“Not to Drill, but to Create”: The Value of Service-Learning in a Transcendentalism-Themed Composition Course

PALS is very excited to have a guest post by LuElla D’Amico who teaches at the University of Incarnate Word in Texas. In this post, D’Amico explains the set up of her composition course which uses transcendentalism as a way to support students’ formation of a scholarly community. This community building and academic learning is further supported by a service learning component.

I theme the second course in our composition sequence at the University of Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio, Texas around the nineteenth-century philosophical movement of Transcendentalism. As an American literature scholar, this theme provides an ideal merging of the school’s social justice-oriented mission and approach to community service with my own research interests, and it is broad enough to provide numerous platforms for the students to write their research-based essays. In addition, it provides a framework for the freshman students to consider their roles as scholars embarking on a university experience where they have newfound independence both in the modes of thinking they encounter and the ways in which they organize their lives.  

My syllabus begins with the traditional Composition II objectives of teaching students how to analyze and mimic the ways academic communities engage in oral and written conversations about significant topics. It is within this framework that I suggest that the transcendentalists formed one of the first American academic communities and that the movement is thereby of worthwhile study in a course centered on academic discourse. The second paragraph of my syllabus states the following: “The transcendentalists were a group of nineteenth-century philosophers and thinkers who instigated transnational conversations about God, self, society, social justice, morality, community, education, nature, and activism. We will use transcendentalism as a platform to consider and craft our own arguments about these issues, and we will spend time pondering the legacy this movement continues to inspire. Finally, we will focus on how UIW’s Catholic mission intersects and diverges from transcendentalism’s goals.”

During the first week of the course, students read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (1837), and we spend significant time devoted to Emerson’s delineation of “Man Thinking” versus “The Bookworm.”

For Emerson, “Man Thinking” represents the active scholar, one whom “Nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory pictures. Him the past instructs. Him the future invites.” “Man,” (or “Woman Thinking,” as I and my students often substitute the phrasing) is energized. This type of scholar is ready to test, tackle, consider, and create new thoughts. Moreover, she or he is prepared to push boundaries and make changes to the world. 

This moniker is contrasted with that of the “Bookworm,” a person who becomes obsessed with others’ ideas rather than generating their own. For Emerson “Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” “Man (or Woman) Thinking” creates knowledge, while the bookworm imitates it. For students and faculty alike, Emerson’s language can at first seem esoteric, so the class spends time walking through the language of the essay together after I’ve lectured about the primary characteristics of the transcendentalist movement. Next, I encourage students to find individual quotes or short passages that speak to them from “The American Scholar” to share with the class. Although Emerson’s language holistically is difficult, it usually “feels beautiful” to students, and as we all know from visiting doctors’ waiting rooms or scrolling Facebook, it is quite quotable and easily digestible in chunks. Locating and discussing specific quotes helps students break down Emerson’s essay into intelligible parts, and it likewise teaches them about how the transcendentalist philosophy is apparent even via the level of language. The words on the page matter, but so, too, do the general feeling they invoke. In a larger class discussion, we parse the essay’s diction, and we work on reading comprehension skills, exercises that serve the students throughout the term. 

Ultimately, the irony of discussing the contrast Emerson sets up between “the Bookworm” and “Man Thinking” during the day within a typical university classroom setting as the sunshine streams through the windows is not lost on my students. In turn, it makes sense to them that in a course grounded in Transcendentalism that they would be required to be active outside of the classroom and to consider how that activity relates to the material that they are regularly reading and writing about as they begin to define themselves as scholars within the university.

During the second of the week of the semester, a representative from the Ettling Center for Civic Leadership and Sustainability at UIW visits the class to walk students through the practical methods and theoretical philosophy of conducting service learning at the university. To help students better consider how to become active scholars and not merely “Bookworms,” service learning is a vital element of this course. Therefore, I require students to spend 20 hours volunteering at the Headwaters at Incarnate Word, a 53-acre nature sanctuary that is the site of the Blue Hole, the source of the San Antonio River. The Headwaters is an Earth Care Ministry of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who founded UIW in 1881. Prior to volunteering, students are given an orientation about the history of the Headwaters and its connection to the Sisters, and they are introduced to the tenet within Catholic social teaching concerning caring for God’s creation by acting as stewards of the Earth.

