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Composition Forum 42, Fall 2019

“The Text is the Thing”: Graduate Students in Literature and Cultural Conceptions of Literacy

Meaghan Brewer

Abstract: This article profiles three new graduate instructors in a PhD program in literature who are teaching composition for the first time while enrolled in a teaching methods course. I argue that understanding graduate instructors’ prior beliefs about literacy has the potential to make practica instructors more sympathetic to the complex identity-based and ideological negotiations new graduate instructors must undertake in their first year of teaching while also pointing to ways to facilitate this work.

In a 2007 review article, E. Shelley Reid describes the difficulties inherent in guiding new graduate instructors during their first year of teaching. Reid points to the mixed feelings of many practica instructors who find reward in guiding new instructors as they become teachers, knowing that this influence extends beyond this single mentoring experience to the future cohorts of students these instructors will teach. Yet Reid also argues that this influence comes with anxiety: about how to choose among all of the possibilities for what to cover in the overburdened practicum course; about graduate instructor “resistance” to elements of their training; and, I would add, about our own disciplinary position as we train instructors who largely hail from other disciplines.

It is perhaps due to this anxiety that composition studies has seen such a rich set of empirical studies on graduate teacher education over the past few decades (e.g. Grutsch McKinney and Chiseri-Strater; Ebest; Restaino; Dryer; Reid, Estrem, and Belcheir; and Grouling). Yet based on my conversations with WPAs who teach graduate practica, as well as my ongoing experiences as a relatively new WPA, I suspect that much of the anxiety described by Reid persists. In this article, I explore and offer partial explanations for what I argue is at least one source of this anxiety: that many of us are training graduate (and other) instructors who identify with fields other than composition. In the case of graduate instructors whose fields are literature, some of their literacy assumptions may, as Jackie Grutsch McKinney and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater put it, “tread heavily on our own professional identities” because they remind us of the views marginalizing composition that we have read about in histories like Susan Miller’s Textual Carnivals or even the ongoing experiences we have with colleagues in literary studies within our own departments (64).

Consider, for example, the following passage written by Jordi, a third-year graduate student in a doctoral program in English literature, in response to an in-class activity in her graduate practicum that asked her to rank six writing assignments and explain her rationale for the ranking:

These rankings reflect my somewhat tenuous belief in the importance of the text ... While I value the concept of relating text to self and text to world, I think establishing such relationships is difficult or superficial without first establishing a deep understanding of the text itself. For this reason, I’ve ranked assignments that center on the ideas in the text before asking students to relate those ideas to the space outside the text. (22 Oct.)

In this three-sentence passage, Jordi repeats the word “text” six times, including a reference to the New Critical phrase “the text itself.” Although Jordi acknowledges a world beyond texts, she positions her goal for instruction squarely within a tradition that values texts for their own sake. Jordi also assumes that knowledge and “deep understanding” of texts must come before other goals. That is, whereas some might view literacy as a vehicle for self-exploration, a means for creating social change, or a necessary step for material gain, Jordi’s past experiences have reinforced an almost religious devotion to textual analysis, as well as the assumption that understandings of the text can be achieved prior to relating texts to one’s own experience or situating them in a broader context. Jordi’s first semester of teaching thus involved recognizing and questioning pre-existing views in order to determine whether and how they fit into her work as a composition instructor.

Implicit in what I discuss above is that new teachers like Jordi bring prior knowledge, values, and experiences about literacy with them to their teaching. Dan Lortie first documented this in his often-cited research on pre-service teachers, positing that first time teachers have already spent thousands of hours observing teachers in school, and this “apprenticeship of observation” plays a significant role in forming preconceptions about teaching (and literacy) that make up the “lore” that new teachers revert to in times of indecision. In a study of new graduate instructors, E. Shelley Reid, Heidi Estrem, and Marcia Belcheir found that “TAs were influenced more strongly by prior personal experiences and beliefs ... than by their formal pedagogy education” (33-34). Donna Qualley further argues that “prior knowledge initially exerts a strong pull in the ways ... [new graduate instructors] understand and take up key concepts” (83). Most recently, Christine M. Tardy et al. found that graduate instructors were likely to bring personal theories of writing-related concepts (like genre) with them to their training and that these theories were influenced by their disciplinary orientations.

Studies of undergraduates’ learning trajectories are often described in terms of knowledge transfer, a term for describing how individuals take information learned in one context and apply it in another. While some scholars have begun to question the use of the term as helpful in understanding students’ learning trajectories (see Wardle), transfer theorists’ recognition of the effects of prior knowledge, or the discursive resources students bring with them to new learning situations, is crucial for understanding the pedagogical decisions new graduate instructors make. Moreover, research on learning demonstrates that when students’ “preconceptions about how the world works” are not engaged they will either fail to grasp new concepts or learn (and apply) them only temporarily (Bransford et al. 10; see also Reiff and Bawarshi.). The abundance of literature on new graduate instructors’ “resistance” to composition pedagogy is perhaps a sign that many graduate practica, the courses designed to support new graduate instructors as they learn writing pedagogy, either fail to engage new graduate instructors’ preconceptions or do not see resistance as an opportunity for growth (Welch; Ebest; Dryer; Reid et al.; Grouling). Finally, WPAs also need to be aware of how “negative transfer,” or instances where past experiences can interfere with new learning, can affect the experiences of new graduate instructors (Beaufort 104).

