Monstrous Texts: Overcoming Resistance to Literature

Tags: , , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Mai-Lin Cheng, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002

The Problem: Students in my composition courses tend to have a stronger background and interest in the sciences than the humanities; in my last English 1B class, in the questionnaire I hand out at the beginning of each semester only two students expressed interest in taking additional courses in literature. Under these circumstances, nineteenth-century British literature can prove a bitter pill to swallow. Last year, I had anticipated the challenge, and I thought I had come up with a solution when I designed the syllabus for my course, “Traveling Subjects: Race and Gender in Flux.” By beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, originally published in 1819, I hoped to combine my commitment to British literature with my students’ interest in science. Along the way, I would awaken their interest in the connections between the worlds of scientific knowledge and literary texts. But on the first day of discussion of Frankenstein, the classroom was notably silent. How could I help my English 1B students connect to a work of literature that struck many as “dull,” “boring,” and “slow”?

Teaching Strategy: I decided to test my theory that Frankenstein frustrated my students because they considered the work irrelevant and outdated. I made room on the syllabus to assign a short story by the contemporary African American science fiction writer Octavia Butler that contains themes of monstrous birth similar to those explored in Frankenstein. I screened an episode from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer to demonstrate how the discourse of technology and monstrosity debated in Frankenstein continues to inform our cultural imaginary. To illustrate how cinematic adaptations of literature can affect our reading and understanding of the source material, we watched the 1931 movie version of Frankenstein. By juxtaposing classic literature with contemporary literature, film, and television, I hoped to help students connect with the literature in specific, personal ways that would help them become rigorous readers. Rigorous readers, in turn, develop into strong writers.

The Assessment: There were two aspects of the assessment. First, I wanted to know if I had succeeded in provoking interest and debate in Frankenstein. So on the last day that we worked with the text, students were given full responsibility for running class discussion. Gone were the protestations that the text was dry and dull. Instead, my students argued passionately about the moral ambiguities of the text, the role of women in the novel and in the cinematic adaptations, the humanity of the “monster,” and many other issues. Bringing film and literature together in the beginning of the course had yielded deeper insight into each artistic medium. Yet a second assessment was in order: I needed to know whether I had created a “one-hit wonder,” or whether my students would feel comfortable with and intellectually curious about other nineteenth-century texts. Rather than having students run discussion on the last day of discussion of our next novel, I assigned a team of students to run class discussion the first day we talked about Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Students began discussion by parsing the first sentence of the novel, which demonstrated a growing interest in the fine details of the text, and they also asked the class to help them situate the first sentence in the context of the novel as a whole. Discussion was lively. Indeed, for the rest of the semester, students approached class material with animated interest, and I heard no more complaints about “boring” texts.