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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:




Welcome to my website. I am a college English (Humanities) professor and a mystery and childrens fiction writer.

No more Assistant Professor! I am now Associate Professor of English and Director of Technical and Professional Communication at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, New York. I have received tenure as well and this marks a major milestone in my career. I don't feel like much will change but there is a sense of exhale.

Over the last year, I have worked hard trying to modify classes for online learning. I will spend the summer going over course design and finding ways to make online classes and asynchronous elements more engaging. A lot of it is trial and error but I've found involving students from the beginning effective. Polling them and seeing how a specific class is handling this new modality works wonders.


Since I started full-time at NYIT, I have published twelve articles, including several on developing video games for learning in the composition classroom. My project Perchance seeks to re-imagine ancillary literature learning tools like Cliff Notes to become a more usable (and more used) form of learning. Check out the development of Perchance: A 3D Hamlet Mystery here.


My teaching interests lie in first-year composition, in introducing students to college writing and finding creative ways to make such courses engaging, and technical writing, as I have discovered these courses attract students of all backgrounds. I didn't like boring classes when I went to school, so I attempt to prevent my students from suffering the same in my classroom.  Technology and its impact on our scoiety as well as the teaching of writing intrigues me, and I spend much of my research time devoted to exploring its uses. I have found, for instance, a direct correlation between the use of technological aids in the classroom and improved student writing, particularly for international students and second-language learners. I have written a paper on using virtual reality (VR) to help students experience and better understand sense of place in writing. It will be published in Computers and Composition later this year. You can see some of my other papers over at They range from using smartphones as writing devices to video games as literature and strategies to make writing more accessible to all students.


I find teaching writing helps students across their college careers and life. Formulating an argument or just finding a way to say what we want/think effectively improves all areas of our lives. A quick look around social media can easily illustrate how more of us could use some help here. Students know how to engage, and most merely need a better focus on how to do that more effectively.That's what I bring to the classroom: writing instruction with real-world implications that students can relate to. They work on the skills they will need in their careers while in my classroom. The days of using pen and paper are almost behind us, so I shift the emphasis to the media we all interface with daily. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of digital and social media are incorporated into my classes, and students respond positively to their use in writing instruction. Maybe I am helping improve the Twitter-verse one class at a time. That would be a good start.


I write murder mysteries and childrens fantasy books and always look to incorporate my experiences writing in these and other genres into my pedagogy. I believe an intersection lies between creative writing and composition, and try to use this tool to make my classes more interactive. There still should be a strong distinction between the two, but I've found some overlapping really helps students put words on the page. With the addition of using mobile technology to have students writing anywhere and everywhere, I've seen a tremendous increase in student productivity. One habit I have is to show students my early drafts, so they can see that writing, even a big project like a novel, does not involve some magical process or comes from only natural talent. I let them see my imperfections so they can realize theirs differ little. They grasp the writing process a little better after I do this.


If you've come looking for my book series, you can head to this page, or click the book tab above that can give you a small sample of my writing.


Please feel free to have a look around. I'll be adding new things from time to time, and hope you enjoy your stay. You can always contact me at


John Misak

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