Studying “Frankenstein” Without Reading “Frankenstein”

Here’s an English textbook, “The British Tradition,” which devotes 17 pages to Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein.”

Two of those are taken up by modern author Elizabeth McCracken telling students about the scary movies she watched as a child, including Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as well as dreams she had. Under the heading “Critical Reading,” students are asked what movies McCracken watched as a child. Another page features a hokey picture of a Frankenstein monster circa 1955.

In the margins of the Teacher’s Edition to the textbook, teachers are encouraged to ask their students what “classic” stories of urban myths, tales of alien abductions, or ghost stories they have heard. Examples include stories of alligators in sewers, a man abducted for his kidneys, and aliens landing in Roswell, New Mexico. Students are asked to write a paragraph on “one of these modern urban myths.” The learning continues when students are challenged to write “a brief autobiography of a monster.” The editors lament that most monster stories are told from the perspective of “the humans confronting the monster.” They want to turn the tables by having students consider “what monsters think about their treatment.”  Those poor, misunderstood monsters!

(As Joanne Jacobs notes, the lament that most monster stories are told from the perspective of the humans rather than the monster completely ignores the fact that much of Frankenstein is told from the monster’s perspective, albeit as quoted by Victor Frankenstein,  the first-person narrator.)

Three pages out of the seventeen feature Mary Shelley’s actual words on them. But they are not selections from the novel or any kind of preparation for reading the novel. Rather, they are taken from an introduction Shelley wrote about writing the novel. The only indication that students are encouraged to read Frankenstein is a box in the margin of the Teacher’s Edition indicating that the “advanced readers” who are “interested” might read a “segment” of the novel in order to compare the monster to Shelley’s description in her introduction. 

The book allocates five pages (two more than are given to Mary Shelley) to a script of a Saturday Night Live parody of Frankenstein. First, students are invited “to share their impressions of the long-running comedy show.” Again the talented-and-gifted students are called to the fore, as they are supposed to obtain props, costumes, and make-up that will enable them to “take roles and do a dramatic reading” of the script.


Terrence Moore (at the link) summarizes:  “Under the guise of “critical thinking” and “critical reading” and “critical viewing,” teachers using this Common Core textbook are encouraged to have students talk about monsters, share their dreams about monsters, write an autobiography of a monster, dress up as monsters, talk about Saturday Night Live, and act out aSaturday Night Live script. None of this involves reading the philosophical novel called Frankenstein. In what grade would all this “critical thinking” take place? The senior year of high school.”

Concerning the level of education typically being provided in American high schools, college instructor Mary Grabar has this to say:

What happens in college follows what is taught in primary and secondary schools. Many of my colleagues and I have noticed among college freshmen an unwillingness and inability to read complex and long works. Assign anything from the nineteenth century and the biggest complaint will be that the essay or story (forget entire novels) was “too long.” Ask any student to explain one sentence from such a text and even the brightest future doctors and scientists will look at you dumbfounded. “Just this one sentence,” I would ask my students.  “Take it apart. Look at the clauses. Look at the words, their definitions, their connotations.”  Nothing.  Not surprisingly, very few students know the feeling of getting “lost” in a novel.

I’ve come to realize that such reluctance may not be impertinence but a lack of familiarity with the task. The training of their high school teachers only serves to encourage the narcissistic and fragmentary conversations they are naturally drawn to as adolescents and in which they engage online. While students may have “read” The Scarlet Letter in high school, chances are that the reading  involved excerpts, summaries, graphic adaptations, and films—as well as the feminist spin on Hester Prynne. 

The “writing” projects may have involved PowerPoint presentations, videos, and skits. These are done in peer groups, which is also where much of the class discussion takes place. The annual fall teaching workshops at the community college where I taught a few years ago (before losing classes after the op-ed) focused on “engaging” students with such methods.

Because of the pedagogy promoted in education colleges and professional associations many of our college students cannot sit down and read a 600-page novel and then write a 10-page paper on it.  They have never been asked to. 

