by Kate Elkins, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000
In the Fall of last academic year I taught a Comparative Literature 1B class entitled “Ghosts, Doubles, and Divided Selves.” As the semester drew to a close we were preparing to read the final text on the syllabus, a novel by Philip Roth entitled The Counterlife. Appearing rather simple on the surface, it is in fact a novel of great complexity, especially on the level of narrative structure. In presenting a very “postmodern” novel, I wondered what approach to take to ensure that students did not become frustrated. One of the challenges in teaching composition classes is that students bring to the classroom a wide variety of interests and backgrounds. Few will go on to study literature, and many embark on the study of literature with a fair amount of skepticism. I therefore hesitated to approach the work using a standard “literary approach,” either by starting with close readings or assigning critical essays discussing postmodernism. Furthermore, I did not wish to lecture on the relation of postmodernism to modernism and realism since this historical overview is tangential to the main focus of the class — learning to develop sophisticated interpretations and to write well.
Instead, I decided to try a very different approach by looking at the plastic arts. I chose a video documentary on the sculptor Alexander Calder in which his various sculptures provide concrete innovations paralleling changes occurring in the modern novel. I wanted to see if examining a very concrete art form would enable students to deduce some of the concepts and innovations occurring contemporaneously in the novel. First I asked students to write down all of the elements Calder introduces in his sculpture and together we came up with a master list. The list included the introduction of shifting and multiple perspectives, the role of chance, change through time and space, and the practice of art as play. Then, in groups, I asked students to hypothesize about how they would implement these same innovations were they to write a novel. Some of the suggestions put forth by students were elements which appear in the novel we were about to read: the element of playfulness in which the plot reflects the manipulation of characters or other elements; portraying characters who change according to their movement through time and space or in response to chance events; and characters who appear radically different from different perspectives. Having produced these hypotheses, the students were then eager to move on to the novel to see if Roth had incorporated any of these elements into his novel. This overview also enabled the students to read the novel on two levels simultaneously — both following the intricacies of the plot and from a bird’s eye view looking at character and plot structure. Based on the students’ own enthusiasm and sophisticated textual interpretations, I felt this class activity a great success. In addition, I noted several unexpected positive results. Many hitherto quiet science students became active participants in explaining the theory of relativity discussed in the video and its possible relation to innovations in the arts. Students were also energized to see the interconnection between fields often accepted as non-related— the sciences, the plastic arts, and literature. Finally, I felt the students developed a more personal approach to literature by answering questions about the production of art rather than remaining on the level of reception.