Adapting the Introduction to Literature Course, Round One

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.

14 Comments »

  1. filmdr Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    Having students perform scenes from plays has always worked well for me. I like showing students the beginning of Hamlet 2000 as a way to get them ready for that play. Many of your ideas of looking at films and video versions sound like fun, but much of the challenge nowadays, I’ve found, lies in getting students to read the original work closely and learn from that. Sometimes, other versions can easily become a substitute.

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    That’s a concern of mine, as well. Even though I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I’m thinking about teaching something like Walters’ “Slow Reading” essay from the Chronicle.

    A Twitter friend suggested showing Schwarzengger’s Hamlet trailer parody from Last Action Hero, which is pretty amusing, especially for its riff on the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

  3. Chuck Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    Also related: Mallin, Eric S. “”You Kilt my Foddah”: or Arnold, Prince of Denmark.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol 50, No. 2. Summer 1999.

  4. filmdr Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    I tend to stay away from parodies due to the possibility of trivializing the work of art. The difficulty is in conveying the original’s grandeur, it seems to me, and yet also making it accessible to students. Sometimes movie versions are done with enough serious artistic technique to match the original, such as in the case of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. With other works of literature, such as Jane Eyre, I had to look through many crappy adaptations before I found anything even halfway decent.

  5. Chuck Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    The issue of parody is a sticky one. I think that students will grasp the grandeur of Hamlet, no matter what Ah-nold does to it, and I’d like to introduce parody as one (very important, in my opinion) mode of interpretation.

    If there’s time, I’d like to push students a little by asking them to read Thomas Leitch’s “Twelve Fallacies” about adaptation because he gets at these “value questions” in a really productive way.

    I’m also going to define performance as broadly as possible (I think), as long as students deliver a text of some kind to class by a certain day, allowing them to bring in video, audio, or other approaches.

  6. Emily Hegarty Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    The DVD of the Marlon Brando version of A Streetcar Named Desire has a great extra feature showing what parts of the movie were censored by the film ratings board. Things that were cut included too lustful facial expressions, as well as some actual plot points. My students were fascinated by this because the standards for “obscene” were so different. It helped to historicize and contextualize both the film and Williams’ play.

  7. Jason Mittell Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    One interesting remediation to consider is the Dracula blog, thinking about how literature changes when you structure its delivery over time.

  8. Chuck Said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    Jason, that’s a good idea. There have also been a couple of real-time twitterings of classic novels (IIRC, one of them was War of the Worlds, which would make for a great case study), but the issue of retelling is an interesting one, especially when the medium changes.

    Emily, thanks for the suggestion. I wasn’t planning to teach Streetcar although I *think* it’s in my textbook. The adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf raised some similar questions about adaptation and the ratings board.

  9. Dan Hefko Said,

    August 17, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    I had the interesting experience of seeing Hamlet performed live this summer and then seeing Hamlet 2 (the movie) the next evening. Showing a brief clip from the movie might suffice to raise some questions about the socio-cultural contexts involved in adaptation. Along the same lines, OT: Our Town is a very interesting documentary about a high school teacher (and her students) in Compton, California, who tries to transport Thorton Wilder’s play and the theme of community to the inner city through the process of adaptation . Shakespeare Behind Bars also does a nice job of showing the adaptability of great plays .

  10. Rob Rushing Said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    I teach what is basically a “great books” course, and I kept it strictly historical, since I find undergraduates usually need a lot of historical contextualization. (I joke that they don’t know whether the Renaissance came before or after World War 2—but occasionally that turns out to be literally true.) Anyway, my approach has been getting literature into dialogue with contemporary popular culture (Barthleby and Office Space; contemporary takes on Jane Austen; Nietzsche and Fight Club; etc.) Take a look:

    http://www.complit.illinois.edu/242/Welcome.html

  11. Chuck Said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    I’d like to do something closer to a “Great Books” approach, but our book rental policy privileges textbooks over individual novels. The historical contextualization is important, and I really should do more groundwork there.

    That being said, I do teach Bartleby and have often discussed (in passing) connections to Office Space. Given the “adaptations” theme, I may do something more self-conscious with the connections this time.

    Thanks for the link to the syllabus.

  12. The Chutry Experiment » More Syllabi and Teaching Resources Said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    [...] my Film and Visual Literacy, Introduction to Literature, and First-Year Composition courses.  I briefly discussed my plans for an “adaptation” theme in my Introduction to Literature course the other [...]

  13. Jill Walker Rettberg Said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 2:57 am

    Probably not directly useful for your class, but you might be interested in this packaged deal from the Folger Shakespeare Library for letting students remix the first scene of Macbeth, complete with instructions and copyright-friendly sounds and so on to use. I think this may be geared towards high school students, but could be an interesting alternative to having students perform in class.

  14. Hey, wanna look at my syllabus? « Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 7:50 am

    [...] naked,’ (that is, without technology). I’ve enjoyed reading about Chuck Tryon’s modifications, along with his list of other blogs currently in the process working through syllabi, UT-Dallas [...]

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