Author: Hannah Taylor

Documenting the Moment

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I imagine some of you, like me, are having trouble focusing on academic work with all that’s going on in the world right now, and our students might feel similarly. How can we continue the intellectual work of our FYW courses when there is so much uncertainty in the world, paired with constant new information? One possible way to do this is to face it head on and assign a project that engages your students in conversations about the pandemic.

This could work many ways of course, but I wanted to suggest a short list of exercises that would develop writing skills and fit the goals of the course (and the course moves) while allowing students to process what’s going on around them.

  • Journaling: how are you feeling? How has your life changed? What are your sources of information? How are you staying connected with the outside world?
  • Collecting and evaluating sources: do some research on the virus. Whose voices do you trust/distrust, and why? How does new information change the way you think about your circumstances? Does it change the conversations you’re having with others?
  • Interviewing a classmate and reporting back: develop interview questions. How do you write about an interview? How do you contextualize their comments? When you circulate it among your peers, how do they interpret the interview? What new ideas emerge?

Each activity introduces questions of genre—what are the cues and features of the particular genre you’re writing in? What do genres of collection and documentation, like the journal or the interview, have in common? How do they differ? Likewise, each activity raises issues of mode and offers opportunities for multimodal composition. For example, how does a transcribed interview or quoted remark differ from a short video interview or an edited piece of audio from that interview? What’s at stake when we transform our encounters with the world into texts?

Do you have other ideas for how we might engage our students in (academic) conversations about the moment?

Finally, if you are interested and have time, you might want to read (or even circulate!) this article about a course at the University of Virginia where students are encouraged to “write it down” and keep a record of life during the pandemic.

Finding Materials Online

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One challenge of moving to online teaching so suddenly is the loss of access to certain materials and texts. Your students may not have the novels you plan to teach, and you can’t ask them all to purchase them. So what do you do? I’d love to hear more ideas on this in the comments, but I’ll offer a few suggestions here.

1) You could always cut down on the literary texts you plan to teach. FYW should be first and foremost about composition and production, rather than literary analysis. We unfortunately all have to sacrifice some parts of our syllabi right now and cannot expect our courses to run just as they were planned, so this may be an area for some difficult choices and cuts.

2) I understand that the first option isn’t so easy, or isn’t even possible, for many teachers who teach FYW concurrently with AP Literature or who have literature curriculum demands. So if you’re in that boat, let’s think about ways to find texts for free online. There are so many different places offering free or cheap e-books right now, so this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I wanted to give you a few places to look first:

a. The National Emergency Library “offers free public access to 2.5 million fully downloadable public domain books, which do not require waitlists to view.”
b. The New York Public Library’s website offers e-books and research guides.
c. The Boston Public Library is also temporarily offering a ton of resources online.

We can keep updating this post as we find more resources together, and again, I encourage you to comment below with other ideas or questions!

Assignment Hall of Fame

To continue our conversation about the role of literature in the composition classroom, I want to show off three excellent assignments from current ECE English teachers that are particularly interdisciplinary and inquiry-based and that prompt students to write through literature rather than just about it. These assignments are, of course, not the only ways that this work can be done, but if you are thinking about how you might build a future course that pushes beyond literary analysis (as ECE English classes do), then you might use these assignments as models.


Writing about Language


Dr. Patti Lee-Muratori teaches an ECE English/Humanities course at New Fairfield High School. You can see her materials and learn more about her teaching on her website. The assignment that I want to draw your attention to in this post focuses on the relationship between power and language.


This assignment begins by reminding students of its context. They have been discussing several literary texts, films, television shows, and sociolinguistic studies in order to make “observations about the struggle for power between and among those who have it and those who are blocked/oppressed/marginalized/objectified/demonized… in order to prevent them from achieving equality.” Already, this project is interdisciplinary and pushes the students to think beyond literary analysis. The project is inquiry- and thesis-driven, and the goal is “to push our conversation about power and language forward in a new way.”

Writing about Stories


Linda Ventura-Clements teaches a combined English 1011/AP Literature and Composition course at Mark T. Sheehan High School. She has an assignment that considers the “blurred lines” between fact and fiction and explores the cultural function of storytelling.


