For the last couple of years, I have taught a course called Fables and Tales, a class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.
Fables, fairy tales, and folklore are not exactly my area of expertise, though I find the topic fascinating. The first time I taught the course I spent nearly a hundred hours prepping – mostly in background research, exploring sources and looking for creative and interesting readings and assignments – and enjoyed every minute of it. For a comparatist, the intersecting and overlapping nature of folklore is fertile ground. And from a pedagogical standpoint, the more connections I can make between stories, the better able I am to create a climactic arc for my course – to give students the sense that each part of the course is building on the last, that they are moving ever-closer to a goal. As both a scholar and a teacher, my impulse to look for literary connections and convergences kicks into overdrive.
My students, on the other had, tend to be a bit more circumspect, seeing connections between texts less readily than I do. I often open up discussions by asking students to test the limits of the relationships between stories, posing questions like, “Would you call this a Cinderella story?”, “Are Snow-drop (Schneewittchen) and Snow White really the same person?”, “Is Biancabella more similar to Snow White or Cinderella?”, etc. While they sometimes make interesting and unexpected connections between stories, a sizable chunk of them will tell me they don’t see any connections at all. They’re particularly skeptical of more abstract connections, where the details of the story are adapted to emphasize particular thematic concerns, such as the interpretation of Bluebeard as a serial adulterer.
As they have challenged me on my own comparative impulse, I’ve thought more deeply about the relationships between texts, and my own agency as a scholar in asserting and depicting those relationships. I’ve also explored ways to clarify and support the relationships I identify for my students. As I searched for a framework to make these relationships more compelling, I remembered my study of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances, which seemed in many ways uniquely suitable.
I recently gave a midterm in my section of Myths of the World, a large lecture class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.
I have been extremely proud, and more than a little shocked, that since introducing this version of the midterm in my classes, several students have told me that they actually had “fun” answering the essay question.
The essay asks students to make comparisons between texts we have read by considering the question:
What makes a hero?
In class, as we read each text, I have challenged them to think about several issues related to this topic:
- By what means does the author establish for us that the character is heroic? What details of his/her representation make it clear that we are meant to valorize a certain character? What do these choices help us understand about what it means to be heroic in the context of the story?
- How does the depiction of heroic figures help us to understand the beliefs, attitudes, and values of the society that produced them? If a hero is represented as an ideal, an object of admiration and aspiration, what does this show us about the traits and behaviors that were valorized in a particular culture?
- How might stories of heroic figures inspire but also constrain real individuals in a society as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to be?
- Would we, now, consider this figure heroic? Why or why not? How does this help us understand our own sociocultural beliefs, attitudes, and values?
The exam asks them to consider these questions in relation to two of the texts we have read and discussed in class so far, but it also adds an unexpected element:
Then, for your final paragraph, choose a heroic figure from our own contemporary culture. This doesn’t necessarily need to be your own personal hero – it should be someone you feel is admired by a large number of people in our society. This could be a fictional character (like a superhero, or action hero), or a real person who is considered a hero by a significant portion of society. Discuss what this heroic figure reveals about our own cultural values, AND, whether this represents a change from the values of the ancient cultures you discussed, or remains consistent with those ancient values.
This is the part my students really like. Making connections between the stories we have read and their own experience and frame of reference helps make the texts we have read together seem more meaningful to them. And they love having the opportunity to talk about stories and characters that they feel strongly about, and comment on aspects of their own culture and society.
The first time I gave students this question, I was fascinated to see which figures my students picked, so this time around I decided to catalog their responses.
Here is an overview of my students’ choice of heroes.
Use this gallery to explore Aesop’s fables. Each picture represents one of the fables; captions provide the morals taught by each fable. Does one of the images catch your eye? Does one of these stories teach a lesson that intrigues you?
“When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make?
We ascribe an agency to language, a power to injure, and position ourselves as the objects of its injurious trajectory. We claim that language acts, and acts against us, and the claim we make is a further instance of language, one which seeks to arrest the force of the prior instance.
Thus, we exercise the force of language even as we seek to counter its force, caught up in a bind that no act of censorship can undo.”
— Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative
In recent days, a great deal of thought, and even more raw emotion, has been generated by the topic of rhetoric — rhetoric about politics, about race and culture, about identity and belonging, and about exclusion and distrust. I think now, more than ever, we as a society are confronted with the power — the potentially abusive power — of language.
And yet, when considering the power language has to wound, I cannot help recalling Judith Butler’s assertion, in Excitable Speech, of the paradoxical nature of language’s power — that in trying to curtail the power of language, we inadvertently accede to it. Then again, in accepting the power language has over us, we can likewise recognize it as a power we can wield. Though the book is now creeping up on its twentieth anniversary, it seems more relevant than ever to remember both the warning and the promise it contains.
I recently had occasion to review my notes on Derrida’s Monoligualism of the Other, a book I first read in grad school. I was developing my dissertation at the time, and I’ve realized now how much Derrida’s discussion in this book has influenced many of the questions I ask about the body and embodiment in literature.
Astound your teachers by becoming a metaphor master! Impress your friends with your command of the literal and figurative! In this lesson you’ll get the quick and dirty, just-the-facts-ma’am introduction to what figurative language is, and how and when to use it. You’ll meet metaphors and similes, find examples in everything from sonnets to Selena Gomez, and then create a few original ones yourself. Once you know these concepts inside and out, learn to recognize them, and even come up with your own, you’ll boost your reading comprehension, your vocabulary, AND your writing skills.
If you’ve ever read a book, listened to the radio, or had basically any kind of human interaction, then you’ve already had a lot of experience with figurative language.
If you were raised by wolves in the forgotten wilds of Ontario, you’ve never heard anything like it–get ready to have your mind blown.
You see, figurative language is so common that most of us use it all the time without even realizing. Assuming you’ve spent your life communicating with people and not howling at the moon, you probably have a whole store of figures of speech in your vocabulary.