Spring 2019

Beyond the Research Institution: Preparing Graduate Students to Teach in Various Contexts

In my final year of graduate school, I went on the job market for academic positions in literature and composition. At one of my campus interviews the head of the search committee asked how I planned to manage going from teaching one section of composition each semester to teaching four sections of composition, sections that included many English language learners. She gestured to several tall stacks of what looked to be recently collected student essays. At the time I didn’t realize that what likely weighed on her was not only the prospect of responding to all those essays but also the prospect of having to interview a bunch of graduate students from English departments who—like me—didn’t realize how cushy they had it teaching one section of composition. I ended up taking a year-long position elsewhere instead, and the following year landed my current job, where I have remained for more than a decade after that interview exchange. But the exchange has stayed with me, I think, because I have seen what a common occurrence that situation is: graduate students ending up teaching at institutions that bear little to no resemblance to the institutions where the students earned their degrees. Particularly jarring for newly professionalized faculty members is the transition from graduate school, where they spend time focusing on developing their content-area expertise through coursework (and perhaps even through teaching), to faculty positions that may not draw at all on that content-area expertise.

Because the majority of undergraduates in our country are not enrolled in research institutions, graduate students more often than not will find themselves landing jobs at teaching-centered institutions that may prioritize access over selectivity, including community colleges and regional public universities where the newly professionalized faculty members may be expected to teach four or five courses each semester. Moreover, many of the courses English graduate students are expected to teach once they become professionals may be in composition and not literature. Most graduate students in English will not, in other words, go on to teach one or two upper-level literature courses in their areas of expertise.

We need to do a better job preparing graduate students for this reality.

Most graduate students in English will not, in other words, go on to teach one or two upper-level literature courses in their areas of expertise.

The MLA has recommended as much. In 2014, the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature released a series of recommendations to address the changes in higher education that have only become more striking since that interview more than a decade ago. The task force’s recommendations include the following regarding the kind of pedagogical training that doctoral students receive: “Doctoral programs cannot and should not assume that students will find positions in similar kinds of institutions or will want positions in similar institutions. Pedagogical training should introduce students to the wide range of institutions in higher education, diverse in mission, history, and student demographics” (16).

Picking up where the task force left off, I explore here two potentially productive ways of preparing graduate students in English to teach courses and populations of students that may not resemble their experiences in graduate school. The recommendations I lay out, although not comprehensive, emerge from discussions I have had with graduate students who are struggling to make this transition, as well as my own experiences as a teacher-scholar with one foot in literary studies and the other in composition. Because graduate students should not expect to teach only (if at all) in their limited area of expertise, both of my recommendations strive to bracket content for the sake of prioritizing the teaching of practices and processes to students. In doing so, these recommendations address the needs of newly professionalized faculty members who often become overwhelmed by their multiple preparations, particularly if they are thinking about their preparations in terms of content.

First, I contend that we should reframe graduate students’ pedagogical training to focus on the practice of composition more broadly.1 Currently, most doctoral students are trained to teach first-year composition, a writing course. I am suggesting that doctoral programs think more expansively about the concept of composition as a practice in the construction of meaning so that graduate students are prepared to recognize their ability to teach interpretive practices, whether in writing classes as students compose meaning through their writing or literature classes as students compose meaning through their reading.

Second, I argue that because we cannot assume that students are applying what we teach them about literature to the world around them, we must incorporate attention to transfer-focused pedagogies into doctoral pedagogical training programs. For those reading this who are unfamiliar with the phrase transfer of learning, it is exactly what it sounds like: pedagogies informed by theories of transfer are developed explicitly to position students to use what they learn in one course or context in other courses and contexts. Transfer-focused pedagogies, which are an increasingly common approach to teaching writing, hold the promise of connecting the teaching of composition to the teaching of literature, and research suggests that, unlike most pedagogies, these kinds of pedagogies do, in fact, position students to apply what they learn in one course to other courses and contexts.2

If newly professionalized faculty members understand that the kind of work they need to be doing in terms of critical reading and transfer applies to all content, then the transition to teaching several courses that may not be in their areas of expertise won’t be as difficult. The shift I am calling for, then, is intended to move doctoral programs and the graduate students therein toward a focus on more universally needed pedagogies that have applications across content areas. This research-based approach to teaching—informed by studies of transfer of learning, as well as studies indicating the need for more attention to critical reading at the postsecondary level—potentially enables newly professionalized faculty members to see how the work of literary studies and composition relates while also meeting the needs of undergraduates who have important interpretative work to do both in and far beyond the classroom.

