For the past decade, the humanities have been on the decline, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses have been on the rise. As recent as February 2020, InsideHigher Ed.com reported that many “humanities programs had been frozen in line with what [is] described as a national trend of declining student interest in these areas” (Redden). Furthermore, according to Beth McMurtie, “Across the country, humanities majors have plummeted. Since 2011, history has seen a 33-percent drop in majors. English has seen a longer and more drastic decline, while languages, philosophy, and religion have also been hit hard since the 2008 recession.” Thus, the humanities are under attack, and this is because many students, particularly community college students, see college as means to an end. As Mark Edmundson explains, “For students, that end is a good job. Students want the credentials that will help them get ahead. They want the certificate that will grant them access to Wall Street, or entrance into law or medical or business school” (407). Students want to learn information, but they want to know how that information will help them in a future job. In short, if we, as professors, can learn anything from these statements and from students’ tendencies—to ditch the humanities and major in concrete subjects—we have to better understand why students are not interested in humanities courses and find a solution that better engages them.
As Edmundson argues, “Students come to college with the goal of a diploma in mind—what happens to them in between, especially in classrooms, is often of no deep and determining interest to them” (407). Sadly, this is true, but it does not need to be. It is our job as professors to reveal what important critical thinking skills a humanities course can teach students and make our courses more clearly applicable to the “real world” in order to attract students to our powerful disciplines.
I began acting on this idea—to make my courses more relevant and interesting to students—several years ago. During week three of fall 2016 in my required humanities course—English 152: Introduction to Literature—after I saw very little class participation and found evidence of students not reading when I gave a pop quiz, I decided to change my approach to teaching. Many students could not answer basic plot questions about Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In order to make my Introduction to Literature course more interesting and relevant, I began by pairing literature with films and explaining the importance of making connections in the real world. I explained the necessity of knowing how to think critically in professions by comparing and contrasting two things. I asked students for “real world” scenarios in which they might compare/contrast things on a job. Immediately, students began to provide answers. In fact, I saw students who never participated before provide answers. They named careers in which people might be asked to compare/contrast: nurses, engineers, biologists, veterinarians, journalists, etc. We then discussed how comparison and contrast would be used in these professions.
Next, I next asked students why they do not read. I explained that many had failed or barely passed the reading quiz on Poe’s short story. I was shocked at the responses. Many explained they did not have time to read because they worked 20-40 hours a week. They explained that they wanted to complete the reading or homework but just did not have the time.
According to Latty Goodwin in “Aliteracy among College Students: Why Don’t They Read?” the answer(s) are not one that many of us think. It is not always that students are “underprepared” (3). Of course this is the case in some students; however, according to Goodwin, after conducting a study of community college students, “The reading behaviors that are observed on college campuses are rarely cases of illiteracy; more accurately, they reflect aliteracy. Aliteracy is simply the ‘lack of the reading habit in capable readers’” (4). Many students are capable of reading and comprehending, so why are they not reading? In Goodwin’s study, she discovered that students admitted there was not a need to read because “most professors delivered the ‘important’ (tested) information through lectures, which eliminated the need for students to read . . . outside of class” (14). Thus, students feel they do not have to read or use critical thinking skills when professors provide information to them. However, Goodwin discovered through her survey of students that students in community college said they lacked time to read because they had “to work to afford their education” (15). It was not that they did not want to read or write. It was that they had to prioritize what homework to complete based on the little time they had available. For instance, if they knew an assignment had to be handed in, that assignment was “concrete” and trumped a reading assignment.
A more recent study by Mary Hoeft, entitled “Why University Students Don’t Read: What Professors Can Do to Increase Compliance,” identified several factors as to why students do not read. One is that they also work and their work schedules and their social lives interfere with their time to read. However, this study had students providing suggestions to professors in which they offered ideas as to what would make them read. Their suggestions included: “1.) give quizzes, 2.) give supplementary assignments and 3.) give frequent reminders about the interesting assignments that [are] due” (9). The word the author of this study emphasized was “interesting.” In fact, Hoeft explained that students wanted “assignments that capture their attention: make it sound more interesting! Get us more interested in the topic” (9).
As I contemplated these statements and thought about how to improve class participation and ensure my students were reading, I decided to try to create more “interesting” assignments Introduction to Literature course. My first attempt was to pair Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” with the clips from the horror films Saw and Saw V. While many may think of the Saw films as nothing more than films about human suffering or torture porn, they are not. They show a serial killer preaching morals. More importantly, I was careful to show clips that did not show gruesomeness. Often, I set up the clips by discussing what had just happened and allow students to dissect major ideas within the film clips and the readings. As an activity in this class, students dissected Poe’s story and clips of the two films to draw parallels between the two and saw how plot, characters, theme, setting, and many details from Poe’s work had influenced the Saw writers. They saw how a story written in 1840 was relevant to today in current films. Thus, they practiced critical thinking skills of comparison and contrast.