The present study began as an exploration of new graduate instructors’ prior conceptions of literacy, or sets of values and beliefs about literacy, and whether and how these conceptions transferred into their teaching. During the study, I noticed that the three graduate students in literature described the importance of “the text” twenty-seven times over the course of the two-semester study but had difficulty explaining why texts were important to them. I further realized that whereas their peers in creative writing and composition tended to view texts as a vehicle for personal or community uplift, the graduate students in literature positioned knowledge and appreciation of texts as its own goal and believed that having students read and analyze texts would result in better writing.

After describing the study, I begin by characterizing what I call a cultural conception of literacy, first by exploring common associations with the term and then by describing how the attitudes of the graduate instructors in the present study compared to these representations. I show how the thinking of these new graduate instructors came into conflict with the conceptions of literacy that undergird writing pedagogy, which position texts as the means to more social and rhetorical ends. Nevertheless, I also argue that recognizing how imbedded new graduate instructors’ views are within past experiences and literacy sponsors might help WPAs understand their views and feel more prepared to support graduate instructors in their first year of teaching. I then turn to an exploration of how the text-centric attitudes I describe transferred to the graduate instructors’ teaching. I end by recommending strategies practica instructors and WPAs can use to help graduate instructors with backgrounds in literature become aware of their tacit conceptions of literacy.

Public University and the Graduate Practicum

Public University is a large, research-intensive, public university in an urban area near the East Coast. I recruited participants from the fall 2010 Graduate Practicum, which introduced graduate students to pedagogy in addition to the composition theory informing it, including topics like responding to student writing, argumentation, and reflection, and readings by seminal theorists like David Bartholomae, Nancy Sommers, and Jacqueline Royster. The Practicum instructor was also the WPA, and the course also had two graduate mentors who attended every class, held weekly “teaching circle” meetings, and observed graduate instructors’ classes. While my presence in the classroom was as a graduate student researcher, I also informally mentored the graduate instructors and observed their classes, and several students in the course sought out my advice since I had experience teaching the same course and syllabus. The Practicum instructor communicated in the Practicum syllabus that the theme of the Practicum would be “conceptions of literacy” and that the graduate instructors would be writing and revising a “literacy autobiography,” which I argue contributed to their ability to start identifying and questioning their prior literacy views.

Sixteen of the eighteen graduate instructors (which included ten MFA in creative writing, six PhD in literature, and two PhD in comp/rhet) volunteered to participate. Although I gathered data from all participants to give me a broad sense of trends in their beliefs about literacy, I chose seven focal participants, with an eye to having participants representing all three disciplines and to including men and women from each. Because I was teaching on two campuses (including Public’s) when I collected data, I selected participants whose classes were scheduled at times when I could observe them. All of these focal participants identified as Caucasian. While I recognize this as a limitation of the study, they represented the overall demographic of the class.{1}

In this article, I focus on the three graduate students in literature as they taught their first two semesters of College Composition (CC).{2} I conducted an initial interview and observed graduate instructors’ teaching twice, interviewing them after each observation. I also collected two drafts of a literacy autobiography (written for the Practicum), Blackboard discussion posts, and field notes from Practicum meetings. The following table lists the participants and demographic information. Under “Teaching Experience,” I note previous experience, including Garrett and Jordi’s experience as assistants for literature survey classes and Blake’s experience as a literacy tutor for fourth graders.

Table 1. Participants

Graduate Instructor

Program of Study

Age at Time of Study

Prior Teaching Experience

Year in Program
















In the remainder of this article, I discuss data from Garrett, Jordi, and Blake’s interviews and literacy narratives to show how their cultural literacy views impacted their teaching. Although they shared many of the same literacy assumptions, Jordi, Garrett and Blake came from very different backgrounds. Jordi identified as an academia brat; her father was an English professor, her mother a high school English teacher, and her stepfather a psychology professor, making her upbringing the most overtly academic. Garrett, on the other hand, grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest and joined the military after high school because he initially couldn’t afford college. Finally, Blake grew up in a conservative Presbyterian family in the Northeast, was homeschooled until he was in college, and held some conservative political views (like being pro-life). Yet all three shared a deep devotion to texts and interpretation.

Defining Cultural Conceptions of Literacy

Cultural literacy refers to the view that there is a “canon of books which any cultured person should know” and which become the means for “defining membership and including some people and excluding others” (Barton 168). The most common association with the term in composition is E.D. Hirsch’s still widely read 1987 monograph Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Although taxonomies describing literacy ideologies often associate views of literacy as being “cultured,” with Hirsch (Goggin; Knoblauch), his emphasis on the importance of background knowledge in reading is a different view from those who value knowledge of texts for its own sake.

