Graphic Learning: Examples of Well-Researched Comics

It seems pointless to argue that graphic novels have an important place in literature at this point. Personally, I took two classes during my undergraduate career that incorporated such texts (including Satrapi’s Persepolis and Bechdel’s Fun Home), but more often than not this is a rare occurrence and something I did not encounter in my graduate coursework. Graphic novels often do not get the attention they deserve, in part because many deem them déclassé due to their graphic nature and/or subject material, but also because they are hard to teach. While graphic novels can be analyzed through literary theory (and should be), the format itself, and most notably, the visual element of such narratives, are in a scholarly discipline all their own. One cannot teach, or even fully enjoy a graphic novel, without at least a bare minimum knowledge of art theory and visual composition. (Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods are good places to start.) But then again, neither of these things occupies some alien universe detached from what we as literary scholars already tackle. Continue reading “Graphic Learning: Examples of Well-Researched Comics”

Planning My First Brit Lit Survey

At my university, the opportunities to teach an upper-level course are present but few. After passing comprehensive exams, you can apply to teach a survey course corresponding to your area of specialty. The second-half of British literature is particularly hard to come by, and typically a PhD candidate gets to teach it once before graduating. This is my semester, and I am thrilled!
I have been teaching general education classes for six years. I can count the number of English majors I have taught on one hand. But now, I have two full classes of English majors or minors, who ask me questions like, “Percy Shelley? Any relation to Mary Shelley?” (Isn’t it crazy to remember a time when we didn’t know every intimate detail of the Shelleys’ marriage?).
I am two days in. And here’s what I can report so far: I love my job.
Continue reading “Planning My First Brit Lit Survey”

From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

You don’t want to watch a movie with me. No, really. I consider it a test of true friendship if someone can sit through two hours of me constantly pausing, rewinding and talking over the figures on screen. It’s a bad habit I cannot break. After helping teach a film and media class this semester however, I don’t think I should.
While my near constant commentary might be distracting to say the least, it isn’t meaningless. I am often pointing out how camera angles, body language, costumes, set design, lighting all come together to hint at a future plot point or reveal some sort of narrative truth. I can often predict the ending to a movie, which never ceases to be a sort of useless party trick for my friends and family, but underneath that novelty however, lies real critical thinking. Continue reading “From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature”

