Genre Fiction: Week 11

We are in spring break at the moment, though the concept of spring break seems meaningless under these circumstances. I am continuing to create podcasts and grade assignments. Next week, we will finish up the stories from Peter Beagle’s Secret History of Fantasy. After that, each student will choose one of the two novels I have assigned, A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (who I found out yesterday is an Assistant Professor in English at our sister campus, CSU Channel Islands) or Bourne by Jeff Vandermeer. Because I am letting them choose, I will essentially be teaching two novels simultaneously! The prerecorded podcasts should make that possible, but I hope to finish the podcasts for Stranger during this break so that I can record the podcasts for Bourne next week.

Week 11 Podcasts and Notes

Peter Beagle, “Sleight of Hand”

Peter Beagle is the editor of the collection and the author of this story, “Sleight of Hand.” He is most famous for his fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, about a unicorn trying to find out what happened to the rest of her kind, aided by a powerful but somewhat incompetent wizard, Schmendrick. “Sleight of Hand” is about a woman who makes a fatal decision that accidentally results in the death of her husband and daughter, but is given a chance to remake that decision by a mysterious magician.

Here are the notes.

Robert Holdstock, “Mythago Wood”

This novella was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (to which I have subscribed at various points in my life. The magazine, unlike most in these genres, is still in publication, though I no longer have a subscription). Holdstock later turned it into a novel, and then wrote numerous other pieces in the same universe. The story is set in Ryhope Wood, a three square mile tract of original, primeval oak forest. The Huxley family lives in Oak Lodge, on the edge of the forest. The father believes that the forest contains wild boar and manifestations of ancient heroes. When he dies, one of the sons takes up his explorations. It is a memorable, haunting story, grounded in a theory of Jungian archetypes.

Here are the notes.

Kiji Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

A woman buys a monkey show for $1.00, including 26 monkeys of various types and a tour bus. The monkey act climaxes with the entire troop of monkeys vanishing from a suspended bathtub. They return hours later, in ones and twos. She doesn’t know how they vanish or where they go. The story explores the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life.

Here are the notes.

The students, at least most of them, seem to enjoy the podcasts. The discussions on the discussion boards have been interesting. I think what is key to this is that I am not telling them what the stories mean. I am pointing things out, drawing attention to stylistic features and writerly decisions, and asking questions that could have many possible answers. They seem to feel free to express their opinions, which means they are engaged with the stories.

I read their mini-proposals yesterday. All of them want to write stories rather than a critical paper. More on that later.

Genre Fiction: Week 10

The combination of podcasts plus discussion board seems to be working well for some students, but I have about eight students who have yet to participate. Our students are overwhelmed with all the changes. Some have contacted me to say so. I think most instructors are using Zoom to conduct pretty traditional synchronous classes online. That means that students, who are usually taking five classes, are using a lot of Zoom. My asynchronous podcast and discussion board model give them more flexibility, but is different.

There are always students who are reluctant to express themselves in class. Some are also reluctant to express opinions on a discussion board that other students can see. I think this is part of the problem. I emailed the non-participants today. I will follow up.

Here are this week’s story podcasts. I try to do them in such a way that you could get something out of them even if you have not read the story, but if you want to read the stories, they are in the collection The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle.

“The Edge of the World” by Michael Swanwick

This story asks the question, “What if the Earth were flat and had an edge?” A group of teenagers climb down the cliff face of the edge of the world.


“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem

A story about a third-rate failed super hero who is also a college professor.


“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” by Susanna Clarke

A very funny short story set in the same world as Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.


“The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler

If you had god-like power to make humans better, what would you do?



Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 1

My “Genre Fiction” class (click link for syllabus) is designed to be either an ordinary literature course or a creative writing course, depending on how the student wants to approach it. As a final project, students can choose to write a critical paper or a short story. However, most students in the past have written stories.

At this point in the semester, we have completed our exploration of detective fiction, reading Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan-Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. We have begun the fantasy section of the course, reading two Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Red Nails,” plus Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We are now reading a collection of short stories, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by noted fantasy author Peter Beagle.

Throughout the course, students have been doing writing exercises from Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful writing book, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. We have been discussing plot, characters, world creation, style, point of view, and other issues in story craft.

Now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take our class online. For Tuesday, March 17, we are discussing two stories. I will post podcasts about them and the outlines I used to create the podcasts below.

Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” Notes

Neil Gaiman, “Snow, Glass, Apples”

“Snow, Glass, Apples” Notes

We are also reading Chapter 9 “Indirect Narration, or What Tells” in the Le Guin book. The first exercise in this chapter asks the students to write a page or two of dialogue between two characters without any description so that everything the reader knows about who they are comes from what they say. Students will post the results of this activity to their writing blogs.

Will We Have to Move Online?

As the novel coronavirus Covid-19 spreads throughout the world, festivals, conferences, corporate meetings, and schools, colleges and universities are shutting down. Educational institutions are considering moving all instruction off campus and online for a period of time until the crisis passes. My campus has not decided to close at this point, but we have received numerous emails that imply that it is a possibility in the near future.

Many of my colleagues teach classes in the traditional way, without online tools. I am a bit more prepared. My courses are neither hybrid nor online, but all of them are “web-enabled” in that I use our course management system, Blackboard, to host documents, discussion boards, blogs, and group projects. I also use the online gradebook. I have also been supervising Teaching Associates using the video conferencing app, Zoom, for which the campus has a license. Zoom is very easy to use.

My “Teaching Writing” seminar is small, so if I move it online I can use Zoom to hold synchronous class meetings. Combined with the tools on Blackboard, this should work fine.

My “Genre Fiction” class is probably too big for Zoom. For that course, I plan to use a combination of specialized discussion boards and podcasts. Our undergraduates do not always have internet access at home, so we have to be careful about bandwidth. That is one reason I want to avoid video lectures.

I record a lot of music, so I have good microphones and other equipment. However, I am new to podcasts. I tried an earlier one here on Stasis Theory.  I got some good feedback on that, but it wasn’t entirely successful. Today, as an experiment, I did a short podcast on a story for Genre Fiction, “The Barnum Museum” by Steven Millhauser.

I think my students will find this helpful. I have asked them for feedback.

I hope that we don’t have to close the campus. However, I think that the virus is beyond containment at this point and that we are in the mitigation phase. That means that we have to slow the spread so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. Closing the campus may in fact be helpful in that regard.

Was Shakespeare A Woman?

In June 2019 I presented on my “Knowledge, Belief, and the Role of Rhetoric” module at the Young Rhetoricians Conference and at two ERWC leadership conferences. Almost any issue can be plugged into this mini-module. For the purposes of these workshops I chose the longstanding controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.  Because time was limited and the articles were long, I provided cheat sheets with selected quotations and summaries. The materials I used in these workshops are linked below. One could make an interesting module about the Shakespeare authorship question from these materials.

What became clear as teachers responded to the various articles was that we all bring a lot of prior experience, knowledge, and preconceptions to our reading of articles on topics about which we already have strong opinions.

Here is the PowerPoint for the workshop in .pdf format: Knowledge and Belief Presentation

The mini-module itself and accompanying handouts can be found in the blog post Knowledge, Belief, and The Role of Rhetoric.

Core Issue Texts

Was Shakespeare a Woman?” by Elizabeth Winkler, published in the June 2019 issue of The Atlantic.  Although this article suggests that the plays were written by Emilia Bassano, there are links to other pieces that argue for a variety of authors, including William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon.

I prepared a Descriptive Outline and a Cheat Sheet for this text.  The cheat sheet consists of some selected quotations and a section by section summary of the arguments. 

The Winkler article links to a number of other relevant texts.  I chose two of them to supplement the workshop:

The Case for Shakespeare: In defense of Shakespeare as the author of the Shakespeare works” by Irving Matus.  I produced a Descriptive Outline and a Cheat Sheet for this text.

2 Shakespearean Actors Revive Debate Over The Bard’s Identity. This is an interview done by NPR with Mark Rylance and Derek Jacoby.  I have also provided the interview in .pdf form.

Update: The Winkler article that argues that Shakespeare might have been a woman set off a lot of controversy at The Atlantic and inspired a flurry of letters and articles in response.  See the responses here.

Teaching (in Grammar B)

Where’s my roll sheet?
sleep oh sleep
Most of them are here.
didyoudo the reading the writing the reading
Hector? Oh there you are.
werewe supposed to
Does this work?
idk idk
OK, let’s get started.
omg quiz
no quiz no quiz
richard textingme
ohoh sisterphone
howmany pages whendo
whatdid itsay
idk idk
wesay this
wesay this
howmany pages whendo

See previous post for info on Grammar B.

Aristotle’s Poetics in the Classroom

In this blog, I have written a lot about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I have not written about his literary criticism, which he develops in the work called the Poetics. The Poetics has had a great deal of influence on literary thought and practice for many centuries, especially on drama. Though Aristotle was mainly concerned with the dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, his principles can be usefully applied to other art forms, including novels, short stories, and movies, and perhaps even poetry. The principles are simple, easily understood, and useful for students.