On the surface, the graduate instructors I discuss appeared to hold a less elitist view of literacy than Hirsch, who has been criticized for privileging a white, masculine, Western version of culture rather than seeing it as an amalgamation of different cultures and perspectives. Yet their more multicultural version of cultural literacy also made it difficult for them to see that in other ways, their literacy views were still very hierarchical. That is, the graduate instructors tacitly believed in what New Literacy theorists dub the “Great Divide” literacy myth in their tendency to position themselves as having more cultural awareness than their students (Harker 28). Their not-outwardly highbrow (but nonetheless tacitly exclusionary) version of cultural literacy reifies the same binaries and hierarchies described in cultural histories of college English. As Miller argues, English departments have long histories of creating hierarchies, and one of the most insidious is the marginalization of student texts (and the people associated with them) in comparison to the privileged creations of the literary canon (64). The graduate instructors saw texts as important not because of their ability to communicate a shared culture or increase reading comprehension (as in Hirsch) but rather because textual appreciation and elevation of texts had been ingrained in them through the kinds of reading practices they engaged in throughout their childhoods, which were later reinforced in their educations. To put it another way, these three came to the teaching of composition having had a number of sponsors and experiences that inculcated in them a deep, almost religious reverence of texts.

As with any conception of literacy, this view offers both affordances and limitations. The graduate instructors in the present study all appeared to care deeply about their students and spent a great deal of time planning classes to support them in what they viewed as a rigorous and necessary course. In some ways, Jordi, Garrett, and Blake all had realistic views of academia (and particularly English departments) as privileging text-centric literacy beliefs and practices, and they recognized the crucial role that reading plays in writing. However, they also bemoaned students’ lack of cultural knowledge and tried to compensate by “teaching the text.” And although attention to reading and analysis is necessary in composition, in these graduate instructors’ classrooms, writing sometimes took a backseat.

Whereas I argue here for the importance of engaging new graduate instructors’ preconceptions, I also contend that practica instructors need to intervene in such belief systems. Composition scholars understand that texts are only one aspect of the literacy experience; the influence of literacy studies on composition shifted the focus from texts in isolation to literacy practices and literacy events (Brandt). However, for the graduate instructors in the present study, text-centric views often translated into a focus on reading at the expense of writing and, moreover, to a focus on a version of reading that most in composition would recognize as narrow: New Critical close reading. While some use close reading as a shorthand to refer to any intensive reading practice, as Ellen Carillo argues, New Critical close reading encourages a much narrower focus on “the text itself” to the exclusion of the discursive resources students bring with them to the experience of reading, including background information and personal (even emotional) connections (Reimagining). Thus, these graduate instructors were not only focusing on reading at the expense of writing but were focusing on (often implicit) theories of reading that are not likely to serve students in future contexts.

Although cultural literacy views may garner frustration from WPAs, it would also be a mistake to hold these newcomers accountable for their tacit views or to project our frustration about the marginalization of composition onto them. At different points in the study, Garrett, Jordi, and Blake all acknowledged that textual interpretation by itself was not the goal of the first-year course and began to question views that, once they thought through them, marginalized either their students or the people they cared about. In addition, they had never taught a composition course before, had not, with the exception of Blake, taken a composition course as undergraduates, and were unfamiliar with composition theory. Thus, while I take a critical view of some of their assumptions, I also argue that the onus is on WPAs, as well as more broadly on English departments who are professionalizing graduate students, to help them arrive at broader, more inclusive understandings of literacy. In their interviews, Garrett, Jordi, and Blake showed evidence that they were questioning what they were beginning to realize were exclusionary beliefs about literacy. Taking a closer look at these views, and their deep indebtedness to past experiences, might help us see graduate students with similar views in a more sympathetic light, while also pointing to ways to help them arrive at a more effective, inclusive pedagogy.

Graduate Instructors’ Cultural Conceptions of Literacy

I used the qualitative data management software Altas.ti to identify and track ideas related to cultural conceptions of literacy. I parsed data into content units, or “segments of discourse designed to make a single point,” assigning codes belonging to the category of cultural literacy 246 times (Smith and Strickland 150). (For more on coding, see Appendix). In Table 2, I rank participants according to the percentage that cultural literacy made up of their total codes:

Table 2. Numbers for Cultural Literacy Conceptions, as a ratio and a percentage of participant’s total codes



Ratio of Cultural Literacy Codes to Participant’s Total Codes

Percentage of Cultural Literacy Codes














creative writing








creative writing







As Table 2 indicates, text-centric views of literacy were more common among the PhD students in literature when compared to graduate students in creative writing and composition.

The most salient feature of the cultural literacy conception was envisioning literacy as primarily text-based. However, Jordi, Garrett, and Blake had trouble articulating why knowledge of texts was so important for their students. For example, during our final interview Jordi stated, “I mean, of course we’re working with texts. We read books. Like, this is what we do” (14 Mar.). When I pushed her on why a composition classroom should focus on texts, she replied,

I don’t, I don’t know. Umm ... because if the text weren’t there, what would we be doing? Because a discussion has to start somewhere? Because ideas are important? I don’t know. I mean, that’s a really hard question, and it’s definitely something I take for granted. Like, the text is the thing. That’s where you start. (14 Mar.)