Meeting Doctoral Students Where They Are

The truism goes that we should meet students where they are. As we consider developing better ways of preparing our graduate students to teach heavier loads of both composition and literature courses to a range of student populations, we might first take stock of where they are. To my knowledge, there are no national standards that guide graduate assistantship training, which means that graduate students’ preparation varies considerably. Some graduate students engage in a week or two of preservice training; others take a course, a practicum, or both; others may be involved in more extended interdisciplinary training. Still, there are ways to capitalize on whatever preparation graduate students may have received in the teaching of composition to help prepare them to teach several courses in both composition and literature simultaneously without becoming thoroughly overwhelmed at their new institutions.

. . . conceiving of literary pedagogies in this way makes visible one of the most humanistic things we do when we teach literature: we teach reading.

To begin imagining the connections between the teaching of composition and literature we must first recognize that both reading and writing are ways of constructing meaning. In writing courses, students are taught to compose meaning through writing; in literature courses, students are taught to compose meaning through reading. Foregrounding this connection would overtly connect graduate students’ teaching of composition to their teaching of literature. Moreover, conceiving of literary pedagogies in this way makes visible one of the most humanistic things we do when we teach literature: we teach reading.

Prioritizing the Interpretive Practice of Reading in Literature Courses

Because conceiving of the teaching of literature as the teaching of reading may seem like a huge leap, I want to begin by pointing out why it’s not. Kathleen McCormick has noted that plenty of literature instructors, which would include graduate students, are already teaching reading, but don’t identify as such:

Many literary theorists who specifically teach students new reading practices, and who ask students to read from particular perspectives with new sets of concerns—from perspectives of gender, race, or cultural politics, for instance—do not represent themselves as teachers of reading, and consequently miss an important opportunity both to locate the practices they are encouraging within students’ own educational reading history and to develop connections with others in the field who may share many of their goals. (6)

What I am calling for, then, does not amount to a reconceptualization as much as a privileging of certain aspects of the work of literary instruction. I am arguing for teaching literature with a deliberate and consistent focus on reading practices—qua reading practices—such as those McCormick lists above. This approach to teaching literature involves shifting attention away from “the teaching of literature as information about genres, poetic forms, images and metaphors” and toward an “exploration of how a reader’s mind interacts with a text to compose meanings” (Salvatori 658n2). Shifting attention away from a discipline’s knowledge base and toward its practices is by no means a new idea. In fact, Michael Carter has offered a compelling argument for conceiving of disciplines as “active ways of knowing” rather than “repositories and delivery systems for relatively static content” (387). Within the context of this discussion, such a shift supports a more overt and deliberate engagement with the generalizable principles of how interpretation works than does the learning environment that usually characterizes a literature classroom.

Because graduate students in literature—like those literary theorists McCormick describes above—may not identify themselves as reading instructors, and because graduate programs more frequently offer preparation for teaching writing as opposed to teaching literature, graduate students and their doctoral programs are missing opportunities to connect training in the teaching of writing to more literary-focused pedagogies. Acknowledging that literary studies involves the teaching of reading (however implicitly) is a first step toward helping graduate students make important connections to what they already know about teaching writing.

Within the framework I am describing, graduate programs would address the potential connections between composition and literary pedagogies either within their current teaching assistantship training models or in an altogether different setting such as an additional course or series of workshops that graduate students take much later in their careers as they are preparing for the job market and applying to positions. In a course of this sort, graduate students would be taught to approach literature courses as many of them have been taught to approach composition courses—namely, as courses in an interpretive practice. Taught this way, literature courses become courses focused on constructing knowledge through literature rather than about the literature itself (Salvatori 658).