I began this lesson by reading the following statement to students:
According to Sandra Hughes in her article, “Evolutions in Torture: James Wan’s Saw as Poe for the Twenty-first Century”, “Poe was, in fact, one of the pioneers of fiction about torture— about the psychology of both tortured and torturer, and that aspect of his work continues to inspire twenty-first century directors such as James Wan, whose film Saw made its debut in 2004″ (71).
By hearing this statement, students immediately perked up and appeared to be enthusiastic about reading Poe’s story when I told them it had already been proven by scholars that Poe’s works have influenced the Saw franchise. For instance, I discussed one trap in Saw V—a dropping pendulum that cuts someone in half just like what is described in Poe’s “The Pit & The Pendulum.” Instead of showing students this gory scene, I showed them a pop-up book of Poe stories, The Illustrated Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s pendulum trap is in it and popped out at students. I then showed students Hughes’ aforementioned journal article. Students became very interested in this. But why? Why were students not interested in reading Poe a week earlier but now, once his story was paired with Saw films, they were excited? Why are the Saw films so popular? 
Knowing the popularity of the Saw franchise, I explained James Wan. the creator of the Saw films, is the modern day master of horror in films, just as Poe is the master of psychological terror in print. Next, I showed students two film clips. One was the ending of Saw, and the other was a scene from Saw IV that showed the killer, Jigsaw, capturing his very first victim, Cecil Adams, and then placing him in his “chair of knives” test. After showing students the film clips, I asked them to read Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” again and create a brainstorming list of similarities and differences between the short story and the film clips for the next class.
When we returned to the next class, I observed that students were more talkative. They had their books out, and many even had notes written inside. Likewise, many had their compare/contrast chart. I began by breaking students up into their assigned groups and asked them to find/share the similarities/differences they observed during group time. The first and most obvious connections students made between Poe’s story and the Saw films was the plot. In Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the protagonist, Montresor, wants revenge and to teach Fortunato a lesson because Montresor claimed he was insulted by Fortunato. Students then found the lines to support this—something I had been practicing with them for three weeks at this point. Students referenced the quote, “The Thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (179). Ultimately, students stated that they thought Montresor wanted to teach Fortunato a lesson—a deadly lesson.
In the Saw franchise, each movie shows how one man, Jigsaw (John Crammer), tries to teach his victims lessons to change the ways they live their lives; all of his victims lack morals. They are drug addicts, prostitutes, or cops who do not adhere to policies. Many of Jigsaw’s victims lack the ability to live by society’s rules. Jigsaw wants to give his victims a chance to live and change their ways. He has inoperable brain cancer with no hope to live. He is jealous of the opportunities these people are wasting; therefore, he places his victims in deadly “games” that might take their lives. His hope is for his victims to live and change. However, if they die, then so be it. For instance, in Saw, Jigsaw kidnaps Amanda Young, a drug addict, who is not appreciating her life. Jigsaw places her head in a reverse bear trap that she has to unlock before a timer goes off. To unlock the timer, Amanda must cut open the stomach of her cellmate, root through his intestines and stomach to find the key to unlock her reverse bear trap. If she does not do this in time, the trap will rip her jaws open permanently and she will die. While I did not show this clip inn class, many students knew this idea. One connection students made during their group work was that in both Poe’s story and the Saw film, there is a tortured and a torturer. Furthermore, the torturer watches on in delight while the tortured is suffering to their death. For instance, in Poe’s story, Montresor buries Fortunato alive in a brick wall and allows his victim to be tortured by him being present. In Poe’s story, Fortunato states,
For the love of God Montresor!” He responds, “’Yes, I said, For the love of God’.”
