Thanks to all the usual pre-semester activities and a quick visit from my parents, I’ve been unable to blog for a few days, but now, with the end of summer looming, I’m starting to rethink a couple of courses I teach on a consistent basis, in particular the Introduction to Literature course, which serves the dual purpose of being a gateway to the major (students can get a core humanities credit for taking it) and a class where English majors are introduced to basic literary concepts. It’s a 200-level course, so I’m planning to keep theoretical material to a minimum, and due to our university’s book rental program, I was essentially required to use Literature: A Portable Anthology as this semester’s textbook, which has an array of the standard canonical poems, plays, and stories often taught in these classes. Given how the course operates within the university and the major, I’m happy to introduce the stanard texts and terms, but I think the course works best where there is a course theme or a key set of questions that help to provide an overall “narrative” or arc for the students. My working idea this summer has been to develop a theme around issues of adaptation, appropriation, and intertextuality.
There is obviously a wide history of scholarship on all of these issues that I cannot even begin to cover in a 200-level course, but I think this theme works for a variety of reasons: First, it helps to establish a history of relationships between literary texts (Yeats’s “Second Coming” assimilates the work of Percy Shelley, the mythology of William Blake, and The Book of Revelation, among other texts, to name one example). Second, it introduces, addresses, and complicates questions of medium specificity ( ekphrastic poetry, cinematic adaptations of plays, novels, etc). Finally, this approach foregrounds the issue of interpretation in some interesting ways in that every adaptation is a form of retelling or reinterpretation, one that is based on historical context and on the interpretive communities in which the text is being read. Also, as (relatively) new media such as web video continue to proliferate, foregrounding new forms of production while archiving (and possibly reinterpreting) old ones, these questions remain germane, even politicized, especially when issues of copyright emerge.
I’m still in the relatively early stages of redesigning this course (and, yes, I know I shouldn’t have procrastinated so much this summer), so I may update with a more complete syllabus later, but for now, I’ll mention that I have about four weeks of class to play with, while describing some of the ideas I’m entertaining. One current plan is to spend at least one class day looking at various performances (and interpretations) of Hamlet posted to the web. I’m fascinated, for example, by the “Hamlet on the Street” videos featuring 18-year-old actor Craig Bazan (and theink they’ll play well with my students), but there are dozens of film adaptations (compare Olivier’s version of the graveyard scene with Branagh’s 1996 version or with Steve Martin’s LA Story parody of it). On a related note: one thing I didn’t do last time that several of my students requested very strongly was to require them to perform scenes from the play, rather than reading them in class, so I’m currently working on creating an assignment that would require some form of “performance,” one that could be staged, filmed, podcasted, or [fill in the blank].
I’ve also decided to have students watch Sita Sings the Blues while reading selections from Ramayana, the Indian epic which provides a loose basis for the film. In addition to being a film that foregrounds interpretation (the character Nina adapts Sita’s story; the “chorus” interpret it in various ways), the citation of Annette Hanshaw blues songs and the visual references to Betty Boop raise other engaging interpretive questions. If I do a second film, I’m tempted to teach O Brother Where Art Thou? because of its reworking of the Odyssey, but I’d like to look at a number of web-based case studies. This blog entry leaves things a bit open-ended, and as I write, I find myself thinking about other possible cases (fake trailers as forms of adaptation or interpretation; Orson Welles’ interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds). If you’ve done a similar theme in the past, I’d enjoy hearing about examples or activities that worked especially well. The syllabus is probably a bit more polished than I’ve implied here, but I have some room for tweaking things. Short essays that might introduce some of these issues in an accessible way would also be quite welcome.