The project begins with literary texts, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, where characters talk about the need to lie in order to get at a deeper truth. The first part of the project is a creative, scaffolding assignment which asks the students to “lie” about an actual event that happened to them or a family/friend as a way to experience first-hand how an author “lies” or “distorts” the facts in order to create truth. The major assignment asks students to use these texts (and others of their choosing) as evidence to make an argument about the nature of storytelling and specifically of blurring the lines between truth and lies. The students are using literary texts as evidence, and thinking about their social function, in order to make a cultural or philosophical argument.

Writing about Institutions


Caitlin Donahue teaches English 1010 at Stafford High School. In a unit on dystopian American literature, she has her students write a paper about an institution or organization in our society and the power structure within it.


This assignment, like the other two, begins with a literary and theoretical context: the students have been watching The Truman Show and reading Fahrenheit 451, “The Allegory of the Cave,” and “Panopticism” from Discipline and Punish, among other texts. They have been analyzing “how education functions as an institution regulating its members.” In this project, they use those texts and conversations as a starting point (and as evidence, later) to analyze a social institution or organization in their lives or community. The assignment asks them to use the readings from the unit “to serve as points of comparison, contrast, or extensions to [their] analysis,” moving beyond simple literary analysis.

I came across these assignments while reading the submitted materials (there are a lot, and we are making our way through them!), so I may do a few more posts in the coming weeks as I find other examples. Feel free to reach out to me if you’re doing work that speaks to the questions from our fall conference or have ideas that you’d like to share here!

Fall 2019 Conference: Connecting Literature and Composition Pedagogies

On October 25th, we held our fall conference on the relationship between literature and composition pedagogies and the role of literature in the composition classroom. As we face changes in the FYW program, it’s important to consider what skills we have as literature scholars that can and do transfer to our composition classes and to the teaching of writing across disciplines.

We decided to use an excerpt from Ocean Vuong’s 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as a common literary starting point, which shaped at least the first half of the conference. Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet and novelist who grew up in Hartford, and the excerpt we chose from the novel describes the nail salon in which the narrator’s family works and his mother’s experience with a customer with an amputated leg. That excerpt, and a recording of it, can be found here.

In our opening session, Scott Campbell outlined the main questions we wanted to address throughout the conference:

  • How should we approach a literary text?
    • Do you come to it as someone seeking to interpret it? (Is it a literary object?)
    • Do you think about how it addresses a reader or conveys an argument? (Is it a rhetorical object?)
    • Do you think about how it conveys history, experience, place, identity? (Is it an evidentiary text?)
    • What else is possible?
  • What can students produce, with a literary text as a starting point?
    • How can we ask them to compose through or with literature rather than just about it?
  • What are the advantages of turning to literary or cultural materials in the midst of a cross-disciplinary inquiry?

In each of our first breakout sessions, we discussed possible ways to teach the excerpt from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. We had one session on multimodal assignments, one on major project assignment sequences, and another on research projects. We also had sessions on in-class composition and in-class activities and discussion. All of the materials for each of those sessions can also be found here. In our second breakout sessions, groups of teachers workshopped and brainstormed for their own classes. We considered how we teach writing through literature now and how we might do it in the future.

We ended the conference (after a delicious Thanksgiving lunch) with a dress rehearsal of a panel presentation for another conference, NCTE 2019. In “Off Campus but in the Conversation: Acknowledging Complexity in High School-College Partnerships,” Scott Campbell, Lalitha Kasturirangan, Emily Kilbourn, Kristen Mucinskas, Jeff Roets, Lauren Shafer, and Marc Zimmerman explore the variability of sites within a dual credit/concurrent enrollment program. They consider how their presumed marginal role within the university might be better understood as a significant contribution to the university itself.

In some ways, this conference asked more questions than it answered, but that’s how it should be. We had many productive conversations that will not and should not end with the end of the conference. We all know that there is value in keeping literature in the composition classroom, and it’s important that we’re able to articulate that value, to ourselves, to our students, and to our administrators. We also all know that there’s a difference between literary analysis and writing through literature, but there is an overlap in those pedagogical skills.

Thank you so much to all the presenters and participants for a really engaging and complex conference. We hope that these conversations will continue!

If you would like to be involved in future ECE conferences, please reach out to me (Hannah), Scott, or Jason.