Calvin and Hobbes

Some years ago I was teaching Don Quixote (I abridge the novel myself as opposed to using already abridged versions) and was struggling because the students were so unsympathetic to the main character.  Quixote is in his 50s, he is ridiculed by the narrator (and meta-fictional problems abound as we are reading the writings of an Arab historian as translated by another unreliable character from scraps of paper–it’s disorienting for really sophisticated readers), he is a character, in short, who lives almost entirely in his own mind. Even the famous adventures like the one with the windmills or his insistence that the “ladies of economic virtue” at the inn are Ladies of aristocracy were off-putting to the students.

Still, all of my students loved Calvin and Hobbes.  Here is a character who lives almost entirely in his own mind, often crashes into reality, and sees people and events with what we might call an eisegetic eye–that is he inflicts his own view of them onto them regardless of their reality.  So, could I use Calvin and Hobbes to bridge to an appreciation of Don Quixote.  As it turns out, yes.

As long as I focussed on helping my students see that Calvin and Hobbes was often asking serious philosophical questions about epistemology and serious psychological questions about perception I was preparing them to recognize the same things in Don Quixote.  The comic-book qualities of Quixote gave me the idea to have the students “story-board” Quixote–making it a comic book.

For all the years since then I have assigned Calvin and Hobbes as summer reading (one that EVERYONE has always done) and used it to push question about the boundaries of art and ideas and to let the students know that they may be able to defend their love of South Park or the Simpsons or their music with better arguments than “Because I like it.” If we grant that art exists on a continuum, then lots of possibilities arise.

Next week, Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” Ted Chiang’s “Understand,” Limitless, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev.




Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching

4 responses to “Calvin and Hobbes

  1. Dtates

    Excellent idea for making Quixote relatable and more accessible to students. I plan to use a graphic novel called Pride of Baghdad (recommendation from the house of Carroll) as a text for world literature. Maybe I’ll have them storyboard Oedipus Rex and compare the philosophical similarities between Ol’ Oed and Pride by employing certain visual techniques. Can you suggest any techniques in storyboarding that may help? Thanks in advance.

  2. jesseritz

    If you’ll allow a former student to weigh in —

    It seems to me that the work of making Don Quixote more accessible in this case is being done not by the comparison to Calvin and Hobbes, (valid and instructive as that comparison may be) but by the employment of your students as storytellers. Much of what makes the character of Quixote bothersome to young readers,s peaking from personal experience, is his insistence on translating reality into a narrative that is favorable to him. (Three out of five members of every cafeteria table at DeMatha are in this habit as a general rule.) But by adapting the story from one medium to another, your students are borrowing directly from Quixote’s toolbox. I’m curious to know how much rein is given to change or re-order the story and how much of the process is composed of those sorts of decisions.

