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.