Teaching via PowerPoint presentations, videos, and skits…(also, poster-making seems to be popular among “educators”)…see my post about sensorial communication versus explicit word-based communication: Metaphors, interfaces, and thought processes.


19 thoughts on “Studying “Frankenstein” Without Reading “Frankenstein””

  1. The unraveling of civilization continues apace.

    BTW, I’m one of those people who are open to the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations. The Roswell incident may have been a balloon or something, I don’t know. But the idea of an alien race making exploratory landings on another world does not seem far fetched to me at all. Look up the Drake Equation sometime.

  2. But from a teaching standpoint, what would extraterrestrials have to do with Dr Frankenstein’s creation? If the perpetrators of this textbook wanted to have students compare it with other literature (AFTER actually reading it, least in the Classic Comics version), then there are dozens of SF books & stories about robots & computers that became conscious, not to mention the Jewish legend of the Golem. The only connection I can see between Frankenstein and UFOs is nonhuman weirdness, which doesn’t seem like much.

  3. When my younger son was in 8th grade, he was assigned along with all 8th graders at the the, to read Great Expectations. I bought two copies of the book and told him I would read it along with him. After a couple of weeks, I was way ahead of him. I had read books to my children from the time they were small. Even so, he was not much of a reader. I wonder what happens now? That was 30 years ago.

    Parents who don’t have a TV are probably right but the pressure from kids must be difficult. I know a family with three boys who never got a TV. The boys are doing wonderfully. Two are in college and one will graduate high school this or next year. This is the family in which the mother home schooled each boy for a year at a time.

  4. There was an op-ed in the WSJ a few weeks ago by a disgruntled professor. “We pretend to teach, and they pretend to study”. The only flaw in the system is that they are paid real money for all that pretend.

  5. RS…I believe this WSJ article you referenced is this. Excerpt:

    “All parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. It is well known that friendly, entertaining professors make for a pleasant classroom, good reviews and minimal complaints. Contrarily, faculty have no incentives to punish plagiarism and cheating, to flunk students or to write negative letters of reference, to assiduously mark up illiterate prose in lieu of merely adding a grade and a few comments, or to enforce standards generally. Indeed, these acts are rarely rewarded but frequently punished, even litigated. Mass failure, always a temptation, is not an option. Under this regimen, it is a testament to the faculty that any standards remain at all.”

  6. I wonder what my professor of English literature from 1960 would think of all this ? He told us that he took a long sea voyage with only the text of Spencer’s The Fairie Queen to read. It is that dull but we were expected to read large parts of it.

    I once flunked a quiz on Wordsworth when he listed a couple a stanzas from the Lucy Poems. For some reason, I had failed to memorize them and missed the quiz question completely.

    I suspect he would be bewildered.

    “No motion has she now, no force;
    She neither hears nor sees;
    Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
    With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

    Those are the lines I failed to memorize. It was 54 years ago.

  7. It’s kind of sad, actually – one of the college classes that I remember with particular relish was a class in 19th century novels, which included English and American. We had to read all the novels listed in the syllabus. No cliff notes, no précis … just reading the whole novel and being ready to discuss it in class.

    I am certain that I scraped through in the last couple of academic years at CSUN where they had genuinely skilled teachers – all full professors teaching the classes. I’ve always thought that I got darned good value for the dollar, all things considered. And CSUN was just a run of the mill state school, nothing really special at all. I’ve never gotten any particular cachet out of having gone there, but I believe I did get a darned good education out of the exercise.

  8. To observe the centennial of the beginning of WWI, our elites have become totally f**king nuts. Sometimes I fear that “The lamps are going out all over the West. We shall not see them lit again in our time”.

  9. My youngest daughter didn’t get into reading until her twenties, when she described to me getting lost in a book for the first time. She told me it was like a movie playing in her mind, and she was unaware she had been reading for hours. That sounded right. It’s a skill, I guess.

    I’m not completely against alternative learning by any means. Are we better off as a society if lots of people opt out of reading Shakespear altogether, as usually happens, or seeing the movie A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream? I wonder?

