Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Monster Classroom (Seven Theses)

by J J Cohen

Below you will find the draft of the afterword I was asked to compose for a new book edited by Adam Golub and Heather Richardson Hayton, Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching the Monstrous (forthcoming, McFarland). The volume contains some brilliant essays (including a terrific one by medievalist Asa Simon Mittman), an excellent introduction by Golub and Hayton, and a crisp, useful foreword by W. Scott Poole. Contributors represent varied disciplines (literature, philosophy, religion) and several essays end with a syllabus for the course they reflect upon.

My piece meditates on the project of the book as well as the ways in which my own monstrous work has been the product of the classroom. Let me know what you think.

[Edit: related, a little piece GW Today just did on me and my monstrous classroom]

Monster Classroom (7 Theses)

1. The Monster’s Body is a Pedagogical Body

Adam Golub and Heather Richardson Hayton invited me to compose an afterword to this rich, generous and timely book because of something I wrote more than twenty years ago, at a time when monsters were seldom discussed in college and high school classrooms – except, perhaps, as a foil to someone else’s heroism or an allegory for unthinkable vice. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” was first published in 1996. The essay introduced Monster Theory, a book that collects work by thirteen authors from a variety of disciplines, exploring what monsters reveal about the times and cultures they haunt: as demonstrations, as admonitions, as bodies feared and desired. The first collaborative project with the imprimatur of a well-respected university press to argue that monsters matter to critical theory and cultural studies, Monster Theory insists that its subject is more than a guilty pleasure or pop culture trifle. Its contributors examine intimate aliens without reducing them to psychological parables, or disembodied cultural metaphors. Among the creatures that populate the book are reanimated dinosaurs, sexy vampires, the undead of the Icelandic sagas, marauding Grendel, alluring hermaphrodites, conjoined twins, and demonized Muslims.

I wrote “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” to provide an overview of the trans-historical, shared endeavor of Monster Theory. Yet the essay is also the product of a lively classroom. The Experimental College at Tufts University offers a welcoming home to weird courses that fit nowhere else. The program’s director was intrigued when I proposed a class on “Reading Monsters,” but wondered what students would gain from examining texts not for their resplendent prose or participation in a canon of masterpieces but for the ability to trigger anxiety, an archive of fear. At the interview I explained that western literature has been monstrous from the start (as a medievalist it comes easily to me to explain in boring detail why things that seem contemporary are actually quite ancient).[1] Gilgamesh, the Torah, Homer’s Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Beowulf, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Shelley’s Frankenstein: these works offer a long chronicle of ghosts, dragons, cannibals, the misbegotten and the undead. I was hired – and allowed to design and teach my first monstrous course. Students enrolled simply because they were drawn to the topic. The class fulfilled no requirements, and was led by an unknown instructor (I had never taught at Tufts before). Thinking through with these young women and men the work of the monster across time was essential to composing “Monster Culture.” Born of pedagogical collaboration, the essay ruminates over the books and films we enjoyed together, from Arthurian myths and Interview with the Vampire to the Odyssey and The Werewolf of Paris. I owe the genesis of the essay to a program that had faith in nontraditional teaching at a time when academia was not all that hospitable to freaks, deviants, aliens, queers, and other unnatural things. “Monster Culture” is the record of a collective of learners eager to discover together where the errant tracks of the monster lead.

Now a familiar prod to high school and college writing assignments, the native domain of “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” remains, twenty years on, the classroom.[2]

