The Rhetoric of Literature

Video lecture on “Hidden Meaning in Literature”

Adam Crowley, Husson University

Commentary: The Rhetoric of Literature
I teach literature at a private university in Maine that specializes in professional and paraprofessional programs. Over the last five years, we have revised our core curriculum in English to strengthen student reading, writing, and critical thinking. The centerpiece of this transformation has been the creation of a three-semester sequence focused on rhetoric and composition. In the first two semesters, students explore the concept of argumentation and its relevance to their social, cultural, and economic concerns. In the third semester, students use the skills they refine in these courses to approach the concept of literature.

Our exploration of literature contributes to the institution’s mission by exposing students to representations of life as it is lived by people beyond Maine’s traditional cultural horizon. More specifically, it helps students consider social scenarios and issues they are likely to encounter when they enter into a range of managerial roles in the contemporary workforce. This effort begins with the notion that literature can represent the kinds of lives our students want, as well as the notion that arguments about such lives can deepen student understanding of their immediate and desired social situations.

There are two basic challenges that instructors of this course tend to face. First, students generally arrive with the notion that literature is inherently mysterious and full of secret meaning. Without debasing the notion that literature is meaningful, it is useful to encourage students to think about literature as a place where arguments can be made, rather than a place where arguments can be found. This work enables even remedial readers to grasp literature on their own terms. Second, many students think that it is appropriate to evaluate literature as an entertainment. If the story is interesting, they “like it.” If it is not, they “dislike it.” While literature can be as entertaining as it can be meaningful, it is important to begin from the notion that literature does not exist for the purpose of entertaining the reader. Rather, the reader should come to a written work with the expectation that he or she will come away from the text with something to say about the relevance of the writing to his or her cultural horizon. These notions dovetail with many of the lessons about journalistic essays that are delivered in the first two semesters of the sequence.

The offered video lecture is part of an extensive on-line component to the course that has been in-development for several years. The course itself can be found at this website.

To date, the course has been successful in its efforts to foster key reading, writing, and critical thinking skills in an academic context that meets and exceeds the economic interests of our individual programs of study.