Today in my twelfth English and European Literature classes, I was lecturing on Frankenstein and the different religious archetypes the characters fit. I think it’s a pretty interesting lecture because it draws on religious and mythical stories and philosophy, including Carl Jung’s ideas on the collective unconscious and the role that archetypes play in that concept.
However, students hear the word lecture (something that I very rarely do actually) and groan inwardly. Today, in my sixth period, they groaned literally. I found this rude, and I told them so. (“If you came in with something you had to say to me that you thought was interesting and important and I groaned, wouldn’t that just be disrespectful?”) Now, I realize that in some ways we were playing out the age-old teacher/student drama cliché: teacher asks something of students, students resist, call it “boring,” rebel, et cetera, et cetera. I do sometimes, as a teacher, feel trapped in what feels like an unfortunate and inescapable typecast position. This all is, of course, very hard for me because I try everything I can to have my pedagogy be about empowerment and liberty. I don’t want to be an authoritarian, but I do want to provide my students access to powerful knowledge—in other words, it’s not just all going to be fun and games; though hopefully a lot of the intellectual wrestling feels fun!
One kid, a kid I normally really like, a kid who has had a somewhat recent revolutionary consciousness raising and, therefore, feels prepared and empowered to challenge and question much of my practice—a habit I often enjoy and encourage—raised his hand and argued that I shouldn’t force students to like Frankenstein the way I have been. I pointed out that I would never force anyone to “like” anything, but I do expect them to at least think about it, and that I’d do my best to give them new, interesting ways into the text so that they could like it.
My students continued to challenge me in a fairly undelightful way, and I got frustrated. I finally sat down and decided I wouldn’t go ahead with my lecture, and students could just fend for themselves. After a time of me sitting grading papers, a couple of the kids apologized for their behavior; I asked if they wanted me to go ahead with the lecture, and the students all responded in the affirmative. It ended up being fairly engaging: I’d built in places for the students to respond and discuss, and the class ended on a positive note.
At the end of class, the student who’d challenged me, I’ll call him Roberto, came to talk to me. He apologized again, and then we talked for a while, and I was able to express some of what I think is a heavy paradox that, as a teacher, I struggle with all the time. He said that I shouldn’t teach books like Frankenstein but should instead teach something more “age appropriate and interesting.” I pointed out to him that I do assign “outside reading” for exactly this reason—they read three books throughout the year of their own choosing, books they are excited to read. (Roberto read Che’s The Motorcycle Diaries as his first outside reading book.) I also argued that there isn’t a single book I could choose to read that everyone would like and that, again, of course my intention and hope is that they would like Frankenstein and, barring liking it, I still absolutely expect them to think about and engage the book. But finally, a more abstract point and what is at the heart of my conflicted feelings about student choice in the classroom is that I think value exists in reading books and other texts and engaging with ideas that aren’t necessarily our preference. I told Roberto that I think this is the foundation of democracy; if we only ever read or think about ideas as our preferences dictate, how will we ever be true citizens in this messy, complex, pluralistic world we live in? I think this is especially true for young people—there is still so much of the world for them to explore. How can they already have an unmitigated sense of what is “worthy” and “interesting” to think about?
Yes, I want my students to love learning, and I do realize that much of the time what this means is lessons, activities, and texts that speak directly to them and their experiences, but I also think there’s something revolutionary about making connections between what might seem like disparate ideas. It’s true that Frankenstein was written two hundred years ago, and I find myself arguing with all kinds of Shelley’s ideas—I don’t agree, for instance, that humans should never seek to answer the big, burning questions about the mysteries of life, that knowledge is too dangerous to pursue. I’m not a Christian as Shelley was, and so I push back against her almost puritanical ideas about humans not playing God. But they’re interesting to engage with: How far is too far when it comes to scientific tampering? How can we use our knowledge responsibly? What can a god-centered morality teach us about how to live well? And I urge my students to grapple with these questions. We also draw connections between Frankenstein’s monster and people in our society who feel like outsiders and therefore do terrible things—it’s easy to connect the text to bullying in schools, and we discuss the young men who shot up their school in Columbine, Colorado for instance. We debate the death penalty since much of the book is concerned with revenge, and we consider the morality and responsibility of genetic engineering. If they can see that a two hundred year old text still says something about our world today then maybe they’ll be more open to people who come from other cultures. Maybe they’ll be less likely to see people as other than themselves. Maybe they’ll be able to feel connected to the larger conversations that are happening in our world today.
All this as well as my own personal love for a wide variety of literature is why I still insist on teaching books that many students might not choose on first glance. One of my own personal experiences with this was being assigned to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin during a summer program in college. I was upset that we weren’t reading more authors of color, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin just felt like even more of an insult given what I thought I knew about the book from the various cultural references to it (e.g. Malcolm X’s referring to folks as “Uncle Toms”). I do still find it unfortunate that our curriculum on New England Literature didn’t include more authors of color or, for instance, slave narratives, but that doesn’t detract from the huge impact that reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on me. While I would never list it as one of my favorite books, reading it was probably one of the most impactful reading experiences I’ve ever had, probably because I didn’t initially think it was an important or relevant text.
All this is not to say that I don’t value student choice. I am well aware that many of my seniors in high school have very clear pictures of the directions they want their lives to go in, and I would never second guess that. I also wouldn’t insult them by saying they don’t know what is best for them. I do, however, hope that they learn to be open-minded and able to be interested in a large expanse of ideas: to me, this is what makes for a rich, meaningful life.