Reading the Monster and its Moment

We kicked off our Halloween content last week with Elaina Frulla’s post about teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This week we are pleased to have a comprehensive text on teaching the idea of monsters from Adam Golub. Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton and the  co-editor with Heather Richardson Hayton of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017).  In the following post, Golub provides an overview of how he teaches his students to approach the monster in his American Monsters course. 

Introduction

I teach monsters.

I tell people this and sometimes they think I’m talking about my students. Not at all, I assure them.

Golub_978-1-4766-6327-2 I teach about monsters. I teach about zombies and werewolves and witches and vampires and Bigfoot and King Kong and all kinds of imaginary creatures. I teach students how to study and learn from monsters, how to analyze and contextualize monsters. I teach students that monsters change over time, that they adapt to our shifting fears and anxieties, that studying monsters can tell us something about what we desire and what we fear and what we can’t bear to imagine. I teach students that studying monsters can, in fact, reveal something about ourselves—about the ways we’ve chosen to organize, categorize, surveil, repress, and, at times, try to escape who we are. Monsters are us, I tell my students. When we study them, we study ourselves.

I teach a course called “American Monsters” in an American Studies department. The course has an interdisciplinary and historical focus. My overarching goal is to help students understand how monsters embody difference and help construct our ideas about what is “normal.” Moving from the colonial era to the present, we analyze monsters from literature, art, film, folklore, music, television, and comics. We strive to locate these monsters in context, to understand how they connect to the historical era in which they appeared and inspired fear. Every monster has its moment, I remind my students. Our goal is to figure out why this monster, at this time, in this place, and to what end?

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In teaching students how to “read” the monster, I am effectively teaching them a framework for analyzing culture: they must necessarily engage in a close reading of the monster, then contextualize the monster within its broader milieu, and then determine its cultural significance—its cultural work. They must break down the monster into its component parts, situate it in history, and try to figure out what it is doing, to us and for us. I present this framework as a series of questions I encourage students to get into the habit of asking whenever they encounter a new monster, or a familiar monster in a new context.

Deconstructing the Monster

Close reading begins with the monster’s appearance. What does it look like? I tell students to pay attention to size (how big? how small? how proportionate are its body parts?), skin (is it scaly or slimy or translucent or what?), and composition (is it a hybrid, a recombination of things that are typically separate in nature, like a werewolf, or Medusa, or a Sharknado?). In addition, I ask students to consider the monster’s gait, posture, and speed. How does it move? What about its voice, or the sounds it makes? Does it groan, is it eloquent, is it silent, or something else?

Then, we consider the monster’s actions as depicted in the story that is being told. We look at the origin of the monster, its creation or first appearance. We look at the monster’s victims and how it harms them. We look at the hero or heroes who defeat the monster. We also think about the monster’s geography: where it dwells, where it roams. How are these places transformed by the presence of the monster?

Paying attention to the monster’s body, actions, and geography can help us understand how these various elements work together to construct ideas about monstrosity. This, in turn, leads us to analyze the construction of normal. If the monster’s skin is scaly, or hairy, or pale, then what does that tell us about what we consider “normal” skin to be? If a zombie’s lumbering walk is believed to be scary, what does that tell us about our assumptions about mobility? If the film version of Frankenstein groans and talks with simple words, what does that reveal about our ideas about literacy? If King Kong lives on a remote, “uncivilized” island, what does that tell us about how we view nature and savagery? If the monster in a slasher film kills teenagers who are behaving badly, then what does that say about our perception of adolescents?

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These acts of description and analysis—of breaking down the monster and the monstrous into component parts—become the basis for our next move: reading the monster in context.

Reconstructing the Moment

Context, I remind my students, is the big picture. It is the “real” world around the imaginary monster. It is the set of broader cultural currents that give shape to a particular era and help us make sense of the monster. Context helps us understand why and how the monster’s appearance, behavior, and geography all resonate with its moment. What is it about this monster that might have felt familiar to audiences in a given time period? What about it might have shocked? In Monsters in America, Scott Poole makes the point that monsters are “meaning machines that embody the historical structures and trajectory of the American nation” (21). To this end, my students and I work together to figure out what the monster can show us about history.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)For example, we analyze the 1931 film Frankenstein—about a created being with an “abnormal” brain that ends up being chased by angry villagers—against the backdrop of eugenics, lynching, and debates about religion and science in the progressive era. When analyzing the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932), which is set in Haiti and features a zombie master who has a workforce of enslaved undead, we talk about the history of slavery and colonialism. When we read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), a story about the last man on earth contending with neighbors who have become vampires, we look at the Cold War, segregation, and suburbia. When discussing Charlene Harris’s novel Dead Until Dark (2001) and the HBO Show True Blood, which explore themes of “coming out of the coffin” and “vampire rights,” we talk about LGBTQ social movements and debates about marriage equality in the early 21st century. When reading Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), we locate it in the context of globalization, immigration, loss of faith in institutions, and fears about viral infection.