Teaching the Gothic

“We trust… that satiety will banish what good sense should have prevented; and that, wearied with fiends, incomprehensible characters, with shrieks, murders, and subterraneous dungeons, the public will learn, by the multitude of the manufacturers, with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured.”
Thus says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in response to Matthew Lewis’s The Monk in 1797, a strange statement from the writer of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel.”[i]  Treated with a certain degree ambivalence by many of the Romantic poets—Wordsworth expressing an outright disdain for “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies” in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads—the popularity of the Gothic in the late eighteenth century was difficult to ignore, as was the Gothic nature of the political climate that made most literary and visual descriptions of the French Revolution Gothic almost by default.  Indeed, the genre seems to almost anticipate such violent and bloody upheaval, revealing the period’s anxieties about tyrannical rulers and corruption of the aristocracy in its earliest texts.  Because of its popularity, bolstered through stage-productions and cheap chap-books, the Gothic’s place within “serious” Romantic literature, it would seem, is itself somewhat meta-Gothic: a position of ambivalence and abjection, of reluctant importance and acknowledgement.  It’s almost Twilight-esque status as “pop-lit” of the age (and most subsequent ages) deterred its recognition as a literature of value until surprisingly recently, despite the fact that many Romantic poets—Robinson, Southey, Byron, Shelley, and Keats to name a few… and, yes, even Wordsworth and Coleridge—experimented with the Gothic tradition or at least its features.  Clearly, it was something of which even the most established writers could not “weary.”  And some, like Mary Wollstonecraft, found ways of shifting Gothic tropes to work for their own purposes, to expose and contextualize the reality of horrors in the here and now:
“Abodes of horror have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul and absorb the wondering mind.  But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavoring to recal her scattered thoughts!”[ii]
With these contemporary attitudes toward the Gothic in mind, I recently had the opportunity to give a guest lecture introducing the Gothic to an upper-level undergraduate class on Romantic Literature.  They had just finished Frankenstein and were two acts into The Cenci.  I will be taking my comps at the end of the semester, examining in the major field of Gothic literature, Romantic to Contemporary, and in the minor field of Romantic Literature.  I have, thus, had my head buried in Gothic texts for the past nine weeks, so it was easier said than done to distinguish between what I have been obsessing over and what might actually be useful for students in this survey class.
Some background: Gothic 101
We started with the basics: what does “Gothic” mean?  The term Gothic originated from the Goths, the Germanic tribes that brought about the fall of Rome.  Its original connotations were barbaric, primitive, uncivilized, and medieval.  Yet, around the mid-eighteenth century, a new interest arose in the Goths as conquerors, yes, but the conquerors of Britain.  As such, with a rise in nationalism, the British began to see the Goths as the origins of their own civilization and the values upon which it had been built.  Thus, the term “Gothic” came to have two meanings associated with the primitive: barbaric but also virtuous.[iii]  This second definition is facilitated by a subsequent glorification of the past, antiquity, and medievalism.  The perfect example of this is, of course, Horace Walpole, whose behavior even before he pens the Gothic grandfather, The Castle of Otranto, gives insight into the beginnings of the genre.  Obsessed with Gothic architecture and antiques, Walpole built Strawberry Hill, a construction which mixed styles, time periods, and materials to cater more to what Walpole considered Gothic than to the restrictions of historical aesthetics.  Thus, we have the fragmented mixing of pasts and present that would characterize the literary tradition, emphasizing atmosphere over realism in the interplay between truth and performance.  All it needed were a few ghosts. And thus we have the inspiration for the first Gothic novel.
What does that mean?: Making sense of the texts
While it seems obvious that The Cenci would fit into the same Gothic as The Castle of Otranto, it is less clear how Frankenstein can also fall into this classification.  We can trace the origins of the Goths, but the definition of what is “Gothic” is still (and probably always will be) contested among scholars, both past and present.  My favorite definition and one I see often-cited is Chris Baldick’s: “For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.”[iv]
By then breaking the two texts down according to how they depict time and space, we were then able to touch briefly on other important key terms and aspects.  We could begin to see how Victor’s dangerous preoccupation with the ancient forbidden texts of magical science and alchemy might line up with the dangerous power of the Cenci’s ancient and decaying line.  We noted the family structures in the two texts, highlighting the absence of the mother and the presence of incest.  We compared the structures of the texts themselves, both sprung from the fabrication of manuscripts that frame the narrative itself as old or dangerous.  Doubles, the uncanny, paranoia, isolation, excess, the return of the repressed: all could be structured, compared, and contrasted through time and space. I found that keeping it broad and simple, tempting though it was to go into other more dark and dusty corners of this tradition, provided the students with a general framework to apply to their upcoming readings… even those of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

[i] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Critical Review 2nd ser. 19 (February 1797): 194-200 in Matthew Lewis. The Monk. Ed. D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf. Ontario: Broadview, 2004. 398. Print.
[ii] Wollstonecraft, Mary. The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 69. Print.
[iii] Punter, David and Glennis Byron. The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2004. Print.
[iv] Baldick, Chris, ed. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xix. Print.

