The Online World of World Lit

I am facing an interesting challenge for the new year: teaching my first ever fully online class. I’ve taught World Literature 1 every semester I’ve been at my current institution (4 ½ years), but now I’m facing adapting it to a new platform. I have taught some hybrid courses (up to 50% online), but now I have to work out how to adapt everything to the online platform. In addition to the existential strangeness of likely never meeting many of those students in person, I also have to work out a variety of different ways to replace in-person classroom activities and interactions.

This is probably the biggest challenge in terms of technology, much of which I have at least theoretical familiarity, but it’s also got me thinking about texts. As with many institutions, textbook costs have been a concern of note at my university of late and there has been a push towards lower cost or no cost materials, nearly all of which are digital. There are a lot of good quality ancient and medieval texts in translation online, but the problem for me is that when I’ve assigned online texts before, I have noticed a distinct drop in the likelihood that members of the class have done that reading, as opposed to how many would have done it if assigned from the physical paper textbook. I remember the one and only fully online course I myself took, and the biggest thing I remember from it was how little I got from it intellectually. I remember especially one online discussion board when the professor made a comment on something I’d posted, and I responded hoping for more discussion, but never got anything back. I also remember totally forgetting about a fairly sizable assignment until the last minute, rushing to find a suitable source text online because for some reason, probably date or time, the local library was closed. I’m pretty sure I must have done at least ok in that class since otherwise I’d remember it better. My point is, I don’t have a lot of practical experience with the fully online class, but I’ve got enough of an idea of things that can go wrong to be a little concerned about how I set mine up.

With texts in a general literature survey like this one, I’ve found over the years that what seems to work best is a fairly even mix of things students have probably heard of or even read bits of previously (Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Milton) and things they likely have not (Ramayana, Tukaram, Boccaccio, Rabelais, The Abencerraje, Tales of the Heike). I also like to include a few things likely to be more intellectually challenging like selections from the writings of Boethius and Confucius.

I have found myself emphasizing more and more the fact that nearly all of these texts are in fact translations from another language, time, place, and/or culture. It has started especially when a new edition of the textbook was published that used a totally different translation of Sunjata. The 3rd edition had a translation more faithful to the original poetic style of the recitation, while the 4th edition had a prose translation. I’m guessing the editors made that decision because the poetic version was a little more difficult to comprehend in terms of story and character, but the prose version loses so much of the cultural and historical feel. When I realized I was going to have students with both versions, and I still do even though it’s been a few semesters since the new edition was released, I really liked what happened when students with the different versions had to work together in class. This is the kind of thing I now have to figure out digital ways to replace. Each section or unit of the course is going to have some kind of group or not-solo thing in it, but I want to have things that are more interactive to encourage students to engage and collaborate in ways beyond just posting to a discussion board and generally agreeing with each other as seems to happen most of the time.

One project I’m hoping will enable some of all the things I’ve been considering is a “where did this come from” or “how-why do we still have this” kind of thing where students look up the textual histories and transmissions of various texts. Because so many repositories of ancient and medieval texts have been digitizing and making more freely available not only the digital facsimiles but also general information about the various texts and copies, my hope is to have students make use of these resources. The group aspect would come in the form of students collaborating to cover multiple time periods of transmission or textual history. For example, with something like the Illiad, one student would work with what is known about the oral text and ”original” composition, another with the ancient manuscripts, another the medieval translations and copies, and the final with how the text was thought of and existed in the mid-Renaissance era. Each individual would be responsible for researching and putting together their own section, and then they would have to collaborate in putting everything together as a timeline or other to be figured out format. I’m also thinking that these projects should be shared with the rest of the class.

Besides some of the logistics, the biggest challenge for me is that while I have great familiarity with many of the European, especially UK libraries and collections, I am going to need to locate English language sources for things that are held in other parts of the world.

I’m also most likely going to have to put together the class as the class proceeds, something I don’t really like doing if possible because it can feel rushed, and that’s not usually not my personal best work.  I know most of the text selections pretty well by now, and I have discussion cues and assignments to go with them, but those are all designed for a different delivery. I’m thinking of using this whole semester as an opportunity to experiment a little more than I might otherwise do with some class elements. For example, I’m thinking of pairing shorter excerpts from the standard works, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with much less known writers and texts from the same period, and giving students a choice of the second text from a list. So someone might have to read the required pieces of the Canterbury Tales, and then their choice of the following: online excerpts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis or Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. Somehow, some way, I also want to figure a way to work in Hoccleve’s Complaint. I’m thinking that something like this, where everyone has one text in common, and then one text that they can’t be sure other class members have looked at, might help get some kind of collaborative learning going. The problem is, it’ll be tough to pull off without more reading than usual, and students sometimes have enough trouble keeping interested or up with the reading calendar as it currently is.

