MADNESS IN THE METHOD, METHOD IN THE MADNESS: PREPARING A VERY LONG TEXT FOR CLASS (YES, HARRY POTTER)

As we all know, the problem of how much reading a student is willing to do for a subject complicates enormously our task. A few weeks ago, one of our Erasmus students abroad explained that a typical Literature course in the university she’s visiting, Edinburgh, might have up to 10 books –basically one per week. Often, she explained, this leads to very superficial analysis with hardly any close reading (that was her experience, I don’t know how common that is).

Last year I did include 10 books in a course, but they were 10 plays, amounting to about 1,100 pages in total. This is more or less the same amount for Victorian Literature, divided into two long novels about 450 pages long and two novellas, 100 pages each. Now, the Edinburgh course runs to about 3,500/4,500 pages, a real mountain for second language students. Hopefully, not mine for the second semester, as in the elective ‘Cultural Studies: The Harry Potter Case’ we’ll be dealing with a text which is 3,500 pages long (the Bloomsbury edition I use).

Popular culture abounds in very long print and filmed series and this is quite an obstacle for an understanding of how it works. Sagas like Rowling’s are hardly ever found in creative literature (think how exceptional Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is) but they’re quite common particularly in SF and fantasy. I wish all my luck to the brave (or foolish!) lecturer who decides to teach Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire –that, I assure you, won’t be me… The problem of how to handle a very long text is also extensive, of course, to TV series, as I know very well having written a book on one of the longest, The X-Files (1993-2001, 200 episodes, 150 hours). Fancy teaching a subject about that… or writing a PhD dissertation about The Simpsons.

I don’t think I’ll ever programme again a course with such a huge amount of reading. I’m making an exception here because students area supposed to have read the text already, and because I’ll teach the saga as a single work and not as a collection of seven novels.

Today, finally, I have finished preparing the basic materials I need to teach Harry Potter. A few things I knew from the start: a) teaching the series novel by novel makes no sense, b) I cannot bring all the books to class nor can students, c) the text must be approached from an issue-based perspective. The first thing I did, then, as I explained here back on 25-V-2013 was to select the main intradiagetic issues, combining them with extradiagetic ones such as the students’ experience as readers (to be dealt with in oral presentations). Next, I chose (as I explained on 29-V-2013) the background reading materials, a quite useful Casebook at an accessible price. What I have done, for I see no other way to do it, is prepare the whole text in advance to simplify my weekly and daily tasks.

Last autumn I read the seven novels again, pencil in hand and with the topics list in view. I marked key passages with the number(s) corresponding to each topic, and have made notes to summarise the plot by chapter. This third reading of the whole saga took me two months between October and November (obviously I mean apart from my working hours). Next, I have reduced the 3,500 pages to a 200 page digest, which includes a chapter-by-chapter summary (mine for the first three books; borrowed from acknowledged sources for the four last, which are much denser) and the selection of quotations I need to use in class, identified by each issue’s number. Not that different from preparing any other book –the difference is that instead of carrying to my classroom seven huge volumes with little papers sticking out all over, I’ll carry just the 200-page booklet. The idea is that before each session I’ll just have to select the quotations I need from this and the Casebook and then prepare an outline. Producing the booklet has taken me five full working days.

Have I typed 200 pages of quotations? No, of course not. I’ll leave it to the readers’ imagination and perspicacity to guess the (mad) method used, which is the only possible one unless you have a teaching assistant or infinite time. It can be done with photocopies but that’s not the method I’ve used. The booklet is for my exclusive personal use.

I hope this helps if you are one of those brave or foolish teachers thinking of enjoying very, very long texts in class with your students. Or a student thinking of writing a dissertation (BA, MA, PhD) about a very long text, whether this is print or filmed (the key for filmed text are, of course, the scripts).

One thing I can say is that no matter how many shortcuts you take, the text has to be read, the passages selected and the notes made. The longer the text, the long the process. What frustrates me is how much I have already forgotten as with such a long, long text details soon evaporate from our limited brains. It took the author 5 years to organise the plot and possibly not even she can has total recall of each detail.

There are days I long for one of those neural implants so common in today’s SF…

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