Legitimacy and the Graduate Student

We’ve all heard it:  “I don’t feel like I belong here”—the clarion call of English graduate students and the hyper-obsession of meta-conversations within Literature departments at the highest level.  What is this obsession, and who really does belong in graduate programs or the academy, if not those who are there already?  This problem has been my preoccupation for some time now, so much so that it has crept into my dissertation, in an attempt to unravel the problems of legitimacy, sovereignty, authorship, etc. embedded in Romanticism and Romantic studies.
Trying to tackle these problems as a total framework, or as a problem even at the level of pedagogy, has been met with lots of resistance.  My upcoming Fall course on “Banned Books and Novel Ideas” will look at illegitimate textual problems in Ossian’s Tales of Fingal, Byron’s issues with piracy, the thorny controversies in Shakespeare and Defoe, as well as the whole regime of intellectual property surrounding Scott and Coleridge.  To inaugurate this course, I began my description with the famous quote from Foucault’s famous essay which he “borrowed” from Beckett: “What matters who’s speaking?”  Quite a moment of reflexivity, where Foucault not only questions the regime of authorship, but also uses a phrase that is syntactically tangled and, apparently, illegitimate.  I say this because my proposal, after explanation and several revisions, was greeted with disapproval from the legitimizing force of the English department heads; Beckett and Foucault have non-standard English and tangled syntax, it was said—students will be confused and find the course doesn’t have authority!  Hmmm….  I have my own responses to this line of argument, but I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the subject.  That is, how does one negotiate teaching texts that are non-standard, taboo, illegitimate etc. while still telling them that plagiarism is naughty-naughty and they must write in standard, syntactically clear English?  One easy explanation is making the distinction between discursive and non-discursive texts but, in keeping with truth-telling, even that distinction breaks down with enough interrogation.
Within this same matrix of problems, I have often asked the question of how one can really integrate radical politics into a classroom space?  How can one develop a quasi-democratic, anarchic pedagogy when all available models have some basis in logics of sovereignty and authority, delegitimizing certain ways of learning and production of scholarship?  Your thoughts are very much appreciated, particularly in relation to your experiences of teaching problematic Romantic texts.

Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes

Organizing 2,350 Minutes

For every single 3-credit course I teach each semester I spend approximately 2,350 minutes in front of the classroom. Like most of you, before I even step foot in the classroom or meet a single student,  I sit down with an assortment of desk copies—anthologies, novels and the like—and try to decide on the content of those 2,350 minutes. Before I meet my students, learn anything about their interests or goals, I must guess at what materials will interest them and help maintain active thinking and discussion throughout the 16-week semester. As the end of the spring semester approaches and I prepare for my fall course assignment, I find myself once again asking, “What does it take to plan a course? What principles guide the choices we make? How do we, as educators and students, decide what to include and what must be forsaken in the interest of time, depth and focus?”
When I received my Spring 2011 course assignment in November 2010, I was utterly elated; my assignment was English 262: British Literature II (1789-present), the latter portion of two British literature surveys taught at West Virginia University. I was wrapping up the last few weeks of English 261 (beginnings-1789), which had gone better than I expected: the texts I selected were of interest to my students and a narrative about performance and “Englishness” emerged through the texts creating thought-provoking, intellectually invigorating discussions for my students and me. (My students claimed to love the metaphysical poets…I was shocked!) The text selections for 261 successfully produced a dialogue amongst my students in ways that I could not have anticipated. (I can’t take credit for this; I had a group of students who were willing to challenge one another’s ideas in the interest of a deeper, more detailed understanding of the texts. If not for this attitude in my students, the course might have been an entirely different experience for all of us.) Because of the successes (and lessons learned) in 261, I felt confident in my ability to plan a successful version of 262; plus, I had an organizing principle: selfhood! I could not wait for the calm of winter break to organize a syllabus bursting with texts in which my soon-to-be students and I could trace the construction of the self (a national self, a Seigelian self, etc.) in Romantic, Victorian, and Modern British literatures.
As I flipped through the pages of various anthologies in mid-December, I realized I had an unexpected problem (a desirable problem, I’d say): teaching 262 meant that I was more familiar with the vast selection of texts. I hadn’t felt this way when planning most of English 261, particularly the Middle Ages unit which began the course (as the Romantic unit would in 262). I was less connected to the texts in 261, unlike the texts for 262 which are on my mind regularly. Wollstonecraft, Hemans, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge (to name just a few) all have a place in what makes me passionate about Romantic literature. I glanced through the list of names and works in the anthology’s table of contents and wondered how I could possibly give my students everything they’d need to be “good” English scholars in a single semester. Could I, in good conscience, skip Lord Byron in favor of Joanna Baillie? The part of me which reacts against the traditional canon screamed, “Yes! Of course!” while undergraduate me, who ached for knowledge of “the classics” and sought out courses which prepared for me the GREs (since I had hopes for graduate school) urged me to keep Byron. All of a sudden, the weight of literary history was on my shoulders; I felt like it was my responsibility to show my students why the Romantic, Victorian and Modern periods were worthy of their attention and reflection. I created one reading list and then another but found myself asking the same question each time: How can I select (and ignore) particular texts for a course which claims to survey the Romantic, Victorian, and Modern periods? What makes for a “good” survey course? I began to question selfhood as my course theme and considered abandoning the project.
I learned the hard way (while teaching 261) that many of the undergraduate students find British literature un-relatable and prefer the offerings focused on American literature. I was baffled by this division—how could students write-off an entire literary canon? Then, I realized: American literature is more popular because students are better able to connect with it! They view American literature as part of their selfhood—whether they articulate it in such a way or not, reading the literary history of their nation means something to them. It helps them understand who they are (as Americans, as future fiction/poetry/nonfiction writers, as American literary scholars). I had to find a way to make British literature relevant in the same ways without devaluing the separate (yet connected) British identity it helps to articulate. It seemed that “selfhood” might be a way in after all– a way to make the connections I was so desperately seeking.  I returned to the anthology’s table of contents and selected a list of texts I thought would help place American and British literatures in dialogue with one another–hoping to show my students that understanding one aids your understanding of the other. I then narrowed that list with “selfhood” in mind. As I stared at that list I again began to question my choices: Are these the texts that students want to read? Am I selecting texts that I am comfortable and familiar with because I am comfortable and familiar with them? Does this reading list prepare my classroom of English and English education majors for the exams many of them will take to continue on their career paths (PRAXIS, GRE)?
As teachers (and lovers of literature) we want to give our students all we can but sometimes doing so is just overwhelming (for them and us). If I forced Coleridge and Wordsworth into the same 50 minute class meeting, students would be introduced to both authors but would likely miss the depth each author’s works have to offer. In organizing our courses each semester we are forced to decide whose interests will shape the course. If we choose our own interests and the texts we prefer, then our students are likely to learn more about those particular authors and texts; our familiarity with the texts means we bring a deeper understanding to the classroom (as we will 10 years from now with a vast selection of texts [after we’ve taught a few surveys]). If we select texts that are only of interest to students then it is likely that we’ll overlook cornerstones of English literature; for example, few of my students would choose Felicia Hemans (if they’ve even heard of her). Most of us seem to find a middle ground; we teach the authors we love alongside the authors we wish we could skip right over in order to provide exposure to the various voices which compose the British literary canon and to allow our students to form their own opinions about the value(s) of such voices (politically, historically, aesthetically, etc.).
By using selfhood as an organizing theme for English 262, I made a decision about the focus of the course; there is a plethora of other themes (or lack of themes) which I could have selected. However, this particular theme fit my goals for the semester (which included showing students that British and American literatures are connected and can offer them insight into understanding themselves). Not only do we have to select which texts we’ll teach, but we must also decide which themes (or theoretical framing devices) will shape the way we teach those texts. No matter what we wish we could do, it is impossible to do it all; in a single semester we can’t offer all there is to know about genre, psychoanalysis, feminism, queerness, narrative, form, etc. in relation to the texts we finally decide to include in a syllabus. Oftentimes, class discussion in English 262 ignores selfhood entirely in favor of debate about how much we trust a narrative voice or what a particular lines or phrase “means.” More often, my students begin discussion with their ideas about the role of class, nationality, race, religion, gender, and so on in a text and by the end of said discussion, they’ve linked those ideas to selfhood. Theming English 262 has not limited how my students read literature; instead, it has enabled them to connect the various ideas their peers have about a text to a concept they are all comfortable with. It has allowed them to see literature as multi-faceted and empowered them to bring their own readings to the classroom. Our best hope as educators, as course planners, is to spend 2,350 minutes inciting our students’ desire to know more, to read closer, to take risks, and to learn to love various literatures and voices!

