Group Papers to Balance the Teaching of Writing and Literature: Featuring Philip Freneau’s “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia”

I value writing as a learning tool, perhaps one of the most important learning tools. Whether short reflective assignments or responses to prompts or papers that carry an argument, my goal is to help students write their way through understandings of texts. However, having students do a lot of formal writing in non-writing intensive courses can be challenging, depending on the varying class sizes and course loads of different institutions. And, of course it is not assigning the writing or having students complete it or even grading it that is challenging, but giving substantive feedback on each assignment.

My literature classes, as is the case with many literature classes, spend quite a bit of time close reading texts. I work with my students to make them better close readers, but students struggle with the transition from verbal close reading discussions to the close reading that takes place in literary analysis papers. These practices are not different regarding the development of ideas or the ways we use the text. It is the linear organization, clear articulation of ideas and an argument, and how to reference the text while avoiding excessive summary that becomes the real challenge as students move from the verbal to the written.

In literature classes, if the purpose of the writing assignment is to make sure students are reading and/or thinking about the reading, then brief feedback is completely adequate. When I ask my students to write a paper, on the other hand, my personal expectations are that I will spend time responding to their writing and help them become better writers. This is where group papers come in handy.

In my Introduction to American literature course, we devote an entire week twice during the semester to in class group papers, once for writing about verse and once for writing about prose. These papers are short, two-page close readings. It took me a while to work out the specifics of this process—some trial and error in a few different settings, including group papers in writing classes—and I now have something I am very confident with.

While the novel changes from semester to semester, I continue to use Philip Freneau’s poem “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia.” This specific poem seems to be more easily accessible to students for their first formal close reading paper. In my experience, students’ knowledge of history is uneven, but they share a solid knowledge base when it comes to the American Revolution and George Washington. This enables students to move more quickly past the “what’s happening in the poem” into the “how’s it being described.”

Day 1

Before we start the group papers, I like to give students some context for understanding the poem because we do not discuss it as a class before they write about it. I choose not to discuss it beforehand because I don’t want to lead students to forced readings of the poem and I do not want them all trying to fit every stanza of the poem into some agreed upon class interpretation. I

Philip Freneau
Image from Princeton’s Rare Books Collection

do, however, want them to understand Freneau as a poet. So, we read and briefly discuss another of his poems, “A Political Litany.” I set the two poems up as pre-Revolutionary War and post-Revolutionary War. I find that this initial introduction to Freneau, through his satirical poem that targets the British Monarchy, prepares students to better interpret the way the British are framed in “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia.” At this point in the semester, students have already been introduced to occasional poetry, but I also provide them with a brief reminder of its purposes.

After our short intro to Freneau and discussion, I break the students up into groups of three or four students, depending on the size of the class. For the prose paper, I give each group a different page to choose a passage from the novel we are reading; for the verse paper, I assign each group one or two stanzas from Freneau’s poem.

Although the groups have their individual piece of text to focus on, we move as a class through this process.

  • First, I have them annotate the text. Out come laptops and smart phones as students start looking up words and debating which meaning best applies to the context. My students aren’t magical; more often than not, they do not look words up when doing the assigned readings at home, but give them some class time and watch the magic.
  • Second, I ask them to identify the pieces of their annotations that stand out the most to them, whether it is patterns or ideas. From this, they decide which elements they want to focus on in their papers and start writing. If someone in the group has a laptop, then she/he is the typist; if not, one will student will write it out for the group and another will take it home and type it up.

While students are annotating, discussing, and writing these group papers, I move from group to group, checking in with them. I ask them questions about their stanzas and then about their annotations and eventually about the direction of their writing. For instance, students tend to be comfortable identifying the personification of “Freedom” (ln 8) and “Fame” (ln 14), so I really push them to explore what that does to the poem from its delivery to the content associated with them. Or, in stanza 5, I ask that group to identify who the speaker’s “their,” “thy,” and “thine” are referring to, the British or George Washington.  Having the time and ability to work with students as they are in the wonderful throes of writing allows me to explain elements of writing about literature much more directly and within the context of that writing taking place.

Day 2

I have students email me their group papers before class. I pull the papers up on the projector, turn on Word’s track changes, and we work on feedback together. In a class of 30, I have roughly 7-8 papers. So, we spend 7-8 minutes on each paper. Students get to see and participate in this feedback on their own and their classmates papers, which helps them in several ways. First, the repetition of giving similar types of feedback across the papers reinforces certain writing expectations. Next, the moments where each group did something distinct opens up possibilities or different ways of approaching the poem that they had not thought about in their groups. Finally, they are able to add to the other groups’ interpretations, continuing the collaborative process from the previous class period and showing how much further the close readings can be taken.

