Thursday, September 13, 2012


The other day, Dr. Crazy wrote a blog post about her class, and mentioned another class on books about a certain boy wizard, books a good many kids read by the age of 12.  In short, Dr. C argues that the boy wizard books aren't the same as the major novels of the 20th century she cites, and that by extension, a class on boy wizard books isn't likely to be as intellectually challenging and rigorous as a class on, say, Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, and other influential works of the 20th century.

I was in a committee conversation where we were talking about curricular stuff, including some specific classes people have "put in" to teach.  (We tend to use umbrellas, and people "put in" to teach specific stuff within that umbrella structure, especially for summer school and such.)

Several of the classes people put in for were sort of zombies and monsters of the late 20th century sorts of things, and boy wizardy sorts of things.

I have a gut reaction, and it's not a pretty one.  I agree with Dr. C that these texts aren't the same, and that the classes I was looking at didn't look very rigorous or intellectually challenging.

I know that there are some people who do really smart, theoretically interesting work on zombies and boy wizards.  But I suspect that a lot of the work on zombies and boy wizards really isn't, well, smart or theoretically interesting, and that the works themselves aren't so challenging and exciting that they'll prompt really good students to get think hard and critically about them.

That is, I have two problems:

1)  The works aren't in themselves exciting, hard, challenging.  (That's my reading, of the ones I've read.)

2)  The work being done on those works (teaching and scholarly work) isn't (mostly) intellectually rigorous, theoretically interesting.

And yet, I suspect my reaction.*  Isn't my response sort of the same as the people who said, twenty years ago or more, that the work of people of color wasn't the same quality as the works of, say, Shakespeare?  And the same about the teaching and scholarly work on texts by people of color (and especially, of course, classes and scholarly work done by people of color)?  (Or works by women, etc.)

Am I reacting to something that really has incredible potential in a "good old boy" sort of way? 

Or is there something substantially different between my reaction to boy wizard classes and the reactions of some people 20 plus years ago to classes on the works of people of color?

I would like to think not, but I still suspect my reaction.  In my defense, I will say that my reaction is to specific classes suggested by specific people, in a context where I know the preparation of those people and how they've described their classes.

I find it laughable, for example, that some of these specific people seem to think that monsters are the NEWEST thing!  It's as if Beowulf doesn't exist.  And sex was invented in 1967.

And as I look at these and think about them, and think about the job market, I have to say: were I to be on a search, I would need to see something really stellar about monsters or monstrosity in an application for it to make me want to interview that applicant.

* Dr. C, by the way, has also indicated an awareness far greater than mine of how challenging and interesting popular culture is.


  1. Anonymous9:58 AM

    I think there are some people out there with good arguments for the boy wizard being literature worth studying, but I also think that the quality of what is out there varies greatly... (And I recognize that I'm not a literature person - what convinces me may not convince others)

    That said, my own involvement in the academic study of that particular set of books is much more multidisciplinary, and I think that is where some of the more interesting possibilities for classes would be, rather than in literature.

  2. I've been thinking about this a bit, since I study popular/polemical literature (but not contemporary), and am currently teaching the intro-to-the-major class. It simply *is* true that more complex, traditionally "literary" texts (including some but not all by women, African Americans, and others traditionally excluded by the canon) offer students more to work with when it comes to practicing the basics of analysis.

    I'm all for the study of popular works, as well, but I think that study requires more historical and/or theoretical contextualization, and/or a higher ratio of works/words read to the location of significant examples which can be analyzed to make an argument (one ends up making arguments about variations in a common plot, or use of certain words, scenes, etc., over a large body of works, rather than digging quite as deeply into any one of them).

    That does, indeed, at the very least argue for an approach that sets the more recent, arguably less complex works, in an existing tradition (so students are building up examples for comparison as they go along). If that seems like a hard sell, one can always start with contemporary works and go backward (which I tried once, with mixed success), or go thematically rather than chronologically, or something along those lines.

  3. I agree with Contingent Cassandra that pop-culture texts do require more historical and/or theoretical contextualization. I also agree that coming at the pop-culture texts through canonical literature is absolutely the way to go: yes, a monsters class should start with Beowulf! (Actually, I'd go back and start with The Odyssey, then Beowulf and Sir Gawain, Paradise Lost, etc.) I want to teach the TV show "Supernatural" at some point, but I really want to do it in the context of Dr. Faustus, Paradise Lost, "Young Goodman Brown," etc. I'd get bored teaching the class that just read all my favorite popular books without giving them a real grounding in where they came from and why they're so awesome. A class that teaches something *just* because it's popular isn't terribly compelling, unless the fact that it is popular gets you into some sort of sociological study.

