The Three "Rs" of One American Literature Survey: Reading, `Riting and Responses

by Jo Ellen Green Kaiser
University of Kentucky

Because many "Survey of American Literature" courses are taken by students seeking to fulfill a range of departmental and extra-departmental requirements, they often can seem more like an "Introduction to Literature" than a course designed to extend and develop students' understanding of American culture. That is certainly the case at my institution (the University of Kentucky), where, because the survey fulfills inter- and intracollegial requirements, students taking my class usually represent a diverse cross-section of the University community. This semester, for example, of 29 students taking the course, only one is an English major, with the rest majoring in subjects like chemistry, nursing, pharmacy, education and political science. For most of these students, the survey of American literature is their first college English course beyond the required composition classes.

The dual nature of the course presents several recurring pedagogical problems. For one, students in a required class may be less likely to keep up with their reading. Secondly, students often come to class without possessing the strategies of reading most highly prized by our discipline, having not been taught to look for recurring images, character development, foreshadowing, devices. Finally, students who are adept at such "reading" can be nonetheless reluctant to share their insights with the class, precisely because they fear that their ignorance of our disciplinary discourse will lead them to some embarrassing faux pas.

I have sought to resolve these pedagogical problems by instituting a modified version of what Susan Peck MacDonald and Charles Cooper have called an academic journal, and I call, simply, a `'response."1 Each week, students must turn in one or two written responses to the course material. These responses can be hand-written, must be no longer than one page, and must react in some way to the text assigned for that day. Because one of my aims is to train students in reading strategies, I provide a question in the syllabus about the text which the students can use to guide their response. Generally, I try to ask a seemingly simple question that goes directly to the major thematic issue taken up by the text (for example, "Does Jake, in The Sun Also Rises, have afficion?"). I have found that questions designed this way tend to enable even the less well-equipped students to move beyond the plot or sentiment of a text towards an understanding and engagement with the conflicts which structure the text; better students will embroider such questions with their own complex responses. The questions themselves, then, provide students with a model of what questions they should be asking of the text as they read.2

I have supplied a sample syllabus from my American literature survey to demonstrate the type of response questions I ask. My syllabus, while generally chronological, is arranged thematically; occasionally I break chronology in order to juxtapose texts which reinforce particular cultural issues (Dickinson becomes a less obscure poet, for example, when read after discussions of the "private worlds" of female characters like Camille in "Sister Josepha" or Sylvia in "The White Heron.") The response process works particularly well in a thematically-oriented class, because I can direct students to compare and contrast works on the basis both of literary style and ideological or historical content. As a result, students begin to think creatively about cultural as well as literary trends in the works under consideration, allowing me to teach the contexts while simultaneously introducing students to methods of literary analysis.

The analysis students begin in their responses pays off in classroom discussion. After having been asked to grapple, in writing, with a particular aspect of the text at hand, students are eager both to share their observations and to hear what others have said. The process of responding often reveals to them what they do not know about the text: only in the last sentences of their responses, for example, do many of them realize that there may be more than one kind of "respectability" in Henry James' "Daisy Miller," and that sorting through the different codes of respectability constitutes one of Winterbourne's--and the reader's--primary problems. As a result, students come to class with more complex and sophisticated questions than they otherwise would, and with an understanding of the necessity for reading texts analytically in order to answer such questions.

It would be wrong, however, to imply that the movement from response writing to engaged discussion is automatic. Before they will actively participate, most students must be able to anticipate a classroom discussion which will not foreclose different points of view. That means, as Sandra Stotsky argues about a related issue, that we must take it as an ethical imperative not to frame response questions which have only, in our minds, one possible answer.3 In addition to framing responses which invite a multiplicity of possible answers, I signal students that their responses are valued by me, and should be valued by each other, by beginning class discussion either with peer groups focused on the responses, or by asking the entire group the response question and seeking a variety of comments. I measure my success by the fact that in almost every class, all of my students are voluntarily contributing to class discussion by the end of the term.

In addition to creating response questions which I can imagine being answered in a variety of ways, I also allow students the option of dialogic responses, in which they frame their own questions and responses to the text. Most students usually choose the academic question, probably because they know this reflects my interests and will be the focus of class discussion. However, students often choose the dialogic option when they are frustrated or angered by the work. Given that The Heath Anthology is valuable precisely for the diversity of American experience its texts introduce, many students appreciate this opportunity to communicate privately with me about their reactions as readers. For example, some students worry that their irritation with Cornelius Johnson in Paul Laurence Dunbar's story may be "racist," and so are afraid of their usually canny analysis of Dunbar's work. By gaining this access to students' personal relation to the texts and the class, I can both respond to the individual with a written comment as needed, and bring their concern up anonymously later on for class discussion. In this way, the responses function as a constant feedback device for me, helping me to evaluate my teaching strategies as we move through the course, and enhancing discussion.