Context helps us understand how the themes of a monster narrative reverberate with larger issues, fears, and anxieties in the culture. Our close reading of the monster helps us build a bridge to related discourses about the “monstrous” and the “normal” when it comes to science, religion, race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and the body, for instance. And to push it one step further, I always ask students to think about how these discourses are shaped by power relations: to what extent are monsters speaking truth to power by bringing attention to those who have been marginalized, silenced, and victimized by these discourses? Inserting the monster into its moment challenges us to understand both how the monster was shaped by history and how the monster in turn may have influenced the cultural conversation. Monsters, I tell my students, are products of their time, but they are also productive. Monsters are mirrors and makers of culture.

Making Sense of the Monstrous

This brings us to the third interpretive move we practice when reading monsters: trying to determine their cultural work. The concept of “cultural work” suggests that cultural texts are not neutral, they do not exist in a vacuum. Culture, rather, is a dramatic act. Whether it is a monster or a t-shirt, a novel or a statue, a joke or a song or a game or a gesture, culture makes meaning. The products of culture perform important work on the stage of history. They can reinforce dominant ideas or challenge and undermine them. They can serve as the building blocks of our personal, social, and national identity. They can influence how we see, treat, and expect certain things (or don’t expect things) from others and from ourselves. Collectively, culture can work to construct, regulate, and also subvert “normal.” To be sure, the monster is performing cultural work. It’s doing something besides just scaring or entertaining us, and our job is to try to figure out what that work might be. And we make our best educated guess as to the work of the monster by tethering close reading to context.

When I teach students how to read monsters, I am teaching them how to analyze culture—how to interpret expressive forms, their ideological work, and their resonance with audiences across time. Monsters are figments of our imagination, they are texts authored by our fears and desires. As such, they can be read into a historical context and understood as agents in the construction and maintenance of belief systems. To deconstruct monsters is to deconstruct discourse and representation. Figure out what the monster means, and the work it does to sustain, discipline, and disrupt ideas about what is normal and how we should behave, and you’ve learned something about how culture works, I tell my students. You’ve also, I daresay, learned something about yourselves.

Works Cited

W. Scott Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunted (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

Contributor Bio

Adam Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, where he teaches courses on literature, popular culture, music, theory and methods, and monsters. He is co-editor, with Heather Richardson Hayton, of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017). His writing has appeared in American Quarterly, Hybrid Pedagogy, The Journal of Transnational American Studies, The Society of Americanists Review, Quarterly Horse, and elsewhere. He also writes fiction and is developing a new course on creative work in American Studies. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, M.A.T. in English from Boston College, and B.A. in English from Vassar College. His academic and creative work can be found at everydayfictions.com and he is on Twitter @adamgolub.

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Teaching Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America after Charlottesville

PALS Note: We are excited to feature this guest post by Katie Fitzpatrick that continues earlier discussions of the role of the political in literature classrooms. Fitzpatrick explains the immediacy of engaging students in constructive political discourse as she considers how to find a balance between the content of a course titled “Democracy in America” and the current political events students encounter outside of the classroom.

I designed my course “Democracy in America” in the fall of 2016, when the campaign was still in full-swing. Anticipating a different result on November 8th, I began the syllabus: “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down? How does democracy happen on a daily basis, at the local level, or even outside the law?” I imagined that with President Clinton in office many American liberals and centrists would take a step back from politics – in relief. I wanted to keep the focus on the way democracy unfolds between and beyond Presidential elections, in school board meetings, classrooms, living rooms, and rallies. I selected novels (and secondary sources) that would allow students to consider not just the formal procedures of democracy, but the attitudes, beliefs, and emotions (the ethos) underlying it. We would discuss paranoia and extremism through Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, racism and (mis)representation through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, finally, participation and public relations through Joan Didion’s Democracy and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.

