Use Secondary Sources in College Composition, But Use Them Wisely

About to begin teaching my favorite second-level composition course for the sixth time, I can safely say that I know every required secondary reading has a clear purpose in the syllabus. I look forward to how each one will inform and pivot in-class discussion, deepening our understanding of the primary texts and how they’ve been read differently decade-to-decade. That is not at all how I started out.

These are just two titles of the many teaching tools you might consider.

In first-level composition, I only infrequently use secondary sources that involve theory or criticism. When I do, I choose 1-2 key paragraphs for discussion. It’s useful to show students how to back up their arguments with supporting intellectual framework. Mostly, I expect them to use supporting evidence from news articles and credible resources because the focus in first-level composition is not on literature but on writing. The skills they are building have more to do with rhetoric, organization, the lessons of They Say/I Say, and the art of writing clear sentences and paragraphs. So we go easy on the literary theory and criticism. That might inform my teaching but I don’t think you need more than a paragraph of Edward Said, bell hooks, or Judith Butler to have a very deep discussion of underlying assumptions in any project and to identify what’s at stake. Sometimes a single sentence from Hobbes is enough to trouble Lockean ideals. More than that can distract from the main task at hand: writing. Often, the jargon of literary theory becomes an example of what not to do in clear writing. That is a valuable lesson for composition students, especially those who think the passive voice sounds “smarter” and hide behind it because the active voice makes them feel more vulnerable to critique.

My pedagogy is deeply informed by both of these texts.

In second-level composition, which my college calls “Introduction to Writing About Literature,” the learning outcomes are quite different. Before I tell you how I got to where I am today, there are a few things you need to know about this course. We’re required to teach three genres: drama, fiction, and poetry. At least one play must be written by Shakespeare and fiction means fiction. This makes it particularly difficult because Shakespeare is a dead white dude, and critical texts that informed my development as a scholar like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Audre Lorde’s Zami are considered autobiographies and not fiction. The course content has thus evolved into a strange collection. I teach two plays, The Taming of the Shrew and The Duchess of Malfi, a handful of short stories, and three poets: Dickinson, Plath, and Lorde. Gender Studies provides the theoretical lens and we spend a great deal of time talking about sexual violence, toxic masculinity, and consent in preparation for their research papers (and for life). But it’s important to bring a multicultural perspective into the course by using important secondary sources that challenge old ways of thinking (a.k.a. the white male dominated literary canon). I’m going to talk about only one source because it demonstrates my evolution through trial-and-error over the years, but remember that you can de-center privilege in the classroom through secondary sources if you choose them wisely and introduce them early on.

The first time I taught this course, among many other mistakes (e.g. I didn’t have a theme), I gave my students the option of choosing any article from the back of the Norton Critical Edition (NCE) of The Taming of the Shrew and almost all of them chose the shortest article. [Duh! Face palm.] However, the assignment was worth keeping: it asks them to first summarize and then analyze the article. Students learned the difference between summary and analysis, and that translated into their own writing. Great.

The second time I taught this course, I assigned the two shortest articles in the back of the NCE to go over together, that way I could provide a model for them, close read the articles with them as a class and identify the thesis statements and assumptions in each. Then I asked them to choose any other article in the back of the NCE to complete their written assessment. The results were better but it made my teaching more difficult: I had to master all of the articles in the back of the book, and it was harder to address the issues in their analyses in the following class because they had all analyzed different articles. My work was doubled because I was teaching two sections. I scrambled to make a lesson plan for the three most popular articles and it took up way too much class time.

The third time I taught this course, I chose one article to go over together as a class (one that gave them great social and historical context for understanding the cultural norms in Taming) and I chose one article for all students to write their reviews on (one that gave them a critical feminist perspective on the humor in the play). Given other changes I had made to the syllabus–like picking a theme instead of pretending the theme wasn’t gender studies–this article made the most sense. It also bridged the gap between comedy in Shakespeare’s time and helping us pin-point the moment in the play when we in the 21st Century stop laughing. We stop laughing when, as one student put it, “it gets kind of rape-y.” I swear, I can’t make this stuff up. Don’t get me started on what it means to call Bianca “basic,” which is now something that comes up every time I teach this play. Anyway, this choice–to have students all read, summarize, and analyze the same secondary source–was the best choice. I built a lesson plan that walked them through the article, helped them identify the thesis and the assumptions behind it, and gave them the opportunity to revise their drafts after I gave this talk. The content of their papers was much better, allowing me to focus on their writing and helping them identify the difference between summary and analysis.

