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2018

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

Halloween gives us a good excuse to scare up some literary wickedness to treat our classes. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” work well as paired readings, allowing students to examine literary evil as it unfolds under evening stars and morning sun.

 

One element your students can explore through writing or discussion is setting. Both stories are set in small villages, but from there, the differences are quite literally night and day. Hawthorne’s dark, tangled forest provides a perfect setting for Goodman Brown’s “evil purpose” of attending a witch-meeting. The dark facilitates illusion, and Hawthorne never allows the reader the comfort of certainty. The snakelike staff carried by Goodman Brown’s fellow traveler seems to “twist and wriggle,” but Hawthorne casts doubt, writing that the movement must be “an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Similarly, a natural depression in a rock holds a substance that might be “water, reddened by the lurid light . . . blood . . . or, perchance, a liquid flame.” Jackson’s story, on the other hand, takes place at 10:00 a.m. in the town square. What could possibly happen in broad daylight with all 300-some villagers present, chatting and hoping to “get home for noon dinner”? Even the rocks with which the villagers eventually stone Tessie Hutchinson are first presented in the guise of innocent play, as three of the village boys build “a great pile of stones” and protect them “against the raids of other boys.”

 

Going a bit deeper, students might be asked to discuss or write about how and whether the characters perceive the evil that exists in each story. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the title character feels guilty about his overnight journey away from his wife Faith and about straying from his religious faith.  However, he never recognizes his most profound mistake: losing his faith in humanity. Hawthorne suggests that the witch-meeting may have been a “wild dream,” but of course it makes no difference. Dream or no, Goodman Brown is doomed to misery because he can no longer see the good in anyone.  In “The Lottery,” the characters are completely blind to their own wrongdoing as they draw lots and stone Tessie Hutchinson without a qualm, even urging her to “’[b]e a good sport.’”  It’s tradition; they do it every year. How could it be wrong?  

 

These bitter stories can be made sweeter with treats that provide a playful reflection of elements in each story. Candy corn recalls the saying “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” from Jackson’s story, and gummy worms stand in for the staff that resembles a “living serpent” in Hawthorne’s story.  You might also re-enact the drawing in “The Lottery” by making a “lottery box” (any small box will do) and putting in exactly as many folded slips of paper as you have students, with a black spot on one of the papers.

 

I did this recently with my first-year composition students, using only “The Lottery” because it was readily available in The Brief Bedford Reader. As I passed around the box of folded papers for students to draw, an undercurrent of tension flowed through the laughter in the room as students made joking comments such as “It’s been nice knowing y’all” and “Prepare to die.” When the winner revealed herself, I told her that because of her, the class would have corn. I then handed her a bag filled with individually wrapped packets of candy corn and asked her to pass them out to her classmates.  As the students enjoyed candy, we watched a short adaptation of “The Lottery.”

 

Films are a good addition to this assignment, whether you link them online or show them in class.  I found two short films on YouTube, each less than 10 minutes long.  “The Lottery,” is reasonably faithful to Jackson’s story. “Young Goodman Brown” departs from Hawthorne’s story with a modern setting (and nudity that you will want to preview), but is faithful to the original tale in the protagonist’s reaction to woodland depravity that may never have happened.

 

Halloween is the perfect time for tales of terror, and the implications of these two stories are particularly terrifying. Hawthorne’s story suggests that even a “good man” can become blind to the goodness in humanity, while Jackson’s implies that people who participate in atrocities against others are not monsters but ordinary people--people just like us. Those thoughts are scarier than a graveyard at midnight, more horrifying than a host of brain-eating zombies, and ideal for discussion in a literature class as October draws toward its close.    

photoToday's featured guest blogger is Bill LeachLiberal Arts Program Chair and Professor of English at Florida Institute of Technology

 

Torn from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in honor of her novel’s 200th anniversary this year.

 

Recently, I asked students in my literature class to write an essay analyzing the symbolism in William Stafford’s poem “Traveling through the Dark.” I was shocked when one student suddenly bolted from the room never to be seen again!  What could be so frightening about poetry analysis that would drive someone into a state of panic and withdrawal?

 

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge….”  Victor Frankenstein

 

Many first year students are not familiar with the concept of ‘analysis’ as it applies to literature, and sometimes faculty need reminding that students can get apprehensive when asked to write an analysis. So, in the beginning of the semester, I take the element approach to help students see how the various parts of a story or poem are interconnected to the whole.

