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All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2019 > March

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


“But why do that?” students often ask when we discuss plays. Sometimes due to the opaqueness of subtext or even with the seeming (at least to experienced readers) transparency of dialogue and action, characters’ motives can puzzle readers. Without a narrator to provide the thoughts and feelings of at least one if not all characters, drama requires recognizing some different textual clues from fiction. Characterization in both genres, though, in works from the modern period to the contemporary, as well as quite a few before it, relies on a psychological approach based on motivations. Getting students to recognize what drives characters, who in the early stages of reading a play may seem like random blocks of dialogue on the page with little to differentiate them, can be quite challenging. Another challenge for instructors is to prevent a literature class from becoming Psychology or Method Acting 101 in the process of teaching characterization in drama. 


To help students better understand characterization in drama, I developed a small-group classroom activity that instructors can use at any point in the discussion of a play or as part of a review for a paper or exam. The starting point is for the class to identify an important moment or moments in the text that have serious rewards or drawbacks for a character or characters. This added warm-up can help students from only looking for dialogue and directions related to the one character in question. After assigning a moment and character(s) to the groups, the activity proceeds as follows:


1. Students list the reasons/motivations why a character makes the decision and/or takes the action with support from dialogue and direction in the play, usually two or three reasons will suffice.


2. Students also consider and list the character’s goals for the decision and/or event. The instructor may need to remind students that these goals may be quite different from the actual outcomes for the characters.


3. A simple flow chart presented on the board can help students follow the logic of the character’s motivations and goals. Distributing hard copies of the chart to the groups to use can also help keep them on task.  On one side are the motivations that lead to the action and/or decision in the middle of the chart.  On the right side are the character’s desired outcomes.  A sample chart is below:


4. Once groups have completed the charts/provided answers, each group does a mini-presentation for the class of motivations and goals. To frame the discussion of characterization within the larger context of the play and other dramatic elements, some questions to ask of the class as a whole can be:

  • How practical are the motivations and/or goals of the character, and what clues does the text provide?
  • Does the character achieve the goal—why or why not?
  • How does the setting contribute to and conflict with the character?
  • Which characters have competing motivations and goals, and how do they complicate the plot?


Each small group can work with the same character and event or with different ones, depending on the number of characters and complexity of the plot as well as how challenging the students find characterization in this text. It can also be helpful to review with students that what other characters say and do towards or in response to a character are also part of characterization. This discussion during the warm-up can help the small groups and whole class to avoid just looking for and discussing the assigned character as if he or she were along on the page and stage. Classes can also revisit this activity during work on an individual play for clarification and/or use these steps for multiple plays in a unit or course. The ultimate goal is for students to start asking “But why do that?” as they read, discuss, and write about plays as part of their regular engagement with them.  With practice, students can answer that question for themselves, both within the plays they read and within their own reading processes.         


Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert, an educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California.


I first met Ray Bradbury in 1995, after joining The Southwest Manuscripters (a writing club based in Southern California). The prolific science fiction writer (who preferred to be called a “fantasist”) delivered yearly addresses to the Manuscripters, because they were the first club to invite him to speak, in the days when he was an obscure wordsmith, making a penny per word for his stories.


Based on the content of Bradbury’s presentations, I knew he hated the idea of college professors pontificating on the “hidden meanings” of his written work. Nevertheless, I wanted to ensure that future generations would continue to read his work, so I started teaching Bradbury ten years ago. I am careful to allow students to explore Bradbury’s themes without interfering with their critical reading process by interjecting my own ideas. I like to think Ray would approve.


I first taught Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in English 28 (a developmental course designed to prepare students for first-year composition) at East Los Angeles College. Although I have read science fiction since grammar school, I did not read Bradbury’s novel until after I began teaching composition. When I did read it, I was struck by the timeliness of its themes. In the era of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, Bradbury’s focus on censorship, political paranoia, and human rights seemed eerily relevant.


For my developmental English course, I asked my students to write a three- to four-page review of Fahrenheit 451. I gave my students the option to answer a variety of optional questions, including the following: “Which social trends do you observe in our society that are also present in Bradbury’s novel?” This question gives students the opportunity to explore Bradbury’s 21st-century dystopian setting without falling back on the novel’s major theme (censorship). My students have taken me up on this challenge over the years, and have addressed everything from online education to the “dumbing-down” of America in their reviews of Fahrenheit 451.


After teaching Fahrenheit 451 for several semesters, I began to use the novel in English 102, a second-year composition course. Instead of requiring my second-year composition students to write a review of the novel, I asked them to address the positive and negative effects of technology by analyzing Fahrenheit 451 as well as Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” published in 1950. The story depicts a “house of the future” that does everything from making its owners’ breakfasts to singing them to sleep. There is only one problem: the house’s occupants are gone. Bradbury strongly suggests their absence is due to the fact that a Neutron bomb or ERW (Enhanced Radiation Weapon) has been detonated; such a weapon kills people but leaves structures intact. Both Fahrenheit 451 and “There Will Come Soft Rains” teach a similar lesson: technology is a double-edged sword; its benefits depend upon the intentions of those who use it.


Eight years ago, I began teaching Literature 201, an online literature survey course, for Colorado Technical University. For the first few sessions, I used Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When the class was revised to focus more heavily on short fiction, poetry, drama, and emerging literary genres (such as blogs), I decided to introduce Fahrenheit 451 into the course. I believe Fahrenheit 451 demonstrated to my online Literature students the kind of far-reaching accomplishments an author could achieve in a novel: Bradbury addresses contemporary issues (such as nuclear war) as well as enduring questions (such as the quality of education and the effects of the media on public opinion) in fewer than two hundred pages.


I currently teach six English courses at three institutions. I use Fahrenheit 451 in four of my classes. Ray Bradbury did not write Fahrenheit 451 as an attempt to predict the future, but instead to ask the question all speculative fiction authors should ask: “what if?” I believe his prediction of such technological marvels as the drone and virtual reality are incidental to his core themes of censorship and the importance of human individuality. These themes are not only timely, but timeless.


Which works or authors have helped to shape your composition pedagogy? I look forward to your comments.