But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called Aloud—
No Answer. I called again—
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. Then came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. . . . I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. (Poe 183-84)
Students made the connection that in Poe’s work, Montresor enjoys his torment of Fortunato. Likewise, in Saw, the torturer, Jigsaw, not only is present during his victims’ games, but also enjoys them. For instance, students saw the connection between this enjoyment Montresor was having towards torturing Fortunato just as Jigsaw tortured Adam in the first Saw—the clip I showed. Students made the connection that while Jigsaw wants his victims to survive, he has no problem laughing at those who do not, and he makes his reasons known as to why he is torturing his victims. For example, in Saw, Adam Faulkner, who is trapped in the bathroom, has his leg shackled to a pipe. He had lived his life as a voyeur who took pictures of people for a person who hired him. Thus, he “made money from clients who hired him to stalk others and take pictures of them” (Patton 109). In Saw, Adam has to escape from the bathroom he is in by using a hacksaw to cut off his foot and free himself from the shackle that ties him to the pipe, and kill the other man in the bathroom, Dr. Lawrence Gordon, who is also shackled to a pipe. Adam must get out of the bathroom before Dr. Gordon to win the game. Once again, many students knew this because they had seen the entire film; for those who had not, I had prefaced the film clip I showed in class with the plot information. Students made the connection that just like Montresor, who is present in the same room with his victim, Jigsaw is also present in Adam’s and Dr. Gordon’s game. In this game, Jigsaw is present in the bathroom lying in the middle of the floor between Adam and Dr. Gordon. He is pretending to be dead. At the end of the game, once Dr. Gordon wins and escapes the bathroom, Jigsaw stands up and reveals to Adam that he has been present in the room the entire time. He then turns the lights off and begins to pull the door shut, but not before he can taunt Adam by saying, “Game over.” It is during this time that Adam realizes his fate—that he will be left in the bathroom to die alone since no one knows where he is. This was seen in the clip I showed in class.
Students also made the connection that both the tortured victim in Poe’s story (Fortunato) and the victims in Saw have a horrifying realization right before the torturer leaves. In Poe’s story, Fortunato thinks Montresor is playing a joke on him at first. He says,
Ha! ha! ha!—he! he! he!—a very good joke indeed—an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo— . . .over our wine. . . . will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo—the Lady Fortunato and the rest? (Poe 178)
Then Fortunato has the realization, much like Adam from Saw, that his tormentor is not playing a joke; rather, he is being buried alive and will die in the wall. Thus, both Fortunato and Adam experience pure shock and emotional torment. Students were able to make these detailed connections, just as Hughes made in her article: “In both narratives, an important aspect of the torture involves having the characters come to the slow realization of the exact nature of the torture that they must undergo” (72). Besides seeing connections between Poe’s story and Saw, two different groups in my class also made connections between the same Poe story and Saw IV after I showed them a clip of this film.
Two major connections students made dealt with the theme and setting of each work. In Saw IV, Jigsaw’s first victim, Cecil Adams, is shown attending a Chinese festival to celebrate the year of the pig. It is revealed through a flashback that unlike Jigsaw’s other motive of teaching most of his victims the lesson of morality since they are not living their lives correctly, Jigsaw’s first victim, Cecil, has a personal connection to Jigsaw. Like Montresor, who knows his victim, Fortunato, Jigsaw knows Cecil and wants revenge against him because of something Cecil has done to hurt Jigsaw. Cecil accidentally hurt Jigsaw’s wife, and killed their unborn baby. While Jigsaw’s wife, Jill Tuck, was closing her free community drug clinic, Cecil, a recovering drug addict, appeared behind her threatening her to open the clinic and supply him with morphine. Because she was taking too long opening the door, Cecil lost patience, pushed Jill against the wall, grabbed the keys from her, opened the door, and slammed the door against her stomach. This action caused Jill to miscarry the baby she was carrying—Jigsaw’s baby. Thus, Jigsaw’s motive to torture Cecil was personal, just as Montresor’s motive was personal towards Fortunato. Students referenced the lines, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (Poe 174). The theme of revenge was the same.
Besides theme, students also saw a connection between the two works’ settings. In both Poe’s story and Saw IV, the victims were both approached/abducted during a festival or happy time. In Poe’s story, Montresor tricks Fortunato during a carnival—a time of celebration. Poe writes, “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend” (179). Likewise, Jigsaw abducts Cecil while he is at a Chinese festival to celebrate the year of the pig; he is there to enjoy himself. Furthermore, students also realized by comparing Poe’s story and Saw IV that both show the tormentor using liquid as a means to abduct their victims. In Poe’s work, Montresor uses Amontillado—wine—to ply his victim with so he would be inebriated; whereas in Saw IV, Jigsaw abducts Cecil by placing a rag soaked in chloroform inside of a pig mask and places the mask over Cecil’s nose/mouth.
