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Choosing and Using Texts in ENGL 1010/1011

In your first semester teaching at UConn, you will be assigned an English 1010 (Seminar in Academic Writing) course and will be asked to teach from the sequence materials. In future semesters, however, you will have the choice of English 1010 or its sibling course English 1011, which relies more on literary (rather than interdisciplinary) texts. You will also have free reign over what texts you choose to assign—and there are options! Current and previous instructors have used everything from standard Ways of Reading essays to pop songs, graphic novels to Middle English poems, Renaissance plays to The Wire, and from Chaucer to Buffy. There are few limits to the kinds of texts you select to work with in your 1010/1011 course; what matters is what you do with those texts.

One of the most significant features of UConn’s First-Year Writing program is the philosophy of writing through texts. This means that, rather than writing about texts, we ask our students to use course readings as bases for discussion, analysis, and exploration. The Director and Associate Director of First-Year Writing have recently put it this way:

What do we mean when we ask students to “engage with texts”? What does engagement look like if it is something other than summary or reference? … Course texts are crucial in FYW courses, but students are doing more than merely summarizing or representing these readings. Student writing that provides more than just response or commentary or even interpretation is writing that explores the potential of texts for new uses. (see Throughlines, page 46)

Your course should never be a “literature course,” focused primarily on a specific genre or period or content matter. It should also not be a course in which “readings” happen, and writing happens, but never the twain meet. Rather, it should be a course focused on writing, using texts as the place to ground and begin that writing. Students need to see their writing as occurring within a larger, ongoing network of information and communication, and the texts they read or study in your course are part of that network. Having materials that inspire weighty conversation and call students to problematize their thinking will create the space needed for dynamic and complex writing.

What you want, then, are texts—whether literary, interdisciplinary, or other-ary—that challenge students’ preconceived notions about the world, that ask more questions than they answer, that don’t necessarily lead to easy “black and white” responses or that challenge those initial responses, and that work with each other to present complex ways of seeing or responding to the world through writing. It can help, too, to have at least one text that frames or presents terms for consideration and potential use. Ways of Reading texts are especially good at providing both problematizing material but also clarifying, organizing terms. Usually choosing one or two main texts per major essay is best; additional (often shorter) texts can supplement and complicate the main text. Too many texts per major essay can overwhelm your students and cloud the conversation. Ideally, the texts in each unit or major project will speak to each other across the semester, so students find themselves not only responding to the material they have just read but also to their own evolving thinking as the weeks and drafts progress.

So, how do you choose the texts you want to teach? Here are some ideas about assembling course texts:

  • Create a theme. Many instructors organize their courses around a set of related texts. Your theme might be a broad topic such as education or human rights, a motif such as detection or villains, or a more focused social issue such as countercultural movements or food and culture. Anthologies like Ways of Reading (and there are countless others available in the FYW Office) offer examples of themed sequences, which you can use as is, adapt, or discard entirely to create your own.
  • Don’t create a theme. The texts in anthologies are flexible and complex; it’s easy to find connections among any combination of them. Some crafty instructors will choose texts, imply all semester that the theme is hidden, and ask students to determine one as the semester progresses. (Theme or no theme, all essay assignments should be sequenced or build off each other.)
  • Ask experienced instructors for suggestions. If you find a text in one of the anthologies that appeals to you, find out who has taught that text before and ask which other texts might work well with it. They might also give you suggestions of assignments or activities.
  • Build the course around texts that you’re interested in working with. Some instructors choose texts they enjoy and think their students will enjoy as well. Others incorporate texts they find troubling or distasteful in order to show multiple perspectives and stimulate discussion.
  • Don’t be afraid to teach texts that you don’t know well or that are outside your areas of academic interest. You’re not expected to be an expert in the course texts, and the course functions better when you are learning alongside your students.
  • Skim the anthologies thoughtfully. You can often tell within a few paragraphs whether a text’s content will relate well to the rest of your course.
  • Use some texts as the “main course” and others as “side dishes.” Often, instructors will use a longer or more challenging text as the focus of a unit of study and then supplement it with shorter pieces that enrich or complicate the main text. Placing chapters or portions of books into electronic course reserve (available to students as PDFs) is a fairly easy process. If you want to show a film, you can reserve a film viewing room in the Babbidge Library. Or maybe you want to use a YouTube clip, a song, or a poem projected in your classroom.
  • Don’t be afraid to use literary texts in 1010 or nonfiction texts in 1011. Most instructors have done both at some point. Using a variety of genres can keep students engaged, and texts that explore similar themes in different ways can illuminate one another.
  • See everything as a text. Personal experiences, observed settings and people, artifacts, and student-produced texts (such as photographs, poems, case studies, and their own essays) can generate enthusiastic discussion and analysis.