2. The Monster Finds Strange Welcome

Just before I taught that class at Tufts, I completed a doctoral thesis on the ubiquitous giants of medieval literature. I was astonished that no scholar had yet written about these fascinating stories, with their cannibalism, decapitations, licentiousness, violence, surprising comedy and (sometimes) amity and affection. These narratives insist that monsters are not limit cases, but separated from the familiar only by weak and traversable boundaries. What is the ghastly giant after all but the human body writ large? Completing my dissertation had been an exercise in solitude, though: it turns out that little had yet been published on giants because most academics found monsters unworthy of serious attention. I assembled Monster Theory in an attempt to convene a community of scholars willing to accept the monster’s invitation to knowledge. While the manuscript was under consideration at the University of Minnesota Press, I used “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” as my job talk at the George Washington University. I framed monster theory as a way to teach cultural studies without the temporal segregations that structure most literature departments. The monster crosses history promiscuously, and makes a ruin of neat periodizations. Had I not been offered the GW job (and I was not at all certain I would be: it was my third and last year on the market, and a faculty member stormed out during the Q&A), then I likely would not have published the essay, nor made a career out of welcoming monsters into the classroom. My monstrous obsessions continue to guide the critical conversations that unfold when I teach – no matter if the text in question has been composed by Geoffrey Chaucer, Marie de France, Octavia Butler, or China Miéville.

Reading through the wonderful essays collected in Monsters in the Classroom has reminded me of how powerful a presence the monster asserts. These thoughtful pieces suggest numerous new ways of harnessing that power to provoke student engagement. Writing on what the grotesque enables in the classroom Nancy Hightower describes the monster as “a moment rather than an object, as an action rather than thing,” a description that well conveys the figure’s activity. Monsters are also an invitation to consider the previously unthought (even if, as Bernice M. Murphy points out in her essay, the invitation to the unfamiliar is often concealed within a “Trojan Horse” of familiarity). The uncanny, the abnormal, the impossible and the queer are especially intriguing to young people at that pivotal point in their intellectual development when they are critically evaluating their past and all things seem possible. As Jessica Elbert Decker emphasizes, students are trying to figure out what normal consists of, what belongings and what differences they may desire. Pamela Bedore describes how her capstone seminar addresses feminism, gender equality, queer sexuality through vampires. Kyle William Bishop vividly demonstrates what unfolds when we literally transport our students outside of comfortable and accustomed space, into a shared and experiential pedagogy. Phil Smith has his students zombie-walk. Heather Richardson Hayton goes farther, asking her students to participate in a zombie apocalypse, a “transformational learning exercise” that spurs some to realize they are the very creature they fear. Through Japanese monsters Charlotte Eubanks encourages her students to realize the limits of their American imagination, while through demons and ghosts Joshua Paddison invites his classroom to grapple with their own religious beliefs. Our students are often deciding how much family inheritance to carry forward, how much uncertainty and risk to embrace, how much affect (an essential component of learning to which these essays repeatedly return) to embrace and share. Brian Sweeney movingly details how the monster might be creatively deployed within the classroom to fight against the dreary forces of educational standardization, “fighting monsters with monsters.” To welcome the monster means treading strange byways rather than roads of predetermined destination.

3. The Monster Arrives in Crisis

Students depart our classrooms to difficult, attenuated futures. College graduates are frequently saddled with a decade of debt from loans that assisted in covering exorbitant tuition charges. They compete against friends for jobs that do not pay a sufficient wage. They discover that to the machinery propelling the US economy, young people are a resource for the extraction of labor at minimized cost. Though it might reward entrepreneurial drive and some forms of creativity, this system mandates compliance and cares little for the psychological and intellectual well being of those who sustain it -- and even less for the animals it reduces to products. Natural resources and what had been wilderness become territory and consumable commodities (Adam Golub gets at this process well in this book, writing about the classroom use of literature and film to think about monsters and the space of the natural). People who have benefited from this economy seem to feel little impulse to ensure the thriving of those who follow, rendering the road behind them narrow, steep, and lonely. The Earth meanwhile is rapidly losing species diversity, green space, and drinkable water while gaining an overheated climate and catastrophe-limned future. Economic disparity and environmental injustice flourish together.

