Beauty and the Beast Triptych: Re-imagining Stereotypes and Gender Roles

Melanie Magaña

[Ed. Note: At the end of this Introduction, readers are directed by links to the three pieces comprising the triptych.]

Introduction

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the story of Beauty and the Beast ever since the Disney movie put it on my radar.   On the one hand:  dancing teacups! Catchy tunes! Bookworm as heroine!  On the other hand, the underlying message to girls seems to be this:  You can change him.  If you love him enough, and if you’re good enough, you can change him.   This message is a lie at best, dangerous at worst.  No matter how jolly those dancing dishes might be, or how good or loving the Beauty is, even together they’re no match for a Beast if it turns out that he’s not Prince Charming.

William Trowbridge, poet laureate of Missouri, once introduced his work about King Kong by saying that “[King Kong] just wanted a pretty girlfriend.” That line stopped me in my tracks!  My understanding of the story was that, after being kidnapped by humans and brought to New York City to be made a spectacle of, King Kong needed a friend.  Why did it have to be “a pretty girlfriend?”  Trowbridge went on to state that King Kong was “a classic story of Beauty and the Beast, just like The Phantom of the Opera, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame…”

His examples got me thinking: how many other examples of this story live in our collective consciousness?

  • Family Guy: Brian, the family’s dog, constantly dates svelte yet busty young blonde women who never seem to notice that they’re dating a dog.
  • Knocked Up: The female lead is also svelte and blonde, yet the best date she can get is an alcoholic, pothead slacker?
  • Male rock stars who date and marry female models.
  • Any movie (or real life) featuring Woody Allen as the romantic lead.

All of these examples led me to the conclusion that Beauty and the Beast needed a new flavor, one that women can appreciate.

The retelling and refashioning of stories is nothing new.  People have been recycling myths, legends, bible stories ever since their first telling.  The Disney movies are the most immediate examples to come to mind.  If you look at older versions of the folktales on which they’re based, you’ll see how vastly different they’ve become in order to suit the audience of the day.  Frozen is one of the more altered examples, as the moviemakers took the story of the Snow Queen who steals Kay away from his family until Gerda frees him, and they changed it to the story of two estranged sisters.

The folks at Disney are not the only ones who retell old stories though.  My favorite book ever is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which retells the Cain and Abel story in at least two different ways; Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved retells the story of Jacob and Esau, which in its essence is just another Cain and Abel story.  Anais Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown sets the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1930’s America.  Shakespeare’s stories (not exactly original when he wrote them) have been retold in countless ways: West Side Story, Warm Bodies, A Thousand Acres, and Scotland, Pennsylvania to name but a few.

Although some of the examples I’ve given seem to have taken their original tale and turned them upside down (Romeo and Juliet in the zombie apocalypse—what?), they each retain enough of the essence of the original story to make it recognizable as a universal truth, and change the details enough to be accessible to a broader audience. At the heart of Beauty and the Beast, I found the story of a person who feels fundamentally unlovable (and haven’t we all, at times?), but who is given a new mirror in which to see the self.  Have students write about their own favorite story, folktale or myth.  Here are a few ways to get them thinking about the way it speaks to them, and how to retell it to make it relevant to others in the same way:

