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Entertaining monsters: teaching the Gothic novel.

Abstract

Some of the difficulties instructors find in teaching the Gothic novel can be resolved by helping students understand how Gothic texts use language to bring about their effects. Students who interrogate the meaning of the Gothic through writing and reflecting about its various critical uses benefit by experiencing how the Gothic also questions notions of identity, culture, and society. More importantly, though, they realize that the Gothic is a specific and highly conventional means of interrogating themselves and the world they live in.

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Many educators believe that students enter their classrooms as willing participants in the effort to change the way they think. But as Robert Leamnson suggests, many undergraduate students--particularly freshmen--may feel otherwise. In fact, Leamnson argues that many students come to classes feeling mostly defensive about the prospect of learning something new. The reason for this defensiveness has less to do with the decreasing standards at secondary schools than with the difficulty of learning how to think in ways that literally change their brains, not to mention their minds. Indeed, most learning tasks require changes that usually occur with some degree of difficulty. As Leamnson writes, "to change our minds at someone else's suggestion can be traumatic" (Leamnson 40). This trauma can be compounded by an unwelcome course, topic, or method of teaching.

The invitation to undergo a significant mental change is particularly resisted in undergraduate courses on the Gothic. Teaching the Gothic novel is neither simple nor straightforward and any pedagogy that claims to offer such approaches are either woefully misguided or shamelessly misdirected. Some of the reasons for this are not difficult to understand. Some students, unfamiliar with the uses of Gothic conventions, come prepared to denounce the genre as a whole by claiming it to be unedifying at best and evil at worst. Others suggest that it is nothing more than an inappropriate means of exploring, even celebrating, humankind's tendency to commit evil acts. Students who do claim familiarity with the genre usually do so from a limited frame of reference that mostly consists of cheap horror movies or a quick reading of a Stephen King novel. Clearly, teaching undergraduate students to read Gothic novels requires not only a certain amount of patience, but also a significant strategy to help students overcome their initial ambivalence. Part of this strategy, I suggest, should require teachers to help students learn how to experience visceral responses to verbal messages. In other words, if students complain that Gothic literature is frightening, teachers ought to explain that fear may very well be the point. Before understanding this, however, students must first understand the difference between their expectations of the genre and what it actually does. How can teachers of the Gothic novel help students connect to this increasingly important genre?

One of the approaches I find successful in helping students understand Gothic conventions is to get them to wrestle with the language of the Gothic from the very beginning of the course. This approach differs from those who prefer to help students respond to the Gothic more experientially. Sandy Feinstein, for example, crafts her course in the Gothic around the idea that she can structure her course like a science laboratory. This approach, she suggests, helps students understand the kinds of questions that underscore the discursive force of academic disciplines [1]. Though I feel persuaded by Feinstein's approach, my own courses differ from hers in that I require students to wrestle with Gothic's use of language exclusively through writing assignments and oral presentations. While my approach does not ignore the experiential component of learning about the Gothic, I believe that students must first grapple with how Gothic language functions by wrestling with a series of writing assignments that help them craft their own sense of what the Gothic entails. Only then will they be able to grasp all the sophisticated ways the Gothic translates into significant experiences.

Defining the Gothic, of course, has an extremely long and difficult history. And, though no two definitions are alike, most scholars seem to agree that the term suggests some kind of challenge to commonsense notions of life, of culture, and of identity. When I teach the Gothic novel, however, I deliberately avoid providing students with any one definition of the term. Instead, I read as many different definitions of the Gothic that i can find and ask them to consider how each definition challenges, contradicts, or supports the others. Usually, the result is a mixture of visible frustration and confusion. Students often wonder how any one word, seemingly so easily defined in most dictionaries, can have so many shades of meaning; this is especially true of a term that everybody claims to understand, like the Gothic. One semester, I realized how frustrating my approach to defining the Gothic was when a student approached me two weeks into the course to ask me why I teach a class about a topic I can't even define. After a few moments of blustering about not wanting to hand out a simple chalk and eraser definition that would probably get lost in her notes anyway, I resolved to help her and her peers respond to the multiple definitions of the term without having to listen to my voice.

