|Talk About Teaching and Learning
September 14, 2010,
Volume 57, No. 03
“The Frightful Things”
On Domestication of a Complex and Unusual Material
And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, “Be still” and tamed them with the magic trick… —Maurice Sendak
In this short essay I would like to share some thoughts about helping students get excited about topics that (maybe) are not initially exciting to them but, on the contrary, alien and frightening. I will focus on a concrete example ––teaching War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, a 1,300+ pages “loose and baggy monster” (in Henry James’s words) which usually scares students not only with its size (i.e., the amount of home reading) but with its numerous plotlines and historical references. I start my class with an introduction of “Several Basic Rules on How to Deal with Tolstoy’s Monster” which I will refer to below. I understand that a majority of the readers of this essay do not teach literature but I believe that most of us pursue the same goal—helping students to overcome their (quite natural) fear of the complex and unusual material –– and, in this sense, a discussion of general pedagogical objectives of these “rules” can be helpful for other instructors. My “magic trick” is domestication of the material, which is based on the specific qualities of this material and aims at:
(1) helping students understand that learning about the complex and unusual subject is something to be proud of (My “Basic Rules” starts with “Yes, you are surely brave since you decided to read this huge text written some 150 years ago about people who lived in a country 4,500 miles away from Philadelphia. When you finish reading you may tell your relatives and friends that you did this Herculean labor (I assume that in this case a metaphoric “monster” transforms into Lernean’s Hydra) and they will be proud of you. You may feel slightly frightened and dizzy in the beginning, but when you reach the open waters of the quietly expanding novel you will enjoy swimming. It is certainly not swimming to and fro in a pool; there is a strong current and the destination is unknown, but isn’t it a pleasure to follow the stream with all your efforts?”);
(2) helping them understand that their work is not just an intellectual exercise but an opportunity to respond themselves to what they are learning about (I tell my students, “Do not be afraid of being too emotional, even sentimental, while reading: Tolstoy knows how to infect you with his ideas by acting upon you emotionally first of all.”);
(3) encouraging them to personalize what they read and see themselves in their reading (for example, “What Tolstoy describes has very likely happened to you, so you simply see a glimpse or reflection of your own emotional world in the characters’ perceptions. In fact, the distance between you and Tolstoy’s early 19th century Russian heroes may be really thin. Does hospitable Old Count Rostov ever resemble your (maternal or paternal) grandpa or, maybe, your uncle, or your close friend’s granddad? Do you have a cousin like Sonya? Have you ever asked the questions Pierre Bezukhov is fascinated with? While reading this novel you do start feeling as if you are at home.”);
(4) providing them with a helpful way of dealing with the work’s unique structure and philosophy (I tell students“Do not search for a single plotline or a single major character. The novel has several closely interwoven lines and several characters each of whom can be called major when he or she is in the author’s focus. This form provides you with an opportunity to perceive the world seen from different points of view and—at the same time—to feel that each perception grasps just a part of the whole, which cannot be expressed fully in words.”);
(5) asking them to make sense of both the text and its context (my handout explains, “It is always a good idea to do your homework and uncover the intriguing historical context of Alexander I’s reign and Napoleonic wars which serve as a background for the novel. It will help you realize something really important in War and Peace, something we miss nowadays. What I mean is the Romantic sense of history as an exciting (yet sometimes frustrating) non-stop movement towards an unknown goal, the movement you are nilly-willy involved in”).
Finally, I ask each student to keep a diary of a given character of the epic and to participate in discussions on his or her behalf. This theatrical device helps us not only to make the discussion lively, but to understand how the great text with several main heroes functions, how the reality effect is achieved by the author, and how Tolstoy’s favorite ideas “grow” in the ideological biographies of his characters. What I mean is that each student obtains his or her own area of responsibility and controls a zone of his or her character, paying close attention to the minutest changes in the character’s external or internal life, such as social background, physical appearance, events, hopes, fears, errors, or revelations. At the end of the semester, students write essays based on their knowledge and understanding of their characters as related to other heroes of the epic. Again, in doing so, students reach the higher level of control over and domestication of this huge text (my role is just to navigate the discussion by encouraging dialogues between students-characters and emphasizing the issues which were central for the author). Monsters are usually scary (or funny, or pathetic as in Sendak’s book). I want my students to realize that War and Peace is a monster in whose company it is a genuine pleasure to spend a few weeks.
Can some of my techniques be helpful in a non-literature class? I hope, yes. Of course, a literary work is not a math problem or a chemical reaction, but those who confront a difficult literary text, a math problem, or a chemical reaction are the same human beings, with their fears, biases and expectations. Domestication of the complex material encourages students of different disciplines see to personal connections, helps them understand that the task is relevant and exciting, and gives them the chance to “own” part of the job and convey their excitement. There are many seemingly “frightful creatures” in our teaching animal parks and we must know how to help our students make friends with them.
Ilya Vinitsky is Associate Professor and Chair of Slavic Languages and Literatures.
He was a recipient of the School of Arts and Sciences’ 2010 Ira Abrams Award.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.