We, ultimately, have more time for this piece in a MWF class, than in the TR classes because we can spend the entire class period going over their papers. However, I typically scale back or cut day 3 from my TR version of the course, instead of day 2. If we do not make it through all the papers during the class period, I will finish them afterwards and add some additional comments to the ones we did discuss before emailing them back to their groups.

These first two days in the group paper writing process provide the one-on-one conference experience with the workshop writing model. Students have support from each other as they work through how to write about literature in the group setting. I am able to keep them on track with their writing and help them avoid the pitfall of too much summary. I give extensive feedback on 8 drafts, instead of 30, and I do much of it with the students themselves. And, by the end of it all, we have still discussed and worked our way through the poem.

Day 3 (aka bonus day for MWF sections)

Once we have shared the papers, we look for overlapping or related concepts. As a class, we develop possible thesis statements for longer literary analysis papers that might include a few of those close reading papers as evidence, and we consider the best organization of that evidence. For example, some group papers supported a larger argument about the poem foreshadowing George Washington’s future, others focused on the response to the British in the poem, and still others discussed an emerging critique of slavery.

We also spend time talking about the group papers that appear to be in direct contrast with one another. This is also very valuable for students in terms of developing ideas through writing and in showing why there isn’t necessarily a right answer.  We also critique which paper appears to be better supported and what it would other sections of the poem might strengthen the weaker argument.

I do find this piece to be valuable, and in the TR version, I try to save 10-20 minutes for it just to get students’ minds headed in this direction. I would like to reiterate that the activities from the first two days are the most important for students in the group paper process, even though day 3 is probably the most interesting for us as teachers and lovers of arguments.

This collaborative process enables me to coach students on their writing, while working with the class to model how students might develop their own individual papers for the class and future assignments that ask them to write about literature. If we are going to expect a specific type of writing out of our students, then we need to make the time to help them succeed with that writing.

Teaching Transatlantic Influence

PALS Note: Pedagogy and American Literature Studies is pleased to feature its first piece by a guest contributor. Caitlin L. Kelly is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Caitlin writes from the perspective of a teacher and scholar of British literature of the Long Eighteenth Century. PALS is excited to highlight this perspective of transatlantic literature and we relish the opportunity of featuring a guest piece challenging us, as Americanists, to (re)consider how we think of transatlantic literature in our own teaching. Caitlin’s piece operates within the paradigm of the study of transatlantic literature from the perspective of a scholar & teacher of British literature-a fact which allows us to consider the vexing questions of transatlantic literature from a perspective different from our Americanist roots and training. PALS looks forward to continuing conversations about American, British, and transatlantic literature in the coming weeks once we return from the semester break.

In discussions with my Americanist colleagues (my research focuses on British literature and culture of the Long Eighteenth Century), I find that we are often thinking about the same texts in very different ways. For example, recently I was talking with one of this blog’s contributors about Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. The novel is one of my own favorites: I’m currently writing an article on the role of devotional practice in it and I teach it (yes, in freshman courses) as often as I can. Part of the story I tell when I introduce the novel is, of course, about its role in the development of the genre. Though its status as the “first novel in English” is certainly up for debate, Pamela is nonetheless a foundational text in the history of the novel in English. Consequently, Richardson’s novel also shows up in my colleague’s research and teaching as a deeply influential figure in the formation of American literature and of America itself. Indeed, as G.J.  Barker-Benfield notes, Richardson’s influence extended across the Atlantic “where it suffused early American fiction as well as the fiction that continued to be imported from Britain in quantity” (50).

Given my specialization, I often joke with my colleagues who study and teach early American literature that they are really teaching in my area, in British literature. There is a legitimate question at hand though: what do we consider “American” literature and when does it emerge? In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson bemoaned the lack of a distinctly American tradition, writing in “The American Scholar” that “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” And he wasn’t alone, of course. Walt Whitman sets out to be the first great American poet in Leaves of Grass and James Fenimore Cooper’s novels embody the idea of American individualism. But what do we do with literature written before this movement toward developing a distinctly “American” canon? What do we do with literature that was produced in England but devoured by colonists and early Americans  who still considered themselves as a part of an English literary tradition?

