SEMA 2013 Teaching Monstrosity Roundtable Submissions

Clinton Atchley, Henderson State University
Monsters Я Us: Teaching Monsters in a Composition Course

ENG 3313: University Writing is one of several upper-level writing courses that students may choose to fulfill the junior/senior-level writing course requirement in our liberal arts core. This course does not count toward the English major or minor; consequently, the students who take this class come from a wide range of disciplines, backgrounds, and interests, everything from the arts and sciences to business to nursing to aviation. One of the challenges for instructors of this class is to find a middle ground of common interest for these disparate students. As a Medievalist teaching this class, I focus on monsters. I argue in my class that we create our own monsters and that it has always been this way. This is to say that each culture, each time period in history develops its own monsters depending on what it finds transgressive within itself. In a self-reflexive, self-referential way, our ancestors and we today reveal our deepest psychological fears through what we perceive as scary. Beginning with the classical period and working to the present, we explore questions such as how do monsters reflect cultural, racial, ethical values and repressed fears? how have our monsters evolved? and what does it mean to be human? For my base text, I utilize Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s chapter, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” from his text Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Using this as our framework, we research, analyze, and trace the history of monsters from the oral tradition through manuscripts, print, radio, film, and television.


Debra E. Best, California State University, Dominguez Hills
Teaching Medieval Monsters to both Graduate Students and to a Diverse Undergraduate Population

This presentation will introduce my course “Literary Monsters of Medieval England,” which I have taught since 2001 to a range of students, including undergraduate honors students, a diverse undergraduate population, and graduate students who may or may not have had a course Chaucer. While such a specialized course may not exist in every university‚Äôs curriculum, the questions it raises enhance discussion in any medieval literature course. Its central questions examine how monsters function in defining the self, society, and perceived threats. Is something a monster just because it appears non-human or non-animal? How do monsters elevate the hero? How does depicting foreign and non-Christian peoples as monsters help to justify conquest? How do monsters represent sin? How do they articulate threats to the family? Through these questions, students gain insight into the fears and social concerns dominating medieval culture and modern society. This theme leads students into focused readings of texts ranging from Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to lesser known saint’s lives, romances, chronicles, travel works, and religious instructional manuals. Looking at how this course has changed depending upon its core audience, this presentation will explore how one adapts the study of monsters to fulfill the needs of various student populations. How can monsters increase the appeal of medieval literature to an underprepared and diverse student body? How can monsters increase the depth of knowledge of advanced graduate students? How does one approach a class filled with students with vast differences in skills and interests?


Bernard Lewis, Murray State University
A Monstrous Panel Indeed!

Monsters have always been the rage. Literature, legend, and myth are rich with fabulous animals, chimera, shape-shifters, green men, changelings, and people who are just not ordinary. Simply put, we have historically given much attention to physical differences and cultural “otherness.” From Nosferatu to Dracula, to Anne Rice’s Interview with Louis Pointe du lac, to Stephanie Meyer’s sparkling daylight walkers, the vampire survives. From Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” to Christopher Marlowe’s Duke Ferdinand (The Duchess of Malfi), to Professor Lupin of Harry Potter fame, the werewolf persists as well. Recent movies and television series have focused on the ancient rivalry of the two species. In classroom discussion, “Bisclavret” invites important questions about monstrosity: Who is more monstrous, the werewolf or the wife? How monstrous does one have to be to be marginalized, to become “other?” And, of course, there is the irresistible question of hereditary maiming. Although we want to fear the “other” and the monstrous, we sometimes choose to glamorize them. This panel might ask what informs our choices? Why do we prefer the wolf over the wife? Why do we sometimes sympathize with the vampire? Beowulf is no ordinary man; he is a killing machine. Then why do we like him? And why is he less monstrous than Grendel? After all, Grendel’s mother does not think her son is monstrous at all. How do we identify and define our monsters? And why do we seem to need them?

Tina Boyer, Wake Forest University
Teaching German Monsters 

This proposal addresses two different aspects of teaching medieval monstrosity at the undergraduate level. One is to incorporate a course on medieval monsters (specifically German and Norse) as part of a first year seminar to introduce freshmen to the German medieval period via instances of monstrous encounters in English translation. Secondly, teaching medieval monstrosity as a German language course at the junior and senior level. Both courses benefit from using monster theory as the primary approach by giving students access to a time period through a medium they are comfortable discussing. Monsters are popular and seem familiar, but when closely analyzed provide deeper insight into medieval culture and by extension into our own. This proves that monsters can provide a bridge, not only across disciplines and time periods, but also languages and cultures.

I will provide different texts and theories that can be accessed both in English and in German, but will also show syllabus development. What worked and what didn’t. To date, I have taught one of these courses each semester and have developed a deeper understanding of what can be expected in an undergraduate curriculum, but can also be used at the graduate level.


Melissa Ridley Elmes UNC-Greensboro
Monsters: the Gateway to Academia

Introductory courses in English such as intro to literature, intro to poetry, and intro to narrative tend to be conducted as introductions to the literary canon, comprising authors and works historically considered the ones “students should know”. However, such an approach can lead to outcomes such as students thinking English is boring, students thinking college-level classes are “just like high school AP class”, or students thinking “I don’t understand this”. These courses tend to be overlooked as the ones that could become a gateway for students to learn to think in new and interesting ways about their relationship to literature, culture, and with the university. Structuring them around themes like “heroes and monsters” rather than canonically can accomplish this. In my talk I will review how I structure my intro to narrative course and provide a copy of the course outline to roundtable attendants as an exemplar of how such a course can become an accessible gateway into academia for students, especially those who have struggled in school or who are first-generation university students unsure of their ability. Developing a syllabus around familiar subjects of interest, such as monsters, gives these students an early opportunity to see in very tangible way that the university is not an inaccessible “Dead White Anglo Saxon Guys” club, but rather a space for considering themselves and the world around them in ways they otherwise might not experience.