  • Put the characters in a different setting. What would happen if the characters were part of a contemporary setting, or a futuristic one?  In Alice in Wonderland High, Rachel Stone brings Alice & company to a contemporary high school setting.  In Briar Rose, Jane Yolen takes the story of The Sleeping Beauty and sets it in Nazi-occupied Poland.  If David and Goliath lived in contemporary America, would the stoning be a literal one or metaphorical? If Icarus and his father lived in the twentieth century, would they contribute to aviation or space travel?  When they’re brought down by hubris, how could it come about?
  • Change one or more characters in some fundamental way. In Murder at Mansfield Park, Lynn Shepherd takes the loveable Fanny Price and turns her into a shrew with as many enemies as there are motives to kill her.  In The Lion King, Hamlet & cast are, well, you know!  How would the wizarding world change if Harry Potter, embittered from years of ill-treatment by the Dursleys, teamed up with Voldemort in book 1?  What if Bruce Wayne had a physical disability? What if the group in Lord of the Flies were girls?
  • Insert a character from another reality. In The Eyre Affair, someone has changed the ending of Jane Eyre to pair Jane up with St. John instead of Mr. Rochester.  Author Jasper Fforde sends Literary Detective Thursday Next into the pages to find the culprit. In Lost in Austen, 21st-century Amanda discovers a secret portal through which she can enter the world of Pride and Prejudice…and Elizabeth can enter 21st-century London!  What would happen if Katniss found herself in the forest with Hansel and Gretel?
  • Is there a minor character who might be rounded out? Jo Baker gives a compelling account of life as a servant in the Bennet household; Tom Stoppard brings Hamlet’s childhood friends to center stage in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (see also The Lion King 1-1/2). Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey, a minor character in her Outlander series, became so popular that he now has a series of his own. Many of the fairy tales give little credence to the Prince, whose only role seems to be marrying the heroine.  What might his real motivation be?
  • What happened before Once Upon a Time? What happens after Happily Ever After?  Gregory MacGuire is probably the most well-known current author for writing the story behind the story for tales such as The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Peter Pan and others; in these, he also tells these famous stories from points of view of than the main characters’. Jean Rhys does the same for Jane Eyre’s doomed Mrs. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Budge Wilson fleshes out Anne Shirley’s back-story in Before Green Gables.  As to what happens after the final page, Sandra Lerner imagines what happened in the Bennet-Darcy marriage after ten years in Second Impressions. What sort of adult might Holden Caulfield be? Or Tom Sawyer?

The above ideas barely scratch the surface of possibilities due to the myriad facets of the human psyche; what speaks to one person about a story may leave the next person cold. With the slightest change to a story as I’ve suggested, the universal truth inside each tale can become magnified, giving the opportunity for re-examination.  With re-examination, another reader may find a truth that wasn’t readily apparent in the first reading, and could meet a new literary love.

[Ed. note: The three parts of the triptych are listed below. Click each title below to be magically transported to that story.]

  1. “BEAUTY AND THE BEASTESS”
  2. “BEAST’S BEAUTY”
  3. “BEAUTY’S BEGINNING”

The Elements of English Studies

Brittany Stojsavljevic

Introduction

As part of the introductory English studies class I took during spring semester 2016 in a graduate program at the University of St. Thomas, I was asked a deceptively simple question: What should the field of English be teaching its graduates? The short answer seems obvious: English. The class itself focused on the history of English studies and critical lenses. But throughout the class we also discussed what texts and what mediums should be included in English studies, what skills should be developed, and how connected English should be to other fields of study. This question prompted me to consider what I had obtained from my undergraduate education, and also what I hoped to gain from my graduate education and into the future. For the midterm, our task was to consider everything we had explored this far, develop an English studies program, and explain why we made our decisions. In my answer to this question, I focus on what college graduates should be leaving their educations with through the lens of developed and desirable skills, and include interview responses from several people within my own network, from Ph.D. students to adjunct professors to tenured professors, on their own thoughts on how and why English studies should be taught.

One simple way of considering what skills are vital to graduates is to look at what the corporate world praises in the hiring of English majors. In fact, at a 2015 seminar on recruiting that the Association of Departments of English participated in, having clear communication about what graduates do professionally and what skills they need was one of their recommendations. Both a 2014 Huffington Post article, “In Defense of the ‘Impractical’ English Major,” and an ADE Bulletin article, “The Starbucks Myth: Measuring the Work of the English Major,” list critical-thinking skills, communication skills, and empathy as some of the top qualifications English majors enter the workplace with. All of those skills also have an added benefit, as “The Starbucks Myth” points out: they have lasting value and the flexibility to survive no matter what the latest trend becomes.

With the aim of maximizing the above skill sets, my proposed English department will be designated as English and Cultural Studies. I will concentrate on how each of the aforementioned skills can be developed through techniques already being used in classrooms by professors and provide information on why these skills are important from scholars.

Critical Thinking

            Critical thinking is a traditional domain for English departments, particularly within the last two centuries, if considered in light of taking a text and reading it critically to understand the various messages and themes a text can convey.

