Lit in Comp: Straightening out the Confusion

While designing a freshman comp class for my GTA application, I found myself conforming to the trend of avoiding literature in composition class, yet with no conviction on the value of including or excluding it from comp. Discussion of the Lit in Comp  debate has occurred in none of my reading or comp pedagogy classes but I did one day raise my hand and ask the question: Why is literature now obsolete in comp classes? The teacher straightened up in her chair and said: “It’s politics.”  The topic was opened and closed with the history of the power struggle between literature proponents and rhetoricians. The value in teaching literature in composition class or the value in not teaching it, never got addressed—apparently a tendency also present in the community of English Academia.

Despite the tendency, and also in spite of it, works that try to delve deeper into the pedagogical implications within this debate have begun to appear. I will talk about “A Place for Lit in Freshman Comp” by Gary Tate, “Literature and L2 comp: Revisiting the Debate” by Belcher and Hirvela and “Lit in comp classes: case against” by Francis and Barbara Lide.

I have yet to figure out where I stand in this debate, and the purpose of this research is exactly that. Though many current faculties might be tired of the argument and avoiding it in the classroom, prospective composition teachers are graduating without exploring a question that is of both academic and cultural importance: Can the addition of literature to the required texts of composition classes be of benefit to the students, or would it merely be a distraction and waste of time?

A Place for Literature in Freshman Composition, Gary Tate, 1992.

Gary Tate writes this piece to initiate the missing conversation within the Literature in Composition debate. His stance: “It is time for us to adopt a far more generous vision of our discipline and its scope, a vision that excludes no text”. His opinions are responses to the writings of others in the community and are informed by his taste (admittedly) as well as his long experience teaching composition. His opinions also come from a very wide outlook on education and the English class, one that encompasses all that transcends academia and focuses on the various themes and issues that students encounter and struggle with. “I am convinced that true education, as opposed to training, is concerned with much more than what we find in the various academic disciplines,” he asserts. It sounds a lot like Twain’s “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Tate speaks from his heart—from an affinity for literature and an enthusiasm for grappling with the issues of the world. He does however underline a salient point: “They should be denied no resource that can help them.”

The statement begs the question “how would literature help them?” setting up the conversation he is inviting.

Literature and L2 Composition: Revisiting the Debate, Diane Belcher and Alan Hirvela, 1999.


In this article, Belcher and Hervela cut the politics and get to the point. Their purpose: to explore the different theories and teacher experiences already archived, in order to find out if literature does indeed offer any pedagogical benefits. In the process of reviewing other articles on the topic, Belcher and Hervela encounter arguments by various scholars making the case that literature can indeed be of particular use for developmental writers, including L2 students.

Basic writing specialists like Bartholomae, Petrosky, Hull and Rose recognized that reading literary text can have triumphant results amongst basic writers:

  • Hull and Rose argued that literature invited “dynamic involvement in generating and questioning knowledge” a skill that Spack agrees is useful in other discourse communities as well.
  • For these basic writers who often turn out to be minorities, the use of multicultural texts can, as Severino (1997) puts it “help students recognize cultural differences and similarities” as well as provide “an antidote to the racial and ethnic strife that afflicts many communities and much of the world ( p. 116).”
  • Winddowson claims that literature promotes “conscious[ness] of the procedures we employ in the understanding of any discourse” (1979, p. 159) by requiring the exercise of interpretation.
  • For Krashen (1983), pleasure-reading which tends to involve light literary texts is “the most natural approach” to language proficiency.
  • Kramsch (1993) explained that the use of literature offers students variety by exposing them to aesthetics, and, narrative forms of discourse, instead of mere information-based reading and writing.

Hirvela and Belcher’s work in assessing the theories of those who have been active in the debate has a particular significance to the TESOL field. TESOL teachers are going into the teaching field without proper education on the benefits of literature to L2 students, and are hence not reaping the benefits. As a result of their illiteracy on this specific subject, TESOL professionals are also uninvolved in further enriching the information pool with their own findings.

The summary of literature advocacy that is provided in this piece also informs L1 English level by suggesting literature as one other means for students’ critical thinking and writing success. Though each of the above arguments are valid, they don’t assert the necessity of an education exclusively in literature. They do however insist on its inclusion to the variety of text genres used.

Literature in Comp Class: Case Against, Francis and Barbara Lide (1993).


Francis and Barbara Lide take a firm stand against the arguments that literature merits being in composition classes. Since literature-using composition classes rely on reader-response writing assignments, they argue, students are in a position where they read one discourse and write in another, wasting the learning-by-imitation chance that exists in a class where the reading and writing are of the same genre. The authors contend that the discrepancy in discourse between the assigned reading and the assigned writing “makes itself felt in the very verb tenses of the writing: narrative literature is written in the past tenses and in the pluperfect; it is written about in the eternal present as well as in rhetorical choices, vocabulary, concepts, etc…, making the help of literature rudimentary to non-existent (112).” Lide and Lide emphasize that literary discourse is relevant in few professional fields and academic disciplines, thus failing to be relevant in much of students’ lives outside of the English class. The authors urge curriculum makers to reevaluate the benefits of literature vis-a-vis composition when allotting the limited time in the composition course to literary texts.

*           *

The articles I have reviewed here are not based on statistical research or experiments and rely instead on the authors’ and their colleagues’ theories and experiences as instructors. This should in no way undermine their contribution to the debate as they each highlight points that can’t be neglected in the overall consideration of the English class’ purpose and its place in the university. Still, we all ache for the correct and only answer to “should literature be taught in composition class or not?”

The controversy and even antagonism present in this debate are largely due to the variation in people’s view of the purpose of the composition class. The matter seems to lie entirely on a simple difference in value: some are for the arts, some for students’ success in the university and others for the academic pursuit of social equality. Most would agree that students need all three, plus preparation for the professional world. Many would advocate for an exposure in multi-genre literarcies.  The limited time that a freshman year comp course offers prevents teachers from catering to all these educational needs and forces them to choose fewer discourses to focus on . Instructors end up choosing what they are most passionate of, which in my opinion is a perfectly good justification as they are bound to teach best what they are most interested and best versed in. However, when making their choices, instructors should ask themselves: At what cost am I choosing what I am choosing? What is my pedagogical priority? What is the purpose of freshman year composition?

We cannot be sending students into the world without professional writing skills. We should actually go through the trouble of making sure they have the crucial and practical skills to write CVs, formal letters, grant proposals, and so on. These skills fall completely in English jurisdiction, as I see it.

We also cannot send students into the world without being confident of their ability to process the world. Teaching the world means teaching applicable literacy and teaching for well-roundedness, which life in our diverse population absolutely requires. It involves teaching the professional discourse, media literacy, social and cultural literacies and art appreciation. Art is a prevalent discourse, special in its ability to invoke beauty.  We can’t allow the art of the written world to eclipse into extinction.

The general education system should be sharing the responsibility of teaching some of these literacies and composition instructors should craft their curriculum avoiding redundancy. San Francisco State University restructured its general education curriculum to require a literature course that is its own entity, alleviating freshman composition’s need to teach written art.  Having segments like media literacy and social/cultural literacies would also help tremendously. If the responsibility to teach critical thinking—which is what these literacy classes amount to—is delegated to General Education, composition teachers would finally get to teach composition—that is, the craft of writing. Additionally, they would have the time to cover more genres of writing, including professional writing, blog writing, persuasive writing, etc…Only in the composition class that teaches composition would there really be an education in discourses—emphasis on the plural.


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