Guest Post: Instructor Rachel Heffner-Burns, Doctoral Candidate at Lehigh University, Discusses YA Literature in the Communications Classroom
In this series of guest posts, a variety of experts in children's and YA literature from public higher education organizations will discuss their perception of the role of children's and YA literature in public higher education curricula.
This post in the series is brought to you by Rachel Heffner-Burns, Doctoral Candidate at Lehigh University, and an adjunct faculty member of Norwalk Community College and Southern New Hampshire University.
[Views and opinions expressed here are the authors' own, and not those of the Universities or any other organization.]
Rachel Heffner-Burns is a doctoral candidate at Lehigh University, where she studies the intersections between American religious history and American poetry and poetics in the work of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and H.D. While she taught composition and literature at Lehigh up until this past year, she is now an adjunct faculty member of Norwalk Community College and Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches first year composition and interdisciplinary approaches to popular culture, respectively. In her classes at Lehigh, Rachel drew upon her prior work for her MA thesis on children’s fantasy fiction in an effort to use young adult literature in the humanities classroom. She employed adolescent novels (and their theatrical adaptations) in order to facilitate discussions of sociocultural themes and current events, and to offer students dynamic material from which to write their persuasive essays. She now utilizes samples from these same literary and filmed works in her introduction to popular culture classes for SNHU.
from As a graduate student and a teaching fellow in the English Department at Lehigh University, I was incredibly lucky to be able to design and to teach my own first year composition courses within the guidelines and frameworks prescribed by the department. (This is true for far too few graduate students in my position!) Because of this privilege, I was able to incorporate my love for young adult literature and to put my prior scholarship to good use within the composition and literature courses I taught there.
First year composition at Lehigh is divided into two separate semester-length courses: English 1 or “Critical Reading and Composition” and English 2 or “Research and Argument.” In English 1 courses, students focus on learning how to engage thoughtfully in dialogue with other writers and speakers. In these first term introductory composition courses, I asked students to think about significant issues at the center of public concern, like the state of American education, the nature of living within an increasingly digital world, or how constructs like social class, race, or gender shape the development of personal identity and community. Novels like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins were absolutely pivotal to the success of some of these classes, both for their broad pop cultural literary appeal to my students and for their complex explorations of twenty-first century social crises.
In my units on digital technology and social media, for example, my students and I examined how Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark navigated living in the totalitarian Panem and surviving in the Games arena by presenting specific public versions of themselves for the viewing citizens of the Capitol and the Districts. I asked my students what their identities mean to them if they have to think of their private selves and their public selves separately, as distinct (if related) parts of their personas. I also asked them to contrast Katniss’s self-aware performance for the cameras of the arena with the way they intentionally craft their images, personas, and “brands” for presentation on social media platforms. In this vein, we looked at three particular moments from the first novel of the series: Katniss’s description of when she learned at a young age that she needed to wear a mask in public, the intimate moment when she chooses to kiss Peeta in order to give the sponsors the romantic storyline she discovers they want, and the climactic moment at the end of the novel when she and Peeta threaten to eat the poisonous berries and to leave the Capitol without a victor for the Games. In each of these tense, captivating moments from the text, Collins gives readers a concrete sense of what it must be like to live through this type of terrifying experience where one’s very survival depends on one’s ability to separate his or her private, interior response to events from his or her outward reaction to them. We explored how Katniss was forced to learn this contradictory, confusing impulse to control her words, her emotional facial expressions, and her body language as a means of survival and to consider what this sacrifice costs her. I then asked my students to write essays delving into how these themes are portrayed within the novel (and/or the film) or to contrast Katniss’s or Peeta’s experience of performing their identities in this way with their own practices on social media. Ultimately, we tried to answer these two questions: how do these moments, and their dangerous conflation of, or heartbreaking separation between Katniss's private and public selves point to what a heroine in the twenty-first century looks like? And secondly, how do these symbolic decisions within the novel comment on the manner with which Collins's adolescent audience chooses to construct their own digital selves and the way they present themselves to the world, both in real life, and online? In this way, Collins’s young adult novel provided my students with a much more compelling and imaginative way of looking at identity and performance within the digital age.
In the second semester first year courses I taught at Lehigh, I’d focus on singular theme through which I’d teach students how to use rhetoric, to conduct research, and to write in different modes and genres. One of the English 2 courses I taught most frequently was: “Gender and Popular Culture.” After introducing my students to basic components of gender theory, I frequently used The Hunger Games in a literary unit for its nuanced depiction of the gendered heroic identities of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. In this vein, I’d ask students to contrast these characters’ interior personas with how they behaved in private and in public in order to contrast their embodiment and performance of traditionally gendered heroic qualities with how they challenged social norms and perceptions within Panem and within our world as Collins’s readers. As it has been noted by many previous scholars, Collins’s deft character work (in addition to her world building skills) is a part of what has contributed to the popularity of The Hunger Games series. In this unit, I asked my students to identify the particular gender roles and expectations of Panem and to see how they reflect and refract those of our own world. We’d then explore how Katniss, Peeta, and Gale faced these gendered obstacles and used these traditional heroic expectations to their own advantage. Specifically, for example, we might contrast Katniss’s hardened exterior with Peeta’s displays of vulnerability or to compare her hunting and fighting prowess with a bow and arrow with his skills at baking or at public speaking and to think through how these heroic characterizations complicate traditional expectations of what heroes and heroines can and should do and be. My students were then tasked with writing persuasive research papers where they examined the gendered roles and traditions of Panem and/or the gendered heroic identities of the book’s protagonists in relation to their counterparts or equivalents in the real world. In doing this, my students gained experienced analyzing a fictional text, conducting research on the gender-related topics of their choice, and connecting the literature they read with how it reflected, critiqued, or challenged the lived experiences of real world readers.
At Lehigh, I also had the opportunity to teach a few introductory humanities courses online in the summer months; these classes were primarily focused on exploring how gender is witnessed, constructed, and performed through the heroic protagonists of young adult novels of the science fiction and fantasy genres. The novels we read included classics like A Wrinkle in Time and more recent favorites like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Golden Compass, and Life of Pi. In these classes, I used contemporary gender theory and cultural criticism to teach students how to evaluate the way that these particular adolescent novels created or perpetuated gender stereotypes or resisted or challenged them. We also considered how the fantastical worlds of these stories rendered symbolism to readers and thereby communicated ideas about masculinity, femininity, and androgyny, and potentially male and female forms of heroism. Despite the online (and thereby potentially distancing) nature of these courses, my students and I connected intimately over a shared love of children’s literature and these novels’ theatrical adaptations into film. And the final persuasive research papers these students wrote – analyzing the gendered identities and cultural dynamics of their choice of young adult sci fi or fantasy novels - remain some of the most powerful work my students have ever produced. As a result of these incredibly rewarding teaching experiences, I am convinced that young adult literature, especially that of the fantasy and science fiction genres, should be integrated into a far greater number of composition and literature courses than it is being used in currently. When our students are faced with characters they can recognize as resembling themselves and fantastical worlds in which our society is reflected, but not directly mirrored, they are given the capacity to do some of their most insightful work and to grow as writers and as critical thinkers.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.