It Works for me: An Approach to Using Literary Criticism in the Two-year College Classroom

by Joe Helminski

Although I’ve taught both undergraduate and master’s level courses in literature, rarely have I asked students to read formal academic literary criticism. The M.A. students I taught at Wayne State in summer session classes when I was an adjunct were expected to do it, but even in that instance I led them first through various schools of critical theory, many of which they knew if they had already taken a required graduate-level seminar in literary studies. Despite preparation, students still struggled in many instances to decipher the technical language and allusions common in the field. I was asked to gloss terms such as “hermeneutics,” “structuralism,” and the “affective fallacy.” On some days, our course in early 19th century American literature became a question and answer session that chiefly ignored the primary texts on the syllabus.

How, then, could I even consider asking my OCC students to read and respond to critical texts? For years, I’ve done in class what my own undergraduate instructors did: stick to the poems, plays, short stories and novels, and reserve the field-specific scholarship alone for aspiring professionals embarking on more advanced study.

In preparing my English 1710 syllabus this semester, I ordered the Norton critical editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening so that my students would have access to the various footnotes that would help them understand the language and context of each novel. Since more than half of each edition comprises various examples of literary criticism following the primary texts, it seemed to me that students should get their money’s worth, so I also assigned – for the first time – required readings in criticism to an OCC class. Just three weeks into the semester, I began to agonize over how to prepare my students to read “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein,” excerpted from Anne K. Mellor’s Romanticism and Feminism. We had talked about romantic-era literature, and had discussed the novel’s representations of motherhood, but what, I wondered, would students make of passages such as the one below?

…this alternative female role-model of an independent well-educated, self-supporting, and loving companion, and this alternative nuclear family structure based on sexual equality and mutual affection, is lost in the novel, perhaps because the De Lacey family lacks the mother who might have been able to welcome the pleading, pitiable creature. (359)

What had I gotten them into? What had I gotten myself into?

I decided to keep it simple. The week before students had to complete their reading of Mellor’s essay, I reviewed themes in Frankenstein that had come up in class, and explained that just as we had mapped out the novel’s major conflicts, so did professional academics in their own reading and research. I instructed my class to keep track of the conflicts that Mellor herself stresses, to locate her thesis, and, at the risk of letting them off the hook, to ignore what seemed beyond them.

To my surprise, despite Mellor’s sometimes complicated academic prose, the students understood the basic argument of her essay: that Victor Frankenstein envisions a society that privileges the male over the female. I asked the class to evaluate Mellor’s own explanation of why Victor Frankenstein destroys the mate he has so reluctantly promised to create for his monster. In Mellor’s reading, Victor destroys the mate because “…he is afraid of an independent female will, afraid that his female creature will have desires and opinions that cannot be controlled by his male creature” (360). This understanding of Victor’s motivation is based on a passage from the novel that we had already discussed in class, and I asked students to consider whether there seemed to be sufficient evidence to justify Mellor’s claim. At the end of class, they articulated their views in a brief writing assignment. None seemed particularly confounded or confused by Mellor’s ideas, and even if they hadn’t been able to grasp some of the finer points of her essay, they could certainly evaluate it on terms informed by their own close reading of the primary text.

If the experience didn’t turn out to be a pedagogical epiphany, it did remind me that I sometimes expect too little of my students before giving them the chance to prove themselves, and that they can carry greater loads than we know.

Works Cited

Mellor, Anne K. “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein,” Frankenstein, Norton

Critical Edition, edited by Paul J. Hunter, 2nd ed., WW. Norton, 2012, pp.355-368.

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