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All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2018 > March
2018

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose, Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

“These characters and what they represent are things that I normally don’t read about, but these stories compel me to look at the reality that some women face.”

 

My student, quoted above, echoes what many others tell me about the works we read in my Introduction to Literature course: these selections are not their usual reading material and these characters have little in common with the protagonists they’ve encountered in some of their favorite works. At this point in the semester, students have been unsettled by characters who face poverty, mental illness, and death.

 

This week, however, we venture into a terrain that is even more emotionally challenging. We are reading a collection of short stories by contemporary author Bonnie Jo Campbell entitled Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Campbell’s stories often feature strong working class women who mitigate dangerous terrain—troubled relationships, economic hardships, and addiction. Campbell’s first person narrators, however, often present the greatest opportunity for critical analysis. In some instances, these narrators are processing through sexual assault and molestation, and readers are drawn into each woman’s effort to sort out the traumatic details of these violations. 

 

Although we know that posts about sexual assault and harassment swarm students'Twitter feeds, we may be reluctant to engage students in substantial discussions about these highly charged topics for fear that we are ill-prepared to deal with the emotional impact they may have. However, those of us who teach literature understand that the tools of our discipline provide a framework for such discussions. Through the lens of literary devices and critical approaches, we can create a space that allows for both analytical understanding and social empathy, even as we venture through the most emotionally vulnerable themes. 

 

In the case of Campbell’s stories, I ask students to consider how the author’s choice of narration allows readers to glimpse the thoughts of protagonists who have suffered through sexual assault. To aid in their analysis, I provide students with ample background information: my video interview Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell: Difficult Topics in Literature, a critical essay I’ve written about Bonnie Jo Campbell's Sources of Inspiration, and several reviews of the short story collection. These resources coupled with Campbell’s writing style—which is both lyrical and plain spoken—move my students toward a critical space that invites exploration rather than judgment.

 

Applying literary techniques to Campbell’s story “Playhouse” has led to complex discussions about the roots of sexual violence and the often complicit social responses they prompt, especially among family members. In this piece, Janie, the narrator, gradually discovers that she was gang raped three weeks earlier during a party at her brother’s house. She “feels sick and weird” (15) and her brother hasn’t returned her phone calls. The story opens with Janie returning to her brother’s house and learning that her brother, who recalls more about that night than Janie, is inclined to chastise his sister’s behavior and excuse the actions of his friends, one of whom he calls “a decent guy” (31). As Janie struggles to piece together her memories of that evening, the reader glimpses the emotional nuances of her discovery—experiencing first confusion, doubt, guilt, and then a sort of sickening knowledge. However, even as the events of that night become more lucid, she still struggles to identify the violation. After she tells her brother that she thinks she’s been raped, she second guesses herself: “The word raped feels all wrong, and my heart pounds in a sickening way” (31). When she says the word again, “it feels even more off-kilter, like I really am a drama queen, creating from thin air a victim and perpetrators and accessories” (31).

 

Students are quick to comment about how upsetting this story is, but I’ve noticed that when they are asked to frame their responses around questions of literary techniques, they are able to articulate a deeper understanding of the stories and the theme. When students are asked to apply a range of critical responses—including feminist, Marxist, and reader-response—their interpretations are even more enhanced.

 

Since many of Campbell’s protagonists live in poverty, students learn about the connection between sexual assault and poverty through Callie Marie Rennison’s New York Times article “Who Suffers the Most From Rape and Sexual Assault in America,” which explores how “women in the lowest income bracket are sexually victimized at about six times the rate of women in the highest income bracket (households earning $75,000 or more annually).” 

 

For some students, these topics are highly personal; a few will identify themselves as victims of sexual violence, often commenting about the realistic depictions in these stories. In every case, these revelations have enhanced the level of respect and community in the classroom.

 

These are difficult topics to discuss, but such conversations are already happening outside of the classroom. When we include them in a literature classroom, we can provide a framework that not only enriches our students’ knowledge but stretches their capacity for empathy.

Today's featured guest blogger is Howard Cox, Instructor at Angelina College.

 

 

My epiphany came one day when I was teaching Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a sophomore literature course.  In Chapter VIII of the novel, Jake and his friend Bill are taking a stroll along the river Seine.  Bill, who evidently has decided to avoid hangovers by never sobering up, had previously suggested that they stop almost every ten feet for a drink.  After looking down the river at Notre Dame, the bridges over the river, and the islands covered with trees in the river, Bill remarks, “It’s pretty grand,” and “God, I love to get back.”

 

A few moments later, Jake, being considerate of his friend asks, “Want to have a drink?”  Bill says, “No, I don’t need it.”

 

The point I make about this exchange is that the beauty of the cathedral at night, the river, and the scenery is intoxicating enough in and of itself.  Alcohol isn’t necessary.

 

My students, many of whom already have extensive experience with alcohol, don’t get this.  My aha moment came when a student asked about part of the description that says, “Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky.”  “Why does it say squatting?” she asked. “How can a church squat?”