  3. pam gerhardt

    Hi. I’m a new DeMatha parent (my son is entering 9th grade this fall) and saw the link to your blog on DeMatha Express. I teach narrative nonfiction at the University of Maryland and write for The Washington Post and am intrigued by your idea of “story boarding” Quixote to enable students to better appreciate the work. I have a similar work that students (college seniors) just despise — Annie Dilliard’s “An American Childhood.” They fail to recognize the inherent beauty and pathos in the piece, which, among other things, is about time and space and its relevance in our lives. I have not yet found a solution to teaching it…Here’s something I wrote for our departmental newsletter that might interest you. Sorry for this long post!
    This week I read excerpts from Annie Dillard’s memoir, “An American Childhood,” in preparation for our discussion on family/memoir in my narrative nonfiction class. I’ve included the excerpt in my course packet for several years (I first read the entire book when it was released in 1987), and, once again, the excerpt brought me to tears. In fact, every semester that I age, it seems, the piece moves me more deeply. This is not the case with the students. In fact, they hate it. And each semester they seem to hate it more. The challenge: How do we engage students to appreciate something with which they have no connection, no prior knowledge, no a priori experience?
    The book is a wonderful story about Dillard’s family in 1950s Pittsburgh. In the excerpt we read for class she is a 10-year-old girl coming to the awareness of “self” in the world. She calls this process “waking up.” She writes, “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along…they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest…surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills…and yet feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat…lodged in an eerily familiar life already well under way.” A few paragraphs later, she summarizes the process and mourns its passage: “I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would awake…and never slip back, and never be free from myself again.”
    My students look at me like I’m nuts at 9 am when I ask them what Dillard is talking about. Of course, it’s my job to help them translate, to think about audience, to try, for the sake of the class and their own development as humans and writers, to “get it.”
    I ask students to form groups of two and interview each other, asking/answering the question: at what point did you realize you were no longer a child? Next, I ask them to discuss a possible audience for this topic and how they might accommodate that specific audience in terms of structure, tone and other literary devices.
    Maybe it is my imagination, but it seems that every semester students “get” this piece less and less. It used to be ½ the class loved it. Then maybe 5 or 6. This semester, only two students liked and appreciated it. I listened to their group chatter: They can’t remember waking up. It just happens. Or, they howl, no kid can remember this or that. Or they argue they “woke up” much earlier than age 10. They get frustrated with the piece, with me, even.
    Making matters worse, Dillard devotes a large chunk of the narrative in this excerpt to aural sensations. Listening, a topic southern writer Eudora Welty explored at length and to great success, can serve as a very useful tool. Listening throws my students for a loop: You can “hear” a refrigerator running? The click of the mail slot when the postal worker slides in the day’s letters and bills? The drip from a faucet? A car door clicking shut in the driveway? My students are not familiar with these sounds.
    In their written responses to the piece students often find it depressing – and not in a good way. They think Dillard is depressed, her mother is depressed, the working men in their big oval, empty cars are depressed. Everyone, apparently, in the 1950s needed Paxil, according to 21st Century 21-year-olds. They might have a point. But the larger issue – that of listening – is lost on them.
    Instructors could postulate ad nauseam about the origin of students’ resistance to sound. For example: They grew up with I-pods, video games, cable TV, and a billion other electronic gadgets that drown out the lower-decibel noises announcing the arrival of the mailman or Dad coming home from work. An older friend even suggested that refrigerators, in those days, were noisier, clicking off and on with a loud clang. Thus, the misunderstanding among today’s readers.
    Here’s the thing: As we continue to age and teach students who always, always remain 21, like 22 Dorian Grays, we still must forge ahead. We must continue to make connections, and to help them see how they might make similar connections through their own writing and audiences. I update. I flesh out the semester’s readings with hipper, newer stuff – Dave Eggers, David Sedaris. But I refuse to let Dillard go. The piece has value. If nothing else, it teaches students about audience. How can the same narrative make a 49-year-old reader weep and a younger one yawn?
    At the end of the passage, the author finds herself standing in her yard as a child. “The street lights had come on – yellow, bing…it was winter now, winter again. The air had grown blue dark; skies were shrinking; the streetlights had come on; and I was here outside in the dimming day’s snow, alive.”
    This semester one student, after reading the piece, switched his topic. He was originally struggling to write about his broad experiences in the military. But now he wants to write about the day his dad, an air force pilot, took him miles up into the sky and the engine died. “I didn’t know until now that I could write about something that narrow,” he told me. “It’s just a moment in time.” Exactly, I told him. A moment in time. Another student said, “That was the best description of childhood I’ve ever read.”
    Two down. Twenty more students to go.

    • Hi Professor Gerhardt, what a wonderful, moving piece and a thoughtful look at how we can struggle with helping students see through our eyes–not so that they become us–but so that they have yet another “arrow in their quiver,” another “tool in the toolbox,” to help them interpret and create the world. (When I write about how Horror Movie Monsters derived from teaching styles for Halloween this will be a central theme). I’m sure you have thought of this but one thing that I do is intentionally disctance the student from the task at hand to later bring them closer. So, instead of asking them to interview each other about when they first “awoke” or realized they weren’t going back to their childhood, I give them a character or set of characters they know (from popular movies or songs or televsion–“When does Neo [The Matrix] know he can’t go back?” “When does Wolverine [or Professor Xavier] realize that he is different and how does he come to grips with this?”)–I also let them pick ones I don’t know. I find that this distancing or putting on of a mask allows them an intellectual distance and lessens their vulnerability at first until they see in their own lioves how these connections work.

      Our brilliant department chair, Sam Haller, asked each of us to write about an influential book in our lives–I post below my response which for me was the fall into the post-lapserian state. I hope to meet you soon.

      As a child I was enchanted by mysteries and read countless Hardy Boys’ novels and later the entire Doc Savage series. My parents tried to encourage and direct my readings and gave me copies of GK Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries and, one year for Christmas, a complete set of Sherlock Holmes’ stories. A central feature of mysteries is that THINGS WORK OUT IN THE END. The fictional representation of the world fit with my Catholic upbringing and the notion of a providential order to the world–things will work out even if we don’t currently understand them. So, in some way, evil is understood to be a temporary state and finally not as powerful as the good.
      It is with this background that I read, at age 13 in the fall of my 8th grade year and perched in my top bunk, George Orwell’s 1984 which seemed from the back-cover blurb to be a sort of mystery. And what a mystery–I just knew that Winston would win–and against fantastic odds! I’d never seen such problems placed before the hero, such powerful enemies, such betrayal, such an enormous task. As the pages dwindled down I couldn’t wait to see how Orwell would extricate our hero from the tremendous oppression and how the revolution would be pulled off. And then the pages dwindled to nothing and Winston “loved big brother.” It was my first real glimpse at the adult world, a movement from the pre-lapserian to the post-lapserian state. I have reread 1984 every year since that year–a streak that reached 40 consecutive years this year. I’m still working through its epistemology, its politics, its calendrical framework, its Promethean infrastructure, and its analysis of language and thought–but those are just ways of intellectualizing a text that I wrestled with as Jacob wrestled with the angel.

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