 

“I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-balls were starting from their sockets…The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and…still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.”  Victor Frankenstein

 

For example, to help allay fears and to make the practice of short fiction analysis more enjoyable, I’ve bestowed on my students the title of ‘Literature Detectives.’  I divide them into four or five ‘Squads’ and ask the squads to fill out a Surveillance Report. The Report asks them to:

 

  1. Identify the target (protagonist)
  2. Identify the threat (antagonist)
  3. Describe the conflict between the target and threat
  4. Describe how the conflict gets resolved and identify where the climax occurs

 

This activity is a fun way to introduce plot analysis which should be the first step in close reading.  Then the squad members write what they believe to be the major themes of the story and present their findings to the class.

 

After learning how easy and fun it is to analyze plot, students then dive deeper and look at elements of symbolism, setting, point of view, etc.  I’ve also designed a separate Report for analyzing poetry based on the elements approach that works equally as well.

 

Practicing analytic skills in group presentations helps prepare students for writing analysis essays on prompts such as the symbolism in “Traveling through the Dark.”

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful!—Great God!”  Victor Frankenstein

 

Through the element/group approach, the quality of student writing has grown dramatically, producing more satisfaction in the study of literature from the student perspective.  I am very proud of their creations just as Victor Frankenstein was of his:

 

“…more, far more, will I achieve…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”

This week's features guest blogger is Phillip Chamberlin, professor at Hillsborough Community College

 

“I lost six friends and neighbors—all under 25 years old—to suicide. And since then, I’ve lost about five friends to heroin overdoses and suicide. It’s just like this cluster of death that surrounds me, surrounds my neighborhood. It’s kind of a desperate thing.” –John Ulrich, college student from Boston

 

The young man quoted above stands on his apartment building as he gazes into the lens of the camera. He’s about to recite his favorite poem, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. His personal connection to the poem is obvious, as is his passion.  The rhythm of his performance varies greatly from that of the author’s, but no matter—it’s a valid reading, and he’s moved by the poem, and so are we.

 

This video and many others like it are featured in the Favorite Poem Project, a project founded by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, that features compelling videos of ordinary people introducing and then reciting their favorite poems. The website describes the participants as being “Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, representing a range of occupations, kinds of education, and backgrounds.” Most of the people on camera are quite ordinary—they may have interesting stories, but rarely are they overtly eccentric. Because the participants are not famous poets or academics, they could perhaps be called outsiders. But that would be missing the point: In the world of poetry, there are no outsiders.

 

I teach at a community college that serves a population almost as diverse. Some of my students are younger than sixteen (as participants in high school dual enrollment programs) and some are older than sixty. Some have never had a day of employment, and others are changing careers. Some have disabilities. Some are multilingual. Some are already avid readers, and some avoid reading as much as possible. Some even write their own poetry. Others think they hate it.

 

In my experience, these Favorite Poem Project videos have had a welcome role in many of my courses, at least the ones that discuss literature (whether in depth or as part of a brief overview). In elective literature classes, which tend to be full of students already passionate about reading, they work. In prerequisite composition classes, which tend to include a population of students with a much wider range of skills and academic preferences, they also work. Whether I teach in traditional classrooms or in online environments, they work. Students invariably find something intriguing and relevant in these ordinary people, their favorite poems, and their interpretations.

 

Sometimes I assign specific videos, like the Jamaican-American photographer who finds himself surprised by his connection to New England poet Sylvia Plath, or the construction worker who finds inspiration and comfort in the words of Walt Whitman, or the law student who responds enthusiastically to the world view of Wallace Stevens. Sometimes I encourage students to select videos on their own.  Either way, assignments involve viewing, ruminating, responding, writing, and discussing.

 

In face-to-face classes, sometimes I assign groups of students to present a video to the class—that is, they respond to a response and continue the conversation. In online courses, these videos serve as the basis for at least one of our weekly discussions. Even when students don’t respond favorably to a video, something interesting happens: They begin to see poetry in a new light. And to be honest, sometimes I do, too.

 

Imagine where instructors could take these activities to make them even deeper, more involved, more challenging. Instructors could even ask students to create their own videos. (They would need to be brief enough to be digestible for contemporary audiences yet deep and meaningful enough to be worthwhile—a worthy challenge.) Or, instructors could ask students to base an extended essay project about these poetry fans and their responses. The essay project itself could have a multimedia component. The possibilities are exciting, and resources like the Favorite Poem Project will continue to keep poetry relevant for students from many different walks of life.

Browsing in the stacks of my local town library this summer, I was surprised to discover an edition of Kafka’s story that I hadn’t found in 2002 when I began to translate the German text of Die Verwandlung into English as “The Metamorphosis” for inclusion in an early edition of The Story and Its Writer. The copyright page of the book I found on the library shelf informed me that this English translation of the story had originally been published as a single volume in an edition limited to three hundred copies by Aeonian Press in Matituck, New York and reprinted in 1946 by the Vanguard Press, Inc. Its ISBN number was 0-88411-450-3. The name of the translator and the date of the Aeonian Press edition were not included.