Of course, my question “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down?” took on new meaning after the election. Far from stepping back in relief, my friends and colleagues seemed more involved in politics than ever. The risk was not that democracy would recede from view for another four years, but that, without our efforts, it would disappear entirely. Yet although the context had changed, the texts I had selected for the syllabus still seemed like apt choices. In fact, they had taken on a new urgency. When I learned I would be teaching the class this fall at Muhlenberg College, I saw it as an opportunity to contribute (even in a small way) to a more thoughtful and constructive political discourse.

Teaching The Plot Against America

“Democracy in America” was offered as a special version of a pre-existing sophomore-level English course, “Literature as Politics.” It was a seminar-style, writing-intensive course with only 13 students, allowing for in-depth class discussion. We began with Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I taught over five 75min class periods. In the latter half of the unit, I brought in non-literary texts from the 1930s-1960s that illuminated the novel’s historical setting. These also connected indirectly to the events of the present, especially the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which occurred a just few weeks before the class began. I taught selections from Hannah Arendt and Richard Hoftstadter, as well as a 1939 New York Times article, covering a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. But while the connections between these texts and 2017 were apparent to me, I didn’t make those connections explicit in class. Later, my students would ask why we had steered clear of a more direct conversation about contemporary politics during our Roth unit. This was a question that, as I will explain at the end of this post, prompted me to think more deeply about democracy, disagreement, and the post-Trump classroom.

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The Plot Against America narrates a counterfactual history of WWII. In place of FDR, Americans elect Charles Lindbergh – a famed aviator, but also a Nazi-sympathizer and anti-semite. Across the novel, Roth’s young protagonist (also named Philip Roth) watches as his family struggles to understand their place in a world of increasingly open anti-semitism.

Because almost everyone in my class was new to literary interpretation, I began by teaching close-reading skills. For this, I drew activities from Writing Analytically, by my colleagues David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. For example, my students used what Rosenwasser and Stephen call “the method” to analyze Roth’s description of Jewish-American identity. Students looked for patterns, binaries, strands, and anomalies in a passage describing his family’s assimilation. They then used these observations to write a paragraph analyzing how Roth constructs (and then deconstructs) a binary between Jewish and American identity. Overall, The Plot Against America served as an excellent introduction to close-reading. Students found the plot engaging and Roth’s prose accessible. Moreover, his (to me) obvious allusions and metaphors—the Roth family arguing in front of the Lincoln Memorial; Philip’s national park stamp collection turning to swastikas in a nightmare—helped students practice interpreting symbolism, a skill that was vital when we read Invisible Man a few weeks later.

Frameworks for Analysis

After two class periods focused on close-reading, I began incorporating additional, interdisciplinary sources. The first was Richard Hofstadter’s well-known 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter argues that politicians using the paranoid style seek to explain complex political phenomena through a single scapegoat (Catholics, Jews, Communists, Freemasons). Students had no trouble naming uses of the paranoid style in the present. We discussed islamophobia, anti-semitism, and “pizza gate,” but also considered the liberal focus on Russian meddling, which sometimes risks occluding the profound divisions within American society. If anything, students found it too easy to name contemporary phenomena that seemed paranoid and we had to work together to put some limits on the term. They often defaulted to viewing any form of disagreement or antagonism through the lens of paranoia. I explained that, for example, it is not paranoid for Republicans to accuse Democrats of undermining the second amendment; it is paranoid to suggest that Obama is secretly Muslim. A particularly instructive moment occurred when one student suggested that being against GMO food products is paranoid. Two other students expressed that they were against GMO products. I allowed both sides to argue their viewpoints for a few minutes, then pointed out they had performed an example of legitimate democratic disagreement. Both sides had presented reasoned considerations without accusing one another of being secretly in the thrall of shadowy forces. This, I explained, was the difference between democratic antagonism and the paranoid style.

We then discussed the place of paranoia in The Plot Against America. The fascist politicians in the novel express obviously paranoid views. But so do Aunt Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who rely on an elaborate conspiracy to justify their own complicity in an anti-semitic regime. Finally, Philip’s parents are unsure whether to believe the most seemingly paranoid theories on the Jewish left (expressed by radio personality Walter Winchell). Intriguingly, Winchell’s “paranoid” fears about the government’s violent intentions seem prescient by the end of the novel. In this way, Roth suggests that it can be difficult, without the advantage of historical hindsight, to determine which views will prove paranoid, and which prophetic.