During their visits, my composition students help with the Headwaters’ ecological restoration process—removing weeds, picking up litter, managing trails, and even planting and growing new plants. I consult with the Executive Director at the Headwaters to find out what the Headwaters most needs, and her orientation mentioned above relays to students the days, times, and activities that they can accomplish when volunteering throughout the semester. Because she is aware of the focus of the class, she even relates the Earth care mission of the Headwaters to Transcendentalism. Even though students are generally unaware of the service learning portion of the class prior to signing up for it, they understand the reasoning behind it because of the reading and discussion about Transcendentalism during the first week. I also think it is helpful to hear from experts besides myself about the value of service learning, the UIW mission, and its relationship to our readings and to their development as well-rounded intellectuals. 

Importantly, I feel I should mention, too, that I never let students volunteer alone. Rather, they must always go with a classmate, and they have in the past generally decided to choose dates when they could all volunteer together. In doing so, they coalesce into a community of scholar-practitioners. They have all read and written about similar material, and they inevitably end up discussing why they are volunteering and reflecting upon it.  

Each time they volunteer, I require students to write a reflection about the experience on our class WordPress blog. In these reflections, students must quote a transcendentalist essay we’ve read, so they can practice close reading and citation skills at the same time as they ruminate on their service-learning work. Otherwise, the parameters of the reflections are broad. The reflections must be 250-500 words, and students must consider each experience and its value to their development, whether that development be intellectual, social, or spiritual. In these writings, students have revealed that the most important moments are often the breaks they are allotted. It is during these breaks that complaints about their Fridays and Saturdays being spent volunteering rather than socializing or studying lead them to deeper discussions, discussions about whether the Transcendentalist philosophy still resonates, about whether nature does reveal different truths than the classroom, and about how Catholic social teaching converges with Transcendentalism through its attentiveness to the Earth. Moreover, those moments are when they get to know each other and create friendships that are diverse and often unexpected. 

Blue Hole at UIW

Here, it feels pertinent to mention that the Headwaters website specifies that the sanctuary was created for aesthetic and educational purposes but that it also has the intention to act “as a sanctuary where people are encouraged to reflect and find meaning in their connection with the Earth, themselves, and each other.” Volunteering at the Headwaters provides students just this opportunity. While UIW is a Catholic institution, its students come from various religious and social backgrounds, and this different environment naturally invites discussions about spirituality (or lack thereof) and its relationship to the students’ intellectual and practical pursuits. It provides the freshmen with an entryway to discuss the material of their lives and connect it with their academic goals, and the candor and consideration of our classroom discussions is always richer because of the relationships the students formed at the Headwaters. Students learn to appreciate each other. Rather than being worried about offending each other or phrasing an idea the wrong way, they give each other grace to speak and they seek to understand where the other party is coming from and why. 

In part, I think it is that students work together on a project outside of class that forces them to get to know each other in a setting that is tranquil—and that is made more tranquil for others because of their valuable work together there—that contributes to the heightened level of discussion. I also think that it is in part the texts that we read that helps foster deeper, more meaningful discussion. Optimism, and valuing each individual, is infused in Transcendentalist philosophy, and students seem almost primed to believe the best in each other based on our course reading. Thus, they ask one other to clarify, they build on one others’ ideas, and they seek points of commonality. They also do not obscure difference but rather recognize it and see it is as valuable in increasing their understanding of a particular subject and of one another. I can honestly state that the level of discussion at the end of this class is more nuanced than any class I have taught, and it is remarkable (and was frankly surprising to me) that such consequential, serious discussion is arrived at seemingly organically in a freshman-level, required writing course that most students are not necessarily looking forward to taking.

Ultimately, at the end of this course, students feel more deeply invested in their final research projects, in one another, and in the university as a whole. Their final essay prompt gives them the following charge: “Now is the time for you to think about becoming your own ‘American Scholar.’  What type of problem do you see as most troubling, perplexing, or energizing in the world today? What might be one way to think through this idea or problem? In the course of your research, you will form a thoughtful position about a topic of your choice, but it must be a topic that deals with both intellect and empathy—the mind and the heart. It’s time to solve and explore what matters most to you. In sum, use what we’ve discussed in class as a launching point and base for your own thoughts: create your scholarship. The next move is yours.” Students have tackled topics such as feminism in action movies, whether women should be allowed in the Catholic priesthood, innovation in search engine platforms, the value of Socratic education in K-12 schooling, veganism as ethical obligation, criminal justice reform, the need for suicide prevention services on campuses, and how graphic design can and should align with moral philosophy. Students, then, do truly match and construct their research and writing with their own interests and activist sympathies, and they are invigorated to write rather than seeing it as simply another task that needs to be checked off their to-do lists.

