The Need for Flexibility in Graduate Literature Courses

MFA students are often required to take literature courses as part of their degree. Rhet comp students also often take literature courses if, for example, they are interested in the rhetoric of science and there is a lit course on nature writing, race science, ecocriticism, et cetera. There is not, however, a similar requirement for literature students to take creative writing classes and rarely do they take rhetoric classes. As a result, the graduate literature classroom is the most diverse place in the English department, with fiction writers, poets, memoirists, rhetoricians, and literature students sitting together around the same table. In such an environment, if the semester is going to be positive and productive, professors must be flexible in their expectations and pedagogy.


When a rhet comp PhD student takes a literature class, they may have done their undergraduate studies in rhetoric, communications, political science, history, et cetera. They may never have taken a literature class as an undergraduate and haven’t read a novel for school since Slaughterhouse Five in the 11th grade. They don’t know all the -isms of literary theory (Marxism, Feminism, New Historicism, et cetera). They don’t know the methods and techniques of literary scholarship. It is alien to them as if they were an undergraduate sophomore taking their first Introduction to American Literature course. Professors who expect such a student to produce graduate-level scholarship on par with actual literature PhD students are being both unrealistic and unfair. Both they and the student will be frustrated and unhappy with each other.


Similarly, MFA students may come from any imaginable background: they might be a 23-year-old fresh out of undergrad, but just as likely they could be a 32-year-old real estate salesman, a retired chemist, or a full-time mother. Maybe the student took literature classes in undergrad, certainly they have read a lot of novels, but they are in the habit of looking at a text from the point of an author. Why did the author choose third person instead of first? Why that word instead of its synonym? Why break the line here instead of there? Why a fragmented, nonlinear structure instead of a chronological one? They do this because authors are faced with thousands of choices and for the student writer, such choices are overwhelming and confusing. By studying how and why other writers made decisions based upon the effects they were trying to produce in the reader, the student writer is guided through this confusion.


The only people in a graduate literature classroom who have been trained to think and ask questions about a text like the professor are the literature students — and there may as many non-lit students as lit students. Literature students might even be in the minority! Any attempt to get the Rhet Comp and MFAers up to speed on literary scholarship’s methods in a few weeks will be disappointing for everyone.


So the solution is for literature professors to be flexible: let the rhet comp students talk about rhetoric, let MFA students talk about craft and authorial intent, build flexibility into assignments and papers, and embrace the differences between their students rather than force them to conform to the literature model. Most lit professors probably learn this over time through experience, but I imagine it is hardest for recent PhD grads from schools without MFA or Rhet Comp programs who get jobs at universities that do. They find themselves teaching in classrooms that look nothing like the classrooms they were in as graduate students.