When Aliens Invade the Classroom: Notes on Teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“But…showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you have vague distorted rumors of them. And this much I know. Some of them—some of them—are true” (Finney 216).

Articles on Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers often begin with the novel’s famous opening lines, but here I open with the novel’s conclusion (don’t worry—I’ll get to the opening later!). Perhaps it’s poor form to reveal the novel’s eerie closing lines to those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, but I do so because of allusions to topics students eagerly discussed when I taught the novel earlier this semester. While the first few lines address the hot topic of fake or sensational news, the final two lines ask readers to think about how we, as humans, attempt to understand true phenomena that appear completely “alien” to us.

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Before diving into these specific issues, however, we should address some relevant background context, including common interpretations of the novel:

Originally published serially in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers, the title was changed the following year to Invasion of the Body Snatchers for paperback editions. Set in Mill Valley, California (a typical small “Anytown, USA”), the novel’s narrator Dr. Miles Bennell recounts his discovery of and struggle against aliens who invade the town by duplicating the residents’ bodies, mannerisms, and memories, making residents who’ve been “snatched” difficult to detect. As the ever-observant doctor, Miles eventually realizes that the aliens can only “perform” emotion, not genuinely feel emotion.

In classic sci fi protocol, the events of the novel take place in the not-too-distant future of 1976. It’s worth briefly noting a good question to ease students into discussion: Why would Finney set the novel only a few decades into the future as opposed to hundreds of years?

While the novel was initially criticized for its plot holes, it quickly managed to achieve, according to Maureen Corrigan, a mythic status: “Sometimes the stories that stay with us aren’t the classics or even all that polished. They’re what some critics call ‘good-bad’ stories: The writing may be workmanlike and the characters barely developed, but something about them is so potent that they’re unforgettable—so unforgettable that they can attain the status of myth” (“The Sad Lesson”).

We credit Finney with the “myth” of the alien “pod person.” Corrigan writes, “The term ‘pod,’ used to connote a blank person, has become so much a part of everyday speech that even people who’ve never…read Finney’s novel know the gist of the nightmare he gave to America” (“The Sad Lesson”). Indeed, when I ask, I find that most students are generally familiar with the concept prior to reading.

 

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Corrigan adds, “Ever since Finney’s novel…critics have been generating theories about why this story has taken root, so to speak, in our collective imagination. The pods seem to mean all things to all critics; lately, a post-colonialist interpretation of the pods as imperialists is popular. But given the 1950s context, the pods are most commonly seen as either symbols of the ‘Communist Menace’ or, conversely, of McCarthy-ite group think” (“The Sad Lesson”).

Students generally jump on historical readings without my prompting, but this semester students also offered interesting feminist readings (the way the character Becky Driscoll tricks the aliens by acting against the gender stereotypes she seems to embody for most of the novel) and ecocritical readings (upon arriving to Earth, the pods initially and unsuccessfully attempt to replicate items of garbage).

Now we’re ready to tackle the issues that evoked the most energetic student discussion this semester. What follows is a breakdown of key points students identified in relation to relevant passages:

Fake and sensational news: One character who joins Miles Bennell in his fight against the aliens is fiction writer Jack Belicec, who saves newspaper clippings of weird and unbelievable occurrences. Several clippings (alluded to in novel’s closing lines) include “Frogs Fell on Alabama” and “Man Burned to Death: Clothes Unharmed” (Finney 81). Jack tells Miles, “These are lies, most of them for all I know. Some are most certainly hoaxes. And maybe the rest of them are distortions, exaggerations, or simple errors of judgement, or vision” (Finney 84-5).

The reliability of sources: One of the most seemingly sensational of Jack’s clippings cites L. Bernard Budlong, a biology and botany professor at a local college who claimed that “mysterious” pod-like “objects” found on a pasture outside of Mill Valley had “come from outer space” only to later retract his comment (Finney 84). Students noted that they recognize college professors as reliable sources of information and initially felt relief when Budlong himself (or at least the man who claims to be Budlong) explains how the reporter took his words out of context in order to “create” a more exciting story.

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Students discussed how they were inclined to perceive information presented by characters as “reliable” based on profession. Miles and his colleague Mannie Kaufman, a psychiatrist, are presumably good sources of information because they’re doctors.

Generally speaking, I certainly agree that college professors and doctors are reliable sources, but Finney’s novel complicates matters since some of the professional sources we are inclined to trust have been “body snatched,” such as the professor and the psychiatrist. This led students to critically consider the dangers of blind trust.

