Corrigan, Paul T. “Conclusion to Literature.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 46.1 (2018): 30-48. Print.
Paul T. Corrigan argues for a reassessment of the value and purpose of the “Introduction to Literature” course that is part of the general-education curriculum at many higher-learning institutions.
Corrigan expresses concern that the understanding of many humanities scholars and teachers that reading “literature” is an important life activity is not widely shared by the public (30). Corrigan locates twenty-four “apologias” for literature published since 2000 that argue that such texts “may help us change or understand or give meaning or perspective to our lives” (30), but notes that only people already convinced of the value of literature will read these books (31). His study of “nineteen current anthologies and eighty-two available syllabi” for the introductory college course indicates to him that students taking the course are not widely encouraged to appreciate literature as an activity that will bring meaning into their lives (31, 37).
In Corrigan’s view, students taking the college course have already been introduced to literature, and in fact have been widely exposed to such reading, throughout their elementary and high-school experiences (37). Because, for many, “Introduction to Literature” is actually the last literature course the majority of students will take, Corrigan argues that the standard course is a “conclusion” to literature rather than a beginning (37).
Introduction to Literature, he maintains, is both among “the most commonly taught” and “most commonly taken” college courses across institutions (32). For Corrigan, that so many students take this course makes it a powerful platform for helping students see the value of literature; students who will then leave college with a positive impression of literature will far outnumber those who go on from the course to become majors and can influence public perception of humanistic learning throughout their lives (32).
To make the introductory course fulfill this purpose, Corrigan proposes shifting the focus from an preponderant review of the “means” of reading literature, such a formal elements of analysis and criticism, to attention to the “ends” of such reading (34), that is, the “why” of reading, or in the words of M. Elizabeth Sargent, “For what?” Teachers of literature, Sargent contends, should have “at least one thoughtful, evolving committed answer to this question” (qtd. in Corrigan 33).
Corrigan acknowledges that his sample permits only an “indirect peek” into the presentation of the ends of literary instruction, but characterizes his findings as “highly suggestive and instructive” (34). His analysis of the anthologies and syllabi categorizes the sample using four terms.
Materials in which attention to the ends/why issue does not appear at all fall under the classification “absent.” He gives as an example an anthology that responds to the question “Who needs it [poetry]?” with the comment that the “study of poetry” is the collection’s aim (qtd. in Corrigan 34-35; emendation in Corrigan; emphasis original). A syllabus in this category suggests that “‘an appreciation of literature’ may benefit ‘civilization’” and states that what a student will take from the class is “up to you” (qtd. in Corrigan 35). Twenty-one percent of the anthologies and 51% of the syllabi fell into this group (34).
Materials containing “nascent” references to the reason for reading literature made up 47% of the anthologies and 37% of the syllabi. These materials included short discussions or mentions of the value of literature, such as “a few paragraphs” in introductory sections or specific but short statements in course goals (35).
Corrigan placed materials in which “the question of why literature matters [is] one significant topic among others, although not a pervasive or central concern” in his category of “present” (35). Twenty-six percent (5 of the 19) anthologies met this criterion, and 10% (8 of 82) of the syllabi did so (35). Corrigan gives examples of how these teaching artifacts explicitly invited students to connect their reading experience to their lives (35-36).
Only a single anthology and two syllabi fell into the final category, “emphasized” (36). Corrigan delineates how Literature for Life, by X. J. Kennedy, Dana Gioia, and Nina Revoyr, “foreground[s]” the purpose of reading literature as a principal focus of the text (36). A syllabus from Western Michigan University builds connections to students’ lives into its course theme of “literary representations of food” with specific assignments asking students to address the topic in their own experiences (36).
In Corrigan’s view, recognizing that a college Introduction to Literature is more likely to be the “last time [most students] will spend any serious time thinking about literature” warrants recasting the course as “Conclusion to Literature” (37). He argues that the technical disciplinary processes of literary study can still be incorporated but should be used to enhance students’ ability to relate to and connect with the texts they read (40); he maintains that using the course to develop students’ ability to value literature will equip them with more incentive to read and value it in the future “than any amount of knowledge could provide” (38).
Quoting Karen Manarin et al., Corrigan agrees that “merely telling” students how literature matters is insufficient; he calls for pedagogy actively designed to draw out applications to students’ lives. His overview of his own course includes examples of assignments, paper prompts, and activities such as visiting nature centers in conjunction with reading nature poems (39). Writing that teachers may take for granted the importance of the “ends” of literature, he argues that re-seeing the introductory course as a conclusion “attends to, rather than assumes, those ends” (38).