Prospects are especially bleak for those who have studied to earn an advanced humanities degree. The number of permanent teaching positions is small and continues to dwindle. The life of the mind has always been an unreliable way to make a living, but in the course of the last decade a constricted market has only worsened. Precarious employment is the new academic norm. When I wrote “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” I was working as an adjunct instructor seeking a more stable job – preferably one that included health insurance and maybe sufficient salary to start repaying my student loans. Looking to supplement my income and attempt something new in the process, I applied to teach a night course on monsters at the Tufts Experimental College. I would like to think that experience assisted in my hiring by GW the following year, and acknowledge I was very fortunate to secure that position. Two of the early career contributors to Monster Theory never found permanent academic jobs, and eventually left the field. Two others lost positions that they had held for a while, the result of complicated tenure struggles. One suffered a breakdown. Those contributors already in established positions when Monster Theory was published have continued to have good careers, but like all of us within the university system have repeatedly had to fight against cost cutting measures that disproportionately impact the humanities as well as administrators and trustee boards who imagine that postsecondary education ought to be run like a profit-oriented business (where profit is numerical and easily assessable quantity rather than an intellectual and long term gain).

Each year I write a great many letters of recommendation for would-be teachers seeking positions at colleges, universities, high schools. Not enough are offered the stable, well supported positions they deserve. Many at the front of the classroom do not have the resources, remuneration or security they merit. Academic life is precarious, limned by the monsters we dream as well as the monsters we dread. Pamela Bedore observes in her essay that the classroom monster can make the teacher “sometimes feel vulnerable.” We are vulnerable. So are our students. And not just emotionally or rhetorically.

4. The Monster Stands at the Door

I am composing this afterword a few days before Halloween 2015. This year has so far seen fifty-two shootings on school grounds and twenty-three on college campuses. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 2012, at least 149 shootings have occurred at schools. Campus security is among the “one button dial contacts” on my cell phone, just in case an incident should unfold at GW. We have been told that we should be able to make such a call while sheltering behind a desk or table. My daughter’s middle school practices the protocols for an active shooter (Code Blue) once per quarter, just in case. While I was writing this essay I received email, text and voicemail alerts from her school that her classes had spent the morning in lockdown due to two unspecified threats. Emergency procedures for most schools and universities mostly entail remaining quietly in a locked or barricaded room with the lights off, and hoping.

It is easy to think that the monster is an entity external to us rather than a creature of our own creation, the product of a contemporary love of destruction, explosion, violence, guns. All the firepower in the world will not stop the monsters we create, but fewer guns might at least mean more people act less monstrously. And more students remain alive.

5. The Monster Breaches the Borders of the Possible

Relieved to have Monster Theory placed under contract with a press, I did not think much about the future of the book or my essay. Two decades later, the volume sells well enough never to have gone out of print. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” has inspired conferences, museum exhibits, television shows (John Logan mentions the worlds the piece opened to him in his pitch to sell Penny Dreadful to Showtime). When Disney and Pixar were sued for copyright infringement after the release of Monsters, Inc., their legal counsel retained me as an expert witness on the history of monstrosity – mainly because a paralegal working for the firm had read the essay in a college writing class. Monster Culture and “Monster Theory” did not arrive out of nowhere. Many other scholars were working on monsters and abnormality at the same time (most visibly, Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Jack Halberstam, and Jeffrey Weinstock). Monster Theory is only one participant within a collective scholarly endeavor that continues. W. Scott Poole makes this point eloquently in his excellent foreword to this book, tracing the long lineage of contemporary teratology.

Because “Monster Culture” is so historically promiscuous -- placing Dracula in the good company of revenants from Norse sagas, the creature from Alien and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park alongside Polyphemos and the biblical Nephilim, the American West with the Delta Quadrant – the essay has been repeatedly cited, contemplated, and taught, especially in first year writing programs. The downside to its popularity is that the piece really is twenty years old and more accessible, more vibrant and more nuanced work is widely available. When one text is too often returned to as source, the vitality of what came alongside and afterwards is easy to obscure. Much of this more recent work has refined, rethought, and at times rejected what is contained in “Monster Culture” – often through conversations scholars have staged in their own classrooms. Rick Godden gets at this collaborative nexus well in the rubric he composed for a composition course he teaches at Tulane that focuses on the monster: “Because of their inherent ambiguity, monsters encourage open-mindedness, productive questioning, careful scrutiny, and flexible research, all of which are the hallmarks of good scholarship.”[3] Because the field is lively – because the classroom is a dynamic habitat -- the monster endures.

