With education reform at the national and state levels currently pushing English curricula towards literary nonfiction, offering a course dedicated to genre fiction is quite an intriguing prospect. While there is certainly value to be found in literary nonfiction, one cannot help but brace for the impact that will result if said nonfiction is highlighted by means of obfuscating fiction. My curriculum unit, The Dark Days of Future Past, by facilitating an exploration of Gothic and dystopian fiction, will promote the sort of insight-producing, reflection-inspiring, life-changing reader immersion experiences that may very well be threatened if the fetishizing of literary nonfiction is allowed to run amok.
Before moving forward, it is useful to specifically address why a shift towards nonfiction has inspired the development of this fiction-based curriculum unit. With more school districts (including Wakefield, Massachusetts, where I teach) beginning to adhere to the frameworks of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), more questions about the frameworks arise. One of the questions that must be asked is why the CCSSI – serving as an exemplar of education reform – advocates for a system that sees high school seniors’ reading consisting only of 30% literary texts, with the remaining 70% consisting of informational texts (Common Core State Standards Initiative). Although this distribution is intended to represent students’ reading in all their classes (i.e., not just English), it is easy to see why those championing the literary cause are weary of a system predicated on eventually weaning students off literature. Although there is credence to these concerns, many accept the CCSSI’s explanation that the 70-30 split is justified because “Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content” (Common Core State Standards Initiative). However, implicit in acceptance of this justification is the belief that literary fiction is not as (or even more) useful for inspiring complex thought than informational texts.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the rationale for shifting from fiction/literature to nonfiction/informational texts is not as well-founded as the architects of the CCSSI might like us to believe. As detailed in Lisa Zunshine’s “The Secret Life of Fiction,” the benefits of emphasizing informational texts (at the expense of literary fiction) are not supported by cognitive science, but are presented as axiomatic because the “assumption that stories are inferior to nonfiction has a long tradition in Western culture; tapping into that prejudice is easy, and no proof seems to be required” (724). For example, Zunshine suggests that the CCSSI uses sleight of hand to connect academic success to informational texts by invoking the development of vocabulary. The argument put forth is that academic success strongly correlates with the development of rich vocabularies, and since informational texts enrich vocabularies they should be prominently featured. However, this argument disintegrates when one realizes that “The reason that [studies proving informational texts to be better lexicon builders than literary texts] are never mentioned by the architects of the CCSSI is that they don’t exist” (724). As a result, English Language Arts educators must think twice about fully investing in a system that cannot adequately justify why it privileges informational texts over the literary.
Zunshine further develops the argument by detailing that there is a correlation between reading fiction and “theory of mind” or “mind reading,” described by cognitive scientists as students’ “ability to explain their own and other people’s behavior as caused by mental states, such as thoughts, desires, and feelings” (724). The case being made is that reading fiction requires students to draw inferences and create their own interpretations, thereby earnestly engaging with the process of “constructive learning” (726). It is this type of constructive learning that allows students to grapple with scenarios of sociocognitive complexity, the sort of multifaceted thought that challenges individuals in daily life. “Think, for instance, of…mental state within mental state within yet another mental state. After a conversation with my friend, I worry that she thought I meant the opposite of what I actually meant. My partner tells me that he didn’t want me to know what he was thinking” (727). Fiction, unlike informational texts, demands that readers run through the same theory of mind gauntlet thrown down in daily life, and therefore leads to an exercising of the mental faculties necessary for academic (and personal) success.
With this frame in mind, The Dark Days of Future Past has been developed not as an alarmist, kneejerk reaction to perceived detriments of nonfiction but as a means of advocating for literary fiction. With the reading of fiction correlating strongly with the “theory of mind” abilities, it is imperative that it continues to be made available to all students, even if only by means of elective course. After all, “Teaching less [fiction] amounts to a regressive tax on education because only students whose parents encourage them to read a lot of fiction on their own will still do well” (Zunshine 730). As such, The Dark Days of Future Past serves as a veritable literary stronghold, a bastion of hope in which fiction may reside while the required English classes serve as battlefields in the war between literary and informational texts.
One of the most intriguing – and fulfilling – activities in narrative analysis is the comparison of different genres. By juxtaposing representative works from different genres, a reader is able to identify the recurring themes, tropes, archetypes, and motifs found in each, those that are unique to a particular genre, and the inferences to be made by the comparison. While there is tremendous analytic potential to be found in pairing any two genres, some work better than others. The proposal at hand guides students through a cross-examination of dystopian and Gothic literature by through a new year-long genre fiction elective.
The Dark Days of Future Past – Gothic and Dystopian Literature is intended to offer high school students from all four grades an elective venue for exploring, comparing, and analyzing genre fiction. I use Gothic and dystopian texts in the hope that students will be attracted to a course consisting of texts from a genre that encompasses much of today’s popular culture. This connection to texts already celebrated by teens is designed not only to interest students in enrolling in the first place but also to inspire enthusiasm once the class is in full swing. In other words, the “at-a-glance goal” is to use students’ appreciation for texts such as Twilight and Divergent to lead them to the likes of Dracula and 1984.
To illustrate the ethos and intentions of The Dark Days of Future Past, the project at hand includes a representative curriculum unit. This specific unit serves as the culminating experience for the entire course because it asks students to comprehensively explore the connections between Gothic and dystopian fiction. Students will be guided, via class activities, through a comparative reading that features a typifying text from each genre: Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) and Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982). Before asking students to craft a comparative analysis (which is currently conceived of as an essay but could very well turn into some other sort of project), the unit guides students through a review of the salient characteristics of both genres. As currently envisioned, students will have already navigated through the vast majority of the course and engaged with a number of dystopian and Gothic texts in the contexts of their respective genres. Therefore, while reading Frankenstein and watching Blade Runner, the class will run through a few lessons to revisit some of the genres’ formal qualities, such as setting, defining characteristics, and common conflicts/plots. By the conclusion of this course, students will be in solid positions to experience these final two texts as comparative pieces.