Although this course is designed around my institution, I think the core components of it are interchangeable. The course theme, the service-learning project, and the reflective discussions based on the readings and activities are platforms that could be used in any freshman writing course interested in pushing students to thoughtful consideration of their roles as emerging scholars in the academy. Of course, it seems fitting to end with Emerson who points out that universities “can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”


LuElla D’Amico is an Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of The Women’s and Gender Studies program at the University of the Incarnate Word. Her research focuses on girlhood and girl culture in early and nineteenth-century American literature, and she has edited a collection titled Girls’ Series Fiction in American Popular Culture. Her journal articles have appeared in Children’s Literature Association QuarterlyChildren’s Literature in EducationGirlhood Studies, and Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, among other venues. She is also “Year in Conferences” Director for ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, and she is President of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society.


Challenging Stale Writing Pedagogy and Treating Writing as Discovery: An Interview with John Warner

PALS is officially on summer hiatus, but we are interrupting our non-programming for some exciting programming. Below we have an interview with John Warner who has published two recent books, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. The interview was conducted by Ben Murphy, a PhD candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Please find below an excellent interview that discusses writing theories, academic careers, and much more.

June 17, 2019

“You will spend your whole life learning to write, and then you will die.” This peppy line from Jeff O’Neal, editor at Book Riot, reverberates through John Warner’s two recent books on writing, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins, 2018) and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing (Penguin Books, 2019). The memento mori channels John’s gifts as a veteran writer and teacher who draws from wise advisors past, personal experience in the classroom and at the keyboard, and a rigorously fresh approach to pedagogy and craft alike. Now the author of seven books, John has spent two decades teaching college-level writing across a range of roles and institutions. This background anchors his ongoing contributions for Insider Higher Ed, where his blog “Just Visiting” distills trends in pedagogy and policy. For tact and wisdom in the world of higher education, John has set himself apart as an expert commentator who wryly soldiers along in the trenches.

I spoke with John over the phone about his new books—about writing, teaching, and his career. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.


BJM: It’s unusual to publish two books so close together, especially when they focus on similar topics. How do you think about them in relation?  

JW: In my grandiose moments I say that Why They Can’t Write is my manifesto. It’s my Declaration of Independence from everything that doesn’t work in the world of writing instruction. And The Writer’s Practice is like the Constitution. The first lays out grievances and a rationale for what we need to do and why, and the other is a guide for carrying out that project: the how. Like the Constitution, I see this as a living document, a starting point which will evolve as users build their practices.

BJM: Did you plan on this pairing? What was production like? 

JW: Why They Can’t Write was the first book I conceived and the book I intended to write all along. But when I started shopping it around, I had this epiphany that I should do this other book. So, I ended up writing them simultaneously, jumping back and forth, which helped me. When one felt stale, I could move to the other; when I had an idea about how I wanted to describe writing instruction in Why They Can’t Write, I could immediately embody that instruction in The Writer’s Practice. All the material in The Writer’s Practice was pulled from teaching experience, but many of the activities had to fit a precise format, so the pivoting back and forth helped in that respect. That the books happened at the same time was not planned, but I’m incredibly grateful it came out that way.

BJM: A simultaneous revolution. This is a way of getting back to what the manifesto itself is all about. What exactly are you declaring independence from

JW: Each chapter in the first half of Why They Can’t Write is titled for a “problem.” The problem of standardization, the problem of assessment, the problem of folklore, and others. These are elements of writing instruction that we need to rethink. Some of the problems are about the atmosphere in which students are expected to learn, or simply about the pressure of school, even the expense of school. All these problems keep students from having the time and energy to practice a better, freer approach to writing. In Why They Can’t Write, for instance, I describe the portfolio I completed in my fifth-grade class and the sheer variety of forms I used: limerick, historical fiction, speculative fiction, a “for-sale” ad that featured by skateboard. In hindsight I’ve realized that this range of writing taught me to think in terms of audience, purpose, and genre—all lessons I could apply to school without a rigid set of writing rules. That’s the vision for liberation.

BJM: And your guide for moving forward from these problems?

JW: Yes, the trickier part is what this looks like—the governance of the constitution. The Writer’s Practice is my attempt to ground writing instruction in the kinds of experiences (as opposed to assignments) that help writers build their practices—the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits of mind, that writers embody. I want the focus on the doing (process) as opposed to the having done (the product). The book is getting into classes already and I’m getting great feedback, but even as I read it, I realize there’s more that we could do. In fact, it was written to give instructors room to adapt.

