Considering the Rhetorical Situation: Teaching Literature and Composition at a Community College

Note: PALS welcomes guest blogger Catherine Hostetter and her reflections on teaching literature in second semester composition courses at community colleges. Teaching at a community college presents both opportunities and challenges that often differ from four-year institutions. This guest post outlines the interactions between literature and composition in such spaces and provides tips on incorporating lessons and activities about writing in the literature classroom that will prove useful to instructors in a variety of classroom settings. 

Community colleges play a critical role in higher education. By providing people with the opportunity to obtain an affordable, quality education, these institutions become an attractive option to many students who either want to complete an associate’s degree or save money before transferring to a four-year school.  This commitment to helping people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, receive an education is what first lured me to teaching at community colleges. Since 2009, I have worked at a variety of two-year institutions as an adjunct instructor, a full-time instructor, and, most recently, an instructional support specialist. I have had the opportunity to teach composition classes that critically analyze literature in each of these roles; therefore, I want to share some of my observations and experiences with the unique “rhetorical situation” of teaching literature at the community college. Using the key features of the rhetorical situation as defined by my composition spirit animal The Purdue Online Writing Lab, I will explore how community college students enter the classroom with very different purposes and past experiences that must be considered when designing the course’s content and structure.

Purpose

I have a confession: I never actually took a course in college that would be considered the equivalent to the ENG 102: Literature and Composition class I now teach. I tested out of it with my AP English score and dived right into taking survey of literature courses. This means that I have never taken an English course that I didn’t voluntarily sign up for. The majority of students I work with when teaching Literature and Composition have the exact opposite experience; more often than not, they are taking this course to simply fulfill a requirement before graduating or transferring.

During the first week of my online Literature and Composition course this semester, I asked students to introduce themselves to the class and answer several questions, including why they had signed up for the course. Out of the 22 students who completed the assignment, 14 explicitly stated that they were taking the course because it was a requirement for their program, it was one of the remaining classes they needed to graduate, or it was a course that would transfer for credit at a four-year school. These students not only have different motivations than a typical English major for taking a course, but they also have different past experiences, both positive and negative, with reading and writing.

As an instructor, I view these potential challenges as an important opportunity: I have the ability to change some students’ minds about literature, to help nurture other students’ enjoyment of reading, or, at the very least, to improve all of my students’ abilities to communicate effectively through writing. In order to create an environment in which students learn the required outcomes without becoming overwhelmed, I pay special attention to the pacing of the course when developing my syllabus. I try to assign a reasonable amount of weekly readings so that we have enough time to thoroughly examine each text.

Audience

One reason I love teaching at community colleges is the students. Each class gives me the chance to access a wealth of life experiences from a diverse group of people.  And I mean diverse in every sense of the word—because of its dedication to open access and affordable education, community colleges attract students of different ages, genders, races or ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic statuses. This diversity can foster unique opportunities a traditional classroom may not experience. For example, this semester, one of my returning adult students shared his memories from the Vietnam War era in response to a discussion post about Yosef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It.”

This student discussed the difficulty of watching young people both go to and return home from the war. He was also the one to note that Komunyakaa was actually the age of most traditional students when he went to Vietnam. His observation was reflected on by three other students, who were all able to think about the poem in a new way after considering what it might be like to go to war at such a young age. This sharing of personal experiences from a variety of time periods creates a learning opportunity that simply could not exist when teaching a class with similarly aged students.

While teaching a diverse group of students is often very rewarding, it can also make teaching writing more challenging. Many students take a few courses at a community college, leave, and then come back years later. Returning nontraditional students enrolled in English 102 could have successfully completed English 101 five, ten, or even fifteen years ago. These students may not remember how to properly write an essay. Other students may not have been on a track in high school that covered the type of writing a literature course in college requires. I am currently working with a young woman who went to a vocational-technical high school. While there, she trained to become a hair stylist which gave her the opportunity to start working right after graduation. After a few years, she made the decision to enroll at the community college to pursue a degree in accounting and is now writing at a level that wasn’t a part of her high school curriculum. As she said to me a few weeks ago during a tutoring session, “We never did any of this type of stuff.” This comment reflects a similar one made by my coworker earlier in the year: “This [class, Literature and Composition,] may be the only time our students ever read a poem.” Because of this reality, teaching Literature and Composition has forced me to move beyond my own preconceived notions of what students should “know” when they enter the classroom. I always review the basic parts of an essay during the class’s first week before moving into a general introduction on how to read plays, poetry, and short fiction. This way, students immediately engage with the materials covered in their previous composition courses and understand my expectations, before they begin to apply these concepts to reading and writing about literature.

Context

When developing my syllabus and schedule, I make sure there is class time devoted to explicit writing instruction, not just in the beginning of the course, but throughout the entire semester. Most weeks I assign one page writing responses (which take the form of weekly discussion posts in my online class) that allow students to engage with the assigned readings through a low stakes form of writing. The writing responses’ prompts are very diverse; I have assigned topics that range from writing a summary and reflection of a specific scene in “The Glass Menagerie” to writing about a snow day using the style and voice of Hemingway or Faulkner.

But, really, how would one of these guys fictionalize your snow day?

What I love about this assignment is that I can adjust the week’s prompt to fit the needs of a specific class. If a class is having difficulty analyzing poetry, for instance, the week’s writing response can require students to practice analyzing specific lines of poetry. This semester, one student analyzed the lines “The wilderness rose up to it / And sprawled around, no longer wild” (5-6) from “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens when responding to this prompt. This student wrote a well-developed paragraph that not only effectively explained the connotation of these lines, but that also allowed him to work through his initial confusion (Is this really a story about a jar in Tennessee? What is its theme?) when first reading the poem. Writing responses also give me the opportunity to provide students with additional individualized feedback, which is critical for a student to improve their writing skills.

When introducing students to the often alien worlds of drama, fiction, and poetry, I’ve found that one of the most helpful—and often the most fun—ways to get students involved and to help them understand a text’s themes is through assigning discussion leaders, which is a strategy my upper-level literature instructors used. Each week, different students take ownership of an assigned reading by sharing two comments and two questions about it with the class. There are many benefits to this very simple assignment: the authority in the classroom shifts from the instructor to the student, who must closely examine the text, take ownership of his or her ideas, and present those ideas effectively to his or her peers. Because most students have not previously read these texts, they approach the content with fresh eyes and different experiences, sometimes in ways that I had not previously considered.

I have one more confession: while I truly enjoy teaching composition, certainly enough to make it the focus of my career, some of my favorite teaching moments have happened when I witnessed students getting literature. During my second year of teaching, I asked a class for two volunteers to read a scene from David Mamet’s Oleanna. One student, a kind-natured, soft-spoken young man, raised his hand and volunteered to read the role of John. Clearing his throat and sitting up straight, the student immediately started to read the assigned lines in a booming voice, several octaves below his natural tone. His classmate, reading the role of Carol, matched his enthusiasm to create a true performance, which became a real representation of how two actors might perform that scene. When they finished reading, the rest of the class broke out in applause, causing that student to stand up and bow before successfully explaining the scene’s main conflict.

Jimmyfallon

My other spirit animal, Jimmy Fallon, perfectly captures how I feel at that moment in the semester when students begin to truly understand how to critically analyze literature.

 

Contributor Bio:

Catherine Hostetter is the Instructional Support Specialist for the English department at Middlesex Community College in Middletown, Connecticut. Her current role focuses on providing support for developmental students through teaching noncredit workshops, serving as a supplemental instructor in embedded and intensive composition courses, and tutoring students. In addition to these responsibilities, she teaches one English 102: Composition and Literature course online each semester.

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