The next few months are likely going to be me figuring things out as I go, and probably a fair bit of thinking out loud here.  We’ll see how this goes.

Reading Classics: Challenges and Ideas

I am not likely to meet a goal/deadline: I wanted to finish reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes by the end of October. It’s got really pretty, literary writing, but I’ve had to sometimes force myself through certain parts when I get bored or lose focus. This got me thinking about the struggle to read something because you have to or feel you should. I’m planning to teach something that takes inspiration in part from Bradbury’s novel, plus it’s a classic work by a canonical author which I’ve never read. The thing that’s causing me some trouble here is I suspect that I want the story and the style to work better together; for me at least, I’d like to be able to enjoy the two things together, but it’s been hard so far to do that. Mostly, I’ve only been able to focus on one or the other. If I, who have lots of academic literary training have a hard time with something that’s supposed to be a classic, then what must students sometimes feel when asked to read things like this, or things even less familiar in terms of language and/or cultural background?

For commonly assigned longer readings, like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Canterbury Tales, I have found that students have often already read at least excerpts, and thus get bored, or they find the material and style too difficult, and give up on actually doing the reading. I noticed pretty quickly that when I included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on syllabi for World Lit and Brit Lit 1 surveys that a lot of students had had to read at least some of those texts in previous classes. One problem is that it’s difficult to introduce some of the more intricate issues and interesting problems of either one of these two texts when about half the class knows the story but the other half does not. Issue two is that in most surveys, reading the entirety of multiple longer poems like this can be difficult to get students to actually read, as opposed to the Shmoop, CliffNotes. Grade Saver, etc. summaries. Some of that kind of thing is inevitable, but when students get tired of struggling with the style, that makes considering some of the features of the actual poetry more difficult, and those are some of the things that most survey students are not as likely to have encountered before.

This is something I can relate to from Something Wicked This Way Comes because the style is so much the point of the book, more so than with an average novel at any rate. I have to admit I looked at some of the supplementary materials in the edition I have and found out enough that I can already summarize the entire plot without having read half the novel yet. On one hand, now that I know the story I can focus a bit more on the style and more literary elements like foreshadow etc, but on the other I won’t be able to follow the gradual building of the characters and the world as naturally.

Something I’ve been considering doing is switching to some lesser known texts that cover many of the same literary and cultural elements as the commonly taught ones. For example, instead of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon contains a lot of the same warrior culture stuff and literary elements, and has the added bonus of being relevant to actual history as well as the Vikings. One assignment I personally would enjoy would be to have students write their own endings and/or introductions to the story since we know the history for guidance but enough of the text is missing that students could get creative.

Instead of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think selections from a sister text like Pearl might be an interesting option. As with the Old English texts, there remains a lot of cultural and historical and poetic room for exploration and interest. I taught excerpts of Pearl in a Middle English language and culture course one summer, and I was surprised a little at how much some of the students took to Pearl. I have not really looked, but I have to wonder if there is a passable translation readily and freely available for students to use. I know for a fact such things exist for The Battle of Maldon, so I have some hope for Pearl. Maldon is short enough that it can be done in its entirety, and wouldn’t be too much of a burden on someone’s attention or interest if it turns out this just is not something they can get into; for Pearl, I would imagine that the opening sequence and the conclusion would provide enough for students to work with and appreciate, but likewise not be overly difficult to get through if again it turns out this is just not something a given person gets into.

This brings me to another related idea; when you are told something is canon, classic, or traditional, it can give the impression that you must like it to demonstrate you are a person of intelligence and/or taste. I would like to figure a way to allow students to dislike something as long as they can explain why in more depth than “Boring”, “Too hard”, “Too long”, etc. I hesitate to use examples of my own personal taste because then students are apt to go with the strategy of “cater to Prof’s personal interests”. However, I do think the general idea has some merit. I don’t especially care for Leaves of Grass, but I can explain why in terms of technical details of poetry. I also cannot stand a lot of traditional chivalric romances, particularly those in the Arthurian tradition. A lot of Crétiene de Troyes’ works annoy me in a fairly visceral way and I absolutely cannot stand Le Morte d’ Arthur for their overly melodramatic and soap-opera-esque characters and plot-lines. Nevertheless, these things do have cultural and historical interest to them, and a lot of people are likely familiar with some of the basics but not as much with the original stories or versions.

