Once more, with feeling

By Joe Anderson

Loren shared a recent New York Times article with me by Claire Needell Hollander about the danger of assigning texts without feeling. She calls these types of reading “agnostic texts.” In order to meet the needs of The Common Core, these texts are accessible regardless of student backgrounds. This universality, Holland argues, means students are interacting with texts largely devoid of feeling.

This spring, I worked with a high school student on her final paper for her sophomore English class. The assignment tasked her with explaining what book she would remove from the sophomore curriculum, what current book in the curriculum would be required for all sophomores and what outside text she would add.

I am a big fan of the assignment’s design. It asks important questions that I rarely see in my work with high school students: what purpose does literature serve? Does good literature have an obligation to explore themes of morality? What makes something a classic? These are questions that facilitate critical thinking if students feel something—anything! —toward the texts in question.

As someone who teaches college composition, I’m not comfortable assigning literature-based assignments. I suppose this aligns me with Erika Lindemann in the much-discussed Tate-Lindemann debate about whether literature has any place in the first-year writing classroom. Obviously, I don’t dislike literature.  I love it. I’m always down to discuss why Donald Bartholeme’s The School is the pinnacle of short-form storytelling. If I have a few drinks in me, this is a discussion that is going to happen unprovoked.

My hesitancy to use literature is instead, pragmatic. If a course is designed to equip students with the rhetorical foundation to write in myriad disciplines, there are simply better options than writing analyses of poetry and fiction. That said, I don’t pick texts and design writing assignments just because they satisfy learning objectives. They also have to be engaging. To Hollander’s point, this engagement usually stems from some emotional response.

For me, I know I’ve picked a lackluster reading when opposing opinions emerge during class and this what the “debate” looks like:

And let me be clear: an emotional response isn’t limited to loving a reading or somehow being “moved.” I love it when I see frustration and vehement disagreement in a student’s response to an author’s argument. Granted, I’m not setting out to frustrate my students; it would be fantastic if students loved every reading I assigned. But some of the best writing I have received from students involved responses to something they couldn’t stand.

I think it’s important that first-year college students gain experience writing in a variety of genres. Last fall, my students analyzed the genre of film reviews and wrote their own. Before choosing their film, we watched Don Hertzfeldt’s short film The Meaning of Life and wrote reviews in class for practice.

Oh man, they hated it. At first, I was a little bummed; I love Hertzfeldt’s work and I think Life is a brilliant 12-minute ride. I was sad to see they didn’t feel the same way. But the writing I received at the end of class was great. It was candid. It was mercurial. It was perfect.

Because they felt something.

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