Developing literature courses more focused on how we construct knowledge through literature by way of the practice of reading would also address the literacy needs of students. We know from various sources that students are not strong readers. For example, results on the SAT Verbal/Critical Reading portion (“Performance”) and the ACT Reading portion (Condition) from millions of students nationwide have indicated declines in students’ reading abilities. A study from the Citation Project also revealed students’ struggles with reading sources, leading Sandra Jamieson, a member of the Citation Project research team, to conclude that students “lack the critical reading and thinking skills necessary to engage with the ideas of others and write papers reflecting that engagement in any discipline” (16). In late 2016, a large-scale study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group found that students are not adept at evaluating—or reading—the credibility of online sources: “[I]n every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation” (Wineburg et al. 4). Deliberately and consistently foregrounding and teaching reading as the central interpretive practice in literature classes would therefore create continuity between the composition and literature courses that these new professionals teach. Such a shift would also address the struggles that postsecondary students across the country are having with reading.

A Bridge between Teaching Composition and Literature: Teaching for Transfer

Just as newly professionalized faculty members can draw on their doctoral pedagogical training in composition to support their teaching in the literature classroom, they likely have also been exposed to theories of the transfer of learning either explicitly or implicitly in that training. While theories of transfer have recently emerged as an area of interest in composition studies, educational psychologists David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon have been studying the transfer of learning within educational settings for decades. They explain that transfer requires some level of conscious or reflective activity and “occurs when learning in one context or with one set of materials impacts on performance in another context or with other related materials” (“Transfer” 3). Ultimately, their point is that while “transfer is integral to our expectations and aspirations for education,” “transfer does not take care of itself” in any classroom (“Teaching” 22).

Many doctoral students may, in fact, already be familiar with transfer-centered composition pedagogies such as the popular writing-about-writing approach developed by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs and adopted widely across the country. Even if newly professionalized faculty members have not been explicitly exposed to transfer-focused composition pedagogies, the first-year composition course is largely understood as the foundation that students need before moving on to other academic courses. Thus, the need to teach for transfer is implied and already a part of graduate students’ understanding of the goals of teaching.

A commitment to transfer-focused pedagogies also has important benefits for undergraduates from all populations. Doctoral students—and all of us—need to connect the interpretative work of the literature classroom to the world beyond the classroom so that our students can read not just literary texts but also the worlds in which we live. While many of us who teach literature would like to think we are already doing this—we are teaching students how to be close and critical readers of literature, which we believe will translate into students being close and critical readers of the world—we are not accomplishing this unless we teach for transfer. Because graduate instructors are often prepared to engage students in reflective and metacognitive activities related to their writing, instructors can rather easily be prepared to create similar activities surrounding students’ reading practices.

Before lending some specificity to this discussion by looking at a transfer-centered literature course that foregrounds reading, I want to address one of the concerns that this discussion may raise: that shifting attention toward pedagogy as opposed to content may, in fact, create more work for newly professionalized faculty members. This is simply not the case, and we can look at the rise of writing-across-the-curriculum and writing-in-the-discipline programs to help us think through this concern. Such programs gained footing precisely because faculty members across disciplines ultimately realized that they were not being asked to teach something extra—they would not be teaching writing in addition to content. Instead, they would be teaching writing to help students think about, understand, and apply the content. The same is true of the pedagogy I am describing. Attending to reading in the literature classroom within a pedagogical framework that fosters transfer in no way takes time away from the content of the course, but rather affects how that content is framed.

A Glimpse into a Transfer-Centered Literature Course That Foregrounds Reading

When I teach literature courses I capitalize on my own composition pedagogy training in many of the same ways I am proposing. One example of this is a short story class I first taught a few years ago and will teach again this fall. The class was assigned to me after the course in my area of expertise that I was expected to teach did not enroll the required number of students. I am using this example because I am by no means an expert in the genre of the short story. Neither am I an expert in any of the authors of the short stories I taught or the periods in which these stories were written. As such, this experience exemplifies the process I have described so far—namely, how to set aside my own content-area expertise and draw on what I do have from my background in composition to develop a course that addresses all students’ needs.