Why bother ending the year-long course with a comparative analysis? In addition to giving students a final opportunity to engage with the two genres that they spent a year learning about, this analysis enables students to retread the intellectual terrain explored during the respective Gothic and dystopian semesters while being pointed towards the genres’ convergence. As detailed in the “Exploring Gothic Castles” section of this document, reading Gothic fiction helps students learn to better recognize, investigate, and think beyond the binary systems that pervade modern society. On the other hand, the “Awaiting the Dystopia” portion of this document explains how The Dark Days of Future Past encourages students to use the lens of dystopian fiction not (only) to look towards potential problems of tomorrow, but to consider how speculative texts actually represent the anxieties of the eras in which they are written. By bringing together the experiences of the Gothic and the dystopian, this comparative analysis serves as a capstone assignment reemphasizing the one of the course’s primary aims: exploring texts that challenge acceptance of the status quo so that students may learn to do so themselves.
It is clear that several questions must be anticipated and addressed: “What are the intellectual goals for students? What does this course do that others cannot? In short, why does Wakefield Memorial High School need to add this course to the program of studies?” First and foremost, the goal guiding the development of The Dark Days of Future Past is to provide students the opportunity to engage with literature from perspectives alternate, and perhaps even contrary, to the school’s current status quo. With no literature electives currently offered at the school, many have students see English class as nothing more than a graduation requirement. By offering this genre studies elective (and, hopefully, more in the future), we will help students begin to see literature as something that individuals actually choose to explore, forfeiting the question of “Why do I have to take English class?” in favor of “What English classes do I want to take?” Once in The Dark Days of Future Past, students reap the benefits of having a literature class free from the constraints inherent to the required English classes – mandatory texts for each grade, district-determined measures, MCAS/PARCC exams, common assessments, and so forth. Enrolled in a class with increased flexibility, students who already have an interest in the genres at hand will be guided into literary depths normally unchartered at Wakefield Memorial High School. In this sense, students will be encouraged “to combine a willingness to suspect with an eagerness to listen; there is no reason why our readings cannot blend analysis and attachment, criticism and love” (Felski 22).
To begin the descent of this introduction, the overarching intellectual goals of The Dark Days of Future Past will be described. Although the relevance of using Gothic and dystopian fiction is more fully fleshed out in subsequent sections, the umbrella explanation for their inclusion is that these genres contain texts especially suited to helping teenage students explore personhood to extents not possible in required English classes. Echoing Lisa Zunshine’s aforementioned article, Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature supports the notion that tremendous insights can be gleaned from reading literary fiction, as it is often “a work of fiction that triggers fervent self-scrutiny” (24). Felski argues that literature helps readers contemplate what it means to be a person, with the novel being an especially effective form as it “embraces a heightened psychological awareness, meditating on the murky depths of motive and desire, seeking to map the elusive currents and by-ways of consciousness, highlighting countless connections and conflicts between self-determination and socialization” (25). Moreover, students are even better prepared to embark upon these journeys of self-discovery when encountering characters with whom they identify, as they essentially operate as experiential surrogates. “A fictional persona serves as a prism…The experience of self-recognition and heightened self-awareness is routed through an aesthetic medium; to see oneself as [a character] is in some sense to see oneself anew” (35). The Dark Days of Future Past provides an “aesthetic medium” of students’ own choosing, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will encounter texts and characters they find genuinely appealing; the corollary being, of course, that this leads to authentic self reflection. With such unadulterated investment in the texts, students will be primed for the moments of recognition that Felski calls “self-intensification” and “self-extension,” respectively (39).
Since The Dark Days of Future Past is an elective class featuring texts about bizarre, outlandish, and surreal scenarios, it is in the unique position of providing students opportunities to grapple with two very different types of recognition. When students find themselves encountering a “perception of direct similarity or likeness, as we encounter sometimes that slots into a clearly identifiable scheme of themes” they are experiencing “self-intensification” (Felski 38-9). Given that an attraction to the genres at hand has led to their enrollment, students in the class are already working towards self-intensification; for instance, a student who has already spent time empathizing with protagonist Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games series is going to be predisposed to identifying with Bernard Marx’s conflicts in Huxley’s Brave New World. However, these same students will also encounter moments “self-extension,” another form of recognition that Felski describes as “coming to see aspects of oneself in what seems distant or strange” (39). Even for students attracted to Gothic and dystopian fiction, these genres wield seminal texts that initially seem otherworldly and distant but, with careful consideration, allow readers to consider how they might see themselves within these fantastic premises.
Summarily, The Dark Days of Future Past serves as a venue in which students not only explore genre fiction, but themselves as well. Although the waves of nonfiction are making their way towards the curricular beach, there are many – such as Felski and Zunshine, amongst others – willing to stand alongside fiction as the waves crash down. While it is certainly possible for students to glean insights from novels, stories, and characters to which they may never have gravitated on their own, offering a literature elective creates the opportunity for more engaged and reflective exploration. As such, adding The Dark Days of Future Past to the program of studies helps Wakefield Memorial High School reaffirm itself as a school that recognizes and values the depth, complexity, and insight garnered from active engagement with literature.