Jordi suggests that understanding the text must come before students think about social contexts or personal connections. I see here a New Critical assumption that focusing only on the text can yield insights that are muddied by contexts or personal experiences. However, her repetition of “I don’t know,” also reveals that despite how ingrained this understanding of literacy is, she was beginning to sense that knowledge of texts by itself could no longer constitute her explanatory framework. The occasion of our interview, then, facilitated an opening when Jordi recognized that she would have to reconsider past ideas in light of her new experiences as a composition teacher. Still, given how ingrained these views were, Jordi was only at the beginning of a process that would take longer to solidify.

Jordi, Garrett, and Blake were deeply devoted to texts, and at times, they also reinscribed the binaric view of composition students as “deficient” (in contrast either to English majors or themselves) because of their perceived lack of reading or critical thinking. Jordi, for example, lamented that the English majors she had taught as a TA had a special capacity for textual analysis and critical thinking her composition students didn’t seem to have. However, my analysis also suggests that “critical thinking” often functioned as a code word for “having knowledge of texts.” During my initial coding, when graduate instructors expressed their desire for students to “think critically,” I thought that they saw literacy as the means for people to attain critical consciousness, in a Freirian “reading the world” sense.

However, references to critical thinking were often clustered with other codes for cultural literacy. For example, Jordi commented during one Practicum meeting that she was having to adjust to teaching non-English majors. When I asked her what she saw as the difference between composition students and English majors, she replied,

I think one of the big problems is ... that ... [composition students] look at everything that’s written on paper as fact. Um, getting them to kind of challenge things, which they can do if they disagree with it, but, if they label it as history, or if they label it as, I don’t know, literature, or something, they’re somehow not able to analyze it. They just take it for what it is. (Interview, 26 Oct.)

At first glance, Jordi does not seem to be elevating texts but rather positioning them as ideas to be challenged. Indeed, one of the aspects of Jordi’s pedagogy that made her so effective in the classes I observed was that she had students interacting with texts and producing written products in response to them. However, she also uses literacy to create hierarchies; whereas English majors are able to critically analyze texts, composition students are deficient. Here, critical thinking is not an instrument for liberation and social uplift but rather a means for differentiating students.

Jordi’s experience illustrates, then, that critical thinking can have multiple meanings and that it is important to parse these meanings to get at the assumptions about literacy the phrase itself can hide. Catherine Fox contends that even though we tend to think of critical thinking as liberatory, it is often associated with “following the ‘rules of reason’ as they have been established in a long history of Western intellectualism” (202-203). Miller also suggests that in practice, “critical thinking” is associated with the “canonical textual education that English was established to provide along openly stated Arnoldian principles” (88). Certainly, critical thinking is often a stated outcome of writing courses (see the WPA Outcomes for First-Year Composition), and critical thinking, in the sense of helping students uncover unstated biases and think through the implications of their own and others’ arguments, is crucial. But new graduate instructors also have to become conscious of how their training as readers might influence how they in turn teach reading. Specifically, as literary scholar Faye Halpern argues, many literary theorists are trained in approaches rooted primarily in suspicion, approaches that eschew the kinds of immersive and emotional responses to reading that can be motivating and necessary for undergraduates (see Rosenblatt). In contrast, in Freire’s work, the process of conscientizaĆ§Ć£o is not only dialogic but is also deeply personal and emotional, as it is ultimately about locating the self within larger societal systems and recognizing oppression.

In their literacy narratives, the graduate instructors often told stories where earlier, emotional connections to texts are left behind as they begin to read more like literary scholars. For example, Jordi describes how she “teared up” after reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” in high school but later came to a more distanced interpretation of the poem after writing about it for her honors thesis in college (10 Sept.).

In his narrative, Garrett describes his grandmother as the person who sponsored his initial, emotional connections with books. Because his parents worked long hours at their jobs, his grandmother took care of him, and many of his childhood memories consisted of his grandmother buying him books, taking him to the library, and reading to him. But after an experience with a friend (Quinn), he describes his realization that she doesn’t read the right kinds of books:

Though I try not to judge my grandmother for reading detective fiction, I do. Of course, she sits on some imaginary level above people who do not care to read at all, but this imaginary level is still an ethical failure on her part. The irony, of course, is that my grandmother taught me to like reading and Quinn taught me to fear it. (Narrative, 10 Sept.)

While I could read this passage at face value, and believe that Garrett really does judge his grandmother (and perhaps also his composition students) for the amount and the kind of reading they do, I think he includes this passage in order to work through these beliefs, arriving at a conception of literacy that does not marginalize the people he cares about. That is, this passage demonstrates both how ingrained hierarchical, text-centric conceptions of literacy are for Garrett as well as the necessity for him to begin viewing literacy more broadly. Whereas Garrett’s narrative asserts a conception that rejects emotional responses to reading and creates hierarchies among texts and people, he also appears to include it as a request to the Practicum instructor (or perhaps himself), to help him arrive at a different view. Notably, Garrett did not include the passage in the final draft of his narrative, suggesting that he no longer wanted to identify with a view that marginalized his grandmother. Moreover, during our interview, Garrett began to interrogate his hierarchical views and see himself and his students as existing on the same literacy plane, stating, “I mean, we’re all climbing the same hill here” (20 Oct.)

A key feature of conceptions of literacy appears to be that individuals don’t tend to be aware of them until something happens that challenges or reveals the limitations of their beliefs. For Jordi, Garrett, and Blake, this challenge happened as they negotiated their literacy views in light of their new roles as teachers.