Brian Brown, who received his master’s degree in English from the University of
St. Thomas and serves as an adjunct professor there, teaches a course that centers on masculinity in America in which he purposefully sets out to debunk the impossible image of modern manhood. He selects his texts so that they have some touchstone to contemporary culture and so that his students will be able to relate to them. He typically uses clips from modern media, in addition to Sam Shepard’s Family Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Fight Club is especially integral, he said, because many of his students have seen the 1999 movie, but do not fully understand its message without that critical lens. “Everyone loves [Fight Club] but they don’t understand it until they until they read it with the lens of how it affects the American male, and that really strikes home,” Brown said. He added that while McCarthy is certainly more canonical, he considers himself “counter canon.” He said, for him, it is important to find something his students will be able to relate to, which often is no longer canon. On the contrary, if he does teach something that is considered canon, he likes to pick something students often have already read, think they know, and change their understanding of it. Continue reading

“We Made it for You” — Spoken Word by Daniel Ellis

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

Truth in the light of histories textbooks. That deny my heritage.

Truth in the light of men’s ignorance. Whom infringe upon the rights of those who’re indigenous.

Truth in the light of broken dreams. As they carried us in chains across the eastern seas

I wrote this to speak truth into the misguided, mismatched, misinterpreted, misread and misrepresented flukes they disguise as the truth of what they truly think I am.

To them I am

A “dolla dolla bill y’all”, a “Get money, spend money, f*** b words”. Another sound cloud rapper they can twiddle to with their screen tapping thumbs, not understanding I did it to promote my people and their message of struggle and pain.

Then claiming to love my “culture” and wear their hair in my fashion because they think it’s “high” fashion.

I am here to speak the truth

You CANNOT say the N-word if you haven’t been called it before.

To them I am

Those pair of nikes. The ones you cop cuz everybody thinks I play basketball and is good at sports.

To them I am the stereotype

breakdancing, rap loving, watermelon eating, unaware, ignorant beast of a man, who in the truth of it all is just trying to live his life like every human being.

I’m here to speak truth.

I get followed in stores. Not because the manager finds me so likeable he needs to be near me, but because of his racial bias he thinks I can’t and won’t buy that sweater on rack 15 at Forever 21.

I’m here to speak truth.

I am the constant criticism of rebellion. The moment I ask for my rights to be given freely and I say “Black Lives Matter”, they still devalue and desensitize. All because they’re afraid of what’s before their eyes. A revolution.

I’m here to speak truth.

They think just because of my skin tone, I should be in a different zone. They think I shouldn’t be here. “Go back to Africa”, they say. “We don’t like you’re kind”. “It’d be best if you didn’t speak your mind”.

When I hear someone say go back to Africa, or that they don’t need black people and say Blacks aren’t American.

Don’t tell me to go home because I will not stay where I’m not wanted . But it makes you think because they wanted us so bad they had to have a nation so in a sense they must’ve wanted us pretty bad? Now I don’t mean that in a good way. We didn’t ask to be here. On the Ivory coast home to the mother shore. Taken from our homes and land. Kicked and pushed. Grasping for return as we were dragged across the damp African sand. We rocked back and forth in a strange and alien place where we were corralled on ships like cattle. The restless waves as they rolled and battled. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Taken from our homes. As some were drowned in water.

Wail and wail in the enduring spirit men and women dreaded to hear it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

We came to a nation that wanted us only to build it for them.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Built on the backs of slaves, the nation of so called freedom.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Forced to believe in a higher power and made to forget our history. How can I believe in a god of the men that denounced my god telling me my God is now their God all whilst wanting me to believe they are God…. it makes you think.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Years of struggle bred resilience to pain. As we learned there didn’t need to be any shame of our pigment, and that it was better to live in it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

They tried to silence us by killing our leaders.

Malcolm X Martin Luther King. On those sad days did we truly sing. In the name of freedom sad songs that defined our people. I sing of the southern fields and slave ships that make me think of the sweet by and by. How I would always cry. Seeing Grammy Nellie tell me of her days in the south. Talking about the day she met Mamie Till and The way Emmett looked without a mouth.

Evil intentions for but a boy. All he had in his heart was joy. Where the days where hot in the endless sun singing spiritual songs of freedom. Some Glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away… Like those black bodies swinging in the southern trees they too will fly away with the winds of change, all in the name of liberation.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Were so close and yet so far, So that’s why we must fight.

I’m here to speak the truth

You’re right, Black people aren’t Americans.

We Are America.

