“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.


Beyond the Literary Analysis Essay: Autobiographical Literary Criticism

vintage typewriter
So over the literary analysis essay.

I am so over the traditional literary analysis essay.

The thesis-driven literary analysis essays we assign in composition and introductory literature courses are difficult for even advanced undergraduate English majors to write. Think about it: We ask novice students to produce “original” (whatever that means in the undergraduate classroom) arguments about literature but to completely distance their writing from their personal responses to the text. Of course that results in subpar student writing that we dread to grade and that students hate to write. And let’s face it, the traditional literary analysis essay, even when assigned in college courses, can barely deviate from, and actually relies upon, the much-maligned five-paragraph essay format.

No student takes a literature class or becomes an English major because they want to write lab reports about literature. If we believe the value of the humanities comes from the transformative power of literature, reading, and writing, we should develop writing assignments that reflect and allow us to assess that. Indeed, several pedagogy-focused panels at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers conference highlighted instructors of American literature who regularly assign innovative alternatives to the traditional literary analysis essay. Essay prompts that depart from the literary analysis essay can still promote the deep, critical thinking about literature that supports our course and department student learning outcomes.

Autobiographical literary criticism is a genre of academic writing that weaves personal narrative, a type of reader response criticism, and textual analysis to allow students to come to deeper insights about literature. It crosses the boundaries between “criticism and narrative, experience and expression, literature and life.” With autobiographical literary criticism assignments, we provide students with the opportunity to be transparent about the values, “beliefs[,] and formative life experiences that inform their response” to and analysis of literature. While the format, topic, and structure may vary depending on your pedagogical aims, autobiographical literary criticism assignments integrate (but do not rely solely upon) personal narrative with the purpose of achieving deeper textual analysis and insight into literature.

Autobiographical Literary Criticism in a Capstone Course on American Transcendentalism

I recently assigned an autobiographical literary criticism essay in my capstone course for English majors entitled “Secrets, Lives, and Legacies of American Transcendentalism.” I developed the course after attending the 2017 NEH Summer Seminar on Transcendentalism. The course considered how lived experience formed the philosophy, writing, and creative expression of Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Autobiographical literary criticism seemed an especially appropriate method to probe the Transcendentalists, who, in their own writing, breached the boundaries of “criticism and narrative, experience and expression, literature and life.”

I assigned a 13-15 page autobiographical literary criticism essay as the final paper in the capstone course. Students were to focus on one author and primary text and “[c]ritically examine [your] own experiences in relation to a work of literature.” Although this assignment encouraged a more creative and personal approach to literary analysis, students were instructed that the essays still needed to include a thesis or “focusing” statement that would address what the literature is doing as a work of art or what it is trying to do in the world.  As I instructed the students, “Your thesis statement, or major claim, isn’t about you—it is ultimately about the literature. But your personal narrative can illuminate the significance of the literature (as well as your interpretation of it) for others, including, if relevant, your own students or future students.” The essays were to include layers of textual analysis, scholarly voices, and cultural/historical research stitched together with the student’s narrative voice.

Throughout the semester, the students had written several scaffolded assignments that they could integrate into their final essays including weekly response papers and a long book review of a literary biography of the author they were writing about. We used several class sessions to discuss and workshop the essays. I also provided examples of autobiographical literary criticism from the volumes The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism (Duke UP) and Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life (U North Texas P). I read my own autobiographical literary criticism in class not only to provide additional models of structure, organization, and format but also to cultivate trust and community among the students by sharing my own personal writing.

Student Responses to Autobiographical Literary Criticism

Students were excited by the opportunity to link their lives and experiences with the literature, but even the most enthusiastic struggled with incorporating personal narrative. A common lament from the class sounded something like this: “We’ve spent the past 15 years learning to not use ‘I’ or talk about personal opinions in our essays, and now you are telling us we have to!” Students had various levels of comfort revealing personal responses and finding authentic ways to connect personally with the literature. Showing them several models and approaches helped, and I gave them the option of deciding how and to what extent to use personal narrative in their essays; some wove it throughout, others used it to frame the introduction and conclusion, while others limited it to just one section of the essay.

One student wrote that he initially hated Thoreau but came to love Walden after our class hike at a local pond, our 21st-century, rural Texas version of a Walden experience. Another student wrote about her struggles with her family’s sexism and her goal to become a writer in relation to Margaret Fuller’s strict, patriarchal upbringing and authorial aims. An essay by a devout Catholic student compared her spiritual diary with the religious practice expressed by Mary Moody Emerson in her Almanacks. The president of our campus’s student environmental organization wrote an essay that examined how Thoreau’s life and writing can guide environmental activism today. And one student narrated her journey from business major to English major through the lens of Emerson’s Nature. This assignment pushed many students to original and unexpected insights about literature, such as the student who passionately developed her claim that Louisa May Alcott, although sometimes a harsh critic of Transcendentalism, was the most “transcendental” of all the Transcendentalists.

Overall, the students said they liked writing the autobiographical literary criticism essay and were proud of the writing they produced. Those who struggled with integrating personal narrative admitted that they usually have difficulty with developing content in general, no matter the assignment. Like all essays of this length, some students had issues with cohesion and sustaining consistent prose and ideas throughout the essay. But overall, I was satisfied with the high level of sophistication in terms of content, structure, and writing style that the autobiographical literary criticism assignment inspired. Students produced essays that made claims about literature, demonstrated textual analysis, and commented on the significance of literature in their lives and in the world. What more can we ask for as teachers of American literature?

Would I Assign it Again? Yes!

Compared to traditional literary analysis essays, I found these essays easier to read and more enjoyable—yes, I said enjoyable!— to grade. I plan to assign a shorter autobiographical literary criticism essay in the 300-level class I will teach this coming semester, and I realize that if I ever assign this type of essay at the introductory level, I would have to spend a lot of time helping students balance personal narrative with textual analysis. Assigning autobiographical literary criticism as an alternative to the traditional literary analysis essay was a success, and I encourage others to experiment with this genre in their own teaching and writing. I am creating online resources and plan to organize a Google chat about teaching and writing autobiographical literary criticism later this spring. Please contact me if you would like to participate!