  4. Popular culture texts (tv shows, movies, books, whatever) are, I'd say, part of our culture. For that reason, we should study them, and many of them do benefit from the sorts of analysis that literary scholars do. And I'm actually cool with that, as a general statement. The thing that I find distressing I think ultimately traces back to motivation. If one's motivation is to really delve deeply into the cultural context and consequences of a particular cultural phenomenon, and if that is one's scholarly and intellectual interest, I think the sort of course you'd teach would look one way (interesting, provocative, stimulating, etc.). In contrast, if your motivation is to "appeal" to students and "get buts in seats" and, frankly, to pander, then your course is going to look very different.

    And I'd say that this is the big distinction between the ways in which women writers or writers of color were marginalized historically in the literature classroom: frankly, nobody wanted to teach a class on women writers or African-American writers to increase their student credit hour to full time equivalent ratio. And nobody was encouraging people to teach such courses in the interest of recruiting more majors or proving that we are "relevant" to "people in the real world."

    That's the part of this that's most obnoxious to me: the lack of faith that the second approach exhibits in the work that we do. And that's the approach that dominates my department.

  5. I have been contemplating "putting in" for a course on medieval sources for the boy wizard books. Such classes are already on the books at some schools, including Northwestern. My goal would be partly to get some butts in seats . . . and then to teach some of the awesome medieval literature that those books draw from, allude to, build on, things that most people would never read on their own but are far more accesssible than they would think. The theory isn't really my thing but we would certainly talk about why these tropes and plot elements get recycled, what their appeal is to popular audiences, what sorts of cultural meaning have accrued around them. I'm not sure where such a class would fall on the vampire-Joyce spectrum. I don't want to study boy wizards as such, but I'd love to get more students interested in the roots of quests, dragon fights, swords offered by watery tarts, and so on.

  6. I really like the above ideas as approaches to teach the boy wizard (and other works of popular culture). If Twilight / Harry / Romance novels and the rest were taught that way (and classes in all of the above have in fact been offered at my university in the recent past)I'd have no issue with it. Those would be good classes.

    I don't know how much of that is happening here -- that's one of my issues -- and another is that, at least at *our* university -- these classes are being called Major Author classes.

    Our degree required 9 hours of Major Author, which used to mean Milton, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. Now it can mean Romance Novels, Harry, and Twilight. Well, you see why I'm grumpy. As much fun as Harry might be to some, he is not Chaucer.

    Although very "sexy," as our dean keeps insisting. As in, "We need to make our course offerings more SEXY."

  7. I primarily teach post-colonial literature, and that's where my doctoral work was focused. But I also teach a 400-level pop culture class on Writers of Color in Speculative Fiction (aka science fiction and fantasy, but also including ghost stories, surreal tales, magical realism, etc.). I bring the same level of academic rigor and scrutiny to both courses, although I'm hampered somewhat in the latter by the fact that there just isn't as much scholarship available on, say, Octavia Butler as there is on E.M. Forster. But we manage just fine for an undergrad course -- a grad course would be harder to pull off, though not impossible.

    The bigger issue, perhaps, is that some of what I teach in the SF class would qualify as highbrow literature (Delany, for example), whereas some of it is decidedly lowbrow. You're not going to get a lot of stylistic analysis out of some of the stories in Cosmos Latinos (an anthology of Latin American science fiction). But you ARE going to have an awesome discussion around class issues, and why they're so visible in Latin American literature, even at the popular fiction level, and why, for example, the stories by black writers in Dark Matter (an anthology of African-American SF) tend to be far more focused on race, rather than class.

    I guess I'd ask what your priorities are in a literature class, and whether you require high style to justify teaching the material, or whether cultural significance, for example, might be sufficient

  8. I'm also way in favor of the monsters-starting-with-Beowulf approach, for the record.

    And agree that J.K. Rowling, much as I love what she's done for YA literature and kids' reading overall, doesn't count as a Major Author in the sense that English departments should count Major Authors.

  9. One more note -- for anyone interested in teaching this stuff, there's a great conference I'd recommend, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, usually held in Florida over spring break weekend. Lots of interesting scholarly papers on the subject. This year's topic is "Fantastic Adaptations, Transformations, and Audiences" -- the call for papers is now live.

  10. Interesting discussion and comments.

    I feel like the original post is conflating several different things, about which there may be different arguments:

    1. MG/YA books. It seems to me that it makes more sense to compare Potter to, say, Tom Sawyer than to Ulysses. Are you objecting to Potter being a kids' book, or are you objecting to it being slight, or are you objecting to it containing magic? The Black Stallion is a popular (or once-popular) kids' book that's fairly slight and doesn't contain magic; would you have made the same argument about that? (I'm not saying you wouldn't; this is an honest question, not a rhetorical gotcha.) And a lot of kids' books are studied by kids in high school; would you teach a college class on, say, _Where the Red Fern Grows_? One might; again, not rhetorical, just trying to explore the parameters.