These questions, among others that I will raise in this post, have been on my mind quite a bit lately, especially as I think about Samuel Richardson’s novels. And, thanks to conversations I’ve had  with Americanist colleagues about early American literature, I increasingly find myself thinking about Richardson’s work in a transatlantic context. Each time I teach Pamela, I  find myself talking with my students more and more about its reception in colonial and early America. My students are almost always surprised to

Pamela Ben Franklin
Title page of  Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, fifth edition, two volumes as printed by Benjamin Franklin. Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia (photography via the American Antiquarian Society).

learn that Pamela was the first novel printed in America–by Benjamin Franklin no less–and it was also beloved by John and Abigail Adams. Abigail adored Richardson so much that she joked with John during their courtship that he was falling “short of the standard epitomized by [the hero of Richardson’s final novel] Sir Charles” (Barker-Benfield 51). In 1804, John would draw on Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, stating that “‘Democracy is Lovelace and the people are Clarissa’” (Barker-Benfield 51). As Lovelace represented unrestrained passion and Clarissa his victim, Adam’s perhaps surprising literary analogy was a warning against a completely unchecked, unfettered democracy that seemed to be emerging in the years following his presidency (Fliegelman 237).

Abigail Adams. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Both of the Adamses found in Richardson’s heroes and heroines models of good character and virtue–and, by extension, good citizenship. But in looking to Richardson for those models, the Adamses were looking back, not forward. As David McCullough notes, the Adamses were ambassadors to London at a time when “James Boswell could still be seen on occasion holding forth at the Globe Tavern on Fleet Street; the novelist Fanny Burney was soon to become a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte; Richard Brinsley Sheridan was still part owner and manager of the famous Drury Lane Theater” (342). When Abigail wrote of Pamela to Lucy Cranch, she admitted that even while Richardson has pushed the limits of realism too far in places, for those “who have been conversant in these old corrupted countries, will be soon convinced that Richardson painted only the truth in his abandoned characters” (Barker-Benfield 53). Despite this literati on their doorstep, the Adamses remained enamored by writers who “were all

John Adams. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

dead and gone”: Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, and Samuel Johnson (McCullough 342). Of course, we can’t forget that the future President and First Lady were also deeply influenced by Richardson’s epistolary style. In the early days of the republic, Abigail and John were often separated and their relationship was grounded in the letters they wrote to one another during that time. Abigail, as McCullough notes, looked to Richardson as her model for letter writing and acknowledged his influence on her (339).

In the way that the Adamses drew upon Richardson’s novels, we see them living their private and political lives through the lens of his characters, making these foundational English novels foundational to American literature and history as well. Like I said earlier, students are always a bit taken aback by these American connections, and it certainly makes sense given the way that “American Literature” versus “British Literature” is set up as a binary in almost all high school and college curricula. And, of course, the binary is only reinforced by the traditional separation of “American” and “British” literatures in most post-secondary curricula. While it is true that our approach to the intersections and overlaps between “American” and “British” literatures has become more nuanced with the use of terms like “Transatlantic literature” and “Hemispheric literature,” we have a way to go. In the case of the Adamses and Samuel Richardson, a novel like Pamela fits a transatlantic context mostly in terms of its influence (the story is set and takes place entirely in England), and that’s not necessarily how we think of transatlanticism in our research. So how do we think about transatlantic influences? And, more importantly,

How do we teach transatlantic influences within the boundaries of introductory courses like surveys that are defined in national terms?

I wanted to pose this question here because I am an outsider as a specialist in British literature. I am troubled by this question of teaching transatlantic influence because I–like most of you– am a product of the system that creates the problem. Because of that system, I have never taught a course in American Literature. While we all take courses “outside” our field at some point, we generally sort ourselves into two groups pretty early: people who study American literature and people who study British literature. And, by the end of graduate school, we have become people who teach Introduction to American Literature and people who teach Introduction to British Literature. Finally, we become people who apply for jobs in American literature and British literature. This begs another question:

If the division between American and British literatures begins in the undergraduate survey course and is reinforced throughout our scholarly training, what is the effect on our teaching and on our students?

While I don’t have an answer to this question or any of the others I’ve raised, I think these are questions that are well suited to the purpose of this blog–and I think that this blog is the kind of space where we can work toward answers to it. I hope that this post will spark a conversation that includes teacher-scholars who teach under all of the banners of the undergraduate curriculum: American, British, and Transatlantic/Hemispheric. These conversations, after all, can change the way that we teach and, in so doing, move us toward a truly Transatlantic and Hemispheric paradigm in literary studies.

Works Cited

Barker-Benfield, G.J. Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

“Benjamin Franklin: Book Publisher.” The Library Company of Philadelphia. Web. 2006.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” Digital Emerson: A Collective Archive. Washington State University. 30 November 2015.

Fliegelman, Jay. Pilgrims and Prodigals: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Contributor Bio:

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. At Georgia Tech, she teaches literature-based multimodal composition courses and serves as a Professional Tutor in the Communication Center. Along with research interests in religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, Caitlin is interested in digital pedagogy and the relationship between writing and literary studies. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.