Beyond Bob Dylan: Composition and Literature in the Classroom

In the movies, from Dangerous Minds to Dead Poet’s Society, the inspiring teacher demonstrates the real-world relevance of literature. In fact, it is a commonplace for the English teacher to connect with her students through the music of Bob Dylan thus reconciling the conflicting cultures of music and poetry, the “real world” and the academy, the creative and the canon. Furthermore, in our departments, our training, and our academic experience, conflicting disciplinary concerns maintain the separation of composition and literature. Over the years of observing teachers of literature or teachers of composition, sometimes composition and literature can feel at odds. Students are engaged and empowered to find their voices in their composition courses then may become stymied and suppressed in a more current traditional Comp II course disguised as an Introduction to Literature. But can the twain meet? Based on some nuts and bolts examples from the presenter’s recently published Literature: Reading to Write (Pearson 2010), this presentation moves beyond the Bob Dylan commonplace to explore how student voice, reflection, and creative writing can be reconciled with the work of attending to style, exploring genre, and introducing literature in productive ways.

She begins by espousing the benefits of using music and literature in the classroom as a means of engaging students, citing John Trimbur’s article “’Taking English’ Notes on Teaching Introductory Literature Classes” as well as popular culture representations of the English teacher as inspirer. Trimbur suggests that rather than focusing on genre, courses should ask: What is literature, and why is it a required course? These questions serve to emphasize literature’s importance to one’s personal and everyday life.

However, while this focus does invigoration classroom discuss and student appreciation, students increasingly feel alienated by the writing aspect of these courses. Part of this problem arises as teachers spend more time focusing on the literature and less time discussing writing concerns. Citing Young and Fulwiler’s book When Writing Teachers Teach Literature: Bringing Writing to Reading and articles by Maxine Hairston, Erika Lindeman, and Peter Elbow, Elizabeth suggests that part of the problem may lie in the training of English professors, which tends to focus more on Socratic method and discussions of canonical texts and less on writing pedagogy.

In order to foster a better balance between the seemingly differing needs of literature study and composition instruction, Elizabeth suggests incorporating writing into the literature discussion by including self-directed “writing to learn” activities with themselves as the intended audience such as pre-reading questions, reading response papers and journals, close reading exercises, etc. Such activities work not only to improve writing skills, but to actively engage the students in the literature as they write.

She further suggests incorporating other-focused “writing to communicate” assignments designed to help students apply the insights from their reading to a more formal type of writing intended for an outside audience. Such assignments obviously include the traditional explication, summary, analysis, argument, and research papers. However, Elizabeth claims other types of communicatory assignments could also take the form of immersion projects (involving students reading and writing about a poem or other text every day) such as blogging and public reading journals. Drawing heavily from Lynn Bloom’s article “Textual Terror, Textual Power: Teaching Literature through Writing Literature,” she further suggests encouraging creative writing in the literature classroom as a means of helping students understand the intricacies of literature by creating it themselves. These creative assignments might range from conscious imitations of a writer’s style to retelling literary stories from new points of view, to adapting texts to new performance mediums. She suggests, too, encouraging students to create their own literature anthologies, develop literary family trees by taking new types of literature (graphic novels, films, etc.) and showing how they developed from earlier forms, or illustrating the development of particular genres. Finally, she suggests re-examining the research project by asking students to research a piece of literature with an eye towards putting in context with the time it was developed and/or illustrating its relevance to the modern world.

Presenter Bio

Dr. Elizabeth Howells is the Director of Composition at Atlantic Armstrong State University. In addition, her work as a site director with the National Writing Project has provided her with additional opportunities to work with teachers and students at diverse levels. Her teaching interests include: Writing; Rhetoric; Gender and Women’s Studies; Composition Studies and 19th-Century British Literature. She has published a wide variety of articles both scholarly and pedagogical on a range of subjects, literary and rhetorical. This presentation unites her teaching and research interests as well as personal and professional selves.

If the ideas here are interesting to you, and you would like to see more of this author’s work, search our catalog to learn more and request free exam copies.