When Composition and Literature Meet

March 15, 2019:

This is the brief talk I gave as part of a panel welcoming students accepted or wait-listed to The Graduate Center at CUNY.  Here I describe a class I’m teaching now, focused on the “academic novel” and that genre’s relationship to pedagogy, critical university studies, and, relevant to the audience of this crowd, making meaningful, transformative relationships at the university.


Because soon you’ll all soon sign up for classes, and because attending and teaching class is something we all have in common, I thought I’d tackle our topic by describing a course I’m teaching right now at the GC.

The class is called When Composition and Literature Meet: Critical Pedagogy and the Campus Novel.  First, let’s get something out of the way: “When Composition and Literature Meet” is a terrible title. But I chose it because, perhaps like you, I feel a special urgency about the fate of the university and its role in making meaningful, maybe healing, alliances.

“Meeting” implies something of a happenstance relationship and that certainly describes the tie that binds my two fields, composition and literary studies. You might say the two have met up for a series of bad dates in the hallways of English departments for over a century. Fraught with power plays and disappointment, literature and rhetoric keep connected because every so often we sense that maybe, this time, we’ll get it right. In the late 19C for example, before there was such a thing called “literary studies,” the upstart field of “English literature” deferred to departments of Rhetoric. But then criticism took off, close reading became cool, and composition was contained by the newly hip mansplainers of meaning. Critical theory’s rise and the canon’s fall offered conditions for common ground and the two kept talking through the end of the 20 C. But relations remained strained.

You’d think that today’s attacks on the humanities might move these fields from polite conversation to collective action. But unity proves elusive.

So my class is an experiment in trying to make composition and literature meet up without the hang-ups of this disciplinary history. The conceit of the course was that they meet up in the space of a particular genre: the campus novel. But week three of the term and already the books called my bluff.  The campus novel, like the campus itself, proves a poor host for renewing or creating authentic relationships. Romance, friendship, and camaraderie yield perpetual pain and paralysis for characters in Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down and John William’s Stoner and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty while isolation, competition and a war between creativity and conformity dominate plot points.

Still, we are loving these novels: we love wrestling free what’s good about the bad teaching moments depicted in them, love designing proposals for how we might do things differently from the conflicted characters of the classroom.  It’s an existential exercise, a meditation on the present, for us.  For we are only at the beginning of forming (or in my case, reforming) ourselves as scholars, students, and teachers and yet we show up, week after week, after a long day of teaching and otherwise working, to do this work of reconnecting broken characters and campuses.

So Composition and Literature are not meeting up. But we are. And that may be the best next thing.






About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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