Unafraid of Virginia Woolf

Community college students usually read nonfiction in first-year English courses. Freakonomics and Fast Food Nation are standards. Katherine Boutry taught Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours to her composition students at West Los Angeles Community College. Most rose to the challenge of reading complex literature. Three students were inspired to get tattoos with a Dalloway line, “fear no more.”

Also on Community College Spotlight: Researchers look at ways to raise graduation rates for community college student.

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  1. So let me get this straight. Within the last year, Jay Mathews and other bloggers started this long screed about how no high school kids read non-fiction any more, and how evil that was.

    Now we’re supposed to celebrate because college composition courses–composition, mind you, not literature–are reading Mrs. Dalloway instead of Fast Food Nation (an annoying but well-written and challenging book)? Seriously?

    If she wants to teach lit, argue for a lit class. Composition should be primarily non-fiction–and there’s not a thing wrong with the books mentioned. A non-problem that some idiot professor thought would be fun to “solve”. Meanwhile, kids who don’t like Mrs. Dalloway but want to learn to write a decent essay? Out of luck.

  2. If you’re teaching composition, there’s a lot of flexibility in the reading material. It’s not a big deal to teach it with either Fast Food Nation or Mrs. Dalloway (and, it so happens, I do).

    I’m going to suggest that tat thing to my kids when we do Dalloway in May, though. Extra credit if they permanantly scar their bodies with a quotation from this year’s reading.

  3. I thought you were a high school teacher.

  4. Three students were inspired to get tattoos with a Dalloway line, “fear no more.”

    That’s the strangest thing I’ve in a long time.

    Downright strange.

  5. I am a high school teacher. You don’t think high school teachers teach composition? I’ve taught freshman comp, too, though. Not much difference.

  6. High school english classes are almost universally lit classes, not comp classes. As I recall, you teach AP, which is a lit class, not a comp class. Comp classes focus primarily on composition, not analysis.

    I realize there’s some overlap, but in college comp there’s almost no need for fiction.

    I’m not saying it can’t be done or shouldn’t be done–only that there’s absolute no reason for the class to be improved by fiction.

    Moreover, my larger point was a hoot of disdain for the idea that fiction is better than non-fiction, given the education blog meme of a few months ago on the glories of non-fiction.

  7. Cal- My highschool had 2 required comp courses: “Writing Workshop 1” and “Writing Workshop 2”. In Honors-level WW2 we were expected to pick a literary work, do a deep reading, and then write a paper analyzing it using (some number) or different styles of analysis.

    It was a great preparation for college-level work.

    In WW1 we read an assortment of nonfiction, essays, and fiction.

    High School English curriculums really vary a lot by state and by district. There’s no reason to attack “Lightly” just because her experience of high school English conflicts with yours.

  8. I teach both AP Lit and Comp, which teaches composition through the analysis of imaginative literature and AP Lang and Comp, which teaches composition through the analysis of non-fiction — and is designed to be very close to a college comp course (I use some fairly typical college texts). I do teach both Freak and FFN in the AP Lang, but I think they’re a little too easy and am starting to swap in more sophisticated non-fiction as budgets allow.

    I’m not sure it’s the idea of adding fiction so much as it is something as notoriously difficult as Virginia Woolf, which is impressive for the borderline remedial types I’ve seen in comm. college comp courses. That first semester is all run-on sentences and paragraphing — not even research.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Were someone to ask me what to use for a high school non-fiction-based composition course, not that they are, I would suggest any of the following:

    Brave New World Revisited (Huxley)
    Phaedo (Plato)
    Common Sense (Paine)
    Democracy in America (excerpts) (de Tocqueville)
    Any essay of Orwell’s, particularly Politics & The English Language
    The Prince (Machiavelli)

    Honors: Any of the above +

    Meditations on First Philosophy , Meds. 1-2. (Descartes)
    On Liberty (Mill)
    The Social Contract (Rousseau)
    The Gulag Archipelago (Solzhenitsyn)
    The Gutenberg Elegies (Birkerts)
    Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)
    Some of the letters of Seneca
    Some of the essays from Ideas and Opinions (Einstein)
    Several columns from Tremendous Trifles (Chesterton)

    There are hundreds of good and suitable books — and every teacher will pick something different, I suppose. This is just the list that came from the top of my head when I was thinking about what was appropriate for high-school students, so I don’t claim that it would even be my final list (and there are obviously too many to make an extended study of all of them in one class, anyway). Of course, a teacher should pick those books that he or she loves best and knows best, and those things that I know and love best are quickest to my mind, so these would likely be most of my final suggestions.

    But I do agree that there is a wealth of excellent non-fiction out there, and that fiction — while far more important in terms of informing one’s own prose with allusion and such — shouldn’t stand alone, and should not get all the glory, which is to say, a nice knock-down argument.