Cultural Literacy Conceptions and Teaching

The standard syllabus for CC, which the graduate instructors were required to use, began with a unit on nonviolent protest, in which composition students read Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore and wrote two papers considering whether nonviolent protest was feasible today. In the next unit, composition students read historical documents and critical essays on the American West, culminating in a paper that asked them how the concept of the “frontier” is related to American culture today. For the final unit, students read Kindred by Octavia Butler and deliberated whether and how science fiction as a genre helped them explore concepts like structural racism. In addition to standardized readings and assignments, the graduate instructors all followed a daily schedule for their classes given to them with the standard syllabus, although they did occasionally (individually) divert from this schedule and the graduate instructors taught the schedule and assignments differently, often in accordance with their pre-existing views.

Because the syllabus was structured around four major writing assignments and CC was a writing course, the Practicum instructor encouraged the graduate instructors to see the readings not as ends in themselves but rather as tools to help students think about and write in response to these assignments. However, Garrett, Jordi, and Blake spent more time on textual interpretation than writing in the classes I observed than their peers in other disciplines and perceived texts and reading to be more central to their work as educators. In Table 3, I differentiate between activities where students are discussing reading and constructive reading activities that also involved writing and interaction with the texts. (An example of the latter is an activity where Jordi’s students created posters advertising the West after reading treatises by C.W. Dana and Theodore Roosevelt.)

Table 3. Time Spent on Discussion of Readings and Constructive Activities Aimed at Interpretation, as a percentage of each participant’s total class time observed.



Reading - Discussion, %

Reading - Constructive, %

All Reading, %






















creative writing





creative writing









Because I only observed two classes (for a total of three hours and twenty minutes of observation per graduate instructor), the results that I display above are open to scrutiny. However, even on days the other graduate instructors devoted to “readings,” they also had students writing and working on writing skills in class. The focus on reading is supported by statements from their interviews, as well as other scholarship (see Cole and Lyon; Blau).

While it’s hard to know for certain, it’s possible that, despite the Practicum instructor’s emphasis on writing, the curriculum for CC, which included a number of historical and literary texts, signaled to these graduate instructors that it was okay to fall back on their training in literary studies and their experience in literature courses. Although the content of the course helped to create footholds into the curriculum, allowing them to bring in additional content they were familiar with, as I discuss in the following sections, it also created confusion for Jordi and Blake in particular, who wondered how CC was different from the literature courses they were used to. Moreover, because Jordi, Garrett, and Blake felt pressure to “cover” the readings on the standard syllabus, they all admitted to neglecting writing in their courses. To be clear, Jordi, Garrett, and Blake were troubled that they seemed to be talking about the content of the readings (which I would distinguish from teaching reading) more than they talked about writing. Although they wanted to incorporate more writing, because they thought that texts were important and because their own past instruction had focused more on discussing literature, they felt unprepared for the differing curricular goals of the composition classroom, even with the support structure of the Practicum.

In addition to the amount of reading, the approach to reading Jordi, Blake, and Garrett encouraged in their classrooms emphasized close reading of the texts, almost to the exclusion of activities that helped students develop personal connections or bring background knowledge to the experience of reading. (Although Jordi often had students make personal connections to texts, she saw this more as indulging students than a pedagogical tool to bring them closer to the texts they read.) Finally, texts were often a touchstone for their own sense of control and teacherly authority in the classroom. Below, I address these challenges in more depth, focusing on Jordi’s and Blake’s classes.

“The Text is Your Source for This”: Texts as Control

Jordi stated that her main learning goal for her students was that they understand and be prepared to “challenge” and “question” the texts they were reading, which on the surface seems counter to her more reverent view of texts (Interview, 18 Nov.). The second time I observed, Jordi’s students were examining historical documents advertising the American West. Jordi showed two Levi’s Jeans commercials, which referenced lines from Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” As students made comments about the commercial, Jordi directed them to different points of the poem, showing them where their ideas could be located in this text. In this way, Jordi took control of the poem, clicking on the computer tab where the poem was located whenever a student expressed an idea that could be located within the poem. Whereas the students worked within what she seemed to presume was their area of expertise, the media, Jordi made herself responsible for connecting them to a piece of literature. Jordi unwittingly made herself the source of cultural literacy, rather than having students point to lines in the poem relating to ideas in the commercial. Getting students to engage with the texts via the commercial seemed productive, but positioning them as experts on the commercial and herself as an expert on the poem sent subtle signals about their differences in literacy status.

In the final part of class, Jordi’s students created posters advertising the West from the perspective of one of the readings. As Jordi circulated, she stopped at a group and reminded them to “Look at the text,” saying, “the text is your source for this” (14 Mar.). When we discussed this moment afterwards, Jordi explained, “When I do get creative, I feel like I end up not connecting it to the texts as well, in specific ways, as I should ... so ... making them come up with a quote from the text would be good to incorporate” (14 Mar.). I pointed out that the group had included the phrase “the land of milk and honey,” which was in their reading. Jordi responded,

I feel like that they might not have really known where that came from, or what it meant, or, I don’t want to give a Bible class, but ... I kept reminding them, this isn’t just an ad, this is based on the text. (14 Mar.)

