Research Scavenger Assignment for Shakespearean Adaptations class

The honors class I’m teaching this semester is technically “Literature through Reading and Research.”  I’ve already introduced them to the reading part, and next up is the first stage in teaching them how to do literary research. This will be an ongoing part of the semester, but next Thursday we have a whole day in the library, with no other reading or assignments due to the vagaries of needing to coordinate my class discussions with film viewings.

So, for the first day of discussing research methods, I’ve come up with a sort of digital scavenger hunt. Since the class is on Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Film, I decided I wanted them to explore some historic interpreters and adapters of Shakespeare’s plays.

  1. Richard Burbage
  2. William Davenant
  3. David Garrick
  4. Charles Lamb
  5. Thomas Bowdler
  6. Nicholas Rowe
  7. Nahum Tate
  8. Sarah Siddons

The students will pair up and draw one of these names from a hat.  I’ll give a brief lecture that includes an overview of the most effective ways to use Wikipedia/Google as a starting point for academic research, how to use our library’s databases, and the difference between primary and secondary sources. We’ll also briefly discuss the continuum of popular and scholarly sources. Then, I’m going to set them loose with the following set of questions, and an assignment to create a proper MLA Bibliography from the sources they find.

  1. What are the dates of this person’s life? (Indicate where you found this information)
  2. Are there any portraits of this person? If so, provide the bibliographic information for at least one.
  3. What is this person’s relationship to Shakespeare and/or Shakespeare’s plays? What plays is he or she most associated with? (Indicate how you determined this information)
  4. Did this person write any texts related to Shakespeare? If so, provide the bibliographic information for one.
  5. Are there any scholarly books focused on just this person?  If so, provide the bibliographic information for 1-2 of them.
  6. Are there any scholarly books focused primarily on the relationship between Shakespeare and this person (or between Shakespeare and some group this person was a part of)? If so, provide the bibliographic information for 1-2 of them.
  7. Use Google Books to do a search on this person and Shakespeare. Are there any results where the book title did not reveal that this might be a useful source? If so, provide the bibliographic information for 1-2 of them.
  8. Are any of the books from the previous three questions in our library?  If so, where would you find them on the shelves (give LC# and Physical Location, such as 4th Floor, North Side)?
  9. How many results appear for this person in the World Shakespeare Bibliography?
  10. Using the WSB, find the four most recent entries for scholarly publications related to this person, and provide bibliographic information for them.
  11. How could you locate/acquire these sources? (Are they widely available on the internet? Are they physically in our library? Available through UConn’s databases? Acquirable through Interlibrary Loan?)
  12. What is the most unusual or amusing search result that you found while researching this person?

I’m not sure I expect them to get through all of these questions in a single session, but I do want to push them.


First Day of Class

Today was the first day of the semester at UConn. I’m teaching a new class, English 2011: Literature through Reading and Research.  This is a relatively new class at UConn, too. It’s an honors course, meant to be a hybrid between the traditional first-year writing course and a more content-intensive literature course. These classes are usually taught in “pods,” with the pod led by a tenure-line faculty member and one or two graduate students, all sharing a common syllabus designed by the faculty member on a topic of his or her choice. However, the faculty member for our pod (one of my advisors) is on fellowship this year, and not teaching, so I was lucky enough to get to design the syllabus and schedule myself.

But this course is new for me in a couple of different ways: it’s my first honors course, it’s the first time I’m teaching an explicitly Shakespeare-and-pop-culture course, and it’s my first time teaching a theory-heavy course. The three of those together has me really exited but also filled with just a touch of trepidation. (It’s also my first time teaching Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth, but I am less inherently excited or trepidatious about teaching new plays.)

Since these were honors students, and they don’t have the option to switch between sections the way regular students do because of the limited number of classes, I was able to assign some advanced reading. This helps a lot in class with almost two hours of class time in each session (it’s a 4 credit class). I started with the first section of Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation, which does a great job explaining the major critical issues in adaptation and appropriation studies, defining terms, and raising important issues.  I paired that with the Introduction of Douglas Lanier’s Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (which has the great title of “Where No Bard Has Gone Before”) and raises questions about the specific role of Shakespeare in culture.

And, wow, did my students rise the the challenge. The class blew me away.   I think I had the best first-day discussion (or even second-day discussion!) that I’ve ever had.  My students weren’t just getting the reading; they were thinking about where they needed to challenge the reading, drawing comparisons to things they are familiar with, and asking hard questions. I think all but one or two students spoke in class, but I’m also going to have to work to make sure the students who think well on their feet don’t overwhelm the students who need a bit more processing time.

The Prezi I designed for the class also went over really well.  (you can see it here:  That felt good.

Overall, I am *thrilled* with this class so far.  It’s early days, but I’m really looking forward to the rest of this semester with this batch of students.

Fan Fiction Syllabus

I originally posted about a potential syllabus on fan fiction back in 2008 on my old blog, and thought it might be time to bring it back given my last few posts have been about teaching and developing courses I may never get to teach. Here’s what I wrote then:

Over at Cranky Epistles, the Cranky Lit Prof has a post where she complains about the fact that someone in her school wants to create a three credit course on fan fiction:

I cursed out loud in a faculty meeting. Once again, the barbarians are rattling the gates of Rome!

The subject on the table: creating a for-credit, interdisciplinary seminar around fan fiction stemming from books and films — both reading it and writing it.

Without thinking (or engaging the filter that should exist between my brain and my mouth, but often does not), I uttered, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” Shocked glances followed this desecration of academia’s amour-propre.

