Teaching English 4/533: Enabling World Texts, Past and Present, to Talk to Each Other
William D. Dyer
I am going to offer, as a means for providing a context for the long student-written collaborative paper that follows as well the brief discussion of how this assignment might apply to other teaching environments and students (written by the graduate student “point person” on that project and practicing high school teacher), an introduction to the actual assignment and the online course for which it was composed. Very simply, English 4/533 is one of only two world literature courses regularly offered annually at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
The object of this course is, at the very least, two-fold: first, to introduce participants to some literary texts that are seminal to an understanding of what we might label “world literature”–from a traditional perspective, truly classic texts. That is, each of these texts contributes to the development of a “window” through which we can see the “selves” of several other very complex cultures substantially different from us. And it is through a very special and culture-transmitting literary medium that we will begin to glean other cultural ways of seeing, being, and believing that have evolved through the centuries and, in no small part, are reflected by these works.
More importantly, we strove in the most current version of ENG 4/533 to gain some sense of the “otherness” of these cultures (in this case, the West African culture of the Mandingo, as viewed through two versions of the epic of Sundiata; the ancient Irish tribal culture, conserved by the bards of Ireland who were the envy of Europe during their golden age, through the Tain Bo Culaigne ; the culture of the Indian sub-continent, viewed though the Bhagavad-Gita, with a focus on the region of central and northern India, the origin of some of the most beautiful pieces of sacred literature in the world; 16th-century and very early 17th-century counter-reformationist Spain, its renaissance long-delayed by its expulsion of two of its richest and most productive cultures—Moorish and Jew—with more expulsions soon to come and its Inquisition, producing, nonetheless, one of the most subversive texts so dedicated to an ethic of freedom, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose world view still impacts directly upon us)— elements that define them and that make them unique. It’s probably true that we can gain substantial inroads in determining who we are by studying and identifying what we are not.
Nonetheless, my students and I expected to find ourselves “in there,” in some aspects of those cultures, for, as Campbell notes, there appear to be universal elements imbuing every world epic that enfold us in a sense of being. It’s my mission to test that premise each semester I teach this course.
But remember what I said at the beginning of my second paragraph about a “two-fold” intention for this course? I’ve left out that other fold! Well, here it is. One of the reasons that I teach this course is that I think everyone should read these wonderful ancient texts. I truly believe that they are still alive for us, hanging back in the weeds of our everyday existence, just waiting for us to draw upon them and realize that many of the books we’re reading now spring directly or indirectly from these ancient texts, are tapping directly into those wonderful myths and stories and ways of seeing the world. We can discover some of these ancient connections and contemporary synchronicities with these ancient texts in a quick, late-night flying tour of a local Barnes and Noble store.
And, if we are too busy for that, we can access a film/video guide. What we will find in some cases will be appalling, I know. The awful recent film called Beowulf bore no resemblance to the text that I know and love—but it’s been inspired by that ancient epic text, nonetheless. And then there is Tolkien—look at the incredible interest that was generated in the filming of the trilogy, and it was very well done, inspiring a fortunate follow-up with The Hobbit feature film. And we know that Tolkien’s work of fantasy was directly inspired by his scholarly study of Icelandic sagas, his resuscitation of scholarly interest in Beowulf with his ground-breaking essay “The Monster and the Critics” (1936), and his definitive edition of the wondrous alliterative epic Gawain and the Green Knight. In other words, when it comes to unpacking stuff by Tolkien, one ancient text won’t do—one must follow the Ariadnian thread through the Arthurian material back to the most ancient of European works to reach “Ground Zero.” And, speaking of Ariadne, if we were going to read (and ENG 4/533 students will) a Peruvian novel by the incomparable Mario Vargas Llosa entitled Death in the Andes, we’d be missing the boat if we didn’t identify the Greek mythic elements he has infused into his work as well as the early Incan stuff. Actually, there may well be some stories from Peruvian Amerindian lore that are strikingly similar to the Minotaur and Dionysus myths, and that shouldn’t seem strange when we realize that a blending necessarily occurred of western myth and Catholic beliefs that the Spaniards brought in the form of native stories and traditions. And don’t forget Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the prose epic and subversive novel to beat them all (that’s what Kundera said about it in The Art of the Novel, and who am I to contradict him!), the direct inspiration of Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes. Students in ENG 4/533 read Vargas Llosa’s novel the way he intended it to be read—in tandem with Cervantes’ not ancient but venerable and culture-defining novel. Enabling ancient and contemporary cultural texts to talk to each other drives the course.
The other “fold” in the course, then? I have always wanted to study modern and contemporary texts with an eye toward whether, and how, some of those ancient texts might be situated inside, might be found lurking, and, therefore, informing and shaping those more modern texts. Perhaps shaping the authors’ (if they are writing from their own cultural perspectives) view of their materials. And, if my students and I are careful, active readers (the kind Kundera , the Russian critic Bakhtin, and I, of no particular account whatsoever, love), and we make it our business to be on the look-out for embedded ancient texts within contemporary works of fiction (wherever those works of fiction may originate), we will enrich our reading experience and, as teachers, the reading experience of our students. Scouting out texts-within-texts: investigating what we read through intertextuality.
In any event, epic literature (i.e., the Gita; the Tain; the Sundiata; even, without much of a stretch at all, Don Quixote, in our course) is driven by and is the repository for mythology, stories that have gathered under the “epic” umbrella and enjoyed still by listeners and readers as if these stories were invented yesterday. My students and I need to define what mythology is, what it can tell us about the culture about which its stories are told, and what we might learn about the strange and magical form that cultural myths take. Campbell always helps us here, and we begin the course with him and his perceptions about myth and his sense that nearly every culture shares, in all its myriads permutations, an archetypal “monomyth.” His observations about the “hero with a thousand faces” focus us on the nature of the culture hero and what that heroic configuration might be able to inform us about each of us, now.
