5. Let’s Get Pedagogical

On the journey of justifying The Dark Days of Future Past, the first point of departure is found at that place where students are encouraged to read in valuable, authentic ways. In The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers, Sheridan Blau presents the idea that the most useful reading experiences are those that actively engage students by inspiring rereading and active reflection. Blau argues that those students who persevere in face of confusing, difficult first read-through experiences will “[manage] through subsequent readings to arrive at thoughtful, well-observed, and fairly comprehensive interpretations…” (198). In other words, the deepest insights are unearthed when students are compelled to return for a second (and third! a fourth!) examination of a text. What Blau advocates for, and what The Dark Days of Future Past aims to achieve, is student reading that is truly valuable –  returning to a text multiple times so as to reexamine not only the text itself but also one’s own previous interpretations of it. Unfortunately, without this yearning to move “beyond their first readings to subsequent and more adequate readings, they might have mistakenly regarded their first readings as finished or the best they could do…” (198).

Since one of the most demoralizing uphill battles waged by English teachers can be trying to get students read at all, the prospect of getting students to read a work multiple times might seem like a psychological suicide mission. However, aspects embedded in the very fabric of The Dark Days of Future Past can make this challenge less daunting. First, because it is an elective class, students must choose to enroll, and thus will feel personally invested. Although elective offerings are often cynically dismissed as afterthoughts, the agency they afford students cannot be undervalued. In general, this agency is important because “When we have been given opportunity, we are capable of choosing objects (or practices) whose shape or feel is fitted to our own unusually conscious needs” (Bruns 146). Moreover, I feel that electives should be provided in all content areas, even those disciplines that students are already required to take at Wakefield Memorial High School. In fact, it is especially important that students are offered English course experiences beyond the four years of mandatory, graduation-requirement curricula. We must “place a priority on allowing students, whenever possible, to choose – whether it’s what aspect of their reading experience they dwell on in their informal writing…Student choice matters in literature instruction…” (Bruns 146). With the simple act of offering a literature elective, the dream of increasing student interest in reading will become more of a reality, while at the same time ushering students towards a type of reading more in line with Blau’s concept of value-via-revisiting.

Additionally, the aforementioned uphill battle will also be easier to wage because the students’ newfound sense of agency in choosing to enroll will be further bolstered by their interest in the course contents: Gothic and dystopian fiction. Although many high school students may resist the readings assigned for their mandatory English classes, it is dangerously misguided to believe that they do not actively read – and reread – books. Anecdotally, the author of this curriculum project has had countless discussions with students about the fact that they are reading books other than those required for class. Although the range of texts read for leisure is immense, the common denominator seems to be that they all genuinely captivate the students. In fact, the students are often so enthralled by the experience of literary immersion (more on this to come) that they finish a book only to reread it, continue on to the next in the series, read another by the same author, or seek out a similar text. As a corollary, this enthusiasm can – and must – be harnessed by providing literature electives featuring genres that catch eyes when scanning the program of studies. While The Dark Days of Future Past may hook students by conjuring the current pop culture zeitgeist, the hope is that its addition to the program of studies will open the floodgates in such a way that several literature electives, each showcasing respective genres, will eventually come to be offered.

Once students have, of their own accord, enrolled in an elective literature course, there is an opportunity to break the spell that has been cast upon their approaches to reading for school. The unfortunate reality is that many students look at completing the reading assigned by teachers as a means of attaining an end as opposed to a process to be appreciated in and of itself. Additionally, this attitude can be found in students in all levels of English – while the underachieving college preparatory student might read online summaries in the hopes of not failing, the class rank-jockeying Advanced Placement student might read online analyses in the hopes of securing a perfect mark. Even more deflating is the thought that even when students actually do the reading, it is not in the spirit of active engagement but only to cross another item off of the proverbial “To-Do List.” Whether appealing to online resources or reading just “to get it over with,” these textual engagements (or lack thereof) “have no value because they are grounded in no experience or process of reasoning that the student may consult to confirm or test them, and they may even represent false knowledge to the degree to which they become impediments to further learning” (Blau 199). Although unfortunate and misguided, these sorts of approaches to literature are understandable when one assumes the perspective of a student who is thinking only in terms of completing the four English classes mandatory for high school graduation. However, when students see that literature (even when assigned or challenging) is not something to get through, but something to be enjoyed, something in which to revel, the potential for valuable textual engagement increases exponentially.

At the risk of stumbling upon truisms, it is worth anticipating a question that may arise from the previous discussion: “Why does it matter that students look at literature as more than something to get through?” Although there are myriad viable responses, the most useful are those addressing not reading in general but specifically the reading of literature. (One, if bold enough, may even be tempted to plead on the behalf of not just literature, but the seemingly-passé, not-discernibly-utilitarian entity that is literary fiction!) Summoning the insights offered by Cristina Vischer Bruns’ Why Literature? The Value of Literary Reading and What it Means for Teaching, the case to be made is that deep, immersive reading provides a level of reflection and contemplation otherwise unattainable. When truly engaging a literary work, readers undergo the “process of temporarily letting go of one’s sense of self in order to become immersed in a new world (and in a new way of being), allowing self and text to merge for a time, [releasing] the self-formational capabilities of literary reading, and…recreating the world of the text within oneself” (51). In other words, by using literature as a psychological wedge for prying open “transitional space” between one’s conception of self and other, readers are better prepared to evaluate themselves and their external contexts (37). In order to optimize the effects of such a reading experience, one must become as immersed as possible. As such, one must reconsider the usefulness of genre fiction.

Of all the possible options for a course intended to showcase two particular genres, Gothic and dystopian fiction can stand tall, proudly touting their impressive immersive capabilities. The texts comprising The Dark Days of Future Past feature ghosts and robots, castles and off-world colonies, imaginative elements that inspire readers to dream up conceptions beyond the realities of daily living. As a result, when these texts capture reader-attention, they do so with a fantastic flourish that ultimately makes for deeply engaged experiences. In other words, those students unimpressed by Fitzgerald’s illuminating of Jay Gatsby’s mansion will recoil in delight as Poe submerges Roderick Usher’s house deep into the tarn, and those who yawn as Wharton’s Ethan Frome pines for Mattie to no avail will jolt awake as Orwell’s Winston Smith hops into bed with Julia only to still pledge allegiance to the Party. Bruns, alluding to the more immersive sorts of experiences, explains that “literary reading temporarily blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, between self and other, between inner and outer experience…” (25). This sort of reading requires students to reengage an intellectual mode “that resembles that of early self-formation in which the boundaries of the self are more malleable…enabling [them] to take on stances more responsive to the world around us” (Bruns 25). By pushing students to their imaginative limits, The Dark Days of Future Past will garner an attention that enables students to reconsider their relationships to their surroundings and to themselves.

[next up: course contents & unit overview]

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