"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Harper Lee and Rewriting

July 25th, 2015 by

There is at least one good reason why the release last week of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchmen is good for teachers of high school English: They now have a wonderful example of an important writer’s process, both in working through views on race in the deep South and also on how a writer writes—and rewrites.

Last week, following the release of Lee’s first publication since 1960, the reactions among members of the National Council of Teachers of English seemed to center on how the character of Atticus might provide material for teaching about American racism. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Leslie Brody and Jennifer Maloney reported that some teachers said they would focus on aspects of the history of civil rights in this country, wanting “to deepen students’ understanding of Alabama in the 1930s and 1950s, the settings for ‘Mockingbird’ and ‘Watchman,’ respectively.” But some teachers also said that they would focus on how “’Watchman’ was an early draft of ‘Mockingbird,’ and use it to explore the process of revision, refining characters and how a writer’s goals and perceptions change over time.”

These are interesting responses that run a range of how English teachers think about their subjects. It points to two problems with American schools and the way we typically approach the subjects of English, which are usually seen as literature and the teaching of writing. First, we too often view literature as a pretext to talk and write about something we consider more important for students. In this case, some teachers apparently see Harper Lee’s new novel as a doorway to discussions of race. I would agree that this is an important discussion to continue.

But I also appreciate literature for its literariness–a term I can’t define here in an assertion that makes me sound naive in terms of literary theory. But I think that literature matters as a subject of study, and students should be learning about it and not just seeing it as material for social studies. I would add that I value and uphold the teaching of writing, similarly, as an important subject. And that is my second concern.

In another blog, I’ve argued that two practices of instruction reflect a reduced version of writing. First, in most of their high school English courses, high school students do not study writing. Instead, they encounter great works by authors who seemed to have received their ideas from the gods and simply wrote them down as they came. Many students I meet in first-year college writing persist in believing that great writers are in fact great because they never have to revise. As an odd corollary to this, they think that their own rough drafts are more authentic and therefore better than any revisions they might enact.

So they never think that revision is an important part of good writing—something every great writer has said. And when it comes to being taught writing, students learn the five paragraph theme, which doesn’t require revision (or much invention). Or they are required to write in response to literary topics.

With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the chances are now here for change. The new Harper Lee novel provides evidence that real writers write poorly before they write a great work. Looking at this in some detail, students might begin to see that writers fumble with their work and ideas. They simply allow themselves to rewrite. That simple allowance–rewriting–is what can lead to something more.

Work Cited
Brody, Leslie, and Jennifer Maloney. “Teacher’s New Homework: a ‘Watchmen’ Plan.” The Wall Street Journal. 14 July 2015: http://www.wsj.com/articles/teachers-new-homework-a-watchman-plan-1436917909.

Posted in Uncategorized| 2 Comments


Comment by Nancy on July 26, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Tom–thanks for your relevant insights on the wonderful opportunities to approach this “new” piece of literature. I just bought the book–and look forward to the story, the parallels and new treks of thought, and a glance into Harper Lee’s writing process. Nice job!

Comment by Dave Milbrandt on July 26, 2015 at 3:31 pm


I love your ideas here. My friend and I plan to teach this book this next year and your idea of focusing it on revision will be a great concept to emphasize.


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