Jesse Ritz made the following observation regarding my comments on Calvin and Hobbes as an intro to Don Quixote (I have edited this slightly without, I hope, changing the meaning. You can read the whole post at the end of the original Calvin post): “It seems to me that the work of making Don Quixote more accessible…is being done by the employment of your students as storytellers. Much of what makes the character of Quixote bothersome to young readers…is his insistence on translating reality into a narrative that is favorable to him…. 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.”
I think that Jesse has a point in that I try to make my students active storytellers–people who can narrate (and eventually “author”) their own lives–as I would argue that Quixote is doing, whether we agree with that authorship or not. Part of Quixote’s charm is that he is determined to live up to the ideals that he has gleaned from his books on chivalry–and he often fails (who wouldn’t?). I think that if students dislike Quixote because he always puts an interpretation on events that benefits himself (and he does) then that reflects the way they also view the world. Adolescents often see themselves as the center of the universe–a universe designed to thwart them at each turn–so perhaps what they dislike about Quixote is a version of what they know or fear about themselves. Not to go all Jungian on the process but this projection is redolent of not liking in someone the characteristics you fear you have.
I actually don’t give the students much latitude to reorder the story in this exercise–what I am interested in is helping them see that they can change perspective (draw the windmill scene from the point of view of the windmill, from Rocinante’s view, from Sancho’s observation, from the top, at an angle–don’t just adopt the sit-com, broken-fourth-wall view. I do have another assignment for Quixote that I have used with some success in several episodic works is that I have the student insert inside a story another event–and stitch it to two actual paragraphs. Huck Finn, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a lost labor of Hercules’, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Quixote all make good fodder here. Such an assignment reveals the student’s ability to work with transition and indicates whether the student understands the character and tone of the story.
To go back to an earlier point–part of what I am doing is giving students numerous characters to study, multiple narratives to encounter, and lots of plots to help them as they live, plot and narrate their own lives–as they author their lives. We can never live enough in one lifetime to learn what we need to learn so we need to borrow experiences from film, literature, history, television, art, popular music and the rest (who couldn’t learn from the central character who sings Springsteen’s “The River”?) Learning from all of these requires activity not passivity (so often encouraged by some media), it requires an engagement with texts not the worship of texts (the downfall of numerous bad English teachers who want everyone to genuflect to Shakespeare or whomever they deem “safe” and “great”). A blog later on fetishizing canonical texts and writers as a way to avoid thinking (or as an example of group think such as seen in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) is probably going to cost me my license to teach literature–oh well. Notwithstanding the above–I really like ED Hirsch’s sense of core texts and learning. I wonder if I can explain that paradox.
Next week I expect my opening talk to the faculty will also do duty in this spot–it’s on the dangers of academic specialization–and then after that more from the world of detective stories (I think that’s where I’m going–I sure have been reading a bunch of them).