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Illustration of William Shakespeare based on a 1623 engraving by Martin Droeshout.

Paul Gonzales, Los Angeles Times/MCT

Defending U of Minnesota literature course

  • Article by: Susan Henderson
  • May 6, 2013 - 7:48 PM

Counterpoint

Prof. Mark Bauerlein of Emory University is greatly troubled that the University of Minnesota literature course available to high school students through the College in the Schools program does not focus on the authors he believes students should read — such as Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Milton, Frost or Morrison (“An error of omission,” May 1).

Putting aside his misgivings about works outside the traditional literary canon, I want to address his assumptions about what role CIS plays vis-à-vis high school curriculum, about whom CIS students are, about why this course — “Introduction to Literature” — is available through CIS, and about what students learn.

Neither the university nor CIS is in the business of helping high schools create rigorous advanced courses; CIS staff and faculty do not review high school courses and determine whether they merit University of Minnesota credit or not. Rather, CIS offers high schools the opportunity, under university oversight, to add university courses to their curriculums.

The courses available through CIS are regular, credit-bearing University of Minnesota courses that have been approved through the university’s normal academic processes and are in the on-campus curriculum. CIS has policies and practices in place to ensure that the content, pedagogy and student assessment of the course taught in the high school are the same as those of the course taught on campus.

Students in the university CIS lit course must be in the top 30 percent of their high school classes in order to participate. Bauerlein’s concern about Minnesota students’ lack of reading proficiency therefore has little relevance in a discussion of what books CIS literature students should read.

In “Introduction to Literature,” CIS students read books from the late 19th century and 20th century, written by women and men, many of them people of color, from the United States and other countries throughout the world. Bauerlein suggests that the motive for offering this diverse reading list is to inculcate students with a negative social critique of American society.

Actually, the motive for offering the course through CIS is quite different: More than 20 years ago, a small group of Minnesota high school English teachers asked Charles Sugnet, a professor in the English Department at the University of Minnesota, to help them introduce their students to fine writing by women and people of color, since such writers were virtually nonexistent at their schools.

The university responded to this request from Minnesota educators by helping develop CIS and by providing CIS with a course that would augment the high school curriculum already in place. It was certainly not rejecting other curricular endeavors at the high schools.

The use of contemporary literature in the course allows students to learn about the diverse global world in which they live. Reading is a “safe” way to interact with people historically deemed “different” and who have been pushed to the side. CIS literature students have the opportunity to learn about worlds divergent from their own while they are challenged by rigorous reading and writing, and by critical interaction with superb texts.

Prof. Toni McNaron, who oversees the CIS literature course, repeatedly reports that CIS students tell her, when she visits their schools, that the course forces them to write more persuasively and to read more closely and critically. These are skills and habits colleges and universities desire in their students, and qualities Minnesota employers say they want in the workforce.

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Susan Henderson is director for precollege programs at the University of Minnesota.

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