To the original question of what to do about classic works and the perceived need to read them, there seems to be a bit of a stalemate: one the one hand, students should have at least some basic familiarity with the literary canon in order to consider where current trends (literary, historical, cultural, etc) might have come from and they might actually discover a surprising interest, but on the other the majority of the time, reading such things can be burdensome when forced, making it far less likely a person would be able to appreciate anything about a particular text. This is why I’m thinking of changing a few things out to see if it makes any difference. As for Bradbury, I will finish it in part because it would be professionally useful for me since I am planning to teach a novel with direct literary debts to this canonical original. Whether or not I end up enjoying the original is still unclear, but we’ll just have to see.

How to Learn or Explore the Comedy of Good Omens

I chose to assign an intro to lit class Good Omens; this decision was made before I realized the timing of the release of the tv version. The resulting assignment is a research paper looking into basic tropes and how the novel applies, ignores, tweaks, or generally deals with said set of expectations and conditions. The beginning of class very nearly coincided with the tv release, so there was a good bit of media attention to both the pending tv release as well as its source novel. Two particular themes kept showing up in the reviews and predictions: the comedy (success, failure, possible dated-ness) and romance/gender (especially the nature of Aziraphale’s and Crowley’s relationship, and the presence and treatment of female characters). The thing with the comedy got me thinking about how a group of early-ish career college students in a not-large urban-ish area in the Southern United States were going to be able to appreciate nearly 30-year old British language and comedy. Never mind the possible research subject, I was starting to wonder about just following the story.

We haven’t gotten to this point in the course yet, but I’m wondering if a review on general British comedy might not be in order. Starting with medieval riddles, fabliaux, and drama would be something fun to look into. One of my favorite things to do when teaching Chaucer, in both surveys and upper-level literature courses, is to surprise students with some of the lower level comic bits. It always amuses me that students don’t realize how old the word ‘fart’ actually is, and that they (farts) have been funny since before the Middle Ages in Europe. There is a surprising amount of scholarship on the history of farting and fart-based humor in the Middle Ages (and a good bit for even earlier times). Just search Google for “medieval fart”; you’ll end up with academic and non-academic links and some videos about comic performances involving farts, significant and often untimely farts in history, ancient and medieval medical practices involving farts (often capturing them in various ways for various reasons), farting and early music, and more. Then there’s the “Christmas” song sing-along in the morality play Mankind; again students are often surprised that that kind of thing was actually A) done that long ago, B) was considered (by most) to be funny, and c) involved “bad” words modern students both recognize and (probably) use. I am actively trying to avoid the word ‘humor’ here since that word had a much different, and broader meaning pre-seventeenth century. To show a little continuity, I’m thinking some of the British poetry in the section of class (before drama, which is before the novel) might be helpful. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” along with John Donne’s “The Flea” might be an entertaining paring. Entertaining and potentially educational though this sort of thing can be, this is really not the same style of comedy or entertainment that appears in Good Omens. But it does provide a baseline for comparison, especially on the level of British vs American language.

One of the dramas currently on the reading syllabus is Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. In terms of style and type of comedy involved, this is the closest we get to Good Omens before the actual novel itself. Father Ted or Keeping Up Appearances, or The Office (the first, British one) might also be points of reference students can easily look up via places like Youtube, Netflix, etc. that give a similar flavor of the language and style. The level of absurdity is debatably a touch higher in the play than in the novel, but I would argue not by all that much. I hesitate to consider Monty Python here simply because the more theologically inclined of the movies (Life of Brian) is not something I think would be terribly productive. It’s not that I don’t think my students can’t be open-minded (I know for a fact many of them can be) but rather that it would be difficult for many of them to fathom the possibility and nature of the language used and the tone of the satire, meaning we’d spend too much time trying to figure out/explain the Monty Python, and lose track of the Pratchett/Gaiman. Holy Grail would be a better candidate both in terms of comfort with basic content (most everyone has at least heard of King Arthur et al.) and also for satiric-parodic meaning, but not as directly relevant in terms of content and potential meaning. Either way, the biggest problem has little to do with content and more with the language and cultural background. I’ve noticed in the past when using video clips of British performers doing Shakespeare or Stoppard, that many of my student struggled with the accents and vocabulary they were hearing. Add the cultural knowledge required to catch the comic intent, which in an introductory class isn’t guaranteed students have beforehand and would have to be provided, I’m wondering if it won’t be struggle enough to get through Good Omens itself, never mind the comic strategies at work; then again, the comedic elements are a major part of understanding the novel, so they can’t rightly be ignored.

