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.”
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.