Iconic Books and Personal Experience: Classics at Work

Iconic Books and Personal Experience: Classics at Work

Image: John Gilbert, The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1849, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York City, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

This week, we are pleased to feature Professor Barbara Burgess-Van Aken. Barbara is a Renaissance scholar with a wide variety of experience in teaching, higher education administration and non-profit organizations. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors in teaching and research, most recently the 2014 prize from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women for her translation and critical edition of Partenia: A Pastoral PlayAt a recent faculty community event we hosted with Case Western Reserve University’s Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, Barbara spoke about the power of experience and literature. This post is a written version of her remarks.

When it comes to teaching, I confess that I’m a sucker for iconic texts: Shakespeare’s Othello, Mary Godwin Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Frankly, it bothers me that these authors’ fame derives from ubiquitous cultural allusions so divorced from their work. Boris Karloff immediately comes to mind when people hear the name Frankenstein. People blithely characterize someone as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type” without knowing the original story. And they refer to a talented person as a Shakespeare without having read enough of the Bard to know why he’s a genius. With the mission of connecting cultural allusions to their sources, I have introduced these texts to Books@Work readers, and several anecdotes will tell that tale of how well my approach has worked.

Talking about Frankenstein, a small group of women had very personal reactions. One was outraged at how entertainment media have repeatedly turned Victor Frankenstein’s creature into a monster – always omitting the human traits that Shelley gave him. Another commented on how society’s rejection of the creature in the book is not unlike the lack of empathy that many have for people with disabilities today. A third, who admitted to having dealt with mental illness in her family, wondered if Frankenstein and his creature were perhaps two sides of the same personality. With each of these women, personal experience led to reading insights.

In a venue made up of many engineers and scientists, our discussion of Frankenstein took a different tack. They considered the danger of a scientist being so in love with the quest that he or she becomes myopic, ignoring humanitarian issues. Similarly, another group of readers at the same company read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and pondered the question of how far to push the limits of science.

Talking about Shakespeare, one group questioned how Othello could be so vulnerable to Iago. The one African American woman in the room led us out of the quandary:

“Hey, what do you expect? He’s the only black man in a white man’s world. If someone’s going to suck up to him, of course he’s going to be vulnerable.”

Everyone got it, and then agreed that they all knew Iago types – co-workers who trample them to get ahead.

How satisfying that all these readers’ connections related to ethics and the relevance of the stories to twenty-first century life! What more can we ask for? Not much. But there is more. Participants also made insightful connections about reading.

Title Page of the 1st London Edition

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde group was fascinated with the author’s intent and peppered me with questions about how and when Stevenson wrote the text. And then one day, a woman blurted out:

“I can see why this is a classic; I have to pay more attention to details than I do with the romances I usually read – but it’s fun.”

Yet another reader told the group:

“You know, by listening to all of you, I discovered something about how I read—I read to get from A to Z as fast as I can; but now I see that there’s a different kind of reading—one that stops to consider sidebars along the way—that is actually entertaining!”

But wait, there’s more – at least for me and my bias. I am validated. Not only do these readers feel the power of iconic books, they feel empowered as well. When they consider adaptations of these works, they put on directors’ hats and consider what their productions would be like and how their rationale derives from the original text. In this way, they have become more intelligent consumers of culture and I tell them so. “You’re an authority on this text,” I say. Believe me, their pride is palpable.

The reward from leading Books@Work sessions goes beyond validation, however.  Witnessing how these less experienced readers respond so well by drawing on their personal experience, I come away with important reminders for my teaching in the college classroom:

Facilitate more than teach.
Meet students where they are (and find out where that is).
Empower students to interpret.
Remember questions of ethics and relevance are the most interesting.

And perhaps most important:

Make students proud of the reading they have done.

 Further Reading:

“Shakespeare Got a Lot Better Since High School”

“Creative Discomfort”: Exploring Unfamiliar Literature

Curious Critics

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Barbara Burgess-Van Aken

Barbara Burgess-Van Aken

Barbara is a Shakespeare scholar with a wide variety of experiences in teaching, higher education administration and non-profit organizations. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors in teaching and research.