BJM: I want to hear more about the writer’s practice. Could you elaborate on a phrase that comes up in the books a lot. What does the phrase, “Writing as thinking” mean?

JW: To me, the base unit of writing is the idea. And actually, sometimes it’s not even an idea, maybe that’s too strong. It’s a notion—an idea in your brain and you think, this seems true, or this seems interesting. You start there. And the process of writing may reveal other ideas that link to that, or it may enhance that idea; or it may prove that the idea is faulty as far as you can tell. But when we start with an idea, we think through the implications. We follow the chain of thoughts, sometimes bound by logic, but sometimes bound by imagination or surprise. I may be writing on a topic and something from left field comes in and suddenly I see a relationship. I have this idea and I see what confirms or challenges it and head off in a new direction, arriving at the end with an altered idea. When students can do that, they develop a practice. Unfortunately, too much of schooling (as opposed to learning) involves students thinking they have to figure out everything they want to say before they start. In reality, writing is a process of discovery. Saying that “writing is thinking” honors discovery and that each of us has our own view of the world, that we are unique intelligences with unique things to say.

BJM: And I think that connects to another phrase that appears a lot. What do you mean by “reading like a writer”?

JW: Reading like a writer is, for me, the opposite of how many students have been trained to read. They’re accustomed to doing a narrow close reading. Not close reading in the analytical sense, but more like scanning to extract a nugget of information for an exam. That’s what reading often means: finding the pre-determined answer to perform understanding. It’s not a matter of what the text means for a student in particular or about what it might mean in a broad context; just about what information is in a passage according to some abstract state of mind. But reading like a writer considers not raw meaning so much as the creation of meaning—not only what a text means but how and why it means. My graduate degree is an MFA in creative writing, and this approach is built into my origins as a fiction writer. When I read something that blows me away, my first reaction is appreciation; my second reaction is to ask, “OK, how did the book do that?” And my third reaction is usually, “How can I steal that?”

BJM: So, you’re trying to help students build those habits, stealing and all?

JW: Exactly. In class we look at lots of examples. We’ll look at a movie review, for example. The first paragraph says something like, “I’ve never been a fan of Ryan Gosling, but I loved First Man.” I’ll ask the students: why? Why would a reviewer begin this way? The students figure it out quite quickly: “She’s letting us know her bias.” Then I push them to think about the structure. Why is this sentence here? Students decide that stating bias is a way for the writer to orient the reader. As a class we work paragraph by paragraph. From this simpler example we work up to more sophisticated genres, but they’re always looking for the same kinds of moves. I often invoke the Wizard of Oz metaphor to encourage students to look behind the curtain to see what a writer is doing and how it’s being done. What choices are being made and why? We even dig into the nitty gritty. For instance, do your students worry about whether they can use “I” or use contractions and stuff?

BJM: Yes, I encounter a list of “don’ts” that students have been drilled to avoid.

JW: For sure. But consider that stuff from the vantage of reading like a writer. We see that this reviewer, for instance, is using contractions. What is the choice being made? Or maybe the author is using slang or colloquial language. We’ll compare to an author who’s made different choices on these fronts. Students see the differences. The more they compare, the more familiar the patterns become. It isn’t immediate, as I said. Not like flipping a switch. But they get to a place where they can continue to teach themselves through this way of reading. That’s the goal.

BJM: It’s interesting that you mention bias. I’ve noticed that student awareness of bias—and their propensity to point it out—seems to be ramping up. But sometimes the lesson has been learned too well, or perhaps learned unevenly. Identifying bias becomes a way of delegitimizing argument. Do you see this with your students?

JW: Yes. Calling bias offers a way to impeach someone’s point without confronting it, as if identifying where someone is coming from or what someone assumes is disqualifying. Academic spaces need to reject that rhetoric. It’s not useful. If the goal of argument is to enlighten—to literally shed light—then that sort of rhetoric has no utility. At the same time, and I discuss this in both books, we have to confront the perils of objectivity. Or at least, the perils of perceived objectivity, where students think that writing should be “objective,” a kind of Spock-like “just the facts.” Standardized tests have a lot to do with this, because they’re aiming for an answer that’s going to hit a narrow target. But objectivity should not be the goal in argument. Fairness should be. Accuracy. Openness. I stress these values that inform the writer’s practice. We cite sources, for instance, not because the teacher is going to get on your case about plagiarism but because it offers transparency and honesty to an audience. If you embody these values, nobody will care how “objective” you are, because you will simply be good, you will be entertaining and useful. It’s never easy. You always fall short of fully embodying the values that matter. But if that’s where you aim, your process and the product will be better.