    I had a physics class taught by an old (to me, at the time) physicist. We got lots of demos in that class, did lots of labs, and we saw physics films all the time. I learned a lot from those films. Sometimes, truly, seeing a behavior or an effect is far more instructive than reading about it or seeing a diagram. Easily one of the best science classes I’ve ever attended.

  10. I have no problem with good movie versions of Shakespeare. I really like the Kenneth Branaugh version of “Much ado about Nothing.” Some of the other plays are hard to find good versions of. Novels are another matter. I still read Alexander Dumas’ novels from time to time. The same applies to Dickens. Some of the other Victorian novels are a bit more work (Not Jane Austin) and the 18th century long poems are a trial although I have read “Paradise Lost” and a few others.

    English classes that dwell on current movies are babysitting.

  11. A daughter in the Dallas community college reports that one English Literature assignment was to create a Facebook page for an American Poet. Required elements were a photo, a biographical “timeline”, and a friends’ list. Actual reading or citation of actual poetry — apparently NOT among the requirements.

  12. ” Actual reading or citation of actual poetry — apparently NOT among the requirements.”

    My daughter’s “review session” for her English composition class at U of Arizona was a one hour rant by the instructor about Reagan.

  13. The idea of “studying” a work of literature by reading commentary about it and discussing random pop-culture phenomena having slightly to do with it strikes me as similar to science classes in which experiments are dispensed with and–at best–replaced by computer simulation of those experiments and–at worst–actual science is dispensed with totally and the focus is exclusively on “social implications of science.” See my post skipping science class, continued.

    A lot of educators seem to want to convert all subjects..from math to science to literature to history…into pop sociology or “social studies.”

  14. Medical school is seeing this trend. There are no longer labs, students don’t have microscopes but have laptops to view photos of slides and anatomy lab no longer dissects a cadaver.

    More time for considering the emotional side of health care. It fits well with the 60% of medical students that are now female. Maybe it’s an improvement. I don’t know.

  15. David, the “educators have been wanting to convert the engineering schools to a typical studies program for over 30 years. So far, it has not happened, mostly due to the fact that the big companies with large engineering departments have told them that if they water it down, there will be no more money.

    When I graduated from UT Austin in 1979, the campus radicals were always protesting the fact that nearly all engineering students were white and asian males. Very few blacks and indigenous hispanics, and virtually no women. They could not accept the fact that engineering was something that appeals mostly to men of a certain type of mind, it had to be rank discrimination. Political pressure over the years has seen program after program designed to attract more women and minorities (Asians don’t count)into the engineering programs, and all have failed dramatically. Now I am again hearing the “q” word again.

  16. In the 60’s university tuition was $90/quarter for as many course as one felt like taking. No limit. I worked part time and earned $3,000 – $5,000/yr which bought books, tuition, food, medical care, an apartment, wine,drinks and dates. Also annual trips to Europe where travel cost $5/day.

    Courses were demanding and interesting. There was no grade inflation. After 12 years I had taken every course that was interesting from art history to pre-med and business school stuff. I have both an MA and an MBA.

    I read the comments that argue that med school has no cadavers or microscopes, that A’s are 50% of the grades handed out, that courses are undemanding.

    Today no one works his way thru school because tuitions are too high. Instead students borrow from the government via banks and girls pay for the dates.

    Students don’t pay for their education any more – not in the pay-as-you go sense. They pay nothing out-of-pocket and get their money’s worth.

    To be sure there is debt owed in the future but day may come when all debts are forgiven if the right woman is President. Or bankruptcy or getting killed in war on drugs.

  17. There is no cure for it but to tell the children the truth, I fear. They are being robbed and disrespected. I shudder at the prospect of their retribution if they discover how much victimization they’ve been subjected to in the name of education.

  18. “Students don’t pay for their education any more – not in the pay-as-you go sense. They pay nothing out-of-pocket and get their money’s worth.”

    Yes, in the 50s when I was in school it was possible to work your way through. No more. I have five children and told them all I would pay for the Bachelors degree. After that, it was up to them. I have watched the cost climb alarmingly. I’ll be paying for the last one until I die, most likely. Unless I live too long, of course.

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