My lit students across my three seminars began their spring semesters with two of my favorite books to teach: Euripides’ The Bacchae, perhaps not the best of the Greek tragedies but without a doubt the most bonkers of them; and Dostoevsky’s psychological doorstopper Crime and Punishment, wherein we learn how exhausting it is to spend 656 pages living rent-free in an angsty antihero’s head.
I love teaching these two books because they are particularly effective at combatting the notion – all too popular with students and even more unfortunately popular with adults who should know better – that the classics are boring, stodgy, outdated, and irrelevant to 21st-century students with all their 21st-century skills.*
One of my ow pedagogical peculiarities is that, when given sole control of my curriculum, I refuse to teach books by living authors as my primary texts. I don’t refuse to read living authors – I like, admire, even love many books by living authors – but I won’t teach them as centerpieces in my curriculum. It’s become trendy to poo-poo the prevalence of “dead white men” on English literature curricula. Regarding the “white men” portion, up to a point, I understand and even agree. But what does everybody have against dead people?
First of all, the written record of the voices of the dead is important because it’s the only means we have of speaking to them. Those who came before us have a tremendous amount to teach us, including a lot that we have so far failed to learn. One need only read the Oresteia, one of the oldest books we have, to realize that humanity has known for centuries about how alluring, and yet how futile, the idea of revenge can be. Second, there is an inherent reward to overcoming the difficulties associated with reading and understanding a book rooted in a very different time and place than your own. I love to give my students at least one medieval work per semester, simply because it forces them to rethink their most deeply held notions about what a story is supposed to look like and contain. I also love to give them books by George Eliot – Silas Marner and Middlemarch in particular – because her stories are so firmly situated in poor 18th- and 19th-century English villages that reading them feels like making a friend out of a complete stranger.
But finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Great Books became the Great Books precisely because of the degree to which they outlived and outgrew their own authors. Nearly 350 years after John Milton’s death, we are still discovering not only new things to say about Paradise Lost, but new ways to connect to it. Feminists have found unlikely inspiration in Milton’s inquisitive and oft-maligned Eve. For centuries, Black American writers and activists from Phillis Wheatley to Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X have found inspiration in the fiery, anti-authoritarian rhetoric of Milton’s Satan. (For the most thorough exploration of this topic available, I cannot recommend Reginald Wilburn’s Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature highly enough.) My own students are often surprised at how easy they find it to relate to Raskolnikov, to Tom Joad, to Sydney Carton, to Lutie Johnson, to Tess Durbeyfield, to Frankenstein’s creature. The classics become the classics because they speak to people who pick them up long after their authors can no longer speak for themselves. It’s not that the books of Stephen King and Margaret Atwood and N.K. Jemisin aren’t excellent. It’s that their authors can still go on book tours. If we’re still discussing Alias Grace five, ten, twenty, fifty years after Atwood has left us, we’ll talk.
For their most recent papers, I asked my students to explore the ways in which they felt connected to these strange books from different times and places. For their first paper of the spring semester, I ask them to choose a text – and “text” here is very broadly defined – from no earlier than 1900 that they enjoy and read it intertextually with (depending on the class) Crime and Punishment or The Bacchae.
This prompt generates some of the most interesting papers that I will see all year. Some students will take a traditional approach, for example, comparing Raskolnikov with Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Others will go further outside the box, using their favorite television shows or (occasionally) rap hits. All will end up deep in the weeds. A sampling of some of the most interesting connections I’ve seen:
- The protagonist of Mr. Robot as a modern day Raskolnikov
- Utilitarianism as explored in both Crime and Punishment and The Good Place.
- Elvis Presley as Dionysus to Ed McMahon’s Pentheus
- Hermione Granger and Dunya Raskolnikova – intelligent, attractive, kind women who are always cleaning up after the men in their lives
- The differences in investigative methods between Porfiry Petrovich and Sherlock Holmes, the detectives on Law and Order, and Columbo. The student who wrote that third one was delighted to discover that Columbo was, in fact, partially based on Porfiry.
- Female uprising in The Bacchae and (hi, Margaret Atwood!) The Handmaid’s Tale.
Teaching students to love the classics, and the way the classics are written, is mostly a matter of not being afraid of them and not letting students be afraid of them. I’m a sentimental old fool who believes students can be taught to love the books they read. One of the finest ways to teach them this is to find what they already love, and to show them how much had to come before to make those things happen. When they see how it all fits together – like the bricks in a wall, one standing on the foundation of so many others – they appreciate the picture so much more.
For a template of the Connecting paper, please either email me or use the Ask Me Stuff! form.
*“21st-century skills” might be my least-favorite education buzzword. The good old-fashioned written word isn’t a “21st-century skill” because it’s an every single century since we learned to scratch the dirt with sticks skill.