Lady Z solicits the help of her readers.

Sorry for the recent silence. I’ve been working, applying for jobs, crawling out of a funk, and visiting with Z. Not much time for procrastination.

In fact, I’m dropping in not to procrastinate but to ask for your input on a piece I’ve written. For one of my fellowship applications, I have to write a 2-page statement of how I would teach a particular text as part of a General Education course in literature. This is a challenging statement to write, because I am used to explaining my teaching methods in specifically literary critical terms. For General Ed, I have to emphasize more universal lessons and applications—to justify a general educational value in learning to read literature closely and critically. So I’ve drafted my statement (first draft, here) and I was wondering if any of you would read it and tell me if it suggests that I have something to offer as a teacher.

UPDATE, Monday 10am: Thank you, all, for your very helpful feedback. I have spent the morning revising my statement and will post the current revision here in case anyone’s curious. I could rework this thing all day, but at some point I have to just send the damn thing.


Teaching Statement

Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it. (Mary Shelley, Introduction to Frankenstein)

In every class I teach, I ask students to perform an intellectual balancing act as they read: at once to question everything they believe they already know, and to imagine what they have yet to learn. This act of imagination is an essential counterpart to the act of self-interrogation. Without it, critique threatens to become nihilistic, dismantling the world as we know it only to strand us in the ruins. Critical imagination, however, translates dismantled knowledge into potential knowledge. It enables us to take the materials of what we were and use them to reinvent what we know and who we are. Thus critique becomes productive, part of a creative process.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a text that thinks about many of the questions and problems that I invite students to consider. An allegory for the reanimation of old cultural materials in new contexts, Frankenstein offers itself to a discussion of what brings materials such as the literary text “to life,” and specifically to consider our own roles as readers, writers, and dialogue participants in sustaining the cultural life of texts. I ask students to think of a literary text as an event rather than an object, and to position themselves as active participants in that event. To this end, we practice the skills of close reading and formal analysis to become able to read the internal logic of the text’s ideas. We also pay close attention to the way cultural context works its way into the text’s thoughts. Frankenstein is, in many ways, put together like the monster it represents, a compilation of parts taken from multiple genres and refashioned into a new creature. The novel incorporates ancient mythology and modern science, mysticism and natural philosophy, Lockean theories of personal development and the adventure of an oriental tale, Romantic poetry and domestic fantasy, Gothic landscapes and epic tragedy. It somehow puts these pieces together into something that has been taken variously as a horror story, a descriptive theory of identity, and an early example of science fiction. In teaching Frankenstein, I like to bring these contextual materials into our reading. Pairing Shelley’s novel with Ovid’s tales of Prometheus, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Percy Shelley’s “Mutability” and “Mont Blanc,” Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and selections from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, I ask students to think—as they read, in writing, and in class discussion—about how the novel dismantles and reinvents other texts, and what these other pieces enable the novel itself to do. How does their presence animate Frankenstein? These are questions that make room for understanding not only Shelley’s novel, but the very notion of literary tradition as a living compilation. As I taught Frankenstein this semester, one of my students offered to bring in an episode of The X-Files entitled “The Postmodern Prometheus.” A reincarnation of both the narrative of Frankenstein and the novel’s Frankensteinian (now recognizable as “postmodern”) method of creation, the episode effectively and entertainingly demonstrated how the novel lives on in our own culture, helping us to make sense of a cultural landscape as myriad and complex as that which Shelley perceived around her.

In teaching any literary text, I show students how this dual literacy—on the one hand, to be able to perform a formal analysis, and on the other, to be able to frame a text in a historical or cultural context and read that relationship—enables us to understand not only individual texts but the social and cultural work of literature more generally. Frankenstein’s own concern with invention as a process of dismantling what we already possess and rearranging it into something new makes it a useful model for what I want students to achieve through their engagement with literature. I like to pause at the passage from the novel’s introduction quoted above in order to show how Shelley focuses from the beginning on the question of how something, or someone, takes shape—never out of nothing, but only ever out of the “chaos” of the past. Shelley suggests here that “the capabilities of a subject” must be found initially in the “dark, shapeless substances” of our unmade ideas, our suspended selves. I emphasize how the mode of invention she describes—which produces the very world we live in, and us as subjects of that world—is an aesthetic process, and act of “moulding and fashioning ideas” out of the dismantled materials of what we once knew. The intellectual merges with the artist in this passage; creativity becomes the basis of knowledge. Shelley’s own literary invention mirrors acts of world-making that used to be reserved for the gods, and shows us the power of learning to participate ourselves in this process.