In the next class period, I handed out an assignment that I call a definition paper. This paper requires that students wrestle with the term 'Gothic' as it is manifest through the language of any one author commonly associated with the genre. This assignment reflects my approach that students must learn how to read how authors use the Gothic mode before attempting to impose a definition on the mode as a whole. This approach usually proves frustrating to students who prefer to hear the definition first and then apply it to the works on the syllabus. In using this approach, I follow Leamnson's suggestion to teach concepts first and then let the more technical definitions follow [2]. The advantage of this approach is that it requires students to consider what kinds of components make up a definition. Otherwise, Leamnson suggests, they would simply write down the 'meaning' of the Gothic in their notes and promptly forget about it. To help develop the ability to generate definitions about the Gothic from their texts, ! first ask them to reflect on Fred Botting's deceptively simple definition of the Gothic as "a writing of excess" that uses the exaggerated, the extreme, and the difficult, to raise unsettling questions (Botting 1). This definition, it seems to me, provides a suitable introduction because it guides students toward thinking about the Gothic at the level of language. I believe that students need to consider deeply just how the Gothic is really a mode of writing that authors use to generate significant questions about the sources of identity, of intelligence, and of cultures. That this degree of questioning is accomplished through language is often lost on students who are attuned to thinking of the Gothic as primarily a visual medium.

This assignment helps students consider how a particular writer uses language to engage critical questions. This idea appealed to me because I did not want students to believe that the Gothic offers any kind of paint-by-numbers formula that relies mostly on the color of blood. Typically, students begin this assignment by looking for the more mechanical aspects of the Gothic in their chosen texts. They complete the assignment, however, by noticing how authors such as Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Shirley Jackson actively try to subvert traditional understanding of things such as space, time, knowledge, life, and so on. By the completion of this assignment, students are well on their way to understanding how the Gothic serves as a means challenging notions of identify and culture.

Most approaches to teaching the Gothic stress these latter points first. The problem with approaching the Gothic novel from an historical, philosophical, or theoretical perspective initially is that most undergraduate students are unprepared to engage these topics at the level of a seasoned professor. As Judith Wilt rightly notes, "The Gothic is a faithful record of human engagement with visible, political, cultural issues--race, class, gender, science, empire, authorities of all kinds" (Wilt 41). But, as Wilt also suggests, these approaches sometimes overlook the importance of teaching some of the Gothic's most significant uses. For her, this means focusing on "the importance of the invisible, the spiritual, even the religious" (41). My approach, like Wilt's, approaches the Gothic from the perspective of preserving the pleasures of the invisible. By this I mean that the Gothic typically requires readers to seek the skulls beneath their own skins. Likewise, the Gothic trades in the darkest impulses of the human heart. This two-pronged attack on mortality and morality usually proves uncomfortable to most students. Avoiding this aspect of the Gothic, though, usually results in students believing that it is only a political or an ideological genre. In my classes, I stress the idea that the Gothic challenges commonplace notions of identity. In this sense I follow Robert Miles' remark that "Gothic writing needs to be regarded as a series of contemporaneously understood forms, devices, codes, figurations, for the expression of the 'fragmented subject' (Miles 3). Usually students realize by the completion of the definition assignment that the Gothic is first of all a powerful mode of inquiring into the deepest recesses of human nature.

To follow up on this definition assignment, I require students to write an annotated bibliography that helps them wrestle further with the ways their chosen author and text uses Gothic conventions. This assignment successfully builds off of the first assignment because students are already engaged with a critical question that provides a focus for their research. For most students, this assignment proves difficult, especially since most students have either never written an annotated bibliography, or they have only written ones with the most perfunctory summaries based on titles and abstracts. To help them bring a sense of focus to this assignment, I require students to open their bibliographies with a two page introduction that describes the purpose of the project and notes how well it fits into the current critical context. Following their introduction, students are required to shape their annotations so that they serve as a means of supporting and challenging their own positions. In this sense, I want the annotations to become almost a kind of outline to the paper itself, one that they can use to determine the shape of their own position and to understand how it fits in to the current secondary literature. Another advantage to this approach lies in the fact that students are also required to account for sources that may challenge or even contradict their own points. By facing their own opponents, students learn the art of addressing their claims without overriding the work of others simply because it doesn't 'prove' their own thesis. Students are usually reluctant to complete this part of the assignment because they are used to writing annotations that are usually quite limited as to scope and purpose. Once they complete their annotated bibliographies, however, students realize that there are quite a few useful studies on Gothic works they can use to hone their own research and writing.