BJM: This goes back to writing as thinking, but I wanted to ask about writing and teaching writing now. Both books explore parts of the writing process that don’t involve forming any actual words —the off-the-page moments of mind-wandering while out walking the dog or taking a shower. Are these moments harder to come by in today’s distraction/attention economy?

JW: I face that challenge every day. I spend all day looking into my screen. I have Twitter open; my email. I may need to go read about the Chicago Blackhawks. That said, because writing is thinking, those moments of distraction do sometimes end up unlocking ideas. But you do need to focus, and I do think it might be harder for younger people who did not know the world before this level of connectivity. I started writing longhand and then with a typewriter. The computer I had in graduate school didn’t even have internet connectivity. So, I know what it feels like to be truly locked in. There’s a difference between ambient writing and thinking and, on the other hand, just wasting time; I can feel the difference. I try to give students experiences where they experience concentration and “flow.” One exercise comes from my graduate school professor, Robert Olen Butler, in his book From Where You Dream. It pushes you into a subconscious dreaming state. Once you get there, you can feel it—the deep, creative concertation. We work on this for thirty minutes or so. Students are shocked because they think only a few minutes have passed. Once they experience that feeling, they can learn to reproduce it.

BJM: Your mention of typewriters suggests that you’ve been writing and teaching for at least a few years. But you’ve also done a lot of other things, and you say in the books that your career has uniquely situated you with a perspective on writing. How?

JW: When it comes to academia, my career is a paradox. Never being on the tenure track exposed me to teaching tons of different classes. Classes at different schools, in different disciplines. And being off the tenure track also meant that nobody was watching me. I had room to experiment, which was both because of an intrinsic interest in teaching, but also a survival strategy. If you’re going to teach way too many students, like I did when I had over 150, you have to ask: how do I adapt without (over) compromising what is meaningful? This freedom and need to innovate was interesting and challenging. At the same time, I had to live a parallel life of writing outside of academia in order to make money. I wish I could say my path was intentional, but there’s no master plan. The question remains: how do I stay interested in work that will also fulfill financial needs? My path is shaped by continually answering this question. Because you will never feel like you’ve made it—like you’re at the end-point. Not when your book gets published, not when you get the tenure track job, or even tenure itself. Instead I focus on the difficult but more achievable goal of liking what I do on daily basis. If I can anticipate an interesting task, I’m good.

BJM: Do you have advice about how to get to that place?

JW: I’m not sure my path is replicable, but I have learned that it is important to say yes. If someone asks you to do something, and it seems even semi-interesting, just say yes. Start doing it. You can always say no later, and you will figure it out as you go. Blogging worked this way for me. I had no idea if I could do it, but I said yes and—over time—I figured it out. The blog then formed the core of Why They Can’t Write. So, while I consider myself very fortunate, many of the turns in my career happened because I said yes when I didn’t know where I was headed. It didn’t always work. I made some bad calls, but I learned from them. My advice is that if someone offers you an inch of daylight, grab it. We’re often surprised by what we can do when we’re forced to stretch.


What I so appreciate about John and his books is the passion for teaching that does not ignore the structural and systemic challenges of the profession. (This capacious perspective is nicely outlined in Ryan Boyd’s review of Why They Can’t Write, which first brought me to John’s work.) John can help educators foster better writers and thinkers, but he can also help us understand how common shortcomings in the classroom are the product of scarcity conditions rather than uninspired instructors or the oft-cited failings of “kids these days.” He provides ample practical assistance as well as essential reorientation—a generous yet clear-eyed approach that will bolster writers and writing teachers alike. As if it were even possible to be a writer without also being a teacher, or vice versa.


Ben Murphy is a Ph.D. candidate studying nineteenth-century literature, the history of science, and genre fiction at UNC-Chapel Hill. His research appears in Mississippi Quarterly andConfigurations. Other writing can be found at The Millions, The Chicago Review of Books, PopMatters, symploke, boundary2, Full Stop, Gulf Coast, and The Carolina Quarterly. For links, visit benjamin-murphy.com