Monsters in Literature

"How the Sea Monsters got into Sense and Sensibility."

From the cover of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Ben H. Winters

Last week, I asked, “Is it the instructor’s job to disabuse students of their woeful misconceptions of what literature does?” I might broaden the scope of the question and ask if it applies to any class. Certainly profs and instructors must challenge students, and hopefully all teachers will facilitate flashes of insight in their students that crack open the subject matter with the joy and anticipation you might bring to a hungry assault on a Christmas filbert. But should we seek to convince students that personal, emotional, or so-called trivial approaches to a subject are wrong? Unscientific? Shallow?

I don’t know. But I appreciate Deborah Britzman’s thoughts on the subject: she baldly calls this desire to control student response to a curriculum monstrous. And, according to Britzman, all teachers have something of the monster about them.

I want to let Deborah speak for herself on this one. She’s got this elliptical way of writing that is confusing, sometimes even grammatically off (she particularly favours comma splices), which leaves gaps in meaning for her readers to ponder. This impressionistic style likely comes out of her background in psychoanalysis: her writing refuses tight linearity and strict logic as if it were anathema to true meaning-making. So, yes, her writing can be frustrating. It can feel like she’s being deliberately unclear, even lazily non-specific, but those gaps in meaning, those elliptical gestures to a not-quite-said something have the uncanny ability to create moments of deep insight in her readers. She allows her readers to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge; we make meaning right alongside her.

So, as a Christmas gift to you, and by way of “farewell, until next time”–next time being the new year, when I return to Dry-Erase after the holidays– I give you your very own pedagogical Christmas filbert to crack open:

The Monstrous in Teaching

from Novel Education: Pyschoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning, by Deborah P. Britzman, p. 114-117.

“I wished the course title “Monsters in Literature” would convey, in miniature, the whole story of what students could expect to learn. I would present to the class, whom I had never met, a series of literary monsters that would lead them by the hand to critique the monstrous in real life. The course title, so I thought, was a shortcut, a pedagogical telegraph, perhaps even a wish for pedagogical telepathy…. In sequence, the curriculum began with the fantastic, but in my head these actual monsters would only set the stage for encountering something terribly real and literally terrible: the inhumanity of the state apparatus, class inequality, racism, and genocide.

Admittedly, this was a very depressing curriculum, one that I would meet again and again throughout the course of my teaching career. Little did I know how depressed it would make me. Only much later would I learn to become more attuned to the students’ complaints, my own depression and even my role in their discomfort. When I began teaching, however, my rationalization for trading in such affect, [was] replacing their denial of false consciousness with my depressing truth…. My ignorance was performed through a pedagogy that tried to insist that works of art are communications to be received and corrections to be made. It took me many years to see in this wish something manic, a teacher’s defense against encountering both the literary and its excess and the students, all of whom had their own minds. The manic defense was a symptom of a kernel of the monstrous in my own teaching. ….

The idea that everything was political crowded my centre stage. I used literary monsters to convey the truth. And because there was a truth, it never occurred to me that there would be an argument with students…. They were adverse to using these creatures as a means to critique their society and to accepting my demand that everything, including the monster, is political. Simply put, they wanted to play, escape, and enjoy. ….

For the twenty-year-old that I once was, these psychological questions of significance and relation…–what it means to become human with other humans in the classroom–could not be recognized as the question par excellence. ….

220px-JekyllHyde1931After distributing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, I worried that the novel was too difficult. I could not read the book through their eyes and, when preparing for the week’s lesson, my misreading of their abilities and interests persisted. Stevenson’s novel was to begin our social inquiry. Looking back, I realize that I must have thrown it in the curriculum only because there was an actual monster to encounter, only because there was some guilt with my false advertisement. And in that sense, I was right. After all, the course was called Monsters in Literature and not The Political in Literature and once I met the actual students, it dawned on me, in spite of my best defenses, that the students signed up for the Monsters part, not the literature.

The weekend before our discussion of the novel’s beginning, I panicked, imagining the students would hate it and would never be able to read it. I worried they would hate me as well…. Yet there the students were that Monday morning. And, too, there was a sheepish student teacher to be greeted by their enthusiasm over the novel. In this difference between what I imagined and what occurred, the students began to be real because I could take no credit for their existence. …. And no matter how difficult the prose, how archaic the English, they read on, enjoying the suspense, identifying with what was monstrous in themselves and others, but not because they needed to change the world. Just the opposite, they wanted the world to take them in. Essentially, and like Shelley’s Frankenstein, they wanted to be recognized, even adored, for all their foibles, phantasies, and desires.”

Merry Christmas!

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