The fruition of strange fruit bred from beautiful seeds that blossom in grow in the harshest of places and spaces. Beautiful Black People who embody the essence of the American dream of progress, ambition and hard work that we made. We are the leaders who’ve climbed ladders and mountains to gain the truth of our struggle. Pioneers of this land. We the people have the right to have rights.

I’m here to speak the truth.

You didn’t make America Great.

We made it for you.

We made it for you.

We made it.

The Formation of Thesis Statements: Beyoncé in the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom

Summer Melody Pennell

Abstract

The author shares an example from her own teaching experience (with a student population of primarily African-American and Latinx youth) that illustrates that the lyrics and video for Beyoncé’s Formation can be used to teach thesis statements. This lesson was successful because (a) the lyrics paired with the video created depth of meaning, and (b) it highlights Beyoncé’s strengths because of her blackness, not in spite of it.

Introduction

          “What is Beyoncé day?” my students asked, as they entered the classroom and saw “Beyoncé Day! Get in Formation” displayed on the overhead projector screen. I replied that we were going to use the lyrics (Williams, Brown, Hogan, & Beyoncé) and music video (Beyoncé) for Beyoncé’s Formation to learn about thesis statements. Students were cheering, dancing and singing as we watched the video, and this engagement remained as I gave a more traditional PowerPoint-accompanied lecture on how to brainstorm on themes, create thematic statements, and write a thesis statement. I have taught thesis statements to students from middle school to college, using texts ranging from magazine advertisements to Harry Potter, and this lesson resulted in more student engagement and depth of analysis than any of my previous attempts. I think this success is owed to a few key factors: other than the fact that this song was already popular with most students, (a) the lyrics and video combined to create an incredible depth of meaning, and (b) the song highlights Beyoncé’s strengths because of her African-American roots, not in spite of them, which further connected with the students.

Continue reading

Five ways in which high-quality literacy instruction can increase student interest in our content areas

“Five ways in which high-quality literacy instruction can increase student interest in our content areas”

By: Kelly Birkett

[pdf version here: Birkett-FiveWays]

Each year, on the day after Labor Day, the invasion begins.  We stand in the hall next to our classrooms at the sound of the warning bell, and feel the adrenaline rush through our veins as we hear the sound of excited chatter of our new students.  It continues to pulse through as we go through a checklist in our heads — are the seating charts finished? Is the bulletin board bright and colorful enough? Will our students actually get something out of our classes this year?  I know on that first day I think about the successes I have had, and I also reflect back on things I’d like to change.  I would like to fix those days when I felt like I would get more response out of a jello mold than my students.  In my first sentence I referred to the arrival of the kids as an invasion, and what I meant by that was it was an invasion of student robots.  They come in each day to sit at their desks or lab tables, and proceed to meticulously take the notes that I give them, or do the lab activity that I give them, or work on a project that I give them.  Yes, it is very teacher-driven, so, what happens when they actually have to…wait for it…READ something?  If our students are only doing enough class work to just get by, the likelihood that much of what they are reading from a disciplinary text is being absorbed into their eternal long term memories is, well, not very likely.

Continue reading

Building Literacy in all classrooms

Building Literacy in all classrooms

by Melissa Brandt                   

[pdf version here: Brandt-BuildlingLiteracy]                   

As new teachers embark on the challenge of the classroom, they are given a barrage of guidance: be nice to students, but not friends; care, but be firm; establish rules, but let the kids work out the procedures; incorporate high-quality literacy, but keep it interesting. It’s enough to send the faint of heart running for the hills. There are plenty of resources available to help guide teaching in appropriate rule setting, but what about the incorporation of literacy? The good news is that there are resources for literacy challenges, too. Answers that will help keep kids learning without sacrificing interest in any content areas. In fact, all of these challenges can be accomplished through a change in mindset, an understanding of disciplinary literacy, and an inclusion of literacy techniques in a classroom setting.