The course, aptly titled The Short Story, meets both an English major requirement and a general education requirement, so it is populated with a mix of majors and nonmajors, and was—and still is—the largest class I have ever taught. When I taught The Short Story, we covered what you might expect in such a course. We covered the history of the short story as a literary form and explored how plot, character, setting, point of view, style, and theme function in fiction. But the course was framed around the interpretative practice of reading, or in Carter’s terms, one of our discipline’s “active ways of knowing” (387). I divided the course into four units, each focusing on the practice of reading in some form: Reading to Summarize and Analyze; Reading the Short Story’s Authors’ Reading; Reading Critiques of Short Stories; and Reading Revisions, Adaptations, and Reinterpretations of Short Stories. Whether students were engaging Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Gilman’s own reading of her story in “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper” or screening Smooth Talk, the film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” the practice of reading remained at the center of what we did in class. For example, we focused on how Gilman reads her own intentions, as well as how she reads her short story itself (students read “The Death of the Author” and learned about the intentional fallacy here, too). Similarly, we focused on how the screenwriters must have read Oates’s short story to create their adaptation. As such, our discussions raised questions not just about the texts but more often about the interpretive practice of reading.

To position students to transfer what they were learning about how interpretation works, I asked them to reflect regularly on their reading processes in reading journals and other related assignments to foster their own construction of knowledge about reading, their relationship to reading, and their individual reading strategies and practices. These metacognitive considerations shifted attention toward more generalizable issues surrounding reading as a form of interpretation and helped students understand how interpretation works, including what they bring to the “transaction,” as Louise Rosenblatt calls it. Ultimately, my background in composition helped mitigate my lack of experience with the course content and ensured that the general education students that made up the majority of the class were getting what they needed, which was not necessarily specific knowledge about these particular short stories but a course in reading, in interpretation—what reading is and how it works.

From the Writing Classroom to the Literature Classroom

As I look ahead to teaching The Short Story again this fall, I plan to incorporate even more attention to reading by teaching (rather than just expecting) students to annotate. Annotation makes the process of reading visible and, therefore, makes reading easier to address in the classroom. Doctoral programs can extend the previous training or experience that graduate instructors have in teaching annotation practices to composition students by exploring with them how a deliberate focus on annotation can enrich their literature classes, too. Once students’ readings are visible to themselves and others (through their annotations), they can share their readings in small peer groups the way they might read and discuss each other’s writing in a composition class. Digital platforms such as hypothes.is, Diigo, and iAnnotate have made this practice that much easier.3 When reading as a form of interpretation is the focus of the course, discussions look very different. Anthony Petrosky describes this shift, noting that while discussions include “reference to and reconstruction of the text to some degree . . . there must be, also, reference to and reconstruction of the reader’s associations—the reader’s schema—so we, the reader’s public, can see how he or she is putting it all together” (22). The process of working with literature in this way, Petrosky explains, “is similar to making interpretations and documenting them; as such, it is fundamental to the beginnings of any dialogue or dialectic that must ensue when people come together to understand reality” (35). The importance of helping students develop an understanding of how interpretation works—how the reader, the text, and the context coalesce to create meaning—cannot be overstated in our current climate, where dialogue is hard to come by and the interpretation of reality is up for grabs.

Final Thoughts

While the undertaking I describe here may be linked to our current climate, its importance can be traced to the very roots of humanistic studies, a point that Petrosky made decades ago as he reflected on the promise of reconnecting the fields of composition and literary studies: “[O]ne of the most interesting results of connecting reading, literary, and composition theory and pedagogy is that they yield similar explanations of human understanding as a process rooted in the individual’s knowledge and feelings and characterized by the fundamental act of making meaning, whether it be through reading, responding, or writing” (34). He further reflects, “Our theoretical understandings of these processes are converging … around the central role of human understanding—be it of texts or the world—as a process of composing” (26). Since Petrosky wrote this, English has become even more fractured and, as a result, has lost opportunities to capitalize on the potential in connecting reading, literary, and composition theory and pedagogy. The call I have sounded here—to prepare doctoral students to teach for transfer by foregrounding the interpretive practice of reading in their literature classes—not only offers newly professionalized faculty members a way to imagine their composition and literature teaching as complementary but also addresses postsecondary students’ difficulties with reading and engages students in some of the most fundamental work of the humanities: studying the centrality of the composition of meaning to human understanding.