Perhaps the genre in our own time that is closest to Greek tragedy is the dramatic movie, perhaps even a horror movie.  Analyzing a movie is probably the best vehicle for introducing students to Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle, like most ancient Greeks, thinks that art is about imitation of life. The Greek word is “mimesis,” which we find in “mime and” “mimic.” He thinks that humans are natural imitators and that we enjoy representations, even of things we would not like to see in real life, such as dead bodies or fearsome beasts. This literary theory is pretty easy for students to apply. Is the work realistic? Is it lifelike? Does that mean it is good? They can also easily disagree with it because they often enjoy fantasy and other things that are abstract or unrealistic. Disagreeing with Aristotle is fun, and it gets them thinking. They can have a dialogue with Aristotle.

Aristotle argues that tragedy has six components. I have created a simplified chart, with questions for students:


A more detailed version of this chart with more extensive questions is available here.


Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and that while there could be a tragedy without character, there could not be without plot. Simply relating the events of a tragic plot should create pity and fear in the hearer. Students appear to agree with Aristotle on this in that when they write about a novel or a short story, they tend to summarize the plot. However, such summaries rarely analyze the plot in terms of Aristotelian plot elements such as reversal, recognition, and what he calls the “scene of suffering,” the climatic scene in which the different strands of the plot come together for the greatest emotional effect.  The plot itself creates emotions, for Aristotle pity and fear, in the audience.   The questions in the chart linked above help students analyze the plot from such a perspective.


Aristotle’s views on good character are probably more at odds with the students’ views than on any other aspect of literature.  He believes that the protagonist should

  • Have good moral values
  • Be above average in nobility and birth
  • Behave appropriately according to his station in life
  • Be realistic and life-like
  • Be consistent in behavior
  • Have a flaw or other characteristic that causes him to experience a dramatic change in fortune

Today we are used to viewpoint characters and heroes who are quite unlike Aristotle’s ideal.  The disjunction between Aristotle’s views and the students’ should provide lots of interesting discussion.


When Aristotle discusses “thought” in tragedy, he refers to his work on Rhetoric.  He says, “Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite” (XIX)  Clearly arguments are part of thought, but also emotional and ethical appeals, the full range of ethos, logos, and pathos.  Themes, philosophical questions, and exploration of moral and ethical choices are also included here.


Under “diction” Aristotle discusses formal and informal language, the use of strange and unusual words, and other aspects of style.  His concern appears to be mostly about the effects of word choice on the audience.  Some of the factors that we might assign to style, such as the creation of emotional effects, Aristotle sees as belonging to Thought.

Song and Spectacle

Song and Spectacle are considered to be the least important factors in Aristotle’s scheme.  For students, they may be the most important factors.  Some movies rely on exciting music and spectacular visuals, often created by computers, to become big hits, while neglecting plot, character, and thought.  Can the musical score and cinematic effects successfully make up for a lack in other categories?  This is an interesting question for students to discuss.


Aristotle has two big disadvantages in relating to current students: 1) he is analyzing an ancient dramatic form that is no longer produced, and 2) his analysis reflects the cultural values and customs of Athenian Greeks in the fourth century B.C.  However, looking at current cultural productions, such as movies and novels, from an Aristotelian point of view, produces what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” that allows the student to have insights into Aristotle, current artistic work, and their own perceptions and values.  It is a worthwhile discussion.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.


Using Kenneth Burke and Implementing Gradual Release of Responsibility

In a previous post, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” I explored several concepts related to designing instructional units, among them “Gradual Release of Responsibility” as presented by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. In this post, I will begin to apply this concept to the design of a module built around another previous post, “Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad.” Writing this mini-module may take several posts. When I finish, I will post the whole module as a downloadable unit.

Fisher and Frey describe gradual release as a continuum: “I do, we do, you do together, you do.” I find those pronouns a little confusing because in writing modules we often shift from the teacher view to the student view. I think it is clearer to say, “teacher does, teacher and students do together, students do together, student does.” They also discuss this as “Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks.” Activities do not necessarily have to be done in that order. What is important is to be aware of where the responsibility for learning and thinking lies and to have a mix of different types of interactions as appropriate to the learning goals. For convenience, lets imagine a 1-4 scale with “1” representing “teacher does” and “4” representing “student does.”