Continue reading

Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby

Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby

by Elisa Malinovitz

[pdf version here: Malinovitz-Wolfshiem in Gatsby]

Introduction:

The Great Gatsby is included in the Common Core exemplars for literature, it’s rare to find a high school or university in the United States that doesn’t teach it, making it one of the most analyzed novels in modern American literature. Students examine and often re-examine the novel at different times throughout their lives, yet there are subtleties in the book of meaning and importance which escape the attention of many analytic reviews. Seemingly lacking is a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stereotypical depiction of his one Jewish character, Meyer Wolfshiem. Continue reading

Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Suggestions for Appropriate Multimodal Writing Projects in Graphic Novel Units

Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Suggestions for Appropriate Multimodal Writing Projects in Graphic Novel Units

By Michael P. Cook and Jeffrey S.J. Kirchoff

[pdf version here: Cook-Kirchoff-Graphic Novels in the Classroom]

Abstract

While the NCTE (2008) definition of 21st century literacies is several years old now, the role of the ELA teacher continues to include helping students learn to read and make meaning from a variety of texts and text-types. However, much of the use of multimodal texts in ELA classrooms remains centered on reading and not on student composition. In this article, we address the multimodal composition component of NCTE’s definition, by including reading and writing. We argue for using graphic novels within instructional units, and as mentor texts, to create multimodal texts. First, we discuss the current literature on graphic novels in the ELA classroom. Next, we provide reading suggestions for students, as they learn to interact with and make meaning from graphic novels. Then we offer suggested multimodal composition projects teachers can utilize within a unit including graphic novels. Finally, we discuss options and considerations for multimodal assessment.

Continue reading

Spring 2014 Featured Article: Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication by Michael MacBride

Comics, Dickens, and Teaching by Serial Publication

by Michael MacBride
Teaching the “huge” text s-l-o-w-l-y: taking your time with Dickens and Comic Books
How do you teach a 500- or 900-page Dickens’ novel—heaven forbid a 1,500-page Richardson novel? (1) How do you teach a comic book, like Detective Comics, that has been running since 1937, or a comic strip, like Katzenjammer Kids, that’s been around since 1897? These texts are culturally rich, offer a unique snapshot of a historical period, and are relatively untapped, but their sheer length can be daunting. While serialized novels (usually) offer a consistent narrative, comic books and comic strips frequently diverge into “alternative universes” and offer new tellings of old stories. Spider-Man, for example, offers several books that take the hero in different directions–The Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational, Friendly Neighborhood, Ultimate, and, most recently, Superior Spider-Man. Where do you start? How do you dig in?

My contention is that the best place to start is one issue, or one monthly, at a time. Then the class, high school or college, will spend a month with that issue or monthly–just like the original audience would have. Comic books are (mostly) published on a monthly basis, and Charles Dickens released (most of) his works on a monthly basis as well. Taking time with a smaller text has many benefits, which will be enumerated shortly. Continue reading

Opinion 2: The New Face of Homelessness by Melissa Brandt

The New Face of Homelessness
By Melissa Brandt

You know that moment when you’re at a party or a social gathering and a person you barely know asks, “So, what do you do?” I dread that moment. Not because I’m embarrassed by what I do. I love my job. I love the people, students, and families with whom I work. Their troubles are my troubles. Their successes are my successes.

“I’m the Homeless Liaison for Rochester Public Schools,” I say with trepidation. I am nervous because there are certain words, I have found, that immediately strike a social-emotional nerve, and the word “homeless” generally strikes the mother of all emotional nerves. After I tell the party-goer what I do, I wait for one of three standard, social responses: pity, reverence, disdain. Most frequently, I see a look of pity cross the face of the person, a feeling of sadness for families in a homeless situation. We spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world, and the person moves on. Sometimes I see a look of reverence. It’s the I-would-never-in-a-million-years-want-your-job look. There’s a curiosity to this response. The person expressing reverence is usually interested in what the day-to-day challenges of the families and students. They want to know what homelessness looks like. I usually provide a few anecdotes, we spend a little time chatting about statistics and bemoaning the state of the world and the person moves on. Continue reading

Best Practices in the Classroom 2: SWOT and the Analysis of Literary Characters by John Banschbach

SWOT and the Analysis of Literary Characters

By John Banschbach

Minnesota State University-Mankato

Like many teachers, I have a collection of teaching activities that can be used in different situations and that require little preparation. Freewriting, for example, can be used as an invention activity for writing or class discussion or it can be used as a classroom assessment technique (e.g., the “muddiest point” assignment). Another activity is “choose the word in this poem that you see as most important.” This activity and subsequent discussion can demonstrate a poem’s complexity and the variety of responses a poem can invoke. This year I have added another activity to my collection.