The responses also ensure that students are keeping up with the reading. However, I have found that students will comply with the response process if (and only if) the response grade constitutes between 15 to 20% of their final grade (when the response grade is less than 15% of the final grade, students tend to complain about the extra "busy work.")

Because the responses are not formal assignments, I do not grade each one on a letter or number system. Rather, all students who turn in responses get a check, while the best responses are awarded a plus. For responses which are dialogic, I assign a plus to comments that are unusually thoughtful, whether they be about the work or the class. For responses which address the academic response question, I assign a plus to comments which demonstrate an active and thoughtful engagement with the issues the text raises. I keep track of these checks and pluses, and use them to assign a grade to the responses at the end of class. Grading on a curve, I award those with a substantial number of pluses an A, those with some pluses a B, those who have done the responses but garnered only checks a C, and those who have not done at least two-thirds of the responses a D or lower. I explain this policy to students at the beginning of term, and give them an idea of their response grade at midterm.

Finally, if I have time, I try to type up the best responses and redistribute them anonymously to the class. I explain to students at the start of term that I may use their responses in this fashion; I have never gotten any negative feedback on this, perhaps because I use these anonymous responses as exemplary models of student writing. In fact, several students have told me that seeing their own response distributed as an authorized text to their classmates gave them a real sense that they had achieved the ability to analyze literature. Often those shy but bright students we so often see begin participating with gusto after their responses have been distributed. In addition, these exemplary responses provide the other students with models of good literary analysis done by their peers, a fact which often makes them seem more available than the readings I sometimes perform for the students in class. Finally, I remind the students that if these exemplary responses are saved, they can constitute an excellent study guide for the final exam.

Especially for new teachers, or those with classes larger than 30, the response system may seem extravagantly burdensome. It will only become so, however, if instructors make the common but unnecessary assumption that we must read every word students write and mark every piece of writing as if it were a formal paper. We must understand that simply writing a response is useful for the student, and does not require our comments. While I do skim through all the responses, I probably only comment on 20% of any given batch. I confine my comments to particularly engaging readings, particularly erroneous ones, or to personal issues students raise about texts or the class. Even my comments are brief, generally only a phrase ("interesting") or a short sentence ("Is Daisy really not worthy of respect?"). Indeed, my willingness to let their responses stand on their own, no matter whether "check" or "plus," is one way of letting students know that ultimately they are responsible for framing their own thoughts on the texts we read.

Works Cited:

1 See MacDonald and Cooper. "Contributions of Academic and Dialogic Journals to Writing about Literature." Writing, Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines. Ed. Anne Herrington and Charles Moran. NY: M.L.A. 1992: 137-155. I would also like to acknowledge the pedagogical aid I received from former graduate student and faculty colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley when I taught in that English department's composition program.

2 My practice is supported by MacDonald and Cooper's experimental research, which demonstrated that students who practiced this sort of "academic" writing were able to frame "better overall arguments as well as more sophisticated claims" than students who had only practiced dialogic writing (150).

3 "Ethical Guidelines for Writing Assignments." Social Issues in the English Classroom. Ed. C. Mark Hurlbert and Samuel Totten. Urbana, Il: N.C.T.E. 1992: 283-303.

Syllabus #1

English 252--06: Survey of American Literature II
Spring 1995

Professor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser
University of Kentucky

Required Texts:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Second Edition

Puddn'head Wilson, Mark Twain

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

General Syllabus

Jan. 12: Introduction

Jan. 17-Jan. 31: A Changing America: Reconstruction, the new science, and the loss of the old South

Jan. 31-Feb. 16: A Changing America: women's separate sphere, the growth of a capitalist/consumer economy, and the call of Europe

Feb. 16: PAPER DUE (5-6 pages)

Feb. 16-Mar. 13:  A Changing America: industrialization, urbanization and the immigrant experience

Mar. 13-Mar. 17: SPRING BREAK

Mar. 21-Apr. 11: Modern America: war and a crisis of [masculine] confidence

Apr. 11: PAPER DUE (5-6 pages)

Apr. 11-Apr. 25: (post) Modern America: questioning identity/ questioning culture

Apr. 27: Review

May 4: FINAL

Detailed Syllabus

Jan. 12: Introduction

Jan. 17: Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson, pp.3-41

Jan. 19: Pudd'nhead Wilson, pp. 41-104

Response: In this book, do Tom and Chambers behave as they do because of the way they were raised (nurture) or because of their genetic/racial inheritance (nature)?

Jan. 24: Pudd'nhead Wilson, pp. 104-145

Response: Does this novel have a happy ending?

Jan. 31: Dunbar, "Mr. Cornelius Johnson" p. 488

Response: Was Cornelius right to stay in D.C.?

Feb. 2: Dunbar-Nelson, "Sister Josepha" p. 516

Jewett, "The White Heron" p. 112 Response: Compare Sylvia with Josepha. Why do they make the choices they make?


Feb. 7: Dickinson Poems (xerox) Response: Compare this poet's relation of her experience to Sylvia's.