Students of the humanities, in my experience, often enter literature courses expecting to learn something about themselves. What many of them do not anticipate is the unsettling and uncomfortable feeling of effectively turning oneself and one’s ideas and knowledge into objects of inquiry. Frankenstein emphasizes not only the productive potential of invention, but, more famously, the horrific experience of it. In doing so, however, it again offers a model to guide us through this process to the point at which it becomes, and feels, productive rather than destructive. What is so terrifying, I ask, in or about this narrative that approaches the “human subject” as a question rather than a given reality? Why does Shelley pose the question of what makes a human being in the form of a creature just beyond the limits of what can be called human? Through close reading, I demonstrate how the figure of the “monster” effectively suspends the very definition of the human for the duration of the novel, enabling us to follow the processes of invention that bring whatever it is that makes “the human” into being. As one of my former students pointed out, the monster seems most human when he is least sure of his own potential humanity. The category of the “human,” in the monster’s narrative, takes on the status of an ideal. His inability to close the distance between himself and the ideal actually confirms his subjectivity. Subjectivity appears as a sense of incompletion sparked by the unique ability to reach mentally beyond where we stand. The human (or human-like) subject is able to conceive something greater than himself and desires to become that greater self. This desire remains unrequited in Frankenstein, because to satisfy it would be to extinguish the concept of humanity that flares up in the novel: the idea that we are defined by the constant reinvention of our ideas and, also, our ideals, and our struggle to refashion ourselves in these newly imagined images.

I invite students to approach every class as an opportunity for intellectual reinvention. Like Frankenstein’s monster, who is made less out of recycled body parts than out of reincarnated stories, we are subjects made out of the traditions of literature that have given us shape. By learning to read these texts critically and imaginatively, we become literate in the materials of who we are. By learning to write about and discuss these materials, we participate in the act of bringing them to life and seeing what kind of life they sustain. These skills, I propose, enable us to see ourselves as part of a creative process; we need them to become our better selves.

6 thoughts on “Lady Z solicits the help of her readers.

  1. Commentary: General
    Focus: Non-existent

    I thought that the elephant standing on the tortoise was Pterry’s invention; I had not known that he borrowed it from the “Hindoos”.

    I realize that the blockquote format is supposed to be understood as an extended quotation from someone other than the currently operating author. However, in this case, I think it would be better to put the attribution at the beginning, as in

    From Mary Shelley’s Introduction to Frankenstein:

    Every thing must have …

    When I first read your first paragraph, which begins “In every class …” I got to the last word in the first sentence and wondered at the function of the hyphen. I first thought that you had meant to use an em-dash, to indicate a dramatic pause. I then thought that it was a typographical error. I realize now that it completes the self several words earlier. However, this extended thought process has now caused me to read that sentence over four times. This is not really the best way to communicate an idea. It really roils the train of thought, to met a mixaphor.

    I do not know the audience for this particular narrative, and I think that is important (it is, at least, for me).

    If you are writing for a position in a college similar to Haverford or Bard (I’m still pushing Bard, you notice), it serves the purpose. It shows you to be a person who has a more-than-adequate command of language with an evident background in both close reading and the ability to show its benefits.

    If, however, you are writing for a less lofty audience (as might be inferred, correctly or incorrectly, from the fact that they are asking a Ph.D. to teach a General Ed course), I would suggest that your second paragraph be broken in two, with a new paragraph beginning with “As she revisits this idea”. The third paragraph could easily become three paragraphs, the second beginning at “Why, I ask…” and third beginning with “As one of my former students…”

    Blocks of text that large could be intimidating. (Please remember that my ordinary audience can be assumed to have a high school education; this assumption is shown to have a probability of error of approximately p = 0.25.)

