Rhetoric and Literature, Non-fiction and Fiction: Do They Ever Meet?

Siobhan has a post up on the topic of whether Non-fiction Does or Does Not Have the Same Characteristics as Fiction (not her title).

It starts out in quite an engaging way. In fact, if one were speaking of a piece of literature, one might say that the author used an excellent hook.

Is non-fiction less “literary” than fiction? Someone has suggested to me that it is, and I’m so mad about it I could spit.

Read the whole thing and then come back here to see what I thought.

We’ve been having this discussion at my new college. (I say we because I know many of my new colleagues already and have engaged in discussions on the topics, even though I wasn’t at new college for the discussion.)

The issue doesn’t come in quite the way that Siobhan approaches it for New Uni, though. At New Uni the literature teachers teach literary analysis in the second half of freshman composition and the rhetoric teachers teach rhetorical analysis in the second half of freshman composition. The problem is that the common exit essay ALWAYS asks for a literary analysis, usually of a poem, since anything else would be too long. Students who have not had literary analysis for an entire semester are having their final exams on a topic they have not even studied!

The rhetoric teachers don’t want to change what they are teaching. The literature teachers don’t either. Fine. But it’s not a common exit essay if the two groups aren’t teaching the same classes.

This is true without even addressing the point that I am becoming more and more convinced that finals as finals are unnecessary.

Having the students take an exam over something they have not been taught in the class is unfair. I have been hired as a rhetoric teacher. I would, overall, be much more comfortable teaching the second semester as a rhetoric class. However, if the exit exam is on poetry, I am going to be teaching literary analysis and the rest of the rhetoric teachers should do the same.

There has been some discussion, mostly lead by the rhetoric teachers who are the minority in the department, of changing the exit essay to a rhetorical analysis. One of the literature teachers said that was fine, as long as the rhetoric people were willing to teach the lit people both the language (since the names of the same things are called differently in the two sub-disciplines) and the subject matter. Most lit people have never had a rhetoric class. The same is NOT true of rhetoric people, since historically literature has been favored in English departments.

So why are the rhetoric people clinging to their rhetoric in second semester? Partially it is because they don’t want to lose any of “their” classes. Partially it’s because they don’t want to be a literature teacher.

Partially it is the same sort of thing Siobhan is talking about, that fiction is viewed as inherently different from non-fiction.

I don’t think so.

What do you think?

One thought on “Rhetoric and Literature, Non-fiction and Fiction: Do They Ever Meet?”

  1. I think that the point of freshman comp should be to teach students how to write well, no matter what the subject/purpose, not to write to the test. Shouldn’t we be considering what types of writing they will have to do in their other college classes and in their careers over what type of test they have to take (and modify the test accordingly) or what we “like” to teach? I teach thesis-based writing in both of my comp courses (level 1 and 2). While they’re writing about literature in the second semester, everything that I’ve taught them in the first semester prepares them to adapt to writing an argument about literary texts because I focus on teaching them how to develop an argument and support it, whether their support comes from a nonfiction book (as it does in the first semester) or a poem/short story/play (as it does in the second semester). And I don’t need a specialized language to teach either. I use plain old English “that cats and dogs can understand” (to paraphrase Marianne Moore).

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