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Introducing Frankenstein

Sometimes, when I teach, I feel myself lose my students. It's an almost physical sensation, like all the oxygen has been sucked from the room. It's awful.

I need my students. Even when they're not talking, I need their support, the sustenance of their attention and understanding. If I'm connecting with just one or two of them, I have the energy that I need to teach.

Today, I lost them. I was trying to explain the connection between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, and I got off on a not entirely fruitful tangent about the Declaration of Independence. As I turned from my chalkboard list of Enlightenment ideals to look at my students, it was like running into a brick wall. It almost made me dizzy.

This moment used to make me panic. My brain would empty, and I would babble and stumble, fumbling with my notes until I pulled myself together again. I'm much more smooth now—today I recovered with barely a stutter—but it's still awful.

Except for my unfortunate detour into the genius of the Founding Fathers, my introduction to Frankenstein was pretty good. I had photocopied a brief biography of Mary Shelley written for young people, but I took it upon myself to correct some of the elisions in this potted life-of-the-artist. As I suspected, the kids were impressed by the more dramatic details of Shelley's unconventional life. The teens love a rebel, which, I suspect, is part of the reason they love Frankenstein. I also grabbed their attention with a nineteenth-century depiction of a "galvanised corpse." You just can't go wrong with gore.

One of the things that I adore about my students is that I can count on them to say what's on their minds, so even when I have to lecture, I will probably be interrupted, and, in the happiest instances, the students end up doing a little of the lecturing for me. A discussion about Frankenstein's epigraph from Paradise Lost—"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?"—turned into a lively debate about the ethics of cloning, of stem-cell research, of abortion, and the philosophical and theological questions posed by modern science. This debate was begun by one of my students, which was marvelous. While the young people are happy to argue with each other, if I had asked, "What kind of issues does cloning raise?", I would have been met with blank stares.

December 8, 2003 | Permalink