This essay is the second in a series of short pieces that offer faculty across the campus an insider’s tour of one of the courses that make up UP’s Core program. Since the Core involves almost a third of the curriculum for every UP student, faculty can benefit from these discipline-by-discipline essays, to better understand the breadth of their students’ campus experience.
Students’ 13 Core courses invite them to grapple with similar questions of existence; it’s just the tools used to work with them that differ. The discipline of English uses stories in various forms (poetry, fiction, drama, nonfiction) to recognize how words and imagination inform and deepen our understanding of our lives.
UP’s ENG 112 is not your typical English class. Rather than serving as an “introduction to literature” (as if students’ long literary education in childhood and high school didn’t count), we call this course “Thinking Through Literature.”
Students practice using creative writing as a lifelong tool for thinking – through problems, through decisions, through difference, through values, and through the complications of language itself. Like so many disciplines, English has moved away from teaching merely the “What” of a fixed body of knowledge, in favor of pursuing the “How” and the “Why” of things. Using literature as a sensory vehicle for ideas, the curriculum of the course is humanist inquiry, not dates of publication, plot memorization, author biographies, witty allusions, or other badges of cocktail-party distinction.
And so, as students complete a series of journal brainstorms, class debates, and argument-based papers, literature invites them to think through the options of life’s hardest conundrums: knowing when to conform and when to resist (Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See), how to achieve an identity in a hypermobile world (Satrapi’s Persepolis), how to enact the most effective form of revenge (Shakespeare’s Tempest), and even how to die (Tennyson’s “Ulysses”). Creative writing thus becomes an opportunity to collectively process and further our lives. For as Mark Edmundson writes, you read classic authors “to see if they may know you better than you know yourself.”
The entire English Department believes in this contribution to the core. Every full-time faculty member in English teaches English 112 (most of us teach two sections per semester). And so all are involved in assessing, shaping, and revising the course, both on the collective level, and in the independent directions we take our particular classes. Faculty are encouraged to energize their course around a theme that a broad set of students will find relevant, enabling students to choose from sections based on such inquiries as Why Read?; Weather, Climate, and Human Experience; Thinking Through Food; Mobility and Words in the World; and others.
Many undergraduates come to English 112 thinking of literature as frivolous. But as Karin Slaughter notes, “Reading is not just an escape. It is access to a better way of life.” Students gain this access by wrestling with English 112’s Core Question: “What is the role of beauty, imagination, and feeling in life?” We explore how our relationships are built by emotion, how our imaginations get us through the day, and how narratives structure the lives of humans – the “storytelling animal.” As Brian Doyle puts it, “Stories are the bones of everything: religions, countries, families, marriages, universities….”
All Core courses are built around a Core Goal; English 112 seeks to “Develop the foundational knowledge and skills necessary for informed inquiry, decision making, and communication.” We work toward these skills through rigorous attention to words (considering both the literal and symbolic levels), informal discussions to negotiate interpretations, and presentations of evidence. Students read plays, where a reader takes a subversive peek behind the curtain at a playwright’s plan, and does all casting, staging, and directing in the mind’s theater. They study nonfiction – the “literature of fact,” to find how the communication of truth can be equally shaped toward beauty. They pursue fiction, where characters invite us to witness and poke and prod the ambient social values around us, rather than to adopt them unthinkingly. And they read poetry – the “Olympics of language” – where how an idea communicates is as crucial as what it communicates.
With its Core Skill of writing, English 112 also serves as one of two “Writing Embedded” courses (alongside Philosophy 150). The pair initiates the skill of college-level writing at a broad level, even while being rooted within a specific discipline. Students work from a campus-wide reference (Kirszner & Mandel’s Pocket Cengage Handbook) to learn effective writing strategies, mechanics, and documentation styles. A series of informal and formal writing tasks teach undergraduates to take writing in stages, and to value the process as much as the resulting product. Students compose essays that practice close reading, analysis, pattern recognition, and thesis formation, so that they not only take a stand on how a text might be interpreted, but also assert why it matters. In other words, their papers must reveal how an author is using a story to advance our knowledge beyond common sense on a given subject. Students will later draw upon these writing skills at a more major-specific level when they take at least two “Writing in the Disciplines” courses (usually upper-division, within their field). This reiterative structure enables every UP student to graduate with at least four writing-intensive courses, which reinforce lessons in communicating with clarity, succinctness, accuracy, and persuasiveness. In an electronically connected world, and a global economy increasingly based on information, the skill of effective writing will gain exponential urgency.
Just as UP’s Core program asserts “no discipline by itself is sufficient to discover the truth,” English 112 doesn’t cover a great many things. It avoids the life of the nonverbal (for literature requires language), stories told best by numbers (which we leave to math and social science), outlooks that aspire toward objectivity (for literature insists on being anchored by subjectivity), pursuits that aspire toward certainty (literature values questions more than answers), and so on. What it does cover is the value of wrestling with words – those of others and of our own – in order to get something right in language. Cultivating a trust in the personal, the emotional, the complex, and in the imaginative, English 112 seeks to increase students’ honest awareness of themselves and of their spectrum of options in life.
I’d be happy to answer further questions about English 112’s role within the Core: firstname.lastname@example.org