This post is a little late (mainly due to the distractions of moving house and trying to teach myself basic plumbing skills alongside managing a PhD and moonlighting as a tour guide at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre) so apologies for my silence of late. However, last Monday I was lucky enough to be able to lead the two Generation Dead workshops. As regular readers will be aware the Generation Dead module has been convened by Sam for third year undergraduate students at the University of Hertfordshire. One of the set texts is Maggie Stifevater’s Shiver (2009) which is the text I am analysing in my thesis. With this in mind, Sam suggested that I take the workshop as a way of getting teaching experience (although without any of the pesky marking!).
I was incredibly enthused by the idea of getting to workshop the novel with her group. Due to my aforementioned guiding job, I am relatively happy to talk with groups of young people and present my ideas to them. Moreover I was excited to get some feedback about my teaching abilities and also my arguments regarding the text. One of my greatest difficulties when writing my thesis has been to use the correct tone: one which is academic but also understandable. Partially this is because I tend to jump ahead with my arguments without breaking them down. In order to impart my ideas effectively in the workshop I would have to break my ideas down into manageable chunks. The workshops are two hours long and so I decided that the best model, following Sam’s lead, would be to prepare three 20 minute mini-lectures. For the rest of the time I would split the students into groups so they could discuss and feedback on what I had mentioned during my pieces. For each discussion section, I prepared two questions that would lead the groups’ discussions.
The secondary readings for the werewolf week were: ‘Folklore Relating to Werewolves’ and ‘Natural Causes of Lycanthropy’ from Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves (1865); ‘Women who Run With Wolves’ from Chantal Bourgault du Coudray’s The Curse of the Werewolf (2006); ‘The Wolves of Mercy Falls Trilogy’ from Joni Richards Bodart’s They Suck, They Bite, They Eat, They Kill (2011); and, ‘The True Self, Animal or Human’ from Kimberly McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver’s Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture (2012). I also suggested that the students read Helene Figari and Ketil Skogan’s ‘Social Representations of the Wolf’ in Acta Sociologica 54.4 (2011), pp. 1-16. Though this essay does not relate to the werewolf, or indeed any, literature per se, it is a very useful essay for contextualising how Western societies have constructed a symbolic version of the wolf.
Because I am cruel, I opened the workshop by asking the students to give me a sentence or two about what they thought of the novel and how it related to other texts that they had read on the course. (I also insisted that none of the students sit at the back of the lecture hall because at this point, if you are studying literature at university level, you should have come to terms with the fact that you are a nerd and therefore you do not need to hang out on the back rows in order to maintain a semblance of “cool”). The power going to my head aside, there was a sensible reason for asking the students to give me feedback about the text. Firstly, I think that the further that you go with literary studies the more difficult it becomes to differentiate between your own ideas and those that you have read in secondary criticism. By considering your immediate reaction to the text it is easier to maintain a foundation of your own ideas. I suggested to the students that the first thing they should do with the text is note the things they like and dislike. This can help to navigate the secondary reading by suggesting what will be useful to their argument. In preparation for the workshop I created a handout with the suggested bibliography. Though it was three pages long, I pointed out that sometimes it is better to read fewer supporting texts in order to ensure that the depth, as opposed to the breadth, of their arguments and research was clear.
Secondly, by comparing the text to others on the course, this was an opportunity for them to start considering the idea of genre and the how texts could be linked under the title ‘YA Gothic’ or ‘YA paranormal romance’. Both Sam and Bill have blogged about the complications of genre in regards to these terms and the OGOM project more widely. (And you can read their ideas, here, here and here). Encouraging students to make links between the texts supports the framework of their studies and helps them navigate this new field. Indeed one of the most difficult things about preparing the workshop, and with my thesis in general, has been the lack of foundations or limitations for theoretical approaches. There is no area of werewolf studies that is overburdened with essays and books and so finding my own approach has proved challenging. For the students I used my first two mini-lectures to deal with the basics: “What is a werewolf?” and Shiver and the Gothic. By posing the question “What is a werewolf?”, my aim was to highlight the variety of forms that werewolves could take. I used the Baring-Gould reading to show how the werewolf has deviated from folklore representations and how modern texts have simulated folklore in order to create a veneer of authenticity for their own incarnations. I compared Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s entry on werewolves in The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (2014) with J.K. Rowling’s description of werewolves in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001). Rowling has clear rules that define her lycanthropes (as befits the genre of her text) whereas Weinstock acknowledges the wide variety of presentation of werewolves. This begs the question, why does an author choose to present their werewolf (or other monster) in a certain way? Stiefvater’s werewolves change with the seasons and not the full moon. The students picked up on this and, amongst other ideas, suggested it might be a way of making her werewolves more gender neutral by rejecting the monthly cycle. The Du Coudray reading was particular pertinent here in showing how the werewolf has been read as a gendered monster. The students also put forward the idea that the use of the seasons, combined with the less monstrous presentation of Stiefvater’s werewolves, suggests that they are more natural than supernatural.
My next section on Shiver and the Gothic was a way of rehearsing key ideas from Gothic studies (obscurity, the sublime, romance, the past) and applying them to the text. Drawing on the Rochards Bodart and McMahon-Coleman/Weaver readings, I pulled out some quotations from the novels in order to show elements of the Gothic were clearly presented within these novels. Of particular interest to me was considering the role of romance in early Gothic texts (or first-wave Gothic, if you will) and the resurgence of Gothic, especially the romance, in YA novels. As has been acknowledged, particularly in regards to the Twilight series, the romance elements have often been used as a means of denigrating these texts. I then asked the groups to apply one of the following ideas to the novel: the Uncanny, monstrosity, the Abject, transgression, or the Other. (This led to me announcing: “If it’s leaking or oozing then it’s probably the Abject”). One of the particularly interesting ideas that emerged in regards to the Other was the often conservative quality of YA Gothic. By allowing the supernatural creature to stand in for a panoply of otherness, albeit in a more sympathetic light, this can mean that the storylines feature predominantly white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied protagonists. This leads the reader to have to decide how successful the text has been in representing a more engaged and thoughtful presentation of the Other.
My final section was looking at the presentation of the animal Other in the novel. Using ecoGothic and the Figari and Skogen essay, I put forward the idea that the animal Other is side-lined despite these werewolves being presented in a naturalistic manner. I deconstructed the character of Sam and his engagement with human language as the means of subjectivity. By reading alongside the importance of smell and the characters of Isobel and Shelby, it is possible to show the complexity of the novel in both celebrating the human subject but allowing the wolf to exist within the text. These ideas will form the basis of my fourth chapter so it was wonderful to get some feedback from the group. Hopefully it has also been useful in their reading of Marcus Sedgwick’s The Dark Horse (2003) this week. Overall, I found the whole experience of preparing and giving the workshops invaluable. The students were lively and engaged and a credit to the module as a whole.