Monsters around the World: Expanding Students’ Cross-Cultural Competencies
December 22, 2022
by Alex Watkins, Adjunct Professor, Composition and Literary Studies
How do you condense 300 (or more) years of literature into sixteen weeks? This is the question I ask myself each semester that I teach one of the survey courses offered in the Composition and Literary Studies department. When, for example, I’m teaching English Literature from the 18th Century to the Present (ENGL2323), I feel like my goal is to give students a strong sense of what happened, literarily, from 1700-2022. When I frame it this way, it seems like a Herculean task. What’s important? How do I give a sense of how culture has evolved, while still highlighting the universal and relatable human experiences that make a book like Frankenstein relatable and interesting for college students? How do I ensure that students get a broad, deep understanding of the major movements in literary history while also highlighting diverse and underrepresented authors to open up the canon? Ultimately, it involves me making choices, like to only focus on monster literature, and inevitably, something is always left out. Students would ask about what people were writing in India about the Indian Mutiny, or whether and how nonwhite proponents of slavery’s abolition used different tactics to show their humanity and effect change. More frequently, they would say something along the lines of “Ugh, not another white guy. In my experiences, certainly in the classes I took in undergraduate and in the classes I planned, English literature professors often focus on traditionally influential figures–Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Joyce–and leave out fundamental authors writing in the margins as well as important traces of contact and global consciousness that fundamentally influenced the British psyche in its colonial and postcolonial years. No matter what, the sixteen weeks never feels like enough to fit it all in, and especially not enough to give a deep, diverse sense of the global and specific cultural histories that literature archives and addresses. As a result, my classes often ended up focusing on the hyper-specific experiences of white people living in urban England, and the global influences were often briefly mentioned to be pushed to the side.
Luckily, during the 2021-2022 academic year, I was fortunate to participate in the Global Gender and Women’s Studies FLC offered as a collaboration between ACC and the University of Texas at Austin-Hemispheres. The FLC provided significant opportunities to engage with various issues that expanded my global perspective of various issues relating to gender, including LGBTQ+ rights in the Middle East to the complicated history of microfinance in Bangladesh. The FLC also offered support and inspiration in the form of faculty sharing how they had globalized their curriculum and fit in this essential component even in the tightest of curricula. As I saw my cohort brainstorming units and projects, I knew this was my opportunity to finally incorporate the global perspectives that my students had requested and that I knew were essential.
In the ENGL2323 course in Spring 2022, I focused the course on monsters. We read about so many monsters–from Frankenstein and Dracula to Psycho and Angela Carter’s “The Werewolf.” The lens of monsters allowed us to view the outsider’s perspective and discuss some fundamental cultural contact, like the evolution of zombie lore from Haiti to colonizers to modern film. I frequently drew on information from the FLC to supplement class discussions, like when we discussed the fears of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War and connected that to the modern experiences with the conflict in Ukraine. I also offered students several methods of applying our course toolkit, guided primarily by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” to monsters in more contemporary or global contexts. For example, in the Monsters around the World project, students created multimodal texts tracing specific monsters with origins outside of the United Kingdom and traced their cultural significance from their origins to modern uses. Notable projects included tracing the development of jinn from the Middle East to Disney’s Aladdin, la llorona from indigenous Mexican lore to modern horror movies, and kappa from ancient Japanese water monster to cute Mario villain.
In each of these projects, students explored the ways that literature reflects specific cultural norms, changes in cross-cultural contact, and provides a link between the future and the past. Our conversations increasingly reflected this global consideration, and was enriched by discussions of differing perspectives on boundaries and difference, on gendered experiences in different cultures and societies, and overall, in the appreciation of and analysis of literature. For me, this element of self-selection and exploring literature addressed the insularity that I felt in my previous English literature courses. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the FLC and the ways that it enriched my courses, and I will continue to search for ways to incorporate global perspectives within my courses.
Monsters Around the World Project (PDF)