6. Desire for the Monster is Desire for a Different World

Monsters in the Classroom demonstrates how these figures engage students and hone critical faculties. The pedagogical models this book offers are inspirational. Most invite students to think with the monster and thereby queer what passes itself off as natural, or to discover in the supernatural a realm that exists not at some impossible distance but intimately, alongside everything that appears ordinary. To romanticize monsters is dangerous, since these creatures frequently incarnate misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism. But the monster also offers alternatives to the everyday world, realms in which solid reality dissolves into possibility. As I composed this afterword I asked fellow teachers on social media to contemplate what the monster offers their classroom. Most stressed the esprit de corps that monstrous study engenders, so that students make lasting friendships through difficult but shared pedagogical endeavor. Though the monster is often inimical to collectives, a reminder of who has been left outside at the closing of the door, imagining the future through the monster paradoxically builds community.

7. The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Belonging
“Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” has been used to teach composition, cultural studies, American studies, religion, literature, philosophy and critical theory. Sometimes the essay has been a shared text in required Freshman writing classes (Columbia, Rutgers, Indiana University). Often the piece has found its way into a course on monsters. I have received as a result a thank you card signed by an entire class; the Seven Theses inscribed on cardboard tablets as if they were the Ten Commandments; and photographs of Halloween costumes inspired by the essay. Although I worry that the writing style is not a good example to emulate (when I read the essay now it seems to me rather stilted and precious), I am always pleased when a student who has been thinking with the essay writes to me on Twitter or Facebook or email to tell me what worlds they have opened for themselves through their classroom experience. Monsters in the Classroom is a record of how such lively and creative communities continue to be engendered through a variety of catalysts -- and this book will no doubt be a trigger to many more such collectives.

Twenty years after its publication the essays collected in Monster Theory have been joined by so many monstrous books, essays, and websites that call out for classroom conversation that it is difficult not to agree with Adam Golub and Heather Richardson Hayton that we live in “a peak moment of monster pedagogy.” The Fellowship of Monsters is always looking for new members. Sometimes (as Asa Mittman so well describes in his essay) that invitation is a trap, a call to swim dangerous waters. Yet if thinking through what a monster means and does (as character in a narrative as partner in the process of learning) invites a student to frame critically their own cultural moment, as well as perhaps the long histories behind that moment’s formation, then the monster classroom is in the end a good place in which to dwell.

[1] Not that this super power is reserved to medievalists: W. Scott Poole makes this point about the Western canon well in his introduction to this book.
[2] I want to thank Hope D. Swearingen for sending me a thorough description of how she uses “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” in her AP English class at Bastrop High School. I am also deeply grateful to the following scholars, who shared reflections on using the essay in the classroom with me, providing valuable material for what I have written in this afterword: Bonnie Jett Adams, Tracy Adams, Shaun Bryan, Brantley Bryant, Sakina Bryant, Kristi Janelle Castleberry, Melissa Ridley Elmes, Fen Farceau, Ted Geier, Rick Godden, Ana Grinberg, Simon Grüning, Brian Hardison, Jenny Howe, Beth Belgau Human, Dan Kline, Sally Livingston, Kathleen Long, Roberta Magnani, Lauryn Mayer, Asa Simon Mittman, Adam Roberts, Emily Schmidt, Corey Sparks, James K. Stanescu, Liza Strakhov, Hope D. Swearingen, Arngrímur Vídalín, Amy Vines, David Wallace, Jeffrey Weinstock and Helen Young.
[3] I am thankful to Rick Godden for sending me a detailed description of the three monsters courses he teaches, and for conversations about monsters in the classroom.

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