Because of my concern with backwards mapping (or “Backwards Design”), another concept I discussed in the “Decisions” post, I want to start out by laying out for the students what they are going to learn and how they are going to use it. I am going to try being very direct. This is very much a “teacher does” activity:

A student (or teacher) reads aloud:

In this unit, you will learn about a useful strategy called “the pentad” that is related to the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that you probably already know. As you explore this strategy, you will analyze relationships between people and places, between tools and actions, and think about why people do the things they do. We will use this strategy to analyze movies, stories, and political issues in new ways. When we are asked to write about something, one of the biggest problems is thinking of new things to say. The pentad can be a big help. At the end of this unit, you will be asked to write about a novel or story you have studied or written about before, but in a new way. After learning about the pentad, it will be easy to take a new approach.

After reading this paragraph, what questions do you have? What more do you want to know about “the pentad”? Write down at least one question to share with the class.

The follow up question moves from “teacher does” or “1” on my scale to “teacher and students do together,” which is “2” on my scale. The purpose here is to create some anticipation of what is to come.

Now I want to activate background knowledge by asking students to do a task that shows them that they already know something about this, but also allows them to see this knowledge in a new way. I want them to think about “scene” words, words that name or define a location or context. One way of doing this is to give them a passage and ask them to find “scene” words:

When someone does something, they have to do it somewhere. Action is situated. It happens in a time and place. We can call a time and place where something happens a “scene,” as in the phrase “the scene of the crime.” When a writer begins a story, the first few paragraphs usually “set the scene.” Here is the first paragraph of a famous short story, “Hill Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway. As you read the paragraph, try to identify “scene” words and phrases, words and phrases that are associated with places or parts of places where things might happen.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

How many words did you find? For example, the “Ebro” is a river. That is a place. It has formed a valley, and there are hills. There are names of cities. There are also location words such as “side” and “between.”

The Hemingway passage “sets the scene” for the story, but you could substitute a passage from almost any literary work. I would rate this activity a “2” on my scale because the teacher is supplying the passage and asking the questions.

Next, I would like to explore the relationship between the scene and the people in it, what Burke will call a scene→agent ratio.

Write a paragraph about how where you grew up (scene) influenced who you are as a person. You can define the “scene” in various ways big or small–a country, a city or town, a neighborhood, a school, an ethnic community, a household, a family, etc.

This writing task will initiate a scene→agent ratio without using all of Burke’s terms. The task itself is a “4,” because the students are deciding what to write about and working independently. We could transition to a “3” type of activity by having students share their paragraphs in groups or pairs and commenting further on the ways that scenes influence the people in them.

At this point, the students have been introduced to the concept of “scene” and have worked on the relationship between scenes and agents with knowing very much about Burke’s entire scheme. They are now ready to read my short introduction to Burke’s pentad. This is a “Focused Instruction” activity, a “1” on my scale. It is essentially a lecture.

I will follow this with some group activities using the pentad to analyze popular movies, moving from “2” type “guided instruction” activities to “3” type collaborative activities. At the end they will get an independent writing assignment. I will describe these activities in detail in a following post.  So far, I have introduced some new concepts, explored them a bit with examples, and asked students to apply them.  In the following post, they will begin to use them for their own purposes.

Teaching a Literary Text: A Template

It is common for instructors to assign a poem or a short story for a particular class meeting and expect students to come to class ready to discuss it.  It is also common for instructors to complain that no one has read the text and that the students wait until after the discussion to read it.  With no possibility of a discussion, the instructor ends up lecturing on the text and teaching his or her own reading of it.  Students take notes.  The mystery of the text is solved and the course moves on.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

My colleague Aaron DeRosa and I were in the midst of a vigorous discussion about the use of literary theory in the teaching and study of literature. In a nutshell, I was arguing that all reading and interpretation involved theory (full disclosure:  I teach the course in Literary Theory), while Dr. DeRosa was arguing that knowledge of literary theory was not essential to productive literary scholarship.  As in most discussions in English departments, we are probably both right in our own ways.  However, as a sort of rhetorical ploy to get him to reveal his unacknowledged theory-using ways, I asked, “Well, how do you go about teaching a literary text?”  That proved to be a more productive discussion.  The result is this template.  We developed it together. It is in .docx format so that an instructor could use it to plan a course session or sequence of sessions.  Here is a .pdf version, if the other one won’t open in your software.

The goals of this process are to situate the text in the course, give the students enough background and confidence to perform a reading of the text, and then open up the text to new avenues of exploration.