    2. Pop culture (both modern and older). I'm not an academic, but I've seen some fascinating academic work about modern pop culture. Henry Jenkins, for example, has a lot of good stuff to say. And I recently read part of a heavily-researched essay about clothing on the TV show Torchwood. And last I looked at it, the Journal of Popular Culture was pretty interesting. (Also worth noting that there's Great Literature that was pop culture (among other things) in its time; think groundlings watching Shakespeare.)

    3. Speculative fiction (aka fantasy and science fiction). As Mary Anne noted, there's a lot of very literary and very rich speculative fiction out there.

    4. Slightness. I think it could be argued that even if you take works that fall in the same place on the above three axes--that have the same popularity, the same target age group, and the same speculativeness levels--that some of those works are going to have more substance than others. I kind of think this is the core of what you're getting at: you want to teach works that have depth. Which is totally valid! But I think that it's wise to examine motivations, as you did in this post; sometimes the things that we think are slight may have interesting stuff to explore when we look at them from the right angle or in the right context. (Sometimes maybe not. But it might be an interesting and fun challenge--I don't mean for you in particular, I just mean in general--to look for something academically rigorous to say about, say, a Dr. Seuss book (I bet academic papers have done that) or a Boynton book (I highly recommend But Not the Armadillo, which is an amazing summation of certain human social dynamics).)

  11. Argh, I meant "But Not the Hippopotamus." Sorry.

  12. Thanks, all, I'm enjoying reading this discussion.

    Anon, I think a multidisciplinary approach could be interesting. I'd like to hear more.

    Contingent, I think your point about historical and/or theoretical contextualization is really important. I've seen class descriptions on pop culture stuff that looks absolutely fantastic, intellectually challenging and rigorous. But the boy wizard stuff I've seen proposed here hasn't looked like that.

    Sapience, I think you're right on about the "just because it's popular" thing.

    Dr. C, it cracks me up to think of someone making the argument that boy wizard books are more relavant to people in the real world. But I totally agree that popular culture is hugely important. My pop culture tends to be a couple hundred years older than most, but it was popular and aimed at making money.

    Dame Eleanor, Oh, you should! Medieval sources are GREAT!

    Delagar, have you ever noticed that making things sexy is never really about sexy?

    Mary Anne, Oh, now I'm interested to read some Latin American speculative lit! Is there much available in tranaslation (my Spanish is way weaker than it used to be)?

    I don't much care about high or low. I'm an early modern drama person, and that only started to count as "high" in the 18th century. But I'm interested in cultural significance and depth, and there being something more in one's approach than fanishness. I mean, I love Shakespeare, but I'd love to smack him sometimes.

    Jed, thanks. Chaucer used to be considered children's lit, as did Ovid. I don't think my response is primarily about YA lit, but more about the fannishness (is that even a word?) of the approaches I've seen people use here.

    I'm teaching a pop culture magic text right now. It's several hundred years old, but it's still those things. But we're approaching it through a historical and theoretical lens.

    I'm becoming convinced that it's partly to do with the uncritical approach I'm seeing people take here, and the lack of historical and theoretical interest in the approaches here.

    Thanks all!

  13. Good point about fannishness of approach.

    And sorry for the inadvertent splaininess of my Shakespeare comment. I came back just now to say "Oh, wait, you're a Shakespeare scholar, you know way more about Shakespeare and groundlings than I ever will; sorry about that." And thanks for the info about Chaucer and Ovid; I didn't know that. Neat!

    (And now I'm worried that that last paragraph will read as sarcastic. So just in case: it's intended sincerely.)

  14. Thanks, Jed. I appreciate your input. (I try to read comments as if they're intended helpfully. It keeps my blood pressure in better shape. And mostly, it's the right way to read them. Which is to say, I didn't take offense at yours.)

  15. were I to be on a search, I would need to see something really stellar about monsters or monstrosity in an application for it to make me want to interview that applicant.

    You mean, something approaching JJC's "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)"? (Here's a summary:,+%22Monster+Culture+%28Seven+Theses%29%22)

  16. Exactly, Dr. V! I would LOVE to see someone put in to teach that sort of class (either Cohen's or Hanley's)! That's what can be done with the monstrous!

  17. What , no vampires? I would like to see a course that puts the latest boy wizardry into dialogue with Tolkein and then from there back to his medieval influences.