    Again, if the GenEd classes are what Tom Sharpe’s Wilt refers to as “Meat III”, I would suggest watching Short Circuit and working some references to “Number 5 is Alive” into the essay.

    I hope that this meandering critique has not proven to be a complete waste of your time. Our audiences are quite different; my experience in higher-education instruction is limited to community college students for whom a graphic novel would present a significant challenge.

  2. I have re-read your message. The previous reply focused entirely on the teaching statement itself, rather than on what you asked: Does it suggest “that I have something to offer as a teacher.”

    Yes, it does show that you have something to offer as a teacher.

    I truly wish that there were some way in which I could provide more substantive support. The fact that you even posted the question in this forum seems to indicate that you are having significant difficulty with your self-image. I do not know why, because the fact that you are capable of writing such an insightful essay demonstrates to This Old Man (whose professional stance is one of being not impressed by academic credentials, only by performance and/or results) that I am in the presence of a first-class intellect. Yes, I am a pain in the ass; it’s my profession, and I am Exceptionally Competent at it.

    The statement falls short, though, because it does not — and cannot: it’s only text, after all — show the engagement which your posts have indicated that you are capable of generating in your students. True, you could have been making things up, but, somehow, … I. Doubt. That. None of my bullshit bells have gone off. (See last sentence of previous paragraph.)

    • The statement falls short, though, because it does not — and cannot: it’s only text, after all — show the engagement which your posts have indicated that you are capable of generating in your students.

      That’s exactly the problem I face with these “teaching statements”! I have no idea who my audience is, for one thing—when these people read my “statement,” are they reading as colleagues? students? representatives of the Institution? But more importantly—and I guess this is part of the excercise, somethign for me to figure out as a writer—I don’t know how to translate what I do in a classroom, a practice in which I have some experience, thank you very much, into an Official Statement organized by Aims and Methods, which is what the application asks. I don’t think I can effectively recreate what I do in the classroom, which (I believe) is fun and mutually engaging. So I tried to create a piece of writing that stands on its own, but it feels divorced from my actual practice of teaching.

      Your comments are most helpful, and will help guide my revisions in the morning.

      Have I mentioned that I hate job applications?

  3. Let me preface this by saying I know nothing whatsoever about the academic community and haven’t read a text “critically” since high school (which was eons ago), and I wasn’t good at it then.

    But, yes, I think your statement shows that you have a lot to offer students–even those whose preference for “literature” runs to the most recent Grisham or Patterson.

    You’ve chosen (I assume it was your choice, anyway) a work that even the most reluctant reader would find interesting, and then gone on to show how reading and studying it help us learn more about ourselves and our own thought processes.

    You’ve taught me something just in these few paragraphs. And you’ve done it in a way that shows you really know your stuff, and know how to make it accessible.

    Take that for what it’s worth. . . .I’ve never applied for a fellowship or written a grant. But I’d love to have you as a teacher.

  4. I need to think about this some more, as I’ve only skimmed through your statement, but I’m posting initial thoughts here in case they’d be useful.

    I think I liked the final paragraphs more than the initial paragraphs – I don’t know your audience, but they may well be pushed for time if this is one of many applications, and I think you may need to make your style a little plainer for the initial ‘hook’. The final paragraph definitely shows you have something to offer – a general approach that is thoughtful and enthusiastic to go with the specific ideas on Frankenstein that you describe.

    I don’t really know how a General Education course works, so this may be implicit anyway, but I was wondering whether you concentrate pretty much exclusively on close reading of the set text(s) or whether you’d bring in other things, and if so, how much and what? You could go any number of ways: comparison with contemporary writing, political background, following theological/philosophical ideas, more modern treatments of the ‘monster’ idea in films etc., links to recent popular writing (you’ve got an easy link through Milton to Pullman, for instance), and so on – would you plan to use any of these or would it be dictated by the group you’d be working with? You mentioned Ovid and Milton – would you expect your students to bring that sort of knowledge to the course or would you need to set extra reading?

    I liked the fact that you credited a previous student – I always learnt more from tutors who actually listened to their students instead of remaining in a remote lecturer mode.

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