Thursday, March 8, 2012
novels as teaching tools
Personally, I love good novels. Who doesn't? They do, however, present all kinds of problems as teaching devices--authorial perspective, literary affectations, introducing themes you haven't prepared students for. But when a novel hits, it usually hits hard.
I had a banner experience this past week with Harold Frederic's classic book The Damnation of Theron Ware, or Illumination.
For one thing, the students loved it. At 340+ pages, it's quite likely the longest book many of them have read. Plus, they only had two weeks to get through it (three if you count when the paper is due--tomorrow!). In the middle of the two weeks, during a Friday session, I got them through the first 50 pages--we read sections together, we talked about who the central characters were and what they were experiencing, we discussed what themes they recognized from my lectures. But that was it.
My hope was that they now had solid grounding to get through the rest of the book, with professorial ambitions that the 50-page hand-holding would propel them into the rest of the novel, which would generate it's own energy to keep those pages turning.
I was skeptical on due date about how many of them would have finished, but a huge number had, and they were already debating it when I walked into the classroom. I always spend 10 minutes or so going over the basics of the plot ("...and then what happened?"), to make sure everyone is on board. During this particular discussion, though, when we approached the end of the book, there were two or three students who loudly said "no!" and covered their ears so as not to spoil the ending. They had 30 or so pages left. For their sake we left things vague.
On their own, they brought out the major themes I had gone over in class--19th-century Catholic immigration, the importance of biblical higher criticism and Darwin to the de-centering of the Protestant mainstream, the various responses coming from America's Protestants. By the time the 50 minutes were up, students still had a lot to say. We hadn't even gone over the meaning of the title and the idea that the characters were symbols of larger things going on in the country. The following session the students forcibly brought back the conversation. One student did an Icarus impression. Another talked about her own shapely red-headed sister. It was great. Someone learned that the letters of the beguiling, red-headed Irish-Catholic Celia Madden are an anagram for "Alice damned," referring to Theron's thoroughly domesticated, thoroughly Protestant wife.
Emails kept pouring in through the week. It all just makes a professor proud.
I don't think any academic book I've assigned has engendered similar enthusiasm, even Ed's great books, which are well worth assigning. But I have had luck with other novels: Studs Lonigan is often a hit, Blackrobe has worked, The Great Gatsby is still an all-time favorite.
What novels have worked for you? I'd love to know.