Here, Jordi worries that her students don’t possess the cultural knowledge to identify Biblical allusions. Jordi is correct that students need background knowledge about the Bible in order to interpret them, and her grappling with what her students need and how she could facilitate their learning is fruitful. But her desire to get them to look more closely at the text also seems rooted in a desire to manage the activity and get students to read more like literary critics. She sees that without a “requirement” to include a quote, she cannot enforce the close adherence to texts that she has deemed essential to their development as readers and writers. Perhaps more significantly, Jordi doesn’t interpret students’ excitement and engagement in the task as an indicator of success; rather, success is determined by how closely students adhere to the texts.

However, by this final observation and interview, Jordi had begun to realize the necessity of interrogating her conception of literacy. She admitted, “it’s almost ... like I get so caught up with making sure they understand the readings that then it’s an afterthought, that they need to know how to write about them” (14 Mar.). Indeed, Jordi had created a writing activity for students but ended up giving it as homework because she spent so much of the hour and forty-minute period on the readings.

During an earlier interview, she intimated the same sense of having to modify existing beliefs, stating,

Practicum is just weird because it’s like I’ve never thought about my writing before... . You would think that you think about your writing. And how you write and why you write as an English person, but at least I haven’t really. ... I can think critically about the world but not about my own writing. [Laughs.] (26 Oct.)

Jordi’s admission indicates not only the necessity of having graduate instructors interrogate pre-existing views but also that the kind of close, critical reading they have been engaged in does not necessarily translate to a similar critical distance in terms of reading and reflecting on their past experiences. Instead, WPAs need to create occasions where this self-exploration can occur.

“There Was Never an Emphasis on Writing”: Texts and Teacherly Authority

As in Jordi’s class, Blake used small group work to engage students, a strategy that had been modeled in the Practicum. Each group had a section of an article that discussed the historical relevance of Kindred and was supposed to respond to a question about it. What struck me, though, was that students were either silent or off-task until Blake came around to talk to them. I got a clue for why during the following exchange:

BLAKE: Well, we didn’t define history yet, and we need to for one of your paper prompts. [Reads from the prompt.] Does anyone know what Janus-faced means?
STUDENT 1: Two-faced.
BLAKE: Yeah, it’s like there’s a dual notion of history. So, what is history? Can someone give me a definition?
STUDENT 2: Events that happened in the past?
BLAKE: No, it’s not.
STUDENT 2: Our recollection of the event?
BLAKE: It’s not even that. (Observation, 22 Nov.)

Here, Blake communicates to his students that his questions have only one answer and thus makes himself the key to understanding texts. This form of questioning, which education scholars refer to as “inauthentic” is, as Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst argue, monologic in that it constructs a community in which it is only the professor’s views that count or get communicated (29). Because Blake found comfort in texts and saw them as important, he also used them as the source for his teacherly authority, indicating that hierarchical, text-based beliefs may translate into similarly hierarchical, text-based teaching.

While I don’t think Blake would like to think of himself as setting up such hierarchies between himself and his students, during our interviews he revealed that this was the kind of teaching delivery he had experienced as an undergraduate. When I asked him directly about this focus after visiting his class in the spring, he responded,

I’m not sure how well it works with this syllabus ... when I was an undergrad, my composition course ... was all literature. We read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, I’m not really one hundred percent sure how to treat this differently, but I’m definitely teaching it as a literature course, even though almost everything we’re reading is an essay, or an argument. There may be another way to teach it, but I’ve never taken a course that ... focused on texts like these ... there was never a heavy emphasis on writing. (28 Feb.)

As we talked, Blake revealed that his undergraduate composition course was a special section for English majors, so he understandably felt unsure what a composition course not based on literary readings might look like. While the curriculum for CC did have literary readings, there weren’t as many as the course Blake took as an undergraduate, and Blake appeared to see the two courses as very different. Nevertheless, in the absence of prior knowledge about composition pedagogy, Blake substitutes from what he sees as the next best thing: his literature courses. But like Jordi, he also begins to question whether this is sufficient or whether he would have to reconsider what it means to teach college writing.

I asked Blake again about his focus on texts in the following segment of our final interview:

ME: Okay, so I guess that ability to use texts, to analyze a text—that’s something that’s very important to you?
BLAKE: Yeah. Um, I don’t know that there’s any other way to ... is analyzing a text that someone else wrote a very different skill from analyzing a text that you wrote, and if you can analyze a text you wrote then you’re ... ?
ME: Why do think that’s important for them to be able to analyze a text?
BLAKE: To teach them how to write. So, if they can analyze a text, then they can produce a text. (28 Feb.)

Blake relies on the belief that students who read “closely” and “critically” automatically become stronger writers. It makes sense that graduate instructors like Blake would take this reading-writing relationship to be a given: Blake, after all, described himself as “thriving” in classrooms that focused on literature and did not recall ever being taught explicit writing or reading strategies (Interview, 1 Nov.). And research on reading in the composition classroom does demonstrate the value of occasioning opportunities for students to read and work through difficult texts (Bartholomae and Petrosky). However, as Carillo contends, “nothing is automatic. Students do not somehow learn to write—perhaps by osmosis—simply by reading” (Securing 52). Although composition instructors should teach reading in the writing classroom, the graduate instructors’ emphasis on readings often took the place of constructive activities that would have allowed students to combine reading and writing and generate materials and knowledge that would be useful for them in their writing.

