o’reilly factor: satan & adam

In my early British literature course, students are responsible for group presentations. Today was our last day discussing Paradise Lost, and the students decided to stage an O’Reilly Factor panel discussion featuring Satan and Adam as panelists. The only thing I know about this show is from the spoofs of it that have appeared on Saturday Night Live, but I can say that the presentation was easily one of the best all semester, in part because the format allowed them to emphasize that at the heart of Milton’s epic is a question: who’s to blame for why the world is in such a sorry state?

O’Reilly set the stage for the debate, and then asked pointed questions of both characters. When Satan would try to weasel out of his responsibility for the fall, O’Reilly would remind him that this was the “No Spin Zone.” Other students in the class then took on the role of “callers” to the show, asking questions of the panelists. It went very well.

I’m currently wrestling with my conception and organization of this class. I’ll be teaching it again in the fall, and I’m trying to decide how much of class discussion needs to be close and careful analysis of key passages and how much needs to be broader discussion of larger, more abstract issues raised by the readings or of the cultural context in which the readings were first created. Careful analysis can be useful when students are working just to understand what’s going on in a text (e.g. Canterbury Tales in the original middle English), but it can also get boring at times. Broader discussions are often more interesting, but then we run the risk of making generalizations that are difficult to support in the text, or are difficult to support historically. I’m enough of a New Historicist to cringe at statements that begin, “During the Renaissance…”, but I have to get better at providing a rich grounding in cultural context. I take my students from Beowful to Gulliver’s Travels, and there is already so much to read that I’m not sure how to add critical or historical readings. Maybe I should just do it, expect more of them, and see what happens.

Another wrinkle: next year this course changes from 211 to 317, spurring me to ramp up my expectations of my students.

I’d be interested in hearing how others who teach literature (broadly conceived)

  • frame the readings (viewings/browsings) for the class,
  • focus (or not) on what might be called close reading skills,
  • expect their students to make connections between cultural context and text,
  • teach their students the critical skills necessary for complex and satisfying reading.
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4 thoughts on “o’reilly factor: satan & adam

  1. George,
    As you know, most of my experience is in teaching film, which creates some interesting problems in comparison to literature. When I teach a film course, I first have to help students learn basic visual literacy (what’s a close-up? what’s a dissolve? what do these techniques signify?).
    Along with that, I tend to try and contextualize each film: so while they are building visual literacy skills, I pose discussion questions (printed at the beginning of the semester) that allow students to learn the historical (political, technological) context.
    This combination allows me to teach close reading (which I think is important) and to help students contextualize their interpretation of the film. I did that on the fly today teaching Twelve Monkeys, encouraging students to note the use of certain camera angles and movements.
    One thing I have learned is that many students have an understanding of how visual narratives work, but may not have the language to describe what they recognize. I’m wondering if there will be a moment when it is no longer necessary to teach basic formal elements of film because they will be ingrained enough in our daily lives (just like we now spend less time teaching formal elements of literature).
    Not sure this answers your question, but I had a good day teaching, just trying to figure out what happened.

  2. To some extent, Chuck, I do think I need to teach formal elements of literature. Students seem to know how to read for plot but are less able to notice subtleties, contradictions, irony. When we hit the sonnets, they are thrown for a loop. And while I don’t want to reify a particular literary tradition, I would like them to know that many, if not most, of the authors we’re reading in this class are self-consciously positioning themselves within a specific literary tradition and are using specific, formal literary devices.
    I’ve never been good at posing productive discussion questions in advance, but I believe it’s a useful thing to do. I just need to figure out how to do it well.
    What I’m hoping to do next year — after I’ve retooled this class — is provide accessible secondary readings that give them an idea of what the discipline of English is like, and to teach them that there are active arguments going on about these texts.
    In his essay “Disliking Books at an Early Age” (_Lingua Franca_, Sept/Oct 1992), Gerald Graff writes that he only became interested in literature when he learned that what one thinks about a work of writing matters, but that it matters most in relation to what others think.
    He writes, “The problem is that what students are able to say about a text depends not just on the text but on their relation to a critical community of readers, which over time has developed an agenda of problems, issues, and questions with respect to both specific authors and texts and to culture generally” (42).
    I find this a very persuasive statement. It means, then, that an important task is familiarizing students with the “agenda of problems, issues, and questions.”

  3. I think I agree with Graff there–it sounds a lot like Stan Fish’s “discourse communities” argument, something we’ve talked about in the past. I haven’t been self-consciously using that approach to my discussion questions, and I’m wondering if our position in relationship to film isn’t a little different than our relationship to fiction (even contemporary fiction), if only because of the degree of translation involved (from one medium to another).
    For example, I tried to position Monkeys within the context of the AIDS scares of the early 1990s, and felt compelled to explain to students that the images of bioterrorism in that particular film appear well before the specter of 9/11. But in a film course, I might have a completely different set of objectives, one that fulfills some of the disciplinary questions you raise. While few people have written on the film, it would be reasonable to contextualize it in terms of genre study, for example.
    I’m more or less thinking out loud here, but I think it’s important to show them *why* certain texts are important, and that means introducing them to those disciplinary debates you describe.

  4. “Stan Fish”? So, you guys are buddies now, Chuck? ;-)
    Well, it may be that not many people have written about _12 Monkeys_, but certainly there is a lot of writing about film, a community of thinkers engaged with film.

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