Assigning Fiction in Non-Literature Courses

Today I had the honor of joining the University of Chicago Divinity School’s The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion for a workshop on “Teaching with Fiction.” Of course, that’s ‘teaching with fiction in non-literature courses.’ Dr. Lucy Pick led off the session with syllabi from two religion courses in which she has used fiction profitably. I followed with remarks about my own experience. I’ve decided to post the substance of my remarks below.

1) When and why I became interested in assigning fiction in my courses

I first became interested in assigning fiction in my courses because some of my own professors did so to good effect.

  1. In an undergraduate “Introduction to Law” course, my professor assigned William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as an introductory text.
  2. As a graduate student, one professor assigned Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward in a doctoral proseminar on “Urban Governance, Planning, and Management.”

Those two books captured the imagination of the students, contextualized the course topic (e.g., Intro to Law was not going to be a technical course about jurisprudence), and presented the stakes of the topic under study. They also worked to help students envision possibilities – utopian futures like the one envisioned by Bellamy or dystopian possibilities like those presented by Golding – and to project scenarios. While I’ve drifted away from assigning utopian and dystopian works in my courses (for reasons that might be clear below), the success with which these books were employed in the classroom made a lasting impression.

2) Reasons for assigning fiction in my courses

Before I started assigning fiction in class, I didn’t have clear reasons for doing so. I had good experiences with it as a student (see above), I had an intuitive sense that it could work in some of my courses, and I was willing to take risks. But I didn’t exactly have reasons.

However, having assigned fiction in class a few times now, I have learned a few things that might be reasons for me to continue and might constitute reasons for others to give it a try.

  1. Assigning fiction in a non-literature course taught by someone who has no training in literature (unless you count my upper-division literature courses in my undergraduate Spanish major) is risky. It’s on the edge of my probably-too-wide comfort zone. It demands extra time and effort and requires me to shift gears more than I would otherwise have to. And there’s the outside chance I end up with a senior English major who has encountered the same text taught by a scholar of literature or who has enough background in the academic study of literature that they bring to the reading an angle I could not have anticipated. It’s also possible that our discussions of the assigned text could just bomb. Of course, that’s always possible, but I have ways of handling that when I assign texts from my own disciplines. It’s riskier when I’m assigning fiction. In some ways, though, the riskiness is a good reason to do it. I want my students to learn to take more risks. One surefire way to teach them not to take risks, though, is not to take any myself.
  2. Fiction has helped me to introduce key course themes in ways that keep questions, tensions, and complexity at the forefront. Fiction has been especially useful in presenting ambiguity and ambivalence, which is helpful when some of the subjects I teach have been the objects of polarizing simplification and some of my students want premature simplicity (that is, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “simplicity on this side of complexity”).
  3. Fiction can help to make the familiar strange or make the strange familiar. For example, we all have a baseline familiarity with technology – a baseline familiarity that can hinder our study of it. Some fiction can be especially helpful in making technology strange and different enough for sustained study. On the other hand, some of my students (not my majors, but other students) haven’t spent a lot of time in cities. Reading fiction can help the city come alive for them and make the strange familiar.
  4. Fiction can also help me introduce or encourage a certain posture toward the world or toward study. It can help me communicate to students the ways in which they might approach the subject of the course.

3) Examples of fiction I’ve assigned in my classes

  1. Some sections of my Environmental Politics course have read short selections from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude along with eco-critical essays about the novel. Others have read from Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers. What Aeschylus helps us to understand is the tragic and agonistic dimension of environmental politics, giving us a way to understand some of the questions, tensions, and complexities that are inherent to the field. (For a sense of how that discussion, using both Marquez and Aeschylus, might shape up, see this essay.)
  2. I open my Politics of Technology course with Don DeLillo’s White Noise. This helps to make the familiar – technology, not to mention higher education! – strange and really captures the imaginations of students.
  3. Students in my Advanced Urban Studies Seminar – the capstone in our major and minor and a required course for students returning from our semester-long, experiential program in Chicago – have opened the course with a novel and a short story. I’ve tried Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Teju Cole’s Open City, though neither worked particularly well. So I’ll be trying Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin this spring in a capstone course devoted to studying the relationship between religious institutions and their urban environments.

    In this course, though, I also pair Charles Baxter’s short story “Through the Safety Net” with a clip from the Christopher Nolan film Insomnia and the first chapter of C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination. Mills wants his readers to become more adept at linking the biographical and the historical, the individual and the collective, especially when it comes to social problems. In Insomnia, one of the main characters is convinced that the problem he faces is outside of him, when it is really inside. And in “Through the Safety Net,” the main character cannot fathom that the problem or challenge she’ll face is bigger than she is, until the end. This combination of readings (and film) helps students to understand the approach that Mills is urging on his readers and the posture I’m encouraging them to take in the course.

4) Unexpected benefits of assigning fiction in my classes

  1. I’ve had a chance to collaborate with colleagues in teaching these texts. For example, a colleague in the English Department and I merged my Politics of Technology class with her American Literature class for a session on White Noise. I think it was better for all of our students. They learned more than they otherwise would have. I know I did, too.
  2. I’ve had a chance to learn from colleagues across campus. For example, I’ve sometimes gathered a group of colleagues for a discussion of the book I’m teaching. We discuss the book and I pick their brains about what might work in teaching the book. I always make sure that some my colleagues who teach literature are there – they can help me understand the text and its possibilities and they’re the ones who teach fiction every day. It’s great to learn from them about what might work in the classroom. (Important note: I buy the drinks and snacks for this gathering as an expression of gratitude.) Is this something I can only have by assigning fiction in class? No. But it has been an unexpected benefit.

So there you have it: Why I became interested in assigning fiction in my classes, what reasons I have for doing so, examples of what I’ve assigned and how it has worked, and the unexpected benefits that have come along with it.

Now, time to reread McCann…

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