 

I was disappointed I couldn’t find the name of the translator, but further omissions awaited me after I checked out the slim volume and took it home to read cover to cover. “A Note on the Text” before the title page promised “footnotes to this translation,” but after I’d settled into a comfortable armchair to read the book, I realized, much to my dismay, that it was seriously flawed. At the end several pages were missing in their stiff blue library binding. The text of Kafka’s classic story stopped abruptly on page 87 with Greta Sampsa’s words after she ceased playing her violin for the three lodgers, when she told her parents, “Things cannot go on like this. Even if you do not realize it, I can see it quite clearly. I will not mention my brother’s name when I speak of this . . . .”  I flipped over this page to find only one more sheet left in the tightly bound volume. It offered the final paragraphs of a brief biography of Kafka, evidently the end of the afterword.

 

No name of the translator of Die Verwandlung into English, no conclusion to the story, and no footnotes explaining the changes in the text between the appearance of the original German publication of the story in its first book edition in November 1915, which Kafka evidently read, and its next edition in 1917. No one knows if Kafka read and corrected this second book edition. In the 1946 English version of the story I’d just checked out of the library, someone (perhaps the translator) wrote in “A Note on the Text” at the beginning of the book, that “I count fifty-seven changes between this [1917] edition and the edition of 1915, of which I judge eleven to be degradations, ten to be improvements, and the rest of minimal consequences.” Most of the minimal changes were concerned with orthography and punctuation, but the ten “improvements,” according to this note, were incorporated into “footnotes to this translation.” Alas, these footnotes were nonexistent in the truncated volume my local library had put on its shelves.

 

So what had I learned from my discovery of this incomplete English translation of perhaps my favorite short story in the entire wide, wide world of short fiction? Despite its flaws, the little book gave me the most important new information that I was looking for — how the opening sentence was translated into English. How had the unknown translator met that challenge? Here is what I read: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.”

 

“Some monstrous kind of vermin” — those were the words I was seeking. No previous version of the story in English that I’d read had ever started that way. As I wrote in my commentary “Translating Kafka,” the first sentence of “The Metamorphosis” is the one that gives the most trouble to translators. I was a college undergraduate when I first read the story’s opening sentence in an early translation by Willa and Edwin Muir. I still remember how horrible it was to imagine their stark image of Gregor Sampsa transformed into an “enormous bug.” Their words were unforgettable, but years later when I did my own translation, I preferred “monstrous vermin” as being closer to Kafka’s multisyllabic word choice in German. 

 

I liked the phrase in English of “some monstrous kind of vermin” because its indeterminacy suggested Gregor’s hazy dream-state when he first woke up at the moment of becoming aware of his metamorphosis. In my reading of the story, Kafka created the worst possible nightmare for his protagonist. Gregor’s waking life is already difficult; his job as a traveling salesman gives him little personal satisfaction, and at home he must live with the callous selfishness of his family and the murderous intentions of his father. He can seek peace of mind only in sleep.  But in “The Metamorphosis” the dreamer can never escape his nightmare. Good-hearted Gregor awakens to find himself inexplicably transformed into a state of being worse than his troublesome life itself.

 

Ann Charters is the author of  The Story and Its Writer.

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch, Professor at Montgomery College.

 

Teaching drama may pose the most difficult challenge of the literary genres for instructors.  Plays have speakers like poems, plots like fiction, and scenes like films, but without the benefit of stanzas, narrators, and shots to help guide readers. While plays from the Renaissance and earlier often have prologues to help set initial scenes and introduce characters, readers are largely left on their own to navigate the worlds of plays and the characters that inhabit them.  One of the puzzling facts about plays for students new to them is that they are written from the point of view of the stage rather than of the audience. As a result, trying to visualize character movement through dry stage directions like “walks up stage” can be quite difficult when a reader does not know which direction is “up.” While following the movement and action of characters on, say, an Absurdist stage that simply contains two characters, a tree, and a stump may not pose a particularly difficult challenge, most plays ask quite a bit more of readers. As even an experienced play reader will admit, keeping track of the placement of scenery and props, as well as characters and their movements, on a busy stage, not to mention a stage with scene changes, all while trying to read the dialogue can be a daunting task.

 

To help students visualize stage space, I often use a small group activity early in the semester or drama unit.  It will require some willingness on at least one student per group to do some drawing, although not anything fancy, and students do not seem to mind a little shared artistic responsibility.  For materials, each group only needs a piece of paper and a pencil (obviously easier to erase than pen).    

