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writing about world literature

As writing teachers we tend to underestimate how our assignments limit or enable our students’ ability to write effectively.  Ideally, I’d like students to move beyond the standard academic paper structured around a thesis, to use writing to explore their ideas on a topic and make unexpected connections….. But as other adjunct bloggers have noted, their high school educations have left them unprepared to engage in this kind of inquiry. Many of them can’t write sentences, forget about elaborating a connection between X and Z. Getting them to come up with a thesis is an accomplishment. It’s gotten to the point where I scan students’ papers for an argument to decide my grade. If it has one, it’s automatically a B or higher.

Teaching “Writing about World Literature,” a course that fulfills an English Composition II Pathways requirement and guides students through the process of writing research papers, will be an opportunity for me to retool my pedagogy. Unlike the comparative literature courses that I usually teach, the focus of this course will be on writing; literature will be the vehicle through which students will become academic writers. I have assigned three short papers –on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, and Proust’s Swann’s Way– and a longer one that addresses two novels and requires research.  I’m hoping that this “scaffolding” method will prepare them to think inductively. The longer paper can build upon the ideas they have explored in the shorter papers, and the research can help them support and refine their insights.

Instead of asking students to compare/contrast the representation of such-and-such a topic– a paper that never produces any original insights, usually resulting in a compendium of similarities and differences– I will ask them to use literature to investigate a topic of their choice, paying more attention to form than to content. How does a stream-of-consciousness technique express a character’s identity? How do the writers make the topics– time and places, especially– characters? How does the temporality of a narrative reflect a writer’s philosophy of memory? Questions that require students to think beyond plot will result in more complex writing. Since I have only nine students in this class, I can give them the individual help they need….One is an exchange student from India who’s very insecure about her ability to read and write college-level English.

On the first day of class I gave them a taste of Proust (we read the first paragraph of Swann’s Way) and talked about modernism, Freud, Einstein. They offered many examples of movies with modernist themes and techniques.  Orally, they are very good thinkers. But the real challenge will begin when they start writing.

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