One semester, I had a student who chose to write her annotated bibliography on Anne Rice's popular novel Interview With the Vampire. A long-time fan of Rice's work, this student faced the daunting challenge of finding legitimate scholarly studies on her topic. Though she realized there was a large fan base for Rice's work, including a growing interest in movies based on her work, she did not think there would be any scholarly resources for her to consult. To her satisfaction, this student discovered a growing list of scholarly works on Rice that were connected to the larger discourse on the Gothic generally. More importantly, her findings helped her to articulate just how Rice developed her vampires so that they would have so much popular appeal. Her completed annotated bibliography helped her develop an argument concerning Rice's unique characterization of vampires in Interview With the Vampire in ways that helped her understand the academic discussion surrounding Rice's work and to begin to develop an approach of her own.

Another student focused on Stephen King's characterization of the Torrance family in The Shining. She began her analysis by drawing on Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex in order to explore the complex relationship between Danny Torrance and his father Jack. At first I was concerned that yet another Freudian reading of a horror novel would produce few interesting results. As this student pursued her interests, I found that she was able to make a strong case for King's use of the Oedipus Complex as a means of exploring the dynamics of family relationships within the context of an awful horror. Even better, this student was able to present her case confidently within the current body of critical writings on The Shining.

Finally, I require that students complete an oral presentation that allows them to present their findings to their peers, most of whom are excited to hear about the final results of their studies. In some ways, this assignment is the most exciting for me, too, because I always stress the importance of students communicating with their peers throughout the process so they can learn that part of the learning process includes learning how to speak to each other. In fact, I ask students to consider each other as their primary audience for every assignment, whether oral or written. I find that doing so helps them remember that the purpose of these assignments is a kind of mutual discovery, I especially enjoying hearing students report on the growth of their understanding of the Gothic as it occurred throughout the semester. By far the most common remark I hear is that students have gained a new appreciation for a genre that they formerly thought was only a gratuitous means of talking about blood and gore. At the end of the semester, students realize that the Gothic serves as a highly sophisticated means of questioning themselves, their culture, and their place in history. In fact, students frequently report that they can also recognize the use of Gothic themes and conventions in much of what they read, watch on television, or see in the movies. These assignments help students recognize the various strands of the Gothic and thereby present their findings to their peers in a scholarly fashion information that, just weeks prior, they would hardly have believed worthy of the classroom.

Teaching the Gothic novel is a considerably difficult task, one that usually comes with some level of resistance from unprepared undergraduate students. In my experience, students are resistant because they come to class expecting to discuss the more compelling, even fun, aspects of the genre. It is as if they believe the Gothic ought to be taught the way it is told, or worse, the way it is seen in cheap horror movies. I don't mean to imply that teachers ought to avoid making the topic interesting or entertaining. Helping them to develop an understanding of the Gothic requires, however, that students wrestle with the very qualities that make up Gothic discourse prior to being able to revel in the more exciting aspects of the genre. By semesters' end, students often indicate to me that they are beginning to recognize that, in some ways, the world is somehow punctuated by Gothic discourse. For them, the Gothic now seems less a genre and more a useful means of reflecting on the way things are now. They begin the course expecting serial killers and zombies and finish by taking a much harder look at themselves and the world they inhabit. This realization, with hope, may lead to the even deeper insight that the Gothic is actually addressing--critically the kinds of fears and concerns they will face in an uncertain world.

Endnotes

[1] Feinstein, Sandy. "Teaching the Gothic in an Interdisciplinary Honors Class." Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller, eds. Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions. New York: MLA, 2003, 230-236.

[2] Leamnson, Robert. Thinking About Teaching and Learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 1999, 64-65.

References

Botting, Fred. Gothic. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Leamnson, Robert. Thinking About Teaching and Learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 1999.

Miles, Robert. Gothic Writing 1750-1820: A Genealogy. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Wilt, Judith. "'And Still Insists He Sees the Ghosts': Defining the Gothic," Diane Long Hoeveler and Tamar Heller, eds. Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions. New York: MLA, 2003.

Carl H. Sederholm, Brigham Young University

Carl Sederholm, Ph. D. is Assistant Professor of Humanities
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Author:Sederholm, Carl H.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:2782
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