by Sarah Mangin, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013
Appreciating the interplay between texts is one of the most rewarding aspects of literary study. However, allusiveness can trigger unease about one’s cultural capital for all readers, and perhaps especially for those in their first college English course. Students might glaze over a reference they don’t recognize, or feel anxious and then discouraged. The challenge is to apprise students of crucial literary or cultural background without stifling their own reading process and discovery. There is the additional risk that students might think that an allusion somehow dictates a certain interpretation, like a code-cracking device, when the goal is to open up original ways of understanding the text at hand while enticing students to broaden their literacy over the long term.
My English R1 course “What Is Enlightenment?” concluded with J.M. Coetzee’s postmodern novel Elizabeth Costello. It’s a perplexing text, full of meditations about academia and the persistence of imaginative myths in modernity. Two of Coetzee’s chapters rework the Franz Kafka stories “A Report to an Academy” and “Before the Law.” Before beginning Elizabeth Costello, my section spent a class period discussing the two Kafka stories on their own terms. In groups, students formulated original definitions of “the Kafkaesque” as a description of the peculiar literary mood and thematic content they encountered. I also challenged each group to nominate what they considered to be the most Kafkaesque sentence, at the level of prose style, and they wrote these selections on the board. Then, for lighter fare, they reflected on a humorous New York Times piece, “A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turns Kafkaesque”; we spent a few minutes venting about our most memorable Kafkaesque ordeals, from S.A.T. testing nightmares to transcript requests. Through these activities, students elaborated their definitions of the Kafkaesque inductively from their own unmediated readings of the literature — alongside popular and personal associations — and then revised these definitions through collaborative discussion. By the end of class, students internalized the very cultural, literary, and stylistic awareness of the allusions that they would need to interrogate the Coetzee novel.
Since the point of allusions is not the reader’s smug detection of them, but the critical analysis of how and why an allusion functions, our task was not complete. When students read the Coetzee transformations of the Kafka stories, they were able to recognize how the new narrator actually inverted the emphasis of “Academy,” such that animal cruelty became the tenor of Costello’s critique and not the vehicle, as it is in Kafka’s original. The students’ newfound grasp of the Kafkaesque became a spur to interpretive complications, which several students decided to pursue independently in their final essays on Elizabeth Costello. For the rest of our time with the novel, students sustained their attentiveness to the echoes of other works, assured that it was okay to ask questions about unfamiliar references (to Defoe’s realism, for instance, or to a Holbein painting). In feedback questionnaires, many students reported their enjoyment of learning about Kafka for the first time, and the sense of confidence they felt about the material. More broadly, students learned that access to a literary repertoire can open up dynamic possibilities for critical exploration, rather than foreclose that process. By cultivating a collaborative environment for thinking about literary allusiveness, our class found opportunities to make these references first familiar and then potent.