The "Play" Within the Play: A Sample Assignment

Today’s post represents the ripening of an idea I pondered in the first post I ever made to this blog, way back in September.  (Sigh… how young I was back then…)   I had been pondering the concept of “emotive reading” as a way into understanding literature—and lucky for me, I got assigned to teach a whole semester’s worth of Shakespeare this spring, the perfect lab for testing my ideas!  (Just this morning, in fact, one of my students caught on to the game, stating grimly, “so we’re your guinea pigs, huh?”  Bless his heart!) Indeed experimentation is, in my world anyway, a big part of the process through which I learn how best to reach my students, and recently I experimented with an unconventional assignment (i.e. not an essay) that I would consider a success.  I thought I’d pass it alongContinue reading “The "Play" Within the Play: A Sample Assignment”

The Critic as Genius?

In a recent edition of English Studies in Canada, Margery Fee writes that “we often talk about the importance of good writing without explaining what it is or how we know what it is… our knowledge of what makes good writing is tacit.”
I’ve found this rings true for me on both sides of the classroom. As an undergraduate, I mucked my way though my university’s English department, aping the conventions of scholarly writing well enough to get into grad school; as a grad student, I’ve TA’d classes in which the professor’s advice to me—after I asked what my students needed to do to achieve a good mark on a final essay exam—was a shrug and the words, “Be smart.” I was annoyed, but only because it rang uncomfortably true. All the rubrics in the world can’t do justice to “smartness,” that je ne sais quoi. It’s the ineffable quality in writing, both our students’ and our own, that can tip good into excellent or nudge mediocre to good—and whose only recognizable hallmark is that we’ll know it when we see it.
I study Romantic theories of genius, and the critical consensus seems to be that while genius was a key concept for an age obsessed with artistic originality, we academics no longer “really” believe in it. I’m not so certain. Continue reading “The Critic as Genius?”

Belated Blog: What I've Learned This Semester

At the end of each semester, I tell students that any class worth its salt should give them something they didn’t have before they began it.  Since I ask them to think about and name a few of those “somethings,” I figured I would ponder and write about a few of my own!
I was supposed to post more than a week ago, but it’s been one of the more hectic Decembers in recent memory; something that definitely affects the subject matter here.  If you’ve ever seen the fabulous Disney movie Meet the Robinsons, there’s a recurring line: “I’m just not sure how well this plan was thought through.”  Well, no matter how well I feel I have planned my semester and prepared for every contingency, there are always a few snags that bring that line to mind!  Thankfully, those snags generally balance out with a few pleasant surprises I hope to repeat.  So here, in no particular order, follow my top ten.  May you avoid my mistakes, and have a few pleasant surprises of your own! Continue reading “Belated Blog: What I've Learned This Semester”

Putting Literature to Work

The traditional literature class does much to perpetuate the image of a hermetic system.  The student, in almost every instance an outsider to that system, is to read a text whose value has already been established within the system, whether by a traditional canonically-centered ideology or by the myriad political or historical ideologies that variously motivate literary study.  The obligatory reading practice to be adopted relative to this text is one that is oftentimes foreign to students.  We demand: the value with which someone has imbued these particular pages exerts an occult-like control over the method of your engagement.  This is not a text that can be read from afar, or casually; it requires a scrupulous, an active, a restless and a difficult attention.  Close-reading demonstrations and exercises become the incantations that manifest the space of literary analysis.  Students enter into this conjure room, having struggled to adopt that practice, and unload the fruits of their labors in discussion.  They leave.  They refocus.  They return.  They pour their energies out into the open air.  Meanwhile they produce documents, exercises in literary analysis that are presumed to be of great value within the system, and of almost no value outside of it (the rarity with which students will return to claim end-of-semester work the following semester speaks to the degree to which they know this to be true).  At the end of the semester they are awarded a grade that evaluates their capacity to accommodate themselves to the expectations of the system.  They are sent on their way.  They are not asked to return, nor is it suggested directly that they take anything with them.   Continue reading “Putting Literature to Work”