SWOT is an acronym for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” If you have been engaged in formal strategic planning for your school or department, it is an acronym that is familiar. It was developed in the 1960s by Albert Humphrey and others at the Stanford Research Institute as part of a study of problems in corporate planning, and, since then, it has become an essential part of strategic planning for businesses. A business first determines its objectives and then identifies its strengths and weaknesses (the internal environment) and opportunities and threats (the external environment). The business goes on to revise its objectives, making them consistent with this analysis, and then it sorts the SWOT findings into categories and prioritizes them and finally creates an action plan for achieving the new objectives (Humphrey). Continue reading

Strategies for Teaching Literature 3: Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels by Becca James

Redefining Literacy with Graphic Novels

by Becca James

A line has formed, populated with people holding signs and speaking inaudibly to those that pass by. Move in closer, and it’s evident that the line is composed of high school students. Although they should be in the classroom on this mid-March Friday, they’ve taken to the streets in protest of Chicago Public School’s decision that Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis only be part of the junior and senior curriculum. In previous years, Satrapi’s depiction of growing up during the Iranian revolution was accepted curriculum for both middle and high school classes. Approximately 100 students stand in a cold drizzle of rain outside Chicago’s Lane Tech High School. Move in another step closer and their assertions are now audible. Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 1: Teaching ENGL 4/533–Enabling World Texts, Past and Present, to Talk to Each Other by William D. Dyer

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.  Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 2: Examination of the Cultural Influences Behind ‘The Hobbit’ by Gillian Singler, Alicia Guthmiller, and Kevin Smith

Examination of the Cultural Influences Behind The Hobbit

by Gillian Singler, Alicia Guthmiller, and Kevin Smith

Introduction

The New York Times first pointed out in its review of The Hobbit, that “…there may come the thought of how legend and tradition and the beginning of history meet and mingle…”The Hobbit” is a glorious account of a magnificent adventure, filled with suspense and seasoned with a quiet humor that is irresistible…this is a book with no age limits. All those, young or old, who love a fine adventurous tale, beautifully told, will take “The Hobbit” to their hearts (“New Books for Younger Readers”), and after an intimate examination of the text, one can find that Tolkien’s well-crafted text provides not only the historical heritage of English culture, but also an appreciation for and comprehension of the past that has continued to affect the futures of all cultures.” Continue reading

Collaborative Online Paper 3: ‘The Hobbit’ Companion Essay by Gillian Singler

The Hobbit Companion Essay: A Pedagogical Tool

by Gillian Singler

The initial topic for this research project was a culturally-based analysis of a text of our choosing. Each group was expected to examine sections of their choice that would highlight the novel’s root culture in addition to paralleling it to our own. As a group, we decided on The Hobbit because it was beloved by each of us and we each had a personal interest in British culture. We began by assigning sections based on creating a well-rounded examination of the novel. For the assignment, our introduction included a brief overview of our own cultures and our experiences with other cultures, including our ideas about the culture of the novel. Overall, I feel that our cooperative endeavor was a fruitful and mutually edifying experience, and I hope that it manages to provide a sense of engagement for those new to The Hobbit, as well as a new perspective for those that already cherish The Hobbit.

As the intended audience of this assignment is undergraduates, the staging of the paper may need to be slightly adapted, either by the instructor serving as a mediator between the students and the information presented via instruction, or by the class reading the piece, or sections of it, together while taking time for discussion.

Students working in a unit where this specific novel is being discussed would benefit most from the information presented in the research paper. For example, I teach a high school-level mythology course, open to sophomore, junior, and senior level students; this particular paper would be applicable in this course as we read and discuss chapters from The Hobbit. For this particular unit, while introducing the text, students would read the “History behind The Hobbit: The Story” section in order to gain background knowledge on the text and Tolkien’s life as well as his intentions for the novel. As a class, we would discuss how the various aspects of Tolkien’s life influenced the text and we would then apply this to other texts we have covered in class.

The following idea could be turned into an additional assignment, appropriate for any literature unit and course. In regard to the mythology course mentioned previously, the students have read the Iliad – which could be substituted for any other piece of literature – and they have background knowledge on the culture and historical events of the time. With this in mind, students could be put into groups and construct the history behind the Iliad based on speculations about Homer’s life (as not much is known about him, students would be free to be creative with their conclusions) derived from the text. Possible assumptions might include his being a Greek soldier, a slave, a carpenter, or a priest. Students could then research the author and compare their speculations to the information they find, adding these results to their final paper. As a group, students would then use this information and their speculations – citing specific examples from the text as support – to create a “History behind the Story” section of their own.

