My goal as a teacher is to encourage students to approach literary works as living narratives that evolve with their readers. Too often students view literature as a dry and dusty subject, one that asks them to read intimidating tomes filled with obscure language and outdated philosophies. I work to develop an atmosphere where students see themselves as interpreters and co-creators of changing and changeable texts. In other words, I aim to empower students to take ownership of class discussion and use our readings to fuel their own thinking about the issues that most excite or trouble them.
History of the Book
My research into Victorian publishing forms constantly reminds me that the seemingly fixed and immutable novels produced by Penguin or Broadview didn’t begin that way. I expose students to the history of the books we read to destabilize any assumptions they have about the text’s inviolability. I also contextualize the act of reading within its larger history by discussing such issues as orality, literacy, print culture, and technology. When teaching Oliver Twist, for instance, I explained that nineteenth-century readers rarely consumed novels as isolated texts, and I supplemented the reading with other forms that helped to create a more authentic and less intimidating reading experience. I brought the students to our rare book library to see the monthly installments of Bentley’s Miscellany in which Dickens first published the novel. Students, struck by the periodical’s ephemerality and the novel’s fragmentary form, began comparing it to their favorite television shows and online magazines. After reviewing the poems, songs, and articles that appeared alongside each installment, students better understood the nature of the nineteenth-century novel genre. We also performed portions of C.Z. Barnett’s theatrical adaptation of Oliver Twist (1838), which was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for promoting criminal activity. Acting out the roles gave students a more vivid sense of the violence and sensationalism that they sometimes overlooked when plowing through the dense Victorian prose, and it helped them to understand why the novel and its adaptations were so controversial.
I also use more recent continuations to show students that texts change over time to reflect different cultural moments and ideological positions. When organizing my Introduction to Fiction course, I included several different versions of Jane Eyre (including Charlotte Brontë’s). Tracking the core story across a series of adaptations from different cultures, time periods, and media helped students to realize that there is no single, “right” interpretation of the novel. Students wrote comparative papers about the adaptations in which they explained how two of the texts interpreted a single passage from Brontë’s novel in different ways. In a later assignment, they were invited to propose their own, unique reading of the same passage. They were particularly inspired by Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which exposes and expands on Brontë’s implicit messages about race and nationality. Rhys’s work helped students to realize that a textual omission—like Brontë’s incomplete portrayal of the novel’s only “othered” figure—could generate as much interpretive material as the included details.
Because many students initially feel more comfortable analyzing media than literature, I often bring film or television clips into the classroom to stimulate discussion. When teaching Cervantes’s Don Quixote, I showed clips from Don Quixote de Orson Welles (1992)—Jesus Franco’s completion of Orson Welles’s unfinished film adaptation. Welles updated the story by replacing the book’s meta-textuality with meta-cinematography. Students who were struggling to understand the significance of Cervantes’s prologues and layers of mediation felt more confident unpacking film techniques that performed similar functions. They quickly recognized that Welles’s inclusion of himself in the film allowed him to comment more directly on the cinematic genre. This realization helped them to better understand Cervantes’s decision to make Don Quixote and Sancho aware of their status as fictional/historical characters. After recognizing that they could use popular culture and media to inform their understanding of our readings, they began making these connections on their own. They directed each other to sources that helped them to think through our texts: one student began every daily writing assignment with a quote from a popular film, television show, or video game. My personal favorite is the Mean Girls quotation—“but I can’t help it that I’m so popular”—that he used to introduce his analysis of Marcela’s speech in Don Quixote.
I design my assignments around a principle best summarized by Thomas Leitch: “texts remain alive only to the extent that they can be rewritten and … to experience a text in all its power requires each reader to rewrite it” (Film Adaptation 12-13). Interpreting is one form of re-writing, and thesis-driven, analytical papers are a staple in my classroom. These papers require students to rewrite the text by unpacking the meaning underlying the author’s language. I encourage students to elaborate on the larger significance of short passages and specific details that are easily overlooked when reading quickly or passively. Because the persuasiveness of their argument depends on the clear articulation and organization of their ideas, we also spend time on writing fundamentals.
I also often provide opportunities for creative re-writing options. Adapting is a rigorous and analytical process, and by creating their own adaptations students perform valuable critical work. I always require that they submit an explanation of their authorial choices in order to highlight their analytical process. One student drew a series of illustrations for Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea that aimed to expose Brontë’s association of madness with masculinity, and extend Rhys’s claim that women are unfairly categorized as monstrous. Occupying the role of creator helped her to think more critically about the implications of the authorial choices made by Brontë and Rhys. It also encouraged her to think of her own creations as part of an ongoing conversation about gender and madness. With her permission, I uploaded those images to my website so that they might circulate more broadly and become part of this larger discourse.
I am constantly searching for new tools that will highlight the enduring relevance of literature and the importance of critical thinking and reading. As my teaching methods evolve alongside the rapidly shifting reading habits of our current culture, I hope to further embrace experimental forms. I’m especially interested in developing alternative assignments that allow students to work within the digital, corporate, or artistic spaces that motivate their learning. I hope to collaborate with colleagues from other fields to generate opportunities for students to compile digital editions of literary works, create film adaptations, host webpages, design book art, write screenplays, or construct mobile apps that tie into future course themes and concepts. I hope that every student leaves my classroom with the view that literature of all forms—whether it be A Tale of Two Cities, Twilight, or Twitter—can help them to grapple with contemporary issues.