There is some good theory and history out there that I could point students towards, since British tv and dramatic comedy has been well studied both in terms of works from this century and those past. Titles such as Comic Persuasion: Moral Structure in British Comedy from Shakespeare to Stoppard (Alice Rayner, 1987) or British TV Comedies: Cultural Concepts, Contexts & Controversies (ed. Jurgen Kamm, 2016) provide a good background in some of the theory and history behind a lot of things students are likely to be working with. A problem with using such books and article collections though is that my institution library does not carry many such titles, which means accessing useful material could be somewhat difficult.

The big problem I’m facing really isn’t even the lack of specialized resources; it’s the lack of time. The novel is scheduled to take that last 2 ½ weeks of class, which needs to include time to read, time to research, lectures and  classwork on how to do all that, and finally, write the research paper. A lot of what I’ve reviewed above would be a struggle to cram into a full-length semester course, never mind a shortened summer term. Comedy will be simply an option along with a host of others including Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Armageddon, Biblical/Christian fiction, and fantasy. It’ll be interesting to see what members of the class choose to focus on.

To be continued….


Challenging the Canon

I teach a lot of survey courses, often to non-English majors. Recently the idea came to my attention of the question of accessibility of some less than canonical authors and texts that still might be useful in a literature survey. I have taught a few things that aren’t staples in surveys of global literature and British literature, but Ovid’s Amores, Boethius‘ Consolation of Philosophy, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Mankind are all canonical, at least tangentially, in terms of general Western literature. With some extra annotation and lecture framing, these texts are not too hard for a student to look up either for background or for translations or secondary analysis.

I have used Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound before as well, and students generally respond well to it, although this is definitely a play where you need to use both the script and a performance. Because it isn’t a classroom standard, it’s less likely that students will have studied it previously, and some students might be more interested because this play is something new to them that they haven’t even heard of. Even Stoppard’s biggest commercial/popular hit, Shakespeare in Love, isn’t as well known to students in a first year introduction to literature class. I know this because I asked, and upon further reflection I figured out that the movie might be slightly older than some of the younger students.

There are some titles, both medieval and popular, that could have some real classroom use, but aren’t always available in accessible forms, which makes them even more likely to remain obscure. For example, the 9th century monk Sedulius Scottus wrote among other things a series of lyrics, some of which would fit nicely into either ancient or medieval traditions. For example, one of his poems (c. 81) is a debate between a rose and a lily. Not only is debate poetry a popular genre around that time, but the poem also explores some themes and images which are common like the symbolism of the two flowers, and the attempt to balance pagan and Christian ideas. The problem is that both the original Latin and the single published translation are not readily available. Neither is freely found online, and in physical book form, three copies of Sedulius Scottus: On Christian Rulers and The Poems and a single copy of Sedulii Scotti Carmina (CCCM 117) exist in the library system for the entire University System of Georgia (which includes places like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech). There are ways to include a single poem in a syllabus, including doing my own translation, but if students get interested, their options for further exploration are quite limited.

Similarly, something like Walafrid Strabo’s Hortulus, as a botanical treatise, might get students who aren’t planning to be literature majors interested in 9th century poetry. Nursing is a popular major and learning that at one point in history lilies were considered an anti-venom in addition to their literary and cultural symbolism might be a gateway for certain students. A dual language (Latin and English) edition is the same large USG library system exists in only three copies; again, as with the lyrics of Sedulius Scottus, if a student were interested in further investigation, finding the materials to explore that text would be a struggle if their institution did not possess one of these copies. A more determined student might be able to find some additional resources, but often, if the class or assignment doesn’t directly align with the student’s major or career goals, they are less likely to be willing to take the time to seek out further information.