Discussion and Implications for Graduate Instructor Training

In the review article I cited earlier, Reid points out that just as the composition course is often cast to the bottom of English department curricula, so too the practicum course has “been cast as the graduate version of FYC” (245). Reid astutely connects this to our field’s continuing anxieties about disciplinarity, and perhaps especially the disciplinary borders we share with literature and related fields. The desire to “pack in” as much about composition pedagogy as we can into a single course is often heightened when new graduate instructors are not in the field of composition and thus may not have additional opportunities for considering their teaching practices in light of composition theory. To return to the theme of anxiety, then, much of the anxiety related to graduate instructor disciplinarity and its overlaps with conceptions of literacy is due to the truncated nature of graduate instructor training, as well as the subsidiary role of the practicum in the context of graduate instructors’ other coursework.

While Jordi, Blake, and Garrett were identifying aspects of their experiences that they could use as resources during their first year of teaching, some of their tacit beliefs about literacy could be harmful to the undergraduates they teach. Although close reading and critical thinking are sometimes described as methods to disrupt the reverence for texts that these graduate instructors displayed, in practice, the graduate instructors seemed to reinforce textual authority in their classes. Indeed, the New Critical close reading that the graduate instructors were modeling appeared similar to what is currently advocated by authors of the Common Core State Standards, approaches that treat texts as “stable repositories of meaning,” disconnect texts from readers, and do not treat “students as active participants in the creation of knowledge” (Carillo “Reimagining” 31). Approaches that remove (even inadvertently) student agency may be particularly dangerous during our current “post-truth” era.

Many of the realizations about their literacy conceptions happened during interviews where I pushed the graduate instructors to articulate the reasoning behind the pedagogical moves I had just witnessed and asked them to think about their decisions in light of something we had read or discussed in the Practicum. And notably, their most thorough reconsiderations appeared to occur in their second semester of teaching, while they were no longer enrolled in the Practicum but had had time to consider their teaching beyond the hectic first semester. This demonstrates that becoming a teacher is a long, developmental process, and that teacher training should be, as Reid et al. argue, “routinely and robustly extended into at least the second and third years of new teachers’ work in composition programs” (32).

However, there are things WPAs can do in the practicum (and throughout their first year of teaching) to help graduate instructors come to a fuller awareness of their literacy views and develop more effective and inclusive teaching practices:

1. Assign projects that help graduate instructors bring insights from disability studies to their teaching

At different points in their teaching, Jordi, Garrett and Blake all made assumptions about their students’ abilities, and these assumptions were likely tied to their hierarchical views of literacy. Jordi stated that her students were “incapable of analyzing quotes” (Interview, 18 Nov.). Garrett thought they “might not be able to understand an academic article yet” (Interview, 18 Nov), and Blake told me “they can’t read these essays on their own. There’s no question of that—they just don’t have the reading skills” (Interview, 22 Nov.).

Although scholarship on disability has been incorporated into fields like composition, literature, and education, for new graduate instructors, disability theory might seem separate from their teaching unless they have students with disabilities that are easy to see. In fact, Jordi, Garrett, and Blake’s statements about what they thought students weren’t “able” to do occurred soon after the class when they discussed readings by disability theorists like Amy Vidali. As Vidali demonstrates, disability studies’ challenge of “deficit models,” often invoked when talking about students in composition courses, can help instructors develop more informed understandings of students’ abilities (43). But the Practicum might not have sufficiently prompted them to use “disability as insight” into thinking about students without obvious disabilities (Vidali 43). Thus, assigning readings about disability is only effective if we create occasions for the graduate instructors to reflect on these readings in the context of their teaching, making teaching observations, projects, and discussions to prompt them to make these connections crucial.

2. Allow graduate instructors to channel prior experiences by asking them to model lessons on close reading

While I argue that the close reading approaches used by Jordi, Blake, and Garrett may have been harmful for their students, having them come up with and model lessons on close reading strategies can occasion opportunities for them to talk through their assumptions about reading and locate close reading within broader conceptions of what it means to read and write. While on the surface this strategy might appear to reinforce reading strategies that are more appropriate for literature classes, having graduate instructors create lessons on close reading can also (when handled well) offer the opportunity to talk about the many kinds of readings they and their students have to do and to question whether having their students do slow, in-depth analysis of short passages of text is always the best strategy. Practica instructors can, as a follow-up, model their own reading activities that expand and help graduate instructors reinvision how to teach reading and what reading practices they should value.

3. Create assignments that ask graduate instructors to define constructs like “critical thinking”

Jordi, Blake, and Garrett all justified their text-centric approaches as helping students’ critical thinking or civic awareness, but, as I discussed, the meanings behind these terms are often vague and go undefined. Asking graduate instructors to create taxonomies where they track how these terms are defined differently can make them aware of their implicit definitions. For example, Jordi appeared to define critical thinking as an academic process of eschewing emotion in favor of more coolly rational, distanced approaches to reading. While it can certainly be valuable to ask students to step back from emotional reactions to texts or ideas, denying the role of emotion in reading paints a narrow picture of the reading process.