Feb. 9: James, Daisy Miller pp. 561-588

Feb. 14: Daisy Miller pp. 588-600 Response: For Winterbourne, is Daisy ultimately respectable? What defines respectability (for him)?

Feb. 16: Chopin, "Desirée's Baby" p. 637; "A Pair of Silk Stockings" p. 654


Feb. 21: Davis, "Life in the Iron-Mills" p. 43

Feb. 23: London, "South of the Slot" p. 744

Response: Why does Bill Totts triumph over Freddie Drummond?

Feb. 28: Adams, "The Virgin of Chartres" p. 872 "The Dynamo and the Virgin" p. 883

Response: What does Adams mean by the terms "Virgin" and "Dynamo"? What is their significance?

Mar. 2: Martí, "Our America" p. 821

Yezierska, "America and I" p. 1865


Mar. 7: All of the Stein readings pp. 1300-

Mar. 9: Poems by Williams pp. 1310-, Olsen p. 1396

Response: What aspects of Williams' poems are similar to other texts we have read so far?

Mar. 13-18: SPRING BREAK

Mar. 21: Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock" p. 1437

Response: What is Prufrock's problem? You may want to compare his "overwhelming question" to Wolfe's in "Life in the Iron-Mills."

Mar. 23: Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises pp. 1-125

Response: On p. 32 Brett says the count is "one of us." Who counts as "us"?

Mar. 28: Sun pp. 125-224

Mar. 30: Sun pp. 225-247

Response: Does Jake have afficion?

Apr. 4: Hurston, "Sweat" p. 1674

"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" p. 1887

Apr. 6: Faulkner, "Barn Burning" p. 1553

Response: Compare Colonel Sartoris Snopes and Dave to Sykes and Jake. What are the similarities between the situations of these men? What are the differences?


Apr. 11: Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, p. 2273-

Apr. 13: Yamamoto, "Seventeen Syllables" p. 2554

Apr. 18: Poems by Ginsberg p. 2379-

[also xerox of the rest of "Howl"]

Apr. 20: Poems by Rich p. 2531-

PAPERS DUE (5-6 pages)

Apr. 25: Mukherjee, "A Wife's Story" p. 3105

Apr. 27: REVIEW

May 4: FINAL

Examples of Student Responses:

Response to "Mr. Cornelius Johnson..."

Mr. Cornelius Johnson, to me, seemed like a man who was not only fighting for his identity and opportunity, but for all of those of his race who were or had fought against the system. Mr Johnson obviously had an enormous amount of pride (489) and dressed with much confidence (488). Possibly his clothes were a coat of armor to hide frightening fears of failure.

I believe Mr. Johnson made the right decision in that you must fight for what you believe in. . . On the other hand, I think it was selfish of him to remain there for himself, while his wife took care of his family. . .

Mr. Johnson refused to accept the facts, for example on (493) when he talks about fighting back. His mental state seemed [at times?] to be unbalanced . . . I don't think he did the right thing when considering both sides. If his mental/emotional state was so weak in accepting failure, he probably would not have been able to handle the office in the first place.

However, when I write this, it makes me feel insensitive and that is not how I feel. The entire racial issue is one beyond his control. I strongly believe in fighting for your destiny, but possibly his destiny is to fail the first time. . .

Professor Kaiser's comments:

You will notice that in this response, the writer keeps going back and forth between positions. In a formal paper, we would call that "wishy-washy," and mark the paper down. In a response, however, this sort of back and forth movement demonstrates that the writer is thinking hard about the story, and the issues at hand. You will find, as you prepare to write your first papers, that you need to do preliminary writing like this before you can settle on a definite point of view.

This writer backs up her statements with page references/specifics, and has a good grasp of the main issues-- race, pride, responsibility. I very much like her last comment about the "racial issue" being beyond Johnson's control. Is it? This is the question all of our writers have been addressing.

Student Responses to "Daisy Miller"

1) Winterbourne wants to believe that Daisy is respectable, but society considers her unrespectable. If he truly likes her, he has to consider her respectable. Winterbourne is torn between Daisy and society, between what the world thinks and what he believes. In the end, he ultimately finds her respectable and innocent.

2) I am not really sure if Winterbourne thought her respectable or not. At the end of the story. . . he doesn't exactly come out and say something about her. . . but I guess I have to say that he did respect her. When he says "she would have appreciated one's esteem" I think he meant that all she wanted was someone to care for her and give her the respect she desired. The only real attention she received from anybody was that of men. She was only flirtatious because she wanted some kind of pleasant attention from anyone. When she was criticized by her contemporaries it only made her angry and made her want to rebel. She did not care what they said to some extent because she was happy with what Giovanelli did for her. I think he [Winterbourne] respected her at the end because he finally figured this out. . . I think also what he respected in her was her brash disregard for European mores and deep down he too longed for an escape from social custom. He quietly obeyed the rules and listened to others, but I think he felt that they were impeding [his own life?].

Contents, No. XIII