The problem with using something that’s not especially standard as a teaching text is not just that the primary text itself can be difficult to find. The same problem exists when a more modern text is popular, but too recent to have generated much secondary scholarship. I have previously used V.E. Schwab’s Vicious in the same general literature survey as The Real Inspector Hound. I also used novels by Kim Newman (The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. All three novels were reasonably popular (two were best-sellers) and all published within about the past ten years. My reasoning was that these were stories students might be able to get interested in, and that they wouldn’t be able to rely too much on secondary work and online summaries or study guides. Vicious was probably the most successful, and I’ll be using it again, but this time I’ll compare it to how students get on with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Drew Hayes’ The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, Vampire Accountant. All of these novels are pretty readily available, although none free should a student want their own copy. It’s my experience with novels like these that tells me that often students aren’t often willing to spend time digging into related but less direct avenues of research if they can’t find something directly on their subject within an hour at most. Of the novelists I’ve listed, only Neil Gaiman has been around long enough, been popular enough, and been viewed as literary enough to have much secondary scholarship published on his work. But the interesting thing is that the university library system doesn’t have much of that scholarship; I had to go to the public library for it. Again, limited access and/or time many students may not be willing to spend.

While student struggles with critical thinking, especially when research might be involved, have long been lamented in various academically-centered media for some time, very little, at least of what I’ve seen, has been able to come up with a particularly useful solution. Getting students more interested and invested in what they’re working with is the best solution I’ve encountered, and sometimes the best way to do that is to use things that aren’t as traditional or even canonical in the classroom or academy. The problem of resources is much larger and one individual instructors don’t have much control over, but we can at least get things started by getting students interested, since demand after all can be a pretty powerful force.

End/New Year New Idea

It seems like kind of a pattern that the past few years I’ve either ended the fall semester or begun the spring term with a big new thing to try, either research or teaching, that has something to do with writing. This year, over winter break, I was revising a composition course that doubles as introduction to literature since I have 3 sections of it this spring. I got the random idea that this semester I would work with students on a series of common problems or things students seemed to struggle with every term in writing assignments, the things I always seem to end up commenting on. I counted the number of class days I had to work with and, subtracting a few for things like the midterm and library research day, I came up with 28 class days for the semester. Each day could have one smallish composition related thing as its focus.

I eventually figured that this would make for a good warm up most class days. It did not take long to come up with the list. What took longer was trying to work out a good order (still working on that), and what components should be the focus of the 5-10 minutes of mini lecture/activity. I’m thinking already that I may end up wanting to reorder things.

What seems to be working so far (1 ½ weeks into the semester) is to tie the writing thing in with whatever the main literary concept of the day will be. I’ve annotated the first few days for example and also because I haven’t written the entire semester’s worth of actual notes or practice exercises yet. That’ll probably happen off and on every other week or so,

Writing Thing #1: Bibliography Citation (Bibliography vs Works Cited) MLA 8 for entry in anthology (prose or poetry) and complete work (like a novel) and web page (secondary)

Day 1 of class has no specific literary focus; it’s basically syllabus day. The main reason bibliography and general citation is first is that this will be necessary for nearly every assignment in class. I find this seems to be especially useful since there are always some students who don’t get the textbook right away for a number of reasons, and need to use alternative versions of the short stories for the first week or two. Thus, they need to provide a works cited in their homework so I know they are not leaving out parenthetical in-text references or getting the numbers wrong, but rather are using web versions without page numbers or simply a different edition.

Writing Thing #2: In-text parenthetical Citation for prose and poetry, both for quote and paraphrase

The literary focus is the short story genre, and plot graphing methods via line, circle, triangle/pyramid. The assigned story is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”., and a set of lecture notes covering various definitions of short story. The exercise: Paraphrase from Poe’s definition of short story to have a single sentence which contains the main requirements for the genre. Quote in one sentence the necessary components given by Werlock.

Writing Thing #3: Signal phrases with quotes: don’t say ‘x quotes’ etc, format (commas and final punctuation), purpose of the signal phrase/attributive tag/lead in/ whatever other term of choice

The literary focus is narrators and narration, and the texts for the day are Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and Millhauser’s “A Visit”. The exercise/discussion: Find where we finally definitively learn the name of the narrator in “A Cask of Amontillado”; hint: it’s located a ways into the story. Put together a sentence which includes a signal phrase and a quote (either the whole sentence or part of it) which responds to some element of why the name might be delayed.