Additionally, for a college-level, AP course or adapting for students exceeding the standard, students may be asked to create a section focusing on the cultural importance behind the text, citing specific examples from it; a possible prompt for this section might look as follows:

What do we learn about the culture in which the novel was written?

How did/does this novel shape/influence its culture?

How does this text reflect your culture? Or, how doesn’t it?

Furthermore, an additional project for such students, if students are enrolled in a foreign language course or familiar with one, may regard the language section of the project and, using their background knowledge in language, attempt to create a small project – consisting of one language and a few paragraphs – that imitates Tolkien’s creation of new languages.

Another project idea stems from the section regarding the creation of The Hobbit’s geography. Students may want to review this section of the project, and then, while reading from the novel, the teacher could highlight sections from the book concerning geography. Students could then create a map for the text based on the information provided as well as what they find throughout the novel and, as a class, students would reflect on the how the author’s experiences have shaped the topography of this world – is the author from this area? If the place is fictional, how might/does it reflect the author’s real world? What experiences has the author had that played a role in the shaping the story-world? Again, this idea could be adapted for any novel in which the landscape of the story is described.

For a college-level or AP course, or for students exceeding the standard, instead of creating a map, students might write a brief essay reflecting on how the geological background is reflective of the protagonist or the character’s inner journey. In addition to this, students may read the mythological section of the document, choosing to either write an in-depth character analysis based on what they have read and information they have gained, or to write an essay making connections to a myth; for the mythology course previously mentioned, students could relate the story to numerous tales covered throughout the class. Furthermore, an additional project for such a course might allow students to create their own character for the novel (as seen in Jackson’s addition of the White Orc in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) that is reflective of an ancient mythology covered in the course.

Considering religion plays an exceptional role in influencing literature, it is also important for students to gain background knowledge in this area of the author’s life. Students may want to consider how the author’s religious beliefs are reflected in the text, or not reflected and why not, and also how these beliefs may be similar to or different from the cultural majority. As is noted in Alicia’s section on religion in The Hobbit – is the religious influence of the text subtle or blatant? Why might an author choose to do this: for personal reasons; a fear of criticism and/or alienation; to promote inclusion?

With regard to any of the above ideas, this research paper serves as an example of working collaboratively via technology. While developing this paper, Alicia, Kevin, and I worked collectively utilizing such technological tools as Google Documents, GroupMe, Vocoroo, and Prezi as we were unable to meet in person due to distance. In order for this to happen, leadership, drive, and communication were required. This type of work serves as an experience for students to develop and hone these necessary real-world skills.

In a high school environment, I suggest that the teacher provide roles (e.g. group leader: responsible for formatting, final editing, and submitting the paper; monitor: in charge of scheduling, ensuring group members keep due dates; etc.), as well as require the group to comprise a list of norms and expectations (e.g. all members’ voices will be valued, all members will peer edit, etc.), in addition to consequences for violating the group rules (e.g. required time to work with the instructor on missing sections, a reduction in individual grade, etc.). As represented in our paper, it is also beneficial for each student to select a specific section of interest to research; in this case, students could choose from a variety of the ideas presented previously in this essay. In addition to these suggestions, it might behoove a high school-level instructor to familiarize the class with various technologies available for group work and presentations. Students might also publish their work via a site like Lulu or Frodo’s Notebook.

Regardless of whether one is teaching The Hobbit or not, our project could serve as a sample of a new type of research paper – one that does not simply propose students research a topic, but that they research with a specific focus, in this case culture, while applying their own perspectives and experiences. While culture plays a significant role in literature, other aspects could be chosen, such as style, genre, or gender. Most simply, this paper might serve an instructor or class in gaining background information on The Hobbit, and how to craft a collaborative and more thoughtful research paper, but, as noted above, I see its purpose not only to inform, but also to spawn new project ideas rich in an appreciation for The Hobbit, in addition to the exploration of literature.

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*It is worth noting that the above lesson ideas, depending on how and which the teacher chooses to utilize, meet the following Minnesota State Standards for high school English language arts:

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