Teaching as Text - the Pedagogy Seminar: LIT 730, Teaching Composition

Article excerpt

Course Design

Course Description

LIT 730: Teaching Composition is a three-credit graduate seminar in American University's Department of Literature for masters-degree students interested in teaching composition. The Literature Department offers both an MA in Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing, and attracts applicants with a flexible "teaching concentration" option as part of their foursemester MA and five-semester MFA course work. The seminar functions as both a course in Composition Studies and an introduction to pedagogy for fifteen graduate students each fall.

Institutional Context

American University (AU) is a private, four-year, research-oriented institution located in a leafy northwest residential section of Washington, DC. Many of its 6800 undergraduate students come to the university for its location in the nation's capital, but virtually all of them must complete a two-course sequence of first-year composition (FYC) in the department's College Writing Program. With fifty-three master's and ten doctoral programs, American University also serves about 3600 grad students, with an additional 1700 students in its nationally-prominent law school. The Department of Literature has no PhD program and attracts grad students who either plan to continue on into doctoral studies elsewhere or hope to support themselves by teaching in high school or community college.

For such a department, with no PhD or rhetoric/ composition program, neither a TA-training class nor a full-blown composition theory course makes sense. LIT 730, like most such "orientation" courses, is not part of a series that gradually deepens students' exposure to the field but rather is a singular course that seeks to ground future practice in theory and provide an intellectual foundation for teaching. It combines a theory-oriented Composition Studies course and a practice-focused Teaching Writing course for graduate students who want to acquire knowledge that can be translated into marketable job skills. After LIT 730, they may gain practical experience in the department as literature class TAs, College Writing classroom interns working with a writing faculty mentor, or Writing Center interns working with students one-to-one. So, unlike the literature department's other courses in subject and purpose, LIT 730 operates in an adjunct intellectual space all its own. Fittingly, perhaps, I have taught it for ten years as adjunct faculty (in addition to my duties as full-time director of the Writing Center).

When I took on the moribund Teaching of Writing seminar in Fall, 2000, 1 maintained the standard survey-course approach that my predecessor had set up and turned to my own graduate school staples: Edward R J. Corbett, Nancy Myers, and Gary Tate's Writing Teacher's Sourcebook and Erika Lindemann's classic, comprehensive A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. But unlike my graduate school pedagogy course, LIT 730 is a stand-alone seminar, a one-shot survey that presents pressures for coverage. As Shelley Reid puts it, even as I stuffed the assignment list, "always there were more topics and tasks and articles, all waiting for me to cover them in my fifteenweek class" (15). And my frustration in trying to provide such "coverage" was matched by student frustration with the material. One student wrote in his end-of-semester reflection:1 "Weekly, it seemed I was bombarded with weighty discussions of the history and theory of composition and I reached a low point several weeks into the semester when I was forced to acknowledge in a journal entry that I had no idea what the readings were trying to say." My initial impulse to douse students in reading gave way as I realized how these MA and MFA candidates, though eager to teach, were frustrated "when faced with significant, challenging reading and writing assignments grounded in an unfamiliar field of study often devalued in part because of its association with pedagogy" (Belanger and Gruber 123). …