Writing Thing #4: Quotation Marks: how and when to use when quoting and with titles (also use of italics in titles)

Writing Thing #5: Passive Voice: vs active, why to generally avoid it, when it’s ok; avoid ‘it can be seen/shown/proven etc’

Writing Thing #6: Pronouns- first vs second vs third (what they are and when to use), avoid generics (also expletive ‘it is’) as subject and why; also relatives (who vs whom, which vs that)

Writing Thing #7: Thesis Statements (detail and specific, ‘so what’ factor- meaning or importance)

Writing Thing #8: Topic Sentences- detail and specific, link to thesis, include ‘so what’ or meaning, placement, as transition and focus/forecast.

Writing Thing #9: Reasoning-Explanation of evidence; evidence supports not replaces argument or interpretation, must refer to details and explicitly reference evidence and reasoning behind how it supports idea(s)

Writing Thing #10: Comma use and abuse- joining clauses, oxford and with lists, with quotes, when to not use

Writing Thing #11: Colon and Semi-Colon- what they should be used for, not to be confused with/uses to avoid

Writing Thing #12: Grammatical person 1-2-3, and when to use what

Writing Thing #13: Introduction paragraph- provide context for subject and analysis (ie-thesis), not overgeneralized.

Writing Thing #14: Conclusion paragraph- review highlights, including thesis or main goal, final thought and/or why it might be important or useful to understand the way you’ve presented

Writing Thing #15: Supporting evidence- detailed, matched exactly to the point, cited

Writing Thing #16: Paraphrase- what it is (not patch-writing), when to use it, how to cite it

Writing Thing #17: MLA 8 Essay formatting: font, spacing, header, page number, bibliography, title

Writing Thing #18: Focus on the prompt- answer exactly what’s asked, note verbs and all required parts, don’t try to reconfigure too far to fit your ease/interest

Writing Thing #19: Focus and Interpretation- thesis and topic sentences, explanations (and evidence), detail, one point per paragraph.

Writing Thing #20: Reliable Sources (academic, general, popular) – author and date, publication source, use the works cited, when to use general or popular sources (and how to cite them)

Writing Thing #21: Using Dictionaries and Thesauri- know the exact definition and the proper context of the word.

Writing Thing #22: Synthesis- secondary source does not replace your ideas and need to be interpreted too as it suits your point.

Writing Thing #23: Fragments and Run-Ons- what they are, how to fix them

Writing Thing #24: Coordinates and Suboordinates conjunctions- what they are, which to use when

Writing Thing #25: Paragraph Structure review- point focused, specific; evidence- detailed, reasoning and explanation- focused and explicitly direct.

Writing Thing #26: Avoid- Generic statements, generalizing, rhetorical questions

Writing Thing #27: Web Searching- determining use and usefulness of source; can/should use this.

Writing Thing #28: Revision- order of revision: content (points and evidence, overalll structure), sentence-level, proofread, formatting.


Some Ideas For The Theory and Teaching of Fantasy

I have lived in Georgia for a little over three years. Only a few months ago did I learn that the Decatur Book Festival a) exists {less than 2 hours away from me}, and b) is the largest independent book festival in the country. Add to that, one of my current favorite authors who has one book just released and a second out later this month was going to be there at 2 panels on the same day, and I wasn’t going to be able to catch her on the upcoming tour (which was actually stopping in my hometown, now 1,000 miles away). Needless to say, I decided to go. I was not disappointed.

I should say for the sake of full disclosure, I only went Sunday since both sessions with V.E./Victoria Schwab were that day. I should also admit that, in spite of holding multiple advanced degrees in languages and literatures, I have never actually been to a literary festival of this sort before. I have also not been in the presence of someone who has hit the NYT Best Seller list several times in a row, and in different ranges (adult, YA, Middle Grade); I have been in the presence of famed academics whose books were crucial to my own scholarship or teaching, but it’s a different kind of fan-girling when you see a famous fiction writer who is probably more recognizable to the general public, both in the wilds of a local coffee shop a few hours before panels started, and in a room with a few hundred other people, or in a signing line with a few hundred people (at least).