 

  1. Assign the specific scene/set for the groups, generally after some warm-up about the play or even after the play has been discussed if issues with reading stage space arise.
  2. Have students sort out who is doing the close reading of the setting and character movements and who is handling the drawing before pencil gets to paper. As is the case with much small-group work, the delegation of roles will be the key to success. Equally important will be the need for students to be open to the interpretations of others to make this a group effort.
  3. Once the basic set design is drawn with props, an instructor can ask to have each group show their work. It might be a good idea to make sure every group is on the right track before moving on to the last step.
  4. Where are the characters? Now that the groups have drawn a set for a particular scene, have the groups do some blocking of the characters during a key passage. Simple diagrams or stick figures should do just fine. You can also have them use arrows or another indicator of characters’ movement in the scene. Interpretations may vary, and they can also be included in the drawing up to a point. A picture full arrows and lines would probably defeat the purpose of visualizing the stage.

 

Variations could be using space on the board if the room and class size can accommodate it, and, time and tech permitting, students could use a free drawing program like SVG Edit  that works right in a browser with no need to download software. How many sets the students draw depends on the complexity of the play’s staging, as well as how much difficulty students in a class are having with navigating dramatic texts. As a result, all the groups could work on the same set if it is complex or challenging, or each group could work on an individual set for plays with multiple locations. Classes can also revisit this exercise during work on an individual play for reminders and clarification and/or use the exercise for each play covered. In addition, having students map out the stage space can also be the springboard for student interpretations of setting and directions. How far up is “up”? The answer is up to students’ productions of plays taking place in their own minds, a realization that can be a rewarding teaching and learning experience.             

 

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

This summer, teaching a hybrid literature and composition class, I developed a lesson in carpe diem poetry that was close to pedagogical perfection. Because it worked (and because not everything does), I share it with you. The lesson incorporates poetry and song lyrics and requires students to read, watch, listen, and write.

 

The first part of the lesson presents a definition of carpe diem along with a clip from the film Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) shows his students pictures of long-dead students and advises his own students to “Seize the day, boys . . . make your lives extraordinary.” 

 

After viewing the introductory film clip, students move to two classic carpe diem poems: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” I ask students to look at the formal structure of the speaker’s argument in Marvell’s poem and to contrast the formal structure with the intimate nature of the poem, in which the speaker argues that a specific “coy mistress” should make love to him. I also point out the more general, advice-giving nature of Herrick’s poem, in which the speaker cautions young women (“virgins”) to marry before they are past their expiration date.

 

Next, students listen to four contemporary songs and decide which two are carpe diem songs. I specify that a carpe diem song (1) alludes to the idea that life is short, and (2) names a specific thing that should be done because life is short. The songs students choose should contain both elements.

 

For the lesson, I chose songs I had heard in Zumba class or on Sirius XM’s Chill radio during my morning commute.  I had planned to link to music videos on YouTube, but on one video, I was stopped by a “potentially offensive” YouTube warning. Mindful of my still-in-high-school dual enrollment students, I decided that I would link the audio version of that song and let students find the video themselves if they wished. 

 

Another dilemma arose when I discovered that the song that had given me the idea for the lesson had no clean version available. I took the problem to my students and asked them if profanity in music offended them. They reacted just as I might have if an adult had asked my teenage self if I was offended by Mick Jagger’s onstage gyrations.  I included the song, prefaced with a warning that I had not been able to find a clean version. I then asked myself if this issue was the same as that of the video with the YouTube warning and decided that it was not. Some of the works of literature assigned in class also contain profanity, so these lyrics add no new element.

 

I have listed and linked my song choices below, but the assignment is endlessly adaptable to your own musical tastes and preferences. 

 

  1. “Bad, Bad News” by Leon Bridges, a song about seizing the opportunity to make “a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.”
  2. “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer, a song that riffs on the theme of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” This is the song with the YouTube community warning; judge for yourself. 
  3. “Havana” by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug, a song about a heart divided, chosen because of its wildly entertaining video.
  4. “Dead Soon” by Autograf, featuring Lils and Bonsai Mammal, a song that justifies seizing the moment with the lyric “If we don’t see another light / Then at least we had tonight.”

 

My students responded well to this assignment; all accurately identified the carpe diem lyrics (songs 2 and 4). When I asked myself if a 100 percent success rate meant the exercise was too easy, my answer was “not in this case.” Carpe diem is a fairly easy concept to grasp, recognize, and remember.  What really sold me on the assignment was not the success rate, but the ease with which students quoted song lyrics. My students find it challenging to make a point about literature and support that point with a concise quotation from the text itself. But doing the exact same thing with song lyrics seemed to be easy for them, perhaps because song lyrics are woven through their lives in a way that literature is not.  This accidental discovery suggests that one good way of helping students understand how to integrate quotations into their papers is to let them start with song lyrics. While I should probably seize the day and get to work on that, it’s a task for another day.