Thursday, February 21, 2008

Syllabus squeeze, or "Hey, I read that in high school"

What do you call it when you find out that a book, story, or poem that you'd wanted to teach--or that you regularly teach--gets taught in high school? What about if several of your colleagues want to teach it? What happens if it's so popular that whole realms of the Sparknotes-enotes corner of the internet are devoted to it?

In theory, at least, this isn't a problem. Hey, it's good for the students to read a book more than once, isn't it? In practice, though, you hear something like this:

  • The Awakening, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

    "Yeah, we read that in English."

  • Hamlet?

    "We did that in AP, and we partnered with a class in Japan over the internet. We put it on as an opera and sang it in both languages. My teacher said that having just a male ghost was too patriarchal, so we turned Ophelia into a ghost in Act V so that there'd be gender equity and the two ghosts could sing duets together."

    Okay, I'm kidding, but just barely.

    Seriously, what do you do about syllabus squeeze, when you feel as though you're making choices based not on the best texts that for what you want to do in the class but on issues that should be completely irrelevant, like whether they've already read the book in high school or whether analyses of it litter the internet, thus making plagiarism a too-tempting option?

    If you're idealistic, maybe you assign them anyway and hear "my high school teacher said X" or "Dr. X said this" or, worse, just see the faces of those for whom Hamlet is a been-there, done-that, got-the-t-shirt event and that they plan to reread it approximately never. Or maybe they don't do this, but it's a crapshoot.

    If you're cynical, maybe you knock yourself out finding obscure texts to teach. But you know what? Some of those classics are classics for a reason, and some of them are engaging for students and important in ways that others are not.

    So what do you do?

    Anonymous said...

    Pair them with criticism and theory the students haven't read, and films they haven't seen and wouldn't have thought of seeing with that book, and also texts they haven't seen.

    I am sure one of my classes will go nuts this weekend. They are starting a poetry unit (it's an intro to genres class) and they are supposed to see what parallels they can find among: Nick Cave (the Goth rocker)'s two lectures "Secret Life of the Love Song" and "The Flesh Made Word," the section on rhythm and chant from Octavio Paz' study on poetry _The Bow and the Lyre_, and Garcia Lorca's lecture "Theory and Play of the 'Duende'," on the " dark sources" of poetic "inspiration" which is about, in part, how this famous flamenco singer got the spirit into her voice after burning her throat with hot brandy. People with some background will figure out better than they have already what Romanticism is, but people without will at least figure out that poetry isn't what's on a Hallmark card. I'm sure they will totally weird out first. ;-)

    Sisyphus said...

    I've also tried pairing canonical with non-canonical texts, or interspersing them and having them write papers comparing them, like "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Yamamoto's "The Legend of Miss Sasagawara." Sometimes it works, sometimes you get bad papers or students being sick of being hit on the head with the theme.

    Super-familiar canonical texts you can assign more creative paper assignments on, like re-writing the text or studying adaptations.

    I'm tempted to grab an obscure recent text and _tell_ them it's an adaptation, even if it isn't, and that they need to figure out how the recent author has played with the themes and rewritten the plot. You know, like saying _Huckleberry Finn_ was rewritten as, I don't know, Spike Lee's _Get on the Bus_. Just maybe their heads exploding might actually make room for some knowledge to get in there. Or I might rue that idea for the rest of the quarter and beyond.

    Horace said...

    I do two things when this comes up.

    One: the fishbowl exercise--I have all the students who have read in another class to sit in a circle in the center of class while others watch. They each come to the circle with one cool thing they learned the last time they read the text, and then have a short conversation about those things (usually 15 minutes). Meanwhile, the students in the outer circle (new to the text) take notes on what they found most compelling or most useful to their understanding. After this gets discussed, I spend a few minutes trying to pull threads together and going from there.

    The other is to dfo more focused study. Take for example, Hamlet. At this stage I only ever teach the playlet scene. Students come to class with so many interpretations already in mind that we can talk in depth about how that one scene ties all those together. We then watch how four different film versions (Olivier, Gibson, Branagh, Hawke) treat the scene, and how each of those performances makes a different reading available.

    Or, ideally, both. I think my goals generally with these texts is to allow students to bring their experitise to the classroom, and then help them deepen that expertise.

    undine said...

    Thanks, all! These are fantastic ideas and I am busily making notes to save for the next time this comes up. cero, that's an amazing set of readings to put together. No Hallmark card, indeed, and you didn't have to do the Keats/Shelley/Wordsworth thing to get them to see something about romanticism.

    sisyphus, I've had them do the "X in the genre of Y" thing but never anything as wild (or as modern) as you're suggesting.

    Horace, that inner/outer circle thing is great; I have never done that. I've had them direct themselves (in groups) in versions of that scene and then showed them Branagh, Gibson, etc., but I've never shown them all four, which would also get into issues of theatrical style.

    These are great ideas--thanks so much!

    Breena Ronan said...

    I'm just jealous your students read stuff.

    Bardiac said...

    This happens to me occasionally with Macbeth, or Midsummer Night's Dream, too. My concern is that the students won't reread.

    But most things worth reading are very different when you read them at a college level rather than a high school level, I hope. I love the suggestions you've gotten so far!

    But I'd be more bothered with short stories and such, and probably try to avoid having students reread them. (When I ask what my students have read in HS, they report overwhelmingly white, male, straight late 19th and 20th century prose works. I step outside of there and everything's open, pretty much. Shakespeare is the big overlap, and I just deal.)

    Anonymous said...

    I'm starting to get homework on that assignment. They say the writers have unhealthy, unsensible attitudes toward love (too much passion) and religion (too much power and mystery, but not enough directive authority). I guess *I* am the adolescent in this group ;-).

    undine said...

    breena_ronan, they do read, or at least they seem to, but it's a much harder sell if they've read it before. Some of them seem to like to read things twice, though, or at least that's what they tell me.

    bardiac, that's my concern, too: that they won't reread. It's getting harder to tell, too, what they've read in high school. They've usually read Zora Neale Hurston and A Midsummer Night's dream, but those are the only ones I cn be sure of.