer to use texts like Fast Food Nation and Freakononmics, among other respected works of non-fiction, because they are rightly vigilant in trying to ensure that students learn how to write the kind of academic prose that will help them to succeed in their programs of study. After all, students are required to write traditional essays and term papers in most courses at community colleges and at four-year colleges and universities. Using “models of good writing”—well-written works of non-fiction in which writers support a thesis—is, most of us will agree, one way, but a good way, to ensure that students learn how to write academic prose. Fiction, of course, is not academic prose, although (and this fact always stuck me as ironic when I was a student), we write academic prose about fiction.

However…the question that must concern college instructors—and particularly English instructors—about my colleague’s use of fiction in English 103, a first-year critical thinking/composition course, is this one (which I will turn into a few related, almost identical questions, like those little wooden dolls—“matryoshka” or “babushka” dolls—that are tucked inside other little wooden dolls):

  1. Did the students learn what they were supposed to learn in her class (SLOs)?

  2. That is…did they learn how to read and write critically—to identify logical and illogical thinking in their own and others’ writing, to understand when a thesis is and is not supported well?

  3. And…did they learn how to write the kind of academic prose (in-text citations and so on) that will help them to be successful in all courses that require students to write research papers?

My colleague’s very honest answer, according to Jaschik in his “Unafraid” article, is: “[S]he said that student progress in that area was no better but no worse than when she had taught composition based on nonfiction.” Therefore, students in her English 103 class did achieve course SLOs. In addition, she exposed her students to Virginia Woolf, who many of us would agree is a writer worth reading, and a writer most students would not elect to read even if they had heard of her (many students in Dr. Boutry’s class, according to Jaschik’s article, had never even heard of Woolf), and as Jaschik writes in his article about my colleague’s teaching experience: “Boutry noted that at many elite colleges, first-year students learn to write by responding to fiction, and she asked why that approach should be denied to students at community colleges.” However, at the community college level—and in the nine colleges that comprise the Los Angeles Community College District, in addition to WLAC—Dr. Boutry is not the only English instructor (or even the first) to contend that fiction should not be the exclusive property of literature classes.

At WLAC, Rachel Williams, our colleague in the English Department, has frequently used fiction in her English 103 critical thinking/composition class: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Luis Valdez’s Los Vendidos are among the many diverse texts she has used. At Los Angeles Valley College, Dr. William Wallis, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet, has been using both fiction and non-fiction in his critical thinking/composition class for years—and in other first-year English courses, even developmental writing courses, as he affirms: "I employ close reading and analysis of fiction in…[developmental writing courses, English 21 and 28), composition…[English 101 and 102], and critical thinking courses…[English 103].” Per Dr. Wallis, “[t]he nexus of literary elements offers a clear paradigm of logical values." A decade past, inspired by his example, I started to use fiction in my English 103 critical thinking/composition class.

Clearly, Dr. Boutry’s use of Woolf and other quality fiction writers in her classes—although it deviates from standard teaching practices—is supported by more than one of her colleagues in the English Department at WLAC, as well as by colleagues in English Departments at other schools. Not only is she daring to think outside the box by using fiction, but her daring to take the road less traveled does not stop at the door of her classroom: For the first time in a long time, WLAC students—all from Dr. Boutry’s English 103 classes, and motivated by Dr. Boutry—are presenting their papers about themes in literary works at various prestigious teacher/student writer conferences. She is encouraging her students to engage in extracurricular academic pursuits—the kind that students from elite colleges participate in—and in so doing, she is setting an inspiring example for her fellow community college instructors to emulate. Hence…using fiction in first-year English courses does not impede students from achieving SLOs; indeed, the judicious use of works of quality literary fiction can help students not only achieve SLOs, but also exceed SLO requirements. However, all of us—all English instructors—might consider working together (read: inspiring each other) to push the envelope even more in terms of helping students to achieve course SLOs.

Why not have students write fiction in first-year English courses—not throughout the course, but for a single assignment, or in some journal writings? Let them make the kind of meal so often spread before them in their academic lives—so that they can understand how this meal is composed. And let’s allow students in second-year courses to try their hand at this kind of word art, too. Let-them-make-a-meal. We all know that famous Joan Didion quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Let the students feel validated as individuals by encouraging them to tell a story that’s spun on the loom of their own minds (that is a product of their own imagination and life experience); let’s not merely permit them to practice the narrative mode in parts of their essays. (Thought: If reading respected works of non-fiction and then writing essays modeled on these works is a good way to learn how to write academic prose, isn’t reading quality fiction and then writing fiction a good way to understand fiction?)

Now, let me be very clear regarding what I am advocating here: I am not advocating that essay writing and literature classes be turned into “creative writing” classes where students do not learn how to write academic prose. However, I am contending that writing fiction should not be quarantined to the kind of “creative writing” course that most students elect not to take, just as most students—Dr. Boutry is right—elect not to read writers like Woolf, unless instructors require them to read this kind of quality literature.