Further yet, students also argued that the mask was symbolic. After I taught the class what verbal and dramatic irony were, and asked students to find an example of each in both, one group said that Jigsaw’s use of a pig mask was an example of dramatic irony and symbolic because Jigsaw was tired of the greedy/piggish/selfish way Cecil lived his life. Likewise, they said the way Fortunato was dressed was an example of dramatic irony because Montresor was making a fool of him. Students referenced the line, “The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting pari-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 179).
Clearly, students were able to read, comprehend what they were reading, and use critical thinking skills in this class once I made the assignment more relevant. While some of these comparisons may seem like surface level reading, these students—community college students—were making important connections using critical thinking skills. They showed that they can read beyond plot (action)—something many were unable to do before.
As a result of this successful in-class assignment, I paired other readings with film clips in the same course. For instance, we read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” to discuss the role of women and what the patriarchy was and how it functioned in these stories. However, before we discussed the stories, I showed several film clips of Hidden Figures, the 2016 film that stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the three women who were the brains behind John Glenn’s historical journey to the moon. We discussed how these female mathematicians who worked for NASA were never given credit for their hard work because of their sex and race. Students understood the material, and it was much more meaningful to them because I had made it relevant to them and showed them how the patriarchy functioned in more recent times.
As Beth McMurie explains, a good teacher is “aware of the power a well-designed introductory course can have on an 18-year old. ‘You get in there with these 30 freshmen, and you attract them to literature or philosophy, and you tell them why you teach this.’” We also have to get students to understand why something is useful in their futures. I started doing this—sharing the skills students learn in my humanities course, and how these skills will help them in their future careers—in 2016, and I have continued to do so ever since. Since I have incorporated these changes in my courses, I have seen the average grades of my students increase, and I have seen students excited about my courses. Most are filled to capacity, and some students even ask to be signed into my course(s) once they reach their cap. In short, professors need to make the humanities relevant for students. This will change their lives, and hopefully ours too. It will allow us to have more productive class discussions, increase enrollment, and get students interested in the humanities again.
Ashton, James and John Walliss. “Introduction.” To See the Saw Movies: Essays On Torture Porn and Post-911 Horror, edited by James Aston and John Walliss, McFarland & Co., 2013, pp. 1-11.
—. “I’ve never murdered anyone in my life. The decisions are up to them”: Ethical Guidance and the Turn Toward Cultural Pessimism.” To See the Saw Movies: Essays On Torture Porn and Post-911 Horror, edited by James Aston and John Walliss, McFarland & Co., 2013, pp. 13-29.
Edmundson, Mark. “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? A Word to the Incoming Class.” From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text And Reader For Ocean County College ENGL 151, edited by Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky, Fourth Ed., Bedford St. Martin’s, 2018, pp. 405-415.
Goodwin, Latty. “Aliteracy among College Students: Why Don’t They Read?” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the College Reading Association. Nov. 1996. https://eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED410527. Accessed 24 Sep. 2016.
Hoeft, Mary E. “Why University Students Don’t Read: What Professors Can Do to Increase Compliance.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol. 6 no. 2, https://eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED410527. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.
Hughes, Sandra. “Evolutions in Torture: James Wan’s Saw as Poe for the Twenty-First Century.” Adapting Poe: Re-Imaginings in Popular Culture. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, pp. 71- 80.
McCann, Ben. “Body Horror.” To See the Saw Movies: Essays On Torture Porn and Post-911 Horror, edited James Aston and John Walliss, McFarland & Co., 2013, pp. 30-44.
McMurtie, Beth. “Can You Get Students Interested in the Humanities Again? These Colleges May Have It Figured Out.” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 66, no.10, Nov. 2019.
Patton, C.J. The Cutting Edge: Philosophy of the SAW Films. 2013.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Shorter 12th ed., Norton & Co., 2016, pp. 174-179.
Redden, Elizabeth. “Putting Liberal Arts Programs on Ice.” Inside Higher Ed, 25 Feb. 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/02/25/long-island-university-freezes-enrollments-many-liberal-artsprograms. Accessed 3 Mar. 2020.
Saw. 2004. Directed by James Wan. Lionsgate Films.
Saw IV. 2007. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Lionsgate.
Saw V. 2008. Directed by David Hackl. Lionsgate.
 The Saw franchise “is the largest-grossing horror franchise of all time. Over the course of seven films (2003-2010), the series has grossed, as of July 2010, $872 million at the box office and more than $30 million on DVD, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records” (Aston & Walliss 13). Furthermore, the series has “spawned two video games . . . and a ride [a rollercoaster] at Thorpe Park [in] Lincolnshire, UK, [as well as] several mazes, and a comic book” (13).
Learn more about T. Madison Peschock on our Contributors page