Cheria Poole
English 3100
Issue Paper
Literature and Composition: The Co-Dependent Pair
When I first heard about their being an issue about literature being used in the
composition classroom, I was surprised. When I think about the process of teaching or
learning composition, I always associated literature as being the means to accomplish this
task. It is hard for me to fathom the two existing independently. The composition class
has to have a subject to write about and a model as to what can be accomplished in
writing. At the same time, the literature class needs a method for communicating the
message or relativity of a text. Regardless, this issue has existed for years, and I am
interested in researching the history of the conflict in order to find out where I stand on
the issue.
In 1990, James Berlin wrote an article that explained the history of the split between
literature and composition. The article, “Writing Instruction in School and College
English”, explains that the National Education Association’s appointment of the
Committee of Ten from Harvard University in 1892 resulted in a huge disagreement with
Yale University scholars ( Berlin 189). The final report of the Committee of Ten stated:
The main objective of the teaching of English in the schools seems to be two:
(1) to enable the pupil to understand the expressed thoughts of others and to give
expression to thoughts of his own; and (2) to cultivate a taste for reading, to give
the pupil some acquaintance with good literature, and to furnish him with the
means of extending that acquaintance (Burrows qtd. by Berlin 189).
These findings essentially support the teaching of literature as a means to teach writing.
However, the article goes on to explain why Yale scholars disagreed with the Committee
of Ten. Yale scholars believed that “literature ought to be taught and studied for its own
sake” (Berlin 190). Nearly a hundred years later, the articles written about the subject
indicate that the issue of whether literature and composition should be taught together is
still alive.
To use a familiar example, all of the literature classes I have taken at Georgia State
require extensive amounts of writing. It is my belief that one would have to be well
versed in composition to succeed in these literature classes. Amy Schneider, an educator
in rhetoric and composition, notes in her 1998 article that “Composition teachers usually
fall into one of three categories: those whom teach composition without literature, those
whom solely teach literature because it is easier to teach, and those whom attempt to
combine the two methods” (A14). Schneider also notes that the distinction between
literature and composition will have an “intellectual impact” because graduate students
teaching composition classes are not familiar with composition (A15).
An argument that goes along with Schneider’s criticism of “the split” is made by Gary
Tate. Tate is a well-known figure in this debate and asserts in his 1993 article “A Place
for Literature in Freshmen Composition” that “taking literature out of the classroom
deprives students of valuable words and concepts” (318). Tate believes that the distance
between literature and composition now is due to the “Rhetoric Police” in the 1960’s
(318). The “Rhetoric Police” are, what he describes, “a band of zealots who not many
years hence were to become the dreaded enforcement arm of the CCCC” (317-318).
Perhaps the most interesting observation made by Tate deals with the questionable goals
of the composition course. He states “I sometimes think that we are close to turning
freshmen composition in the ultimate ‘service course’ for the university” (319).
On the other hand, there are academicians that believe literature and composition
should remain separate. Peshe Kuriloff, an educator of composition, wrote an article in
1991 that personifies literature and composition to explain the divide between them.
Kuriloff states “…literature and composition do not define English in the same way.
They have different ends, and they seek to achieve them by different means” (4). Even
though Kuriloff seems to be a strong proponent of composition as a separate entity, his
article does suggest that there is a need for literature and composition to intersect. At the
end, Kuriloff even states” Teaching writing from the vantage point of English capitalizes
on the instructors familiarity with how texts work” (6).
I am a firm believer in literature and composition going hand in hand. I remember
learning to write, and the entire process was copying something I was reading. An
elementary school teacher could not teach writing to students that cannot read. Since
reading and writing are taught together fundamentally, I do not see a purpose in them
being separated at higher levels of education. One of my favorite quotes on this subject is
by Toni Morrison. In an interview, she was asked if she always wanted to be a writer. She
responded that she wanted to be a reader. I understand this to mean that reading different
material- literary works like poems, essays, short stories, help one’s growth as a writer.
Tate’s article left a strong impression on me. I do believe that composition courses
lose “valuable words, valuable concepts” (318) when literature is excluded. I try to step
back from the situation and consider that my feelings might be due to the fact I am an
English major. However, there seems to be something invaluable in reading a work that
changes the way one feels about writing. I have come across many students that hate to
write, but do read literary texts that are rather advanced. Maybe their interest in writing
would be peaked if they could write a personal response to these books that are reserved
for English majors. I became very emotional as I have read authors like Morrison or
Faulkner because I realized that are many different ways to convey meaning in writing.
This belief propelled me to think about how I would utilize reading and writing in the
classroom.
In my quest for materials that would connect literature and composition, I found many
different resources. There is a book that seems to support my goals. It is entitled
Literature for Composition. I read through several different sections in the book, but the
most helpful sections in the book were in the first chapter. In the first section “The Writer
as Reader”, the instructions explain the importance of interpreting a text and tries to
establish a connection between the reader and the writer. An example of this is the
passage “A writer writes, sets forth his or her meaning and attempts to guide the reader’s
responses” (4). The section goes on to explain what reasonable inferences are and how
they can be recorded to start the writing process. The next section, “The Reader as
Writer”, attempts to explain to the student how he or she can manifest their ideas into a
text that expresses feelings, creates an argument, or explains a topic. There are
explanations as to what the different forms of writing are and what they seek to
accomplish. Each section in the book is very informative and clear. I believe it would
serve as a good textbook for a freshmen English course.
Though there is possibly no resolution in sight over whether literature should be
included in the composition course, I believe there should be some form of unification
between the two. As a teacher, I would like to accomplish both tasks with my studentstheir exposure to different literary texts could expand their ideas and, in turn, progress
their writing. Though literature and composition may have different “ends”, their means
to the end should intersect.
Works Cited
Barnett, Sylvan, William Burto, William Cain, etc. Literature for Composition: Essays,
Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Longman Publishers, New York (2003) p. 3-27
Berlin, James “Writing Instruction in School and College English”. A Short History of
Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Twentieth-Century America, Hermagoras
Press (1990) p. 183-219
Kuriloff, Peshe. “Writing Across the Curriculum and the Future of Freshmen English: A
Dialogue Between Literature and Composition”. ADE Bulletin. (1991) p. 1-9
Schneider, Amy. “Bad Blood in the English Department: The Rift Between Composition
and Literature” The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Feb 1998) A14-A16
Tate, Gary. “A Place for Literature in Freshmen Composition”. College English. NCTE
(1993) p. 317-321
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Lit vs. Comp - Rhetoric and Composition