February 7, 2016- 'Modernizing' Old Literature
Regularly, I analyze my assignment choices, usually once a year, for my literature courses. Since I am not beholden to any particular era I find it easier to delete some works from my 'canon' but I also do have years of practice with certain works. Diversity plays a role in some of my decisions, and I'll hold the debate of what's best for students overall for convention discussion. For now, I'll offer some ideas for taking some old classics and giving them a fresh face for current students.
The Task: Take Young Goodman Brown and present it to a modern audience while avoiding religious pitfalls. In an era where the mention of extremism can wreak havoc, I choose to teach old YGB as a lesson in human behavior while trying to minimize religious overtones. I am sure many other professors do the same and I offer my approach in the hopes of getting some feedback and perhaps helping someone expand on their own approach.
The Approach: Our current media culture is rampant with blind followers and hypocrisy. For instance, I begin my discussion of YGB with a story about <gasp> Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Kim released an app and parents complained that their children ran up $300 charges because of it. When interviewed, Kim said it was "up to parents to monitor their children's activity and purchases (sic)." Lo and behold, six months later, Kanye West went on a Twitter rant about in-app purchases because his child, North, rang up a high bill. Students usually get a laugh about this. The thing is, Kanye put himself above the 'common' people who should monitor their children's activities. Fans of Kim flocked to get her app, and she hasn't lost many followers (nor has Kanye) for the blatant overcharges and detached attitude. I do make a point to say that neither are bad people, and students tend to say the Wests are more victims of our society.
I then discuss how Puritanism attempted to make people perfect (something we see people attempt in our media culture all the time) when, in fact, people by nature are not. I indentify 'sin' in a fictional sense so as not to alienate any students, which I find many times is the best approach. It matters little what I believe; my job is to help students improve their communication skills and, hopefull, write more often. The question at the end of YGB, among many, is, did Goodman Brown sin? Did he put himself above everyone else at the end when he dies a bitter old man?
After reading the story, students break up into groups and attempt to draw parallels between Brown and Puritanism and something within our culture today. I put the quote 'Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness and prayerful aspirations heavenward.' I then tell the groups to replace 'holier' with another word, like 'smarter' or 'better' or anything that would help them indicate the parallel. From there, they are on their own. Class discussion then focuses on these parallels, how we blindly follow people because we think they know better, or have more money, or live the lives we wish to, even though we barely know what we wish. I do temper the discussion with references to the good in our society, but allow students to walk down whichever path they choose.
Some interesting paths I've discovered through my students' lenses include a favorite of mine, the useless pursuit of perfection, which has popped up several times, in slightly different ways. For instance, one student disscussed how the Puritans tried to be perfect in purity, when perhaps their god wanted them to be perfectly imperfect. The class talked about how we seek perfection in a spouse, when we are not perfect ourselves, that we should love the imperfections in our loved ones. Another student talked about how our President hides his smoking habit when he should be himself and let us accept his faults, or how countless actors get reconstructive surgery and look worse than if they just let themselves age. Our society expects perfection from its famous, yet we shun them when they attempt, perhaps like Kanye, to be above everyone else.
At times, I end the class discussion on an analogy. One analogy I use is the impossible assignment. If I were to set impossible guidelines for a passing paper for the class, in a sense I am asking students to cheat. Anything they hand in would either fail or be fraudulent by definition. Puritanisn asked the same thing of its followers, to be pure when it is humanly impossible to do so. When I explain that Young Goodman Brown is Hawthorne, a descendent of Salem Witch Trial creators, reaction to Puritanism making a comeback, students see his intention in trying to remind a new generation of the impossible task made a hundred years prior.
Sometimes I use a different analogy to achieve the same result. It involves the story of an owner of a company who wants to retire. He picks three top men in his company, plus a shipping clerk. They need only perform one test, take the seeds he gives them, grow them in a pot and come back six weeks later with the result. You may know the story. The seeds are dead, but the three top men talk about how theirs is growing wonderfully, while the shipping clerk has nothing, and tells his wife he cannot go in to the final interview. She talks him into it, and he shows up with a pot full of dirt. The other three come in with beautiful plants. The clerk gets the job becasue the seeds were dead. Anyone who came into the office that day with a plant was a liar.
Some useful links for Young Goodman Brown: