On Teaching Literature in a Composition Class

Recently, I came across a splendid image of a figure ensconced in the pages of a book, sleeping soundly, presumably dreaming the wonders of printed words.  Quint Buchholz’s “Nachts Mit Buch.”  It reminds me of the many times I’ve read myself to sleep with a good book.  Right now, I’m reading Herman Melville’s Typee–a sea journey story of the South Pacific. Like the novelist Joseph Conrad, Melville was a seaman and knew sea vessels and their crews.  The writing is amazing and spurs the imagination.  It’s impossible not to dream about far off lands, tattooed peoples, and other ways of being, as Ludwig Wittgenstein says, other “forms of life.”

All this comes at a time when I’ve been reconsidering my freshman composition course.  Typically, I’ve focused on argumentative essays and the “moves” of academic writing.  Sound familiar?  Gerald Graff, David Bartholomae, et al, folks who I admire.  The first-year composition class that I teach is supposed to strictly focus on nonfiction.  But I’ve been re-thinking the role of literary fiction in composition.  Why?  Students want to be creative and imaginative but often don’t know how or don’t have opportunities to do so.  Alas, the hazards of a banking concept of education.  How deadening.  We really have no business complaining about student preparation when the system is broken.  However, I’m not sure the standard nonfiction anthology pieces–the sort of things published in Harper’s or The New Yorker–inspire creative freedom in the ways that good fiction does.  Of course, this is a contestable issue.

What engages freshman students?  What makes them feel smart, empowered, and alive?  What inspires them to read and write?  How can they become dreamers and day-dreamers, not the zombies they watch in movies and television?

Perhaps Helen Vendler is right–“What We Have Loved, Others Will Love.”  And perhaps Walter Pater is right when he says:

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions….

So how do we encourage college freshmen to “burn with that hard, gem-like flame”?  In other words, how do we help those who dislike reading and writing to respond affectively to aesthetic materials?  I worry about whether my students ever experience the ecstasy of the sublime–music, painting, literature.  How can I usher them into dreamworlds of alternative realities?

Perhaps an answer is teaching literary fiction in a composition class, inviting students to be the figure who curls up in the warm pages of a book, securing solace in profound words, like the sleeping dreamer of Buchholz’s art…

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