When we do not quarantine reading fiction to literature classes and writing fiction to creative writing classes, wonderful things can happen in regard to students’ writing: It can become better; indeed, students can surpass their own expectations regarding their capabilities as writers. Dr. Boutry’s students’ presentation of their papers at prestigious writers’ conferences attests to this fact—and so does the content of West. Please see the Spring 2011 issue of West at wlac.edu; the nine well-written, imaginative student short stories published in that issue were developed in response to a single assignment in my fall 2010 science fiction class. In addition to writing a story, the students in that class also fulfilled important course SLOs: They read and discussed important works by respected science fiction/fantasy/horror writers like Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Octavia E. Butler, Mary Shelley, and others; they wrote essays with research aspects; and they learned about the history of the genres known as science fiction, fantasy and horror—and debated about whether these genres exist separately, can co-exist in one text, with one or two genres being dominant, or are (like all literary genres) merely a convenient way for literary critics to categorize works of fiction. In other words, the students didn’t just write their short stories in this class; they achieved course SLOs. Today, as I read through these short stories in the Spring 2011 issue of West, I feel a twinge of fear, thinking what if? What if I did not give these students the opportunity to write a short story? Would they know that they are writers? Would these short stories ever exist; would they ever have been born in the students’ minds? My guess is…probably not. And that would be everybody’s loss. Following are excerpts from two of the short stories that seem to support this contention.

The stars were close and comforting, like specks of daylight shining through the holes in the roof of a blanket fort during a childhood winter. (“Corona in the Grass” – Jessica Owen)

Shelly lies in bed with her two children and their father. They are reading; tonight it’s Curious George. After denying them one more story, the two adults leave the room and retreat to the bedroom at the other end of the hallway. Keith puts on a movie. Some stupid comedy. Shelly pulls out her laptop and attempts to concentrate on her math homework. It’s difficult for her to hear her own thoughts over “hahaha, he’s stupid; he shoulda just ran the other way” and “that girl got a big booty!” She laughs sometimes, too. Some of the antics are really funny. Shelly wishes she could talk to Keith about her thoughts on the state of Mexico in relation to the drug cartels. She doesn’t bother because she knows he’ll just make a joke and move on to some other light-hearted topic. Shelly learned a while ago that it is far better to just go with the flow. She remembers how it was when she had decided to release herself from him. It was awful. All of the ignorant females her kids were exposed to, the hurt she would feel when she would drop off her children for “daddy’s weekend,” the loneliness… No, this was better. Everyone is under one roof, and she can keep more control over the influences of her kids. (“The Ordinary Guide” – Kelli Bickerstaff)

Writing a short story provides a kind of wonderful self-affirmation that essay writing does not always provide: A short story is a personal, creative statement a writer makes, and is the product solely of the writer’s own life experience and private thoughts, and its existence confirms to the writer that “I am here! What I have to say is important!” Following are passages from two fall 2011 student essays that seem to confirm this idea.

Writing fictional literature as opposed to writing academic prose is an excellent idea as an exercise in a literature class. I believe that the best way to learn something is through experience. In a process called active learning, the student has the opportunity to become part of his or her own learning experience.  Often, academic prose becomes rote and formulaic. It can lack inspiration. Writing fiction creates a new sense of inspiration, something unique and unpredictable. It applies the forms of the established literature in a new way—the student’s original work. By doing so, the literary works that were studied have not only served to teach certain themes or concepts; they have functioned to inspire a new author, the student. Is this not the real goal of teaching, to provide the student with the tools necessary to apply concepts in new and unique ways, to move the student forward? (Bracha Shefres)

When someone is told to write a fiction story this might be a bit harder to many upper level students because a student is somewhat like a robot; students do as they are told and do not really add their own beliefs or ideas. When the student is told to write something from the mind, it can become a challenge because the student has not done something like this in years, but this can be very useful because students are working their minds in a new way and are not robots but individuals…. (Yanett Ruiz)

And now…let me reiterate this point, which I think should be the definition of academic freedom not only for English instructors, but also for all college instructors: The means by which we instructors teach SLOs is not important; what is important is that our students achieve SLOs—and that the process by which they achieve SLOs is challenging, intriguing, informative—and yes, why not?—even initially frustrating, as Dr. Boutry’s use of Woolf was initially frustrating to students in her composition/critical thinking classes, according to Jaschik in his article. Frustration is part of the learning process. If we English instructors do not exercise our right to academic freedom by breaking “the rules” in essay writing and literature courses, how will our students learn to break the rules that impede their progress as writers—and to achieve meaningful academic success?

Sources

  • Bickerstaff, Kelli. "The Ordinary Guide." Stories. West. Ed. Nuala Lincke-Ivic. Issue 1.
    West Los Angeles College, Fall 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

  • Jaschik, Scott. “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?” Inside Higher Ed, 11 Jan. 2011.
    Web. 28 Feb. 2011.

  • Ruiz, Yanett. Quiz 2 Essay, English 102, Section 8226. West Los Angeles College,
    2011. Online.

  • Schefres, Bracha. Quiz 2 Essay, English 102, Section 8226. West Los Angeles College,
    2011. Online.

  • Wallis, William. “Re: Academic Freedom Article.” Message to the author. 28
    Nov. 2011. E-mail.

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