Inexplicable truth: While Jack acknowledges that most of his clippings are likely fake, he resists writing them all off as fake. Students described the difficulty of distinguishing fake news from real. Jack says, “Strange things happen, really do happen…. Things that simply don’t fit in with the great body of knowledge that the human race has gradually acquired over thousands of years. Things in direct contradiction to what we know to be true” (Finney 82). Students acknowledged how people often dismiss or resist, sometimes with hostility, information that seems too unbelievable, sometimes despite evidence. As Jack says, it took “hundreds of years to accept the fact that the world is round” (Finney 83).

Explaining the unexplainable: Multiple residents in Mill Valley arrive at Miles Bennell’s office, claiming that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an imposter. In each scenario, Miles recommends psychiatric counseling for what he assumes must be delusions. Mannie Kaufman (or at least the man who claims to be Kaufman) explains the occurrences away as a case of “collective psychosis.” Miles is also inclined to seek a more rational explanation than “alien invasion” even after he sees an alien “pod” duplicating a body first-hand in Jack’s basement. Jack asks, “Should they [unbelievable occurrences] always be explained away? Or laughed away? Or simply ignored?” (Finney 83). Jack goes on to question the “objectivity” of science, claiming there is “no such thing” as “impartiality without prejudice” (Finney 83). Jack concludes, “We hate facing new facts or evidence, because we might have to revise our conceptions of what’s possible, and that’s always uncomfortable” (Finney 83).

Understanding the unfamiliar through the familiar: Once Miles is finally convinced that his town is under invasion, he next must figure out how to fight beings so completely “alien” to humankind. Based on textual evidence, students concluded that characters attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Budlong explains it as follows: “What do imaginary men from Mars, in our comic strips and fiction, resemble? Think about it. They resemble grotesque versions of ourselves—we can’t imagine anything different! Oh, they may have six legs, three arms, and antennae sprouting from their heads…like insects we’re familiar with. But they are nothing fundamentally different from what we know” (Finney 173-4).

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Students also noticed the frequent use of analogy throughout the novel. For example, Jack compares the process of the alien body duplication by comparing it to “medallion” making: “First, they take a die and make impression number one, giving the blank metal its first rough shape. Then they stamp it with die number two, and it’s the second die that gives it the details” (Finney 36). Miles attempts to understand the duplication process by comparing it to photo developing: “Then, underneath that colorless fluid, the image [on the photo] began to reveal itself—dimly and vaguely—yet unmistakably recognizable just the same. This thing [the transforming alien pod]…was an unfinished, underdeveloped, vague and indefinite Becky Driscoll” (Finney 59).

To wrap up, students recognized that knowledge is often limited and uncertain. As promised, here’s where the novel’s famous opening words come into play: “I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended” (Finney 7).

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Ultimately, I think Miles’s warning, to which students respond with a fair mix of curiosity and frustration, is an important closing note because it suggests both uncertainty and continuation—even after Miles’s first-hand experiences with the aliens, he admits his understanding of the invasion is still a work-in-progress.

 

Works Cited

Corrigan, Maureen. “The Sad Lesson of ‘Body Snatcher’: People Change.” NPR, 17 Oct. 2011, npr.org/2011/10/17/141416427/the-sad-lesson-of-body-snatchers-people-change.

Finney, Jack. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Simon & Schuster, 1955.

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Improving Students’ Reading Comprehension by Analyzing the Blues

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help students improve their reading comprehension. I think it’s because I have always loved to read. So many of my memories, especially ones from when I was in school, revolve around books — which, I have realized over the years while teaching developmental composition students, has made it especially difficult for me to understand what it is like for a student who doesn’t like to read to take an English class. The majority of students who I work with have never particularly enjoyed reading and do not read books on a regular basis. As a result, reading college-level material is really challenging for them. To help these students, I am constantly thinking of how to best teach them the process of reading slowly and actively, so that they can learn the basic skills needed to critically analyze a text.

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While thinking about how to do this, I kept returning to the idea of scaffolding. In the past, I have used scaffolding primarily for helping students to navigate complex writing assignments, but why not use this concept when assigning readings, as well? That way, students can practice these basic reading strategies with more accessible texts and gain a sense of confidence before having to analyze more difficult works. The lesson plan below outlines how to teach students close reading strategies by analyzing the blues. I chose “Backwater Blues,” as sung by Bessie Smith, and “Young Gal’s Blues,” written by Langston Hughes, because they both have clear stories, ones that students can easily grasp while learning how to think about the ways in which the use of word choice and a distinct speaker can help to convey a text’s theme.