Crucially, in order to read these texts (both the “epic” fold and the cluster of contemporary novels we intend to set in conversation with the works in that fold—Adiga’s The White Tiger; Doyle’s A Star Called Henry; Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah; and Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes) respectfully–we need, wherever we can (certainly in the collaborative projects that stretch the course beyond the syllabus) to practice “intertextuality.” That is, to identify and wrap other texts (geographical, political, religious, artistic, historical, linguistic, mythic, gender, etc.) around them. Although we’re reading translations of literary works, we still need to read them “in context.” And, finally, consonant with the final project and its guidelines, a major emphasis in the course demands that students wrestle with the problem of how to teach these texts—who needs to be exposed to these works; what ancillary materials might help us to deliver these works to their audience; and how that audience needs those materials delivered to them.
Some Guidelines for the Collaborative Project
Starting on Day 1 of the course and ending with the course-concluding project presentation days, students will be engaged with what amounts to the “capstone” activity of the course. Once students have sorted themselves into groups, chosen a graduate student among them to serve as the “point person” for calling meetings, communicating with me, and developing a schedule for the group to adhere to, and been assigned to a private chat room, each group will be responsible for:
(1) selecting a PRIMARY TEXT (at least one) to work on; the primary text each person chooses can come from any period or any culture; it could be a work of fantasy or science fiction that has constructed a culture of its own. The key to the project is that each person will need to develop an interdisciplinary way of teaching that text to another audience (any audience, but the person developing the teaching strategy.
(2) choosing an AUDIENCE—each group must choose and carefully define their audience, package their material for it, find a way to include, at least indirectly, one of the texts we’ve studied during the semester in the actual teaching of the group’s primary text to their intended audience, and fold in some materials from other disciplines for the purposes of teaching their primary text.
(3) selecting CULTURAL TEXTS to open up and complicate the primary text. Those other texts might come from the areas of history, religion, geography (maps), language and cultural views about its relative “power”; family values, myths, attitudes about nature (i.e., conservation; animism; pantheism), cultural methods of delivering education; cultural attitudes about women, cultural attitudes about politics and goverance, views on magic and mystery, etc.
(4) dividing the LABOR among group members for reading their primary text, conducting focused research on the specific “cultural” texts they have chosen to work with, and determining in what ways those “cultural” texts may influence one’s reading of the primary text.
(5) developing and submitting a PROPOSAL to me (about 150 words) that describes the “WHAT” (the focus and divisions of labor), the “WHY” (the reasons the group chose the primary text, the “WHO” (the audience the project is meant to be delivered to, and a little of the “HOW” (the organizing principle of the project, how it will unfold). The proposal was due by Monday, October 13th.
(6) composing a COMPLETE DRAFT of the collaborative project. My job will be to equip the groups with some default “boiler plate” for how to organize and assemble their materials into a unified paper, with introduction and conclusion, in preparation for the choices they will make that reflect the materials they’ve found and how they want to prioritize them in their respective collaborative papers. After students send their individual portions, plus their annotated bibliographies, to their group leader for assembly, the entire project was sent to me no later than Saturday, November 30th. Projects, along with their accompanying annotated bibliographies, will be uploaded to the “content” page of our D2L course site to enable everyone to read the projects before each group performs their presentation online and develop questions to pose to each group on what they have researched and written.
(7) preparing the 30-minute ONLINE PRESENTATION of the project, to occur during the last week of the week of fall semester and during the week of final exams. Groups may be as creative and eclectic as they dare, using slides, video, interview materials, music art, dramatic presentation or role-play, etc., and a solid portion of their materials may be strictly “pedagogical”: that is, groups may develop games, group activities, and tests to help their audience contact the cultural “other” in the text they’re responsible for, but they may also use them to identify their audience’s owncultural values, beliefs, and sense of self. Each group should strive not to repeat what they wrote in their collaborative papers while demonstrating how their primary text reflects its cultural identity and in what ways that cultural identity is similar to and different from ours.
(8) revising their paper into a FINISHED PRODUCT, to be submitted before the end of the week of final exams.
Additionally, each student will identify what he believes to be the most crucial piece of research among the several (a minimum of three for each student—the actual number is usually much larger) among the several she will incorporate into her piece of the project. That “most important piece” could be a book, article, interview, documentary film, archive, news story, art object, etc., that provides a particularly illuminating perspective on the primary text and the specific focus of the research. Each student must write a summary/analysis of that “most important piece that can be no longer than three double-spaced pages, to be submitted by November 18th, allowing ample time for incorporating some it into the collaborative paper.
What follows are two exemplary products of this assignment, I think. The first is a long and well-researched collaborative paper on Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It’s very long, not because I required a paper of such length (the bare minimum for a paper such as this would be 3-5 pages per group member, adding up to 12 to 20 pages, depending upon the size of the group; but, in the four years I’ve featured this project in ENG 433, no group has done the bare minimum), but because the group participants loved their subject so totally that they pushed their work to the limits. The rest of the class appreciated what they did, particularly the “Prezi” they created to facilitate their presentation.
The final piece, done by Gillian Singler, not just the “point person” for her group but a seasoned high school English teacher, discusses her group’s project as a multifaceted pedagogical tool, both as a “product” that could be employed in teaching The Hobbit to a wide variety of students and as a fund for ideas for longer research assignments at the high school level. Gillian’s paper ends, interestingly, by listing the remarkable number of Minnesota State Standards for high school language arts that the project that she and her group mates collaborated on.