Establish teaching and learning goals for the text

  1. Think about the features of the text that will be meaningful in the context of the course. (Questions: “Why are we reading this? What do you want them to notice?” Depending on the course, this could be genre characteristics, historical context, style, characterization, themes, motifs, etc.)
  2. Think about features of the text that will be difficult for at least some of the students. How will you address them? (This might be such things as difficult or old-fashioned vocabulary, exotic cultural concepts, or potentially undetected irony.)
  3. List what students will know or be able to do after reading and working with the text. (These are your learning goals for the text, which should be consistent with the overall learning goals of the course.)

Preview the text

  1. Provide contemporary, relevant references that highlight some aspect of the content they will read
  2. OR provide some form of summary, context, keywords, etc. that highlights what to read for, the “thread” of the first reading.

Read the text

  1. Trace the thread established in the preview. (This is only one way of reading the text. It is a starting point for the first reading.)
  2. Note details that that might conflict with this thread.

Re-read the text (what might be called “close reading”)

  1. Find an alternative thread to trace to show them multiple modes of reading (sometimes this involves invoking a literary theory).
  2. Look for patterns, connections, contradictions, repetitions (motifs), juxtapositions, tropes and figures, etc. relevant to the themes of the text.
    Build a multi-faceted view of the text with many possible threads woven together.

Post-read “assessment”

  1. Ask students to choose a new thread to follow in more detail.
  2. Evaluate your learning goals through some appropriate mechanism (writing, comic book, movie trailer, discussion, presentation).

As with any template, you may find that you don’t need to do every step with every text.  Toward the end of the course, students should have internalized some of these moves.  However, a bit of previewing of a text before they read it for the class discussion will almost always lead to a better discussion.

A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry


I introduced two mini-modules at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conferences as part of my presentation, “Big Ideas from My Literacy Seminar.” This one, “A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry” was inspired by Louise Rosenblatt’s book, The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Rosenblatt begins the book with the image of two figures on a stage, the author and the reader, with the book between them. In various ages the spotlight focuses brightly on either the author or the text, but rarely the reader (1).

Rosenblatt then argues that the reader, not the author, creates the poem. The text of the poem is like an orchestra score in that the music doesn’t exist until it is performed. Because each reader brings different life experiences and background knowledge to the text, each reader will create a different poem. Being comfortable with this process is part of learning to enjoy poetry.

New Criticism taught us the techniques of close reading, which are still in common use today. New Critics also taught us that to try to recover the author’s intention was the “Intentional Fallacy,” and that to focus on the effects on the reader was to engage in the “Pathetic Fallacy.” The spotlight of the New Critics focuses exclusively on the text, and on using the techniques of close reading to produce the very best reading of that text.

A typical literature course today will apply close reading, but unlike New Criticism will include reference to the author’s biography and historical context. The dominant question is usually, “What does it mean?” and a received interpretation is often given. The result, especially with poetry, is that students believe that there is a “correct” interpretation that they are struggling to find. This has a number of negative effects, such as going immediately to the internet to discover the “correct” reading and a fear of interpreting poetry on their own. Thus it is common for students to say, even English majors in college, that they don’t like poetry.

This mini-module is designed to counteract that fear and help students read and enjoy poetry on their own, sharing their experiences with others. In working through the module, students

  • Read the poem quickly and write down their impressions,
  • Re-read to confirm and and develop their impressions,
  • Share their impressions with others in a small group,
  • Consider important details,
  • Negotiate a consensus interpretation,
  • Write a paragraph describing their evolving interpretation of the poem.

In this approach, reading a poem is both a personal and a social experience. The emphasis is on engaging with the text and connecting it to experience, not on discovering authorial intention or a “correct” reading. Any poem could be plugged into this process. I often choose a poem that has some important detail that students may miss on first readings, but discover on closer readings, so that they can experience the shift in interpretation that happens when making a sudden connection. (Sometimes I give them the information.  I call this “throwing in a fact bomb.”)  In the workshop, I used “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith. Students may not initially realize that the poem echoes language from the Declaration of Independence. I have also used “Sundown” by Jorie Graham, in which students may not know that the phrase “on Omaha” refers to a D-Day invasion beach. These poems can easily be found on the internet.

The mini-module can be downloaded from this link.

Update: English teacher extraordinaire Carol Jago has published an essay, “Agents of Imagination,” on the Poetry Foundation site.  It’s about teaching science fiction poetry and also includes a poem by Tracy K. Smith, who seems to have a talent for writing beautiful, evocative, yet approachable poems.   This essay is a mini-module in essay form!  Highly recommended!