Tip 16: Teach to your strengths

An old song says “Do what you do, do well, girl.” I’d say, “What you do well, do.”

Sometimes we have to work with what we are given, but we can still find what we do well in that area and teach with it in mind.

Example from composition and literature
In comp and literature, the adjuncts at one of my colleges are allowed to pick a novel from a list of ten that the full-time teachers have chosen. We are not allowed to pick any other novels. So, from that list of ten, I picked the one I thought I could teach the best.

I chose Frankenstein, which is now one of my favorite novels, because it was short and because the students would have some familiarity with it because of the movies. I didn’t know anything about it other than that.

But, when I began preparing for my class, I went looking for the things I care about and the ways the book fit my interests.

I love genre issues, which Frankenstein clearly fits. Is it a science fiction novel? a fantasy? a romantic novel, since it was written during the Romantic period? a gothic novel?

I’m a strong proponent of biographical and historical criticism.

Frankenstein is perfect for this. Mary Shelley put a lot of the scientific and literary knowledge of the day into her novel. There are jokes that we don’t get without historical criticism, such as Columbus and the egg, that add to the reading. There are references to the Ovid and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The novel has also been a fruitful field for biographical criticism in areas delving particularly into Shelley’s childhood experience of motherlessness and paternal indifference.

I have a lot of modern friends who are Goth, so I even delved into the gothic-ness of the novel. The exotic settings, the gloomy weather, and the scary supernatural (the living creation) are all part of the goth experience.

I went looking for those aspects of the work to introduce in class. And, because I did, my introduction to the book is strong. I am using my strengths (in this case my interests) to teach the book.

The critical articles in the class edition didn’t deal with the things that interested me, but I still pulled those things in anyway, using them as I do the textbooks- to hit the high points as an introduction. The students can go back to the works later if they are interested. Also the critical articles give the students a fast (but inaccurate) view of what is out there on the novel. That’s good since they have to write a research paper over the literary criticism of the novel.

Example from business writing
Another example is from business writing. I love stories. I like to hear stories and I like to tell stories. I think people can learn a lot from stories. In business, we call them case studies, but they are still stories. I collect stories that relate to points I want to teach and when I am teaching, I use those stories.

These include stories about the Challenger explosion and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. They are things that catch the students attention. Sometimes it shocks them. (We had a nuclear accident in the US?)

Example from freshman composition
I use stories in all my classes.

When I give students their narrative assignment, I tell them not to confess any crimes. (They usually laugh.) Then I tell them about a teacher in Illinois, who spoke at a conference I was at, who was given a process paper in which the student described how he murdered and buried someone. I tell my students that she spent days wondering what she should do. “I won’t. I’ll call 9-1-1 as soon as I start reading your paper.”

They are very caught up by this story. It makes the narrative more real to them.

What if my strengths aren’t supported in the text?

The texts I’ve usually taught from do not have case studies. That’s okay. I find them and supplement the text that way.

These stories make my teaching stronger because I am using my strengths to help my teaching.

I don’t know what your strengths are, but I am sure you have them. Use them in your classroom.

You can’t always ignore something because it isn’t your strength though.

I have found that the best thing for me to do is use the text or supplementary material to shore up my weaknesses.

There may be things that are done well in the text that you don’t do as well in on your own. Use the text to help.

When I am talking about controversial issues, I don’t always remember what the best arguments are for both sides. But one of the texts I was required to use had readings that were in pairs: one for, one against. We would read those essays and, using them, begin a classroom discussion of the pros and cons of the issue.

It was a good use of the text (Tip 8 ) and it helped me do well at something that is one of my weaknesses.

Tip 3 also has a discussion on doing what you love.

How to Recognize Genre-Challenged Texts, My Favorites

During a discussion with the head of my department, we realized that I like genre challenged works.

What does that mean? It means that I like to teach, and do teach, works where the genre is either unclear or where several different genres (whatever you mean by that) are mixed up together.

Is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland adult literature or children’s literature? People argue for adult literature because of the preponderance of the minor theme of death, of the scariness of the tale, and of the narcotic using caterpillar. They argue for children’s lit because it is fantastical, was written for a child, and was originally children’s lit.

Then we have the fact that saying a work is an adult or children’s lit genre doesn’t exclude the application of other genres to the work.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is clearly speculative fiction, but is it fantasy or horror?

If it is fantasy, is it low fantasy or fairy tale fantasy? (Carroll clearly was leaning this direction himself because he added a “fairy’s” comments at the beginning of the work.)

It is clearly an implausible story, one of Princeton’s definition of fairy tale. (They also said this was told as an excuse. An excuse for what?)

And it is clearly a smaller part of folklore, as Heidi Anne Heiner at Sur La Lune indicates. It was first told to Alice Liddle on July 4, 1862 and changed at least three times even once it was written down, until its publication on July 4, 1865.

According to Tolkein’s presentation of fairy tale the work is one since the story does take place in Faerie, the diminutive size (which he says we may reject but which it is not necessary to reject in this particular work) simply emphasizes it.

And at Heiner’s site, I find a quote that details just my problem with presenting “genre” to my students, in a quote from Jack Zipes’ “Introduction: Towards the Definition of the Literary Fairy Tale.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford: Oxford University, 2000.

…[I]n fact, the literary fairy tale is not an independent genre but can only be understood and defined by its relationship to the oral tales as well as to the legend, novella, novel, and other literary fairy tales that it uses, adapts, and remodels during the narrative conception of the author.