Aside from the copyright issues that plague the entire genre…who makes the call as to what “fandom” the readings are plucked from? Who determines what is “canon?”

What the Hell?

I’ve read fan fiction — I can admit that. There are some stunningly good authors who will never publish in the “respectable” fields, but whose work is seen by hundreds on line. Creative writing is smething to be encouraged as an artisitc outlet. However, three credits for perusing and writing reaction papers to a Harry Potter/Ron Weasley love story, or writing your own take on the subtext of a Col. O’Neill/Daniel Jackson relationship from “SG-1″ seems a bit ridiculous. Even as a cross-departmental exercise.

I made a comment on the post that I would like to expand, for the academic exercise of it all (and to procrastinate on things like writing my papers and doing laundry and cleaning). Basically, the rest of this post is my first thoughts towards creating a syllabus on fan fiction. What Crazy Lit Prof describes is not an academic class, but it could easily become one with just a little tweaking and fleshing out.

Step One: Beef up the theory. There would need to be a lot of literary theory and sociological studies of fan communities. I’d probably start with some Jameson, as well as Benjamin and Adorno (you know,Frankfurt school of cultural criticism). I’d include some of the theoretical work that’s been done in Shakespeare and Popular Culture, which is where some of the heaviest debates about appropriation and adaptation happen. We’d read some Iser and some of the more phenomenological reader response critics, maybe even Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction. Then we’d hit one or more of the academic books on fan communities: Henry Jenkin’s Textual Poachers is the classic text, but dated. A search on Amazon shows at least five books on fan fiction alone, not counting broader studies of fan communities, all published in the last three or four years. At least one of these would probably be worth using.

Step Two: Choose your fan fic carefully. Crazy Lit Prof wants to know what would be “canonical” in this class. Personally, I would probably start with fan fiction actually about canonical texts: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, The Brontes, maybe Milton. By dealing with a “real” canon of literary texts, all of which are out of copyright, you can actually require students to read fan fiction that is published: Mr. Darcy Takes a WifeThe Jane Austen Mysteries, etc. I’d probably include Jasper Fforde because while not strictly fan fiction, there are a lot of elements of fan fiction in his novels, he has a lot of commentary on appropriation and adaptation of texts, and he’s an author that seems to encourage fan fiction based on his books. Anyway, I’d pair the reading of these novels with the novels they are actually based on: with this particular list, students would have to read Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Hamlet. Not bad for a class that could be lacking canonical credibility.

As for TV/Film fandoms, Star Trek would be the most logical fandom to include because so much scholarly work has been done on it, and there are a substantial number of published fan novels by both professional and amateur novelists. Buffy the Vampire Slayer could also work because of all the scholarly work that has been done through Slayage. (And really: isn’t Slayage proof that there are academic fan communities? The two things do not have to be mutually exclusive!) I’d probably include an assignment that lets students choose any fandom they like and then do an analysis of it, but Crazy is right that deciding on fandoms to include could get really arbitrary.

Step Three: Spend some time talking about the problems with fan fiction. For example, Robin Hobb (major fantasy author) posted a while back on the problems she has with people writing fan fiction about her novels. Then there are the copy right issues with fan fiction. This is the section that might help make the class truly interdisciplinary. Bring in the legal debates and fights, discussions of how intellectual property work in our society, etc.

So, that’s a start on what I think a syllabus on Fan Fiction should look like. Teaching fan fiction could be a great way to talk about the relationships between texts and audiences, about reader response theory, intellectual property, communal stories, etc.

Obviously, there are some things about this syllabus I would want to update now.  I’d want to make sure Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation was a framing text for the course.  I’d include more on intertextuality, probably in the form of Kristeva, as well as Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life. I’d change some of the canonical fan fiction that we would read: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the one hand, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries video blog on the other (just to be clear: PPZ is annoying, LBD is awesome). And so on.

But, why did I decide it was appropriate to repost this? I was at jury duty this morning, waiting to see if I would have to serve.  And because I cannot turn off my brain, I was contemplating what a class on urban fantasy might look like, and thinking especially about both the necessity and difficulty of justifying such a course to most departments (which is what made me think about the Cranky Lit Prof post). I think my justification for a course on urban fantasy would be similarly sociological and theoretical to the justification I was implicitly providing in my original defense of a truly academic class on fan fiction: we aren’t studying the texts (fan fiction or urban fantasy) for the sake of studying the texts because they are beautiful or–on some level at least–true, the way we might with Shakespeare, Milton, or other traditionally canonical texts. Instead, we are studying the texts in order to get at larger questions about our culture: why vampires and werewolves now, at this particular cultural moment? Why is this “urban” fantasy–what do space and place have to do with these stories, and why do they matter at this particular time? How do these texts fit into larger movements and issues?

I’m interested in book history for the same reasons I am interested in fan fiction and these sometimes oddly popular fantasy novels: I want to know how and why people respond to texts in the ways they do. Fan fiction, whether by writers like Milton who write canonically accepted Bible fan-fic or the writers on An Archive of Our Own, is the ultimate reader response, because it allows for much of the complexity (or lack thereof, I suppose) of a reader’s response to a text to become visible to those of us who are scholars, just the way commonplace books and marginal notes do for us who work on the sixteenth century. Purchasing histories are similarly important for understanding readers and culture, whether they are of Bibles and religious books (as in Ian Green’s Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England), or of Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse, and American Gods. This is the sociology of literature, the study of why we read what we read, and how we respond to it.