1. Training is the MLA’s term. I acknowledge that the term does not adequately capture the more complex, education-oriented components of pedagogical programs, but I use it for consistency’s sake and to encompass the range of preparations that currently exist.

2. The transfer of learning involves more than application. In addition to Perkins and Salomon, “Teaching for Transfer” and “Transfer of Learning,” see Barnett and Ceci; Beach; Nowacek; and Wardle.

3. Traester provides an overview of an ongoing study of the role and impact of digital annotation tools in the classroom.

Works Cited

Barnett, Susan M., and Stephen J. Ceci. “When and Where Do We Apply What We Learn? A Taxonomy for Far Transfer.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 128, no. 4, 2002, pp. 612–37.

Beach, King. “Consequential Transitions: A Sociocultural Expedition beyond Transfer in Education.” Review of Research in Education, vol. 24, no. 1, 1999, pp. 101–39.

Carter, Michael. “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 58, no. 3, Feb. 2007, pp. 385–418.

The Condition of College and Career Readiness—National 2018. ACT, 2018, www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/cccr2018/National-CCCR-2018.pdf.

Jamieson, Sandra. “Reading and Engaging Sources: What Students’ Use of Sources Reveals about Advanced Reading Skills.” Across the Disciplines, vol. 10, no. 4, Dec. 2013, wac.colostate.edu/atd/reading/index.cfm.

McCormick, Kathleen. The Culture of Reading / The Teaching of English. Manchester UP, 1994.

MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Modern Language Association of America, 2014. www.mla.org/Resources/Research/Surveys-Reports-and-Other-Documents/Staffing-Salaries-and-Other-Professional-Issues/Report-of-the-Task-Force-on-Doctoral-Study-in-Modern-Language-and-Literature-2014.

Nowacek, Rebecca S. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.

“Performance on SAT Verbal/Critical Reading and Writing Exams.” Humanities Indicators / American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sept. 2016, www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=23.

Perkins, David, and Gavriel Salomon. “Teaching for Transfer.” Educational Leadership, vol. 46, no. 1, 1988, pp. 22–32, www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198809_perkins.pdf.

———. “Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd ed., Pergamon Press, 1992, pp. 2–13. Research Gate, www.researchgate.net/publication/2402396_Transfer_Of_Learning.

Petrosky, Anthony R. “From Story to Essay: Reading and Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 1, Feb. 1982, pp. 19‒37.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. Literature as Exploration. 4th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 1983.

Salvatori, Mariolina. “Reading and Writing a Text: Correlations between Reading and Writing Patterns.” College English, vol. 45, no. 7, Nov. 1983, pp. 657‒66.

Traester, Mary. “Researching Annotation’s Impact on Student Reading and Writing.” The Hypothesis Project, 18 Sept. 2018, web.hypothes.is/blog/researching-annotation-impact/.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study.” WPA, vol. 31, no. 1–2, Fall-Winter 2007, pp. 65–85.

Wardle, Elizabeth, and Doug Downs. Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 3rd ed., Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2016.

Wineburg, Sam, et al. Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Stanford History Education Group, 2016, purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934.


Ellen C. Carillo is associate professor of English and writing coordinator at the University of Connecticut, Waterbury, where she teaches courses in composition and literature. She publishes on the importance of teaching critical reading alongside writing in and beyond the composition classroom, as seen in her recent book Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America.

One comment on “Beyond the Research Institution: Preparing Graduate Students to Teach in Various Contexts”

  • Howard Tinberg says:

    Thank you for this timely essay. This would seem a good time to promote MLA’ s Mellon-funded Institute in Reading and Writing Pedagogy aimed in part at graduate students who aspire to teach at access-oriented institutions . I would also recommend that doctoral programs seriously consider reaching out to those of us who have expertise teaching at access-oriented institutions , who would gladly share their expertise with graduate students.

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