Besides going to see authors I know, I also decided I wanted to listen especially for writing advice, since that almost always comes up during the Q&A parts of any fiction author presentation. I first noticed this phenomenon attending single author talks; inevitably, someone will ask for advice for the aspiring writer. I have since noticed that such advice has a place in the world of academic writing, albeit with a few adjustments.

The first advice that struck me as useful came from Joanne Fluke, author of a cosy mystery series featuring Hannah who owns a local cookie bakery in her hometown. She (Joanne that is) was on a tour for her latest installment, and stopped at the local indie bookshop in Milwaukee WI (#BoswellRules). When she was asked the advice for aspiring writers question, she said that it would be to always stop for the day when you haven’t totally wrapped up a thought. This way, you are guaranteed a place you can start off writing the next day and not be stuck trying to figure out what to write next. I have found this useful with the following tweak. Finish your thought, but then have a bullet point or two for what you know comes next. Then pick up where you left off when you come back to whatever academic essay, project, or whatever you’re working on.

Another piece of advice comes from a social media posting; I can’t remember if it was either Facebook or Twitter, but I’ve seen it several times since I first saw the Rule of 5. This I’m guessing is designed with the professional or trying-to-be professional writer more in mind. The Rule is that you must write at least 500 words or edit 5 pages 5 days a week. This doesn’t quite work as is for academics since often, in academic scholarly writing, you have to pause for research more often than you do for fiction writing. Sometimes it takes all day to straighten out a single footnote, which then feels like a major accomplishment. Or, you might need to spend a few hours trying to find a source that focuses on something obscure, like the history of travel to the moon in fiction. Worse yet, is trying to find a reference you know you’ve seen somewhere but didn’t fully record or note, and now when you need it you have to re-locate it. To accommodate such research realities that come with scholarly writing, I would amend the rule to 500 words, 5 pages edited, or 3 hours research, 5 days a week.

Back to the Decatur Book Festival 2018.

The advice I was looking for at the festival was both of the sort listed above, but also anything that would help me teach literature, especially longer works like novels.

The most useful and greatest amount of advice was brought up in the panel “Power and Vengeance in Other Worlds” featuring V.E. Schwab, Jonathan French, and Drew Williams. I didn’t always manage to catch who said what, so apologies in advance for any mis-attributions.

One of the first questions asked was about world-building and if world should come before plot or character, or vice versa in any combination. All three writers had different responses which was interesting in itself, but since I’ve taught Vicious by V.E. Schwab and will likely use some of her other works in the future, I focused mostly on her responses. She prefers to start with a main character who is nearly always an outsider of some sort, and ask ‘what if…’ some general kind of scenario or situation, and then build the world from there. Another version of this idea came up as starting with the character and concept, and populating the world based on those premises. She also expanded a little on a theory she’d introduced during the 2018 J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. The idea is that basically, a fantasy writer can either create a window in which the reader only sees parts of the world and has to infer the rest, or a door in which the reader can see and experience the design of the entire world.

The basic idea of determining what a key focus is in a novel like the character, the plot, or the world I think would be a useful approach in teaching a novel, but even more so is the vocabulary of the door vs the window. I also think that these ideas could easily be adapted to other genres of fiction that aren’t necessarily based on fictionalized worlds.

The second useful question was how much do you plan for a sequel with a first book in what might be a series. This time there was more agreement among the writers, but I’ve got V.E.’s response as representative. The first book in the series should feel like a stand-alone story; that is, the reader should not need more to feel satisfied with the story and the world, but should want more. Any following sequels should not be mere continuations, but rather stories in their own right. Looking at it another way, the day should be saved, but not necessarily the world. One of the more interesting ideas that came up during this part of the discussion was that sometimes the saving of the day might be more internal than external. V.E. Schwab said, as she has said before, that she really like to write fight scenes. But especially with outsider main characters, the battles should get more internal as the story progresses. The first battle can and should be an external one, but the struggles tend to get more internal as the story progresses.

The idea of the internal versus external threats and fights I think provides a good way to consider how character and plot depend upon each other. The ideas about sequels might also provide for interesting prompts concerning how suspense is developed and how an author might try to draw in their readers.

I probably won’t be able to test any of this out until the spring semester but it’s never too early to start some general planning since I’ve found that some form of fantasy is generally acceptable to a wide range of potential students.