Historical Contexts

For the fourth day of our unit, I brought in a 1939 New York Times Article (purchased from their online archive). The article, “22,000 Nazis Hold Rally in Garden; Police Check Foes,” covered both the rally and the clashes between police and protesters outside (events also described in the novel). In particular, I drew attention to a quoted statement from the American Jewish Committee:

“The German-American Bund is, in our opinion, completely anti-American and anti-democratic. It is a foreign-inspired organization endeavoring to arouse in the United States the same hatreds which in Germany have brought the condemnation of the entire civilized world. Nevertheless, because we believe that the basic rights of free speech and free assembly must never be tampered with in the United States, we are opposed to any action to prevent the Bund from airing its views.”

I asked students whether they agreed with this statement. Most did. We discussed to what extent that position was consistent with their view of the novel as a whole. After all, the central problem in the text is President Lindbergh’s refusal to join WWII to fight against the Nazis. If students wanted to protect the free-speech rights of Nazis in the United States, while supporting military intervention against those abroad, could they make those two positions consistent?

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New York Times article covering Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden.

The students were, at first, visibly puzzled by this problem, and they didn’t ultimately agree about their stances on it. But it led to some nuanced and interesting points. One student suggested that while we might intervene against the state violence being perpetrated in Europe, this was different than the non-state actors rallied at Madison Square Garden. Others considered whether and how democracy could contain both free-speech protections and fierce condemnations of hate speech. For me, this discussion obviously resonated with the recent events in Charlottesville and with contemporary debates about racism, anti-semitism, and free speech. I was glad to see my students wrestling with these urgent questions in an informed, thoughtful, and rigorous way. But while I assumed that they could make the connection to Charlottesville, I (mistakenly) did not make that connection explicit.

From the Classroom to the Campus Climate

About a month after we concluded our discussion of The Plot Against America, a racist incident occurred on our campus while my students were studying Invisible Man. This led to an impromptu (and heated) class discussion about how the racism in the novel connected to current events. When I asked students whether they would like to make those explicit connections more often, they all said they would. Several even mentioned that they wished there had been more opportunity to talk about current events during our Philip Roth unit. This surprised me at first; I had intended to make the connections quite clear. But upon reflection, I realized I had also felt a bit wary during class discussion. I wasn’t sure where my students stood politically, and being a new faculty member myself, I was worried about provoking a tense debate between them or appearing to “push” views they disagreed with.

Instead, what I learned over time (especially in our Invisible Man unit) was that most (perhaps all) of my students were roughly on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum. More importantly, they were capable of working through political disagreement among themselves when it arose. The irony, of course, is that when I designed the syllabus, I had intended to tackle political questions head-on. But the antagonistic political climate itself got the best of me. I wasn’t sure if we could have a democratic conversation about democracy, even though I was given a group of students who were more than capable of doing just that. Of course, my wariness might speak to my own lack of pedagogical courage. But I think it speaks equally to a vague chilling effect on free speech – not (or not only) for de-platformed conservative speakers, but for junior, contingent, and immigrant faculty teaching contemporary political issues, even at supportive liberal arts colleges.

Much of the current debate about free speech on campuses is less about free speech per se, than about which kinds of conversations colleges want to foster, which forms of disagreement they want to stage. Most colleges are prepared to hold debates on taxation, for example, but not on the humanity of people of color (a necessary distinction, in my opinion). In my class, I found myself faced with a different version of this problem. I was prepared to foster disagreement about students’ interpretations of the novel, their reactions to Hofstadter, or their views on Walter Winchell’s dissent. What I wasn’t prepared for, pedagogically or emotionally, was a conversation where one student compared President Trump to the Nazi-sympathizing President Lindbergh and another found this comparison outrageous. Of course, that’s a more vital conversation than anything about close-reading, but it would be a difficult conversation to have – one potentially destructive of our classroom environment, and early in the semester too.

I’m still not sure how to lead that kind of discussion, and I’m aware that it could go very well or very poorly. I’m still trying to learn how other teachers have led conversations about politics in the past year, and I think we could all stand to reflect on these questions more. But my major take-away is that my students wanted to have more difficult conversations, and were capable of doing so. Perhaps they understood democracy better than I did.

Contributor Bio

Macintosh HD:Users:Barbra:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 7.13.47 PM.pngKatie Fitzpatrick is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English department at Muhlenberg College. She received her PhD from Brown University in May 2017 and is currently at work on her first book, Between Law and Justice: Legal Authority, Political Philosophy, and Postwar Fiction. She can be found at katiefitzpatrick.info and on twitter @katiefitzpat.