Defining The Blues

I begin this lesson by asking my students to freewrite on what the word “blues” means. While their responses vary, our discussion ultimately narrows in on how their ideas relate to Merriam Webster’s definition, which contains three distinct meanings: “low spirits,” “a song often of lamentation characterized by usually 12-bar phrases, 3-line stanzas in which the words of the second line usually repeat those of the first, and continual occurrence of blue notes in melody and harmony,” and “jazz or popular music using harmonic and phrase structures of blues.” We then discuss the ways in which the three definitions relate to each other. Next, I have my students read and annotate three articles: “What is the Blues?,” “Why is the Blues Called the ‘Blues’,” and “Where the Blues Was Born.”  These pieces could be substituted with more scholarly works; however, for my students, it makes more sense to have them practice reading popular texts since they will encounter them more often in their daily lives. The purpose of reading these articles is for my students to develop a general understanding of the blues as a genre. It is important for them to understand its origins in the American South, where this form was created as a call-and-response sung by enslaved Africans while being forced to work in the plantation fields, so that my students have enough background knowledge to help them articulate why the blues often center on themes of loss, death, love, or sadness. After summarizing and discussing the articles’ main points, students will feel more prepared to analyze Bessie Smith’s song.

Bessie Smith and “Backwater Blues”

bessiesmith3One of the best ways to understand the traditional form of the 12-bar blues is to hear it; therefore, I have students follow along with a copy of the lyrics while we listen to this recording of Bessie Smith singing “Backwater Blues.” Then, we discuss the song as a group, first plotting out the literal story that it tells on the board. Students are quick to notice that the song is about a storm. When asked how they know this, students cite the lines “when it rained five days” (lines 1 and 2), and “when it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow” (10 and 11). It seems obvious to my students that there’s storm, but what they do not realize is that by picking out these lines and explaining how each line proves this point, they are practicing active reading. The challenge, then, is to move into a more critical analysis of the song using this same process. To encourage this, I focus the discussion on a single phrase, “poor girl,” which is repeated twice in the song. This phrase can be thought of in multiple ways — of course, as my students have been quick to point out, the narrator doesn’t want to leave her home and she probably feels sorry for herself.  But, I then ask, how else can we think about the use of the word “poor”? This question prompts a discussion about how some people, almost always thanks to their higher socioeconomic status, are able to withstand a natural disaster more easily than others. Students often connect this idea to real life examples, such as Hurricane Katrina and what is still happening  in Puerto Rico, even a year after Hurricane Maria occurred. Through this class discussion, students will develop an understanding of how to close read a text, a process they will continue to practice while reading “Young Gal’s Blues.”

Langston Hughes and “Young Gal’s Blues”

langston-delano4I decided to pair “Backwater Blues” with “Young Gal’s Blues” because this poem uses the same AAB pattern found in the 12-bar blues, making the form immediately familiar to students. This allows us to focus on its content, specifically how the speaker in the poem conveys the themes of aging and identity. The first thing that usually confuses my students about this poem is the speaker. As readers who are new to analyzing poetry, they, understandably, automatically assume that Langston Hughes to be the poem’s speaker, not an imagined young woman. To help them make this distinction, I direct my students to the title of the poem and ask them how its word choice reveals that Hughes is not going to be the speaker. We then trace the voice of this speaker throughout the poem, first making sure that everyone understands what the speaker is literally saying before making connections between these ideas and the poem’s larger themes. I ask my students what adjectives they might use to describe how the speaker feels about herself or her life. Students have said that she seems insecure because she is so scared of getting old and losing her beauty or because she would rather be with some guy, even if it’s not the right guy, than to be alone. When asking them how they came up with these descriptions, they noted the pairing of the words “old and ugly” (line 11), as if the speaker can’t imagine being old and beautiful, as well as “Keep on a-lovin’ me, daddy, / Cause I don’t want to be blue” (23-24). We end this discussion by returning to the three articles about the blues that my students initially and examining how their key ideas about the blues are displayed in this poem’s structure and content.

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Overall, this lesson plan helps students to develop a process for reading texts slowly and actively, whether these “texts” are a word, a song, or a poem. I plan on further developing this unit so that students will use what they have learned from analyzing “Backwater Blues” and “Young Gal’s Blues” to close read more complex poems, such as W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” Kevin Young’s “Bereavement,” and Marilyn Chin’s “Blues on Yellow.” After completing this unit, I hope that students who struggle with reading comprehension will have a clear model for how to work through the slow, and sometimes difficult, process of active reading, one that becomes easier and, (dare I say it?!) even kind of fun the more you do it.