Back in January, you may have seen my post about using novels instead of textbooks for my ENG101 and RWR090 classes. Two of the novels worked out okay, but one was a disaster.
This semester’s 101 students weren’t as enthusiastic about Feed as last semesters, but after a rocky start, they did get into the book. The romance plot hooked them. They engaged with the book when characters made bad choices. Most importantly, it made them think. They saw clear connections between the book, the articles we read, and the TED talks we watched.
When it came time to write essays, they dug into topics like consumerism, dependence on technology, and social media. They succeeded at finding ways to narrow those things down, and while some struggled to balance all the different sources, most of them did assert and support an interesting thesis.
For now, I’ll continue to use Feed.
As much as I love this book, using it in class was a nightmare. I had thought that my students would like it because they could “see themselves” on the page and use things like the snippets of Spanish dialogue and description of familiar food to connect to the book. This backfired. I was being stupid, letting my white, middle class privilege influence my thoughts.
Yes, some students did like the descriptions of Caribbean food and connected to the relationships the characters had to their family members. Some of them had even lived in the neighborhood the story was set in. It helped a little, but mostly, they were indifferent to it or bored.
The supernatural elements were what tipped them over the edge. The idea of characters controlling and summoning spirits disturbed them. Some couldn’t understand the magic system but more found it to be too real. At least one or two students believed in spirits. One said their pastor told them not to read it, because that kind of thing “opened doors” for bad spirits to come in. Another said a friends aunt claimed to be able to control spirits and use magic to bring people good or bad luck.
The combination of being bored with the setting, disturbed by the magic, and annoyed by the main character meant they complained about the book non-stop. It didn’t help that I was out with a concussion for a good part of that unit.
When it came time to write, they trudged through a character analysis, wrote reviews for extra credit, and celebrated when it was over.
This is a book I will again for RWR090. My students did seem to enjoy it and learn a lot from it. They could relate to the experience to some of the experiences the main character had balancing American culture with her parent’s culture and loved learning about Indian and Muslim culture.
Their essays were thoughtful explorations of concepts that came up in the book, and with no small amount of hard work, they found articles about those concepts and connected them to the book.
I admit I didn’t do nearly as much with it as I should’ve. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of it, and there is tons of untapped potential to explore in a new semester with a new group of students. I think I was a little drained or burn out from the rougher portions of the semester. However, with time to reflect on and examine what I did and didn’t do, I can make much better use of it next time.
I’m interested to hear if any one else has used novels in a first year writing course – one that isn’t specifically geared towards literature. What did you use? How did it go? Will you do it again? Why or why not?