4. Have graduate instructors write and revise a literacy narrative

Throughout this article, I pointed to openings where the graduate instructors signaled a desire to work past cultural literacy views or to situate them among broader understandings of literacy. This appeared to be due, in part, to the fact that they were writing and (more importantly) revising a literacy autobiography, and that they had the opportunity to think through their implicit claims and values with their practica instructor and me, via interviews and one-on-one meetings. Indeed, whereas I argue that the literacy narratives were key to their examination of prior literacy beliefs, many of their realizations occurred during our interviews when I referenced things they said in their narratives. That is, while the revelations themselves might not be visible in the narratives, the narratives acted as a springboard for reconsidering prior views. As Estrem and Reid said of their study, the graduate instructors were “using the interview as a processing space” (464). Such prompting can be difficult, as practica instructors and mentors might only see connections between graduate instructors’ beliefs and relevant readings or theories later. For example, I didn’t initially recognize that graduate instructors’ assumptions about students’ abilities might be put into productive conflict with the disability theorists they had read until after our interviews. At other moments, however, I directed them to insights from composition theory they had read (even taking out a reading to examine it together), enabling difficult, but productive explorations of their prior assumptions.

WPAs and graduate practica instructors should not underestimate the comfort that graduate instructors with backgrounds in literature derive from texts and their experiences with textual interpretation. Indeed, Garrett, Jordi, and Blake described texts as a “safe space,” something they felt comfortable with as a touchstone as they ventured into the new world of teaching composition. Thus, while it is crucial to disrupt these views (and occasion further instances to help graduate instructors continue this long, developmental process), we need to take care as we encourage graduate instructors to complicate and expand their tacit literacy beliefs.

Appendix: Coding Protocol

I developed the following coding protocol using taxonomies of literacy, especially by Peter N. Goggin. I modified the codes after an initial round of coding, analyzing data for patterns, what codes tended to cluster together, and what participants described as the endpoints for literacy.

Conception of Literacy/ Coding Family

Characteristics of Conception/ Individual Codes

Representative Examples, excerpted from content units

Personal Growth

  • emphasis on self, self-determination

  • voice

  • authenticity

  • power of the individual imagination

  • expressive writing

  • personalized reading programs

  • whole language curricula

  • teacher as nurturer

“Learning to write was realizing that I could all along” (Lily, Literacy narrative, 10 Sept.).

Social Growth

  • personal growth/attainment as a means for social progress, social awareness, social understanding

  • understanding role in society

  • literacy as empathy

  • can have aspects of social/critical but de-emphasizes social change, focusing instead on changing individuals first

“So, I want them to be able to empathize with what it was like to be, you know, an Indian under British rule or just to be alive in the world then and see that it’s really not that different” (Barbara, Interview, 26 Oct.).


  • realize potential to create change

  • writing as resistance

  • awareness of language as socially situated

  • understanding of language/speakers as always being “interested”

  • language as ideology

  • literacy as power

“I began to change my perception of reading from a solitary activity to a communal one that, while still done alone, could be an invitation to conversations about books and ideas” (Barbara, Literacy narrative, 10 Dec.).


  • community-based literacy

  • literacy to bring about radical political reform

“I think being able to work with people in [the area around Public] will make everything more meaningful, visceral, and applicable. . . . I find it gives you a sense of understanding/ inspiration/ heart experience” (Lily, Assignment ranking activity, 22 Oct.)

Functionalist Literacy

  • ties literacy to concrete needs (careers)

  • language as a value-neutral medium

  • basic skills literacy

  • efficiency

  • socioeconomic benefits of literacy

  • acquisition of skills

  • material production

  • skills needed for the modern information economy

  • emphasis on grammar and form

“I do circle their editing errors, but I say that I don’t want to emphasize those things, but I do want to call attention to them. The missing hyphen in African-American just drove me crazy!” (Karen, Interview, 26 Oct.).

Instrumental Literacy

  • study of language/form to demystify academic writing

  • learning rules of various discourse communities

  • teaching genre knowledge/ transfer of writing skills

  • can refer to the following from above, but with a critical or reflective emphasis:

    • ties literacy to concrete needs (careers)

    • writing skills needed for the modern information economy

“That’s to me what the job of first-year writing is ... Preparing them to be successful in college” (Karen, interview, 19 Nov.).

Cultural Literacy

  • “Great Books” or the canon

  • capacity for higher-order thinking

  • fears of a fall from grace or decline of literacy

  • marginalization of non-canonical or popular works

  • emphasis on texts

  • deficient student texts

  • taste and aesthetic appreciation of texts

  • religious or ritualistic understanding of literacy

“Like, the text is the thing. That’s where you start” (Jordi, Interview, 14 Mar.)


  1. Of the eighteen graduate instructors, all identified as Caucasian, with the exception of one graduate instructor who identified as Asian American and another who identified as half Asian. Return to text.)

  2. Although CC was the second course in the composition sequence, over half of new undergraduate students placed into it via a mandatory writing exam they took the summer before they matriculated. Public also had ESL versions of both composition courses, taught by experts in TESOL. Return to text.)

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