So, what are my other “genre challenged” favorites?

Frankenstein. Is it science fiction or horror? Is it gothic? (And is that a genre?) I would say that it is definitely romantic (tradition) gothic (sub-tradition) speculative fiction. Whether it is sci fi or horror probably depends on your definition of those sub-genres. So…

Gulliver’s Travels. It is speculative fiction and fantasy. But what kind of fantasy is it? Is it a fairy tale? It is clearly an improbable tale, but is that its main point, its focus? Is it part of travel literature? (A very popular genre at the time Swift wrote, but pretty much non-existent now.) It is satire. (That’s a genre too, but of a different type.) It’s a social statement. … But what is it specifically?

Note that I wrote my dissertation on genres and attempted to define the genre of missionary newsletter. (So I’ve been doing this a while.)

Speculative Fiction

One of these days, I want to teach a speculative fiction course. What does that mean? It means science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (Okay, so it will be light on horror. Or only use old horror. Old horror is much less scary to me, though I don’t know why.)

I already have several works that would help me prepare for that class:
The History of Science Fiction, though I don’t know where on the shelves it is
Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy
a couple of actual texts used by colleges, including the one I used in my sophomore class. (No, I didn’t keep that. I found a copy of it at the library book sale.
Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (subtitled: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Children)
Philosophy and Science Fiction
Writing Science Fiction
and several Narnia, Tolkein discussion books.
(books updated 2/26/08)

What recognized literature falls into this category?

Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Lewis Carroll’s
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Do you see a theme there? I do. Except for Stoker, these are all works I’m already teaching or have taught. Maybe I’m doing my speculative fiction course in bits now. I still think it’d be fun to finish it, though.

If I ever do this, I might want to refer to this post I wrote on speculative fiction, a note on genre.

Confessions of an English Teacher

If a work has an underlying meaning, a large broad meaning, isn’t that a theme? I thought so. But in an online literary dictionary, it is defined as an image that appears in a work. And in Wikipedia themes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll are listed as “puns, parodies, inside jokes.”

So, what is a theme? How is it different from a motif (which is the word I used for the second definition above)? And are word plays really themes? (I don’t really believe so, but that’s what Wikipedia, amazingly accurate in other ways, says.) And is there some other way to describe word play as besides that?

Then, with genre, I couldn’t find any English presentation of genre discussion on Google in the first four pages of searches. I did find a fascinating discussion of film genre, with genre theory, but that isn’t really helping me with what I am trying to do.

I did a huge genre study for my dissertation, but I don’t think it will be helpful at the level my students need.

So here’s the problem with genre. Let’s take Frankenstein by Mary Shelley for our example. The novel was written in the 1800s. It was during the Romantic movement and is written stylistically (meaning in regard to its language) in what might be called the tradition of romanticism.

In terms of setting, it is a gothic novel.

In terms of motif it is definitely a work of speculative fiction, but whether this is science fiction, fantasy, or horror depends on your approach to the work.

In addition, it is most commonly discussed through feminist criticism, using childbirth, nurturing, and other “woman” points of view.

Now… I would say that it is a romantic gothic novel whose genre is speculative fiction and sub-genre is xxx. (I don’t have a strong feeling on this.) What does saying it is a romantic novel and a gothic novel add to the discussion? And what are the other kinds of works in these groupings? (For example, movement and tradition include realism. I don’t know what others there are off the top of my head. And I don’t even know what the differentiation of gothic is called, much less what other types of it would be.)

And, far more important in terms of what I am trying to accomplish, how do I present this to my students so it makes sense?

A Note on Genre: Speculative Fiction

found while looking at David Simpson’s “Science Fiction”

A Note on Genre

To recognize some works as precursors of SF makes sense in any case because literary genres aren’t absolute classifications. They’re fuzzy sets. Moreover, individual works of literature–especially modern ones–are seldom entirely tragedies, or comedies, or satires, or adventure stories, or SF tales, or lampoons, or any one thing. Instead, they tend to be complicated amalgums of various genres. Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, for example, combines elements of comedy, satire, parody, farce, fantasy-adventure, and prophetic nightmare. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle offers a similar mix. Yet without question both novels also qualify as specimens of science fiction.

(Emphasis mine.)

other good stuff from there:

It’s visionary.

The mere fact that a novel or film deals at length and seriously with science and technology does not necessarily mean that it’s honest-to-goodness SF. The novels of the British writer C.P.Snow, for example, are largely about science and scientists, but they’re hardly examples of science fiction. In fact these novels are actually much closer in style and character to standard historical or political novels than to sci-fi products. That’s because Snow’s concern is entirely with character, power, and moral conflict in a realistically rendered present–a precisely depicted here and now. Traditional SF, on the other hand, tends toward the hypothetical and has a decidedly more prophetic or apolcalyptic goal. The SF writer, that is to say, is more concerned with future scenarios and vivid alternatives, with provocative extrapolations and exciting possibilities, than with the naturalistic transcription of current circumstances. In short, true science fiction is visionary writing about science and technology.

Other options on words for “genre” in this sentence: “We can conveniently sub-divide SF into a set of modes, sub-categories, or sub-genres…”

Those sub-divisions:
fantasy adventure
utopian or dystopian
exotic travel narratives (Gulliver’s Travels again)
moral/philosophical tales