 

I explained that Notre Dame was a Gothic cathedral built in the Middle Ages with flying buttresses.  “Viewed from the right angle,” I said, “it looks like a giant toad squatting on the river bank.”  Blank looks were on every face.  “It’s a kind of awe-inspiring sight,” I offered.  “Have you ever seen something so amazing that you just kept staring at it?”  Crickets chirped in response.

 

I was a getting a little exasperated when inspiration struck, and I happened to be in a classroom with a computer hooked to a projector.  A couple of minutes later I had a southern view of Notre Dame, about four feet tall, up on the screen.  Comprehension began to creep into students’ faces.

           

“Yeah,” one said, “it does kind of look like a frog.”

           

“Definitely squatting,” said another.

           

I had learned an important lesson.  Our students, who have smart phones with more computing power than the spacecraft that went to the moon, often don’t bother to Google images of things they are unfamiliar with, any more than they look up new words on Dictionary.com.  Seeing something, though, is often key to understanding the point an author is making.  Incorporating this into a lecture yields surprisingly positive results.

           

The following week I was teaching Wordsworth in a British Literature course.  This time I was ready and was able to quickly reference online photos of Tintern Abbey and the River Wye.  It may not have helped any students to understand the themes in the poems we were discussing, but it definitely helped them to understand the inspiration for the poems and the places being described.

           

In recent semesters I have added props to the online visuals I have been using.  When discussing fiction dealing the American Civil War, I pass around a replica revolver, a Minie ball, and a kepi cap.  There is something about touching and holding an artifact that brings the literature to life for many students.  For a British Literature class on the Medieval Period I recently acquired a broadsword replica.  When I discuss how medieval swords were purposefully made to look like crosses, it is much easier to make the point when you have one to display and for the students to touch.  After a serious intellectual discussion about swords in that class, we took ours outside and sliced a watermelon with it.

           

My experience with using props and visuals has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are some legitimate concerns that some instructors may have:

 

  1. Cost: You can find anything for sale online these days, but I was surprised to find good quality replicas were available for not much money at all. The most expensive prop I have is a revolver replica that was $80.00. 
  2. Time constraints: It does take time to display visuals, and to have students interact with props.  Some advance planning is always involved, but I don’t find this to be any more burdensome than planning, say, a group activity, for example.  I often arrive a little early to pull up online visuals on a classroom computer, and to make sure the projector is working.
  3. Safety: Replica firearms are impossible to fire, but some states do have regulations concerning their display and use. Sword replicas are sold without sharpened edges. The only danger from either of these props is dropping one on your foot. 

My fiction students came to a unanimous conclusion this semester: writing scenes without abstract language is hard. How are we supposed to make sure the reader understands what the characters are thinking and feeling without explaining everything?

 

“Trust yourself,” I told them. “Trust yourself to show your characters embodying those emotions. Then trust your reader to know those actions and to know how to interpret those actions.”

 

I acknowledged with my students there are some instances in writing where abstract language is necessary. However, my students often over-explain the feelings and emotions that their characters are experiencing; or alternatively, my students use an emotion to describe a character’s state of being, but it is unclear how the character acts upon that feeling.

 

I’ve challenged my students this semester to “show a lot, tell a little, and never explain,” a course concept borrowed from nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate. By this, I ask students to write in action, with clear details and careful observations, as much as possible and to insert external information and backstory only when necessary. If students show and tell well, then they’ll never need to explain how a character is feeling or why a character takes the actions she does. Both will be obvious from the scene.

 

To help my students practice writing without abstract language, I developed an in-class exercise that asks them to pair emotions with clear, concrete actions. I made a deck of cards with common phrases centered around an emotion that I frequently see in student writing: she felt anxious, he was confused, they were in love, and so on.

 

We first did an example together as a class with the phrase they were uncomfortable. At the board, my students and I sketched out a scene of a Thanksgiving dinner and a small cast of characters—parents and two children. We decided on a reason for discomfort in the room: both children have announced they wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas.

 

Then, I asked my students to take on the roles of the characters and act out what their discomfort might look like. Several slouched in their chairs, some played with imaginary forks, or poured themselves an imaginary glass of wine. We discussed how each action reflected discomfort of the characters without ever using the phrase they were uncomfortable.

 

One student, a mother herself, even took on the role of the mother at the table, choosing to drop her shoulders, roll her eyes to the ceiling, and frown at her shoes. After laughing at her dramatic performance, we all agreed. She was disappointed.

 

Then it was time for the students to try on their own. I dealt each student a card with a different phrase, and I asked them to put the emotion into a paragraph or two of action and dialogue on the backside of their card. Once the students had completed their writing, I collected the cards and read the action pieces out loud.

 

Students then shared the emotions they heard in the pieces I read. Some were exactly right in identifying the phrase, such as he was self-conscious. Other peers saw anxiety, worry, and nervousness—all appropriate interpretations of the moment. Together, we discussed the possibility of readers interpreting actions slightly differently and how the creation of a full scene could provide enough context so that readers would understand what was happening. At the conclusion of the exercise, my students expressed their desire to incorporate movement as part of their writing to get the actions of their characters just right.

 

I was impressed that in such a short time so many of my students successfully captured different emotions and ideas in action without any explanation. When their peers correctly identified the corresponding ideas, they saw concrete ways of showing and telling without explaining, and the power of trusting their readers.