Another thing that worked out was I tried doing this as a collaborative writing assignment. I paired two students up for peer review. Collaborative writing is a struggle. In this assignment, students combine their essays into a final draft: they both have to decide what to keep, what to build on, and what to drop. I think this is a worthy struggle, and I’ll be doing it again.

Here’s the finalized assignment:

Evaluation of a critical essay (approx. 5%): Write a 2-3 page summary and analysis of Shirley Garner’s “The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside of the Joke?” It must be in Times New Roman font, size 12, double-spaced, stapled, and include a Works Cited page with a citation of Garner’s article and any other resources you use (no additional resources are required). Please make sure you put your name at the top and use MLA format. To give you some help, here is how you cite Garner’s article (and any article from an anthology) in MLA format:

Lastname, Firstname. “The Title of the Article.” The Title of the Play. Ed. Full Name of Book Editor. City: Publisher, Yearprinted.

Garner, Shirley Nelson. “The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside of the Joke?” The Taming of the Shrew. Ed. Dympna Callaghan. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

How To Structure Your Paper

  1. Your first paragraph must introduce the writer’s main argument and summarize the approach the author takes to The Taming of the Shrew. Identify the writer’s thesis, and what conversation the writer is either entering (agreeing with) or responding to (disagreeing/complicating). One way to begin is ask: “So what?” What is this article trying to do?

Summary: Articulate the writer’s thesis or main argument, and discuss his/her key points of evidence (this should take up no more than one paragraph).

  1. Your second and third paragraphs should begin to critique the author’s argument. A critique is a detailed analysis and assessment. First, evaluate how effectively (or ineffectively) the author carries out this argument. Then, look at the passages the author is quoting from and how he/she uses these quotations to support the argument. Do you agree with the interpretations the author makes? Do you think other passages from the play might lead to a different conclusion? Is there enough evidence or are you left unconvinced?

Analysis: Evaluate the strengths and/or weaknesses of the article (this should take up the majority of your paper). Remember to make sure you focus on the article and not the play. Assume your reader has read the play but not the article.

III. In your final paragraph, you want to zoom out somewhat to reflect on the larger picture of your critique. Ask yourself: “What are the assumptions in this article?” Then, ask yourself if you agree with these assumptions or if you think there is something the writer hasn’t considered. What would you offer that the writer left out? What angle is most important to you? Remember, it can’t be all that bad: there must be some value to the article. Even though you just dismantled it in your critique, remind your reader what is to be found in the article that might be useful. A concluding sentence might begin with praise and end with a phrase that sums up your problem with the article. This sentence might look something like this: “Garner offers _______________, but I would have liked to see more consideration of ______________________.”

Note: Since your evaluation is only 2-3 pages, I don’t expect you to analyze every detail of the article you chose. Perhaps pick one or two things to focus on, like (1) the historical moment in which the article was written, how this effects the tone of the piece, what it’s responding to (and whether you think it responds well, is useful and important or if you think it doesn’t — and why); or you might talk about (2) how the author uses evidence in the text and whether you think it’s a strong, fully-supported argument or if you can find holes in the assumptions the author makes and other evidence from the play that would have made it a stronger argument; or you might choose to (3) compare it to what other people have argued about the play–where does the article fit into the discourse about the play, and who do you think makes a more compelling argument and why?

Partnering Up for Revision

When you’re finished writing your own evaluation, you’ll be partnered up into pairs to combine your essay with one of your peers’. The two of you will (1) exchange papers and then (2) collaborate to combine the two papers into one, coherent, stronger critique of the article.

Expect that there might be some overlap between your two critiques, or you might find that you disagreed on what the thesis of the article is or what the merits and weaknesses of the article are. That’s okay! That’s the point.

I highly recommend you first read each other’s papers, and then have a conversation about how to improve them both. Decide what you can leave out and what you want to keep moving forward. You might try using a combined Google Document: copy and paste both papers into a shared document and begin combining them and editing them together [What’s a Google Doc?]. Or you might meet outside of class and re-write the final version together while having both drafts in front of you.

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