Myth and Folklore towards a Theory of Superheroes

There’s an old saying that to learn something thoroughly, you have to teach it. For me the past few weeks, that’s been mythology and folklore that’s affected literature (and culture), and the theories that have been applied to them. I’ve been familiar with many of the basic stories since childhood, but I hadn’t gone very in depth in terms of context or interpretive strategies. With a little research, context isn’t hard to find, but interpretation when it comes to this kind of literature has a varied history, not to mention, literary theory is not something I have a lot of practice with using and neither is contemporary literature.

In retrospect, I first learned about literary theory in my senior year of graduate school. At the time, I wasn’t really clear what ‘cultural studies was or why it mattered. I later had two semesters of theory surveys in graduate school. I enjoyed those courses. The ‘problem’ was that my general scholarly specialty, medieval literature, is traditionally most often studied via close reading, source use, or historical context. It probably might also have something to do with the fact that I had an advisor who doesn’t believe modern theory has much applicability to older texts.

Not only then have I not used a variety of theory in my own scholarship, but I also have not taught it. That’s where things got interesting the past few weeks. I taught a 5-week short summer term course on ‘Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies’. I didn’t plan this initially, but as it turns out, theory was unavoidable. I knew the name Joseph Campbell from my senior year of high school, when I think we watched an episode of two of the series of interviews that he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”. I don’t remember learning or understanding much from that, especially not in terms of using those kinds of ideas to interpret stories.

What I ended up doing was starting with definitions of ‘mythology’ and ‘folklore’, then adding a new theorist each week. My students and I ended up with Campbell twice (once for archetypes, and once for modern utility and applicability), Karl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Otto Rank. Not that I’d tell them this directly, but I probably learned as much about theory over the past month as they did. We also ended up going into pop culture more than I had planned, but it was something the students could relate to and they also (hopefully) now know that there can be academic value in using scholarly tactics with things like anime or comic books. For example, we looked at a translation/prose rendering of the first section of Journey to the West, which covers the backstory of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, which has been very influential even in American popular culture. We used that story as the basis to try and formulate a theory of the American superhero story. We ended up with something that looked an awful lot like Rank’s breakdown of the hero story. I admit I was a little disappointed things didn’t get more creative with putting together a new theoretical framework derived from the examples of heroes that the class had been reading and talking about, but it was a start. In any event, it was entertaining to see the class try and reason how well their ideas fit a range of contemporary hero characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman.

I was also a bit inspired by some of the work done for their final projects. The assignment was to take a classic adaptation of myth or folklore like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or The Hobbit, and compare/contrast the treatment of the identified source material with a modern adaptation like Krampus by Brom, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, or The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. After seeing what a small group of English majors about halfway through college managed to work out, I now rather want to see what might be done if I applied Otto Rank’s ideas of the family romance and his 10 step hero journey to the likes of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. Or, once the sequel to Vicious, Vengeful, comes out in September (9/29- not that it’s not on my calendar or anything), using any and all of the theories previously noted to determine once and for all the good guy-bad guy dynamic, since I have long questioned the common blurb that comes with Vicious that it’s a twist on the superhero/supervillain story.

After some brief checking, it looks like most scholarship on modern (ie- 20th century-ish) American superheroes deals with their cultural origins and meanings, and very little on structural or morphological characteristics that theorists of centuries past have constructed. While I readily admit this kind of approach is old-fashioned and not terribly fashionable at the moment, it does have its uses, especially for introducing students to interpretive possibilities. Frameworks that include things like concrete patterns (ex-7 basic archetypes) and lists (ex-31 functions) are far easier to start working with than ideologically-based theories. Not that ideologies are bad as interpretive bases, they just seem a bit harder to start with for most. Techniques that allow for patters to appear seem a good half-way point between theories that start with a pattern to apply and those which advance a more philosophical approach.

For example, if I wanted to use Vicious and Super Powereds (by Drew Hayes) as my primary basis for contemporary treatments of heroes, a basic comparison and contrast such appears in Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” provides a technique for gathering information and looking for potential patterns resulting in something like:

Super Powereds is far more traditional in some ways (capes, secret identities, lairs, etc) than Vicious, but there are overlaps in things like concerns for ethics and individual moral choices/reasoning, starring college age individuals who must learn how to use their abilities, the perceived gaps between those who have powers and those who don’t, and the question of created vs naturally super-powered individuals.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a lot of ways this could go. I’ll have to work on this further.