Teaching Literature and Staying au courantThe Man from Nowhere and the Ancient Greeks

There is a profound joy in introducing students to classic texts. I am very grateful that I have spent so much of my working life among the splendors of ancient Greek plays, Romantic Era poets, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde.

And I am happy that as I teach I have gotten better at choosing classics which speak to my students, from 20th century writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim to more modern writers such as Mohammed Al Murr and Badriyah al Bashar. And it’s fun help them get over the newness of Moushegh Ishkhan, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Ryszard Krynicki, T’ao Yuan Ming, Tomas Tranströmer and Wisława Szymborska.

When I start the poetry class, I know that there is at least one student will be blown away by the Cold Mountain poems, Basho, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye or Fowziyah Abu-Khalid. Someone will fall in love with  “Embroidered Memory” by Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis; someone else will champion “About Mount Uludag” by Nazim Hikmet.

It’s a delight to read familiar lines and see how students relate to familiar characters. Who is going to defend Ismene this semester? Who will argue on Creon’s behalf? Who is going to laugh when Patty in Quality Street talks about her hopefulness?  If we read Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, who will my students pick as the one who deserves Chris – Kitty, Margaret or Jenny?

At the same time, it is good for me to be in the position of not knowing, to remember how it feels to be confused by a text. I became a better teacher after I spent two summers studying Arabic in Muscat. Sitting in a classroom as a student, panicking when a teacher asked me a question I did not understand, studying for a test and waiting anxiously for my grade made me more understanding of my own students.

So I try to seek out new texts to read and, perhaps, use for teaching. I scan shelves in bookstores and ask friends for suggestions. Since I don’t know Spanish writers, I asked a friend who has expertise and, following her suggestions, found “Marta Alvarado, History Professor” by Marjorie Agosín and “New Clothes” by Julia Alvarez, as well as “Tula” and “Turtle Came to See Me” by Margarita Engle.

Over the past few years, I have realized that I few students are into K-pop (BTS! Blackpink! Twice! NCT!) and so I decided to dip a toe into that cultural tradition.

The easiest way to start was movies so I duly looked at “top 10 Korean movie” lists and rented The Man from Nowhere (2010). One review mentioned that it was similar to Léon: The Professional (1994) in that it involved a young girl who is taken in and protected by a hired assassin. I thought knowing the plot would help me but there were a lot of differences, making the movie both interesting and confusing. For example, the ending surprised me. At the end of Léon, the girl is re-enrolled at her boarding school and she finally plants the small tree that she has been carrying around with her, symbolizing that she is now rooted.

At the end of The Man from Nowhere, the anti-hero asks the police for one favor and he brings the young girl he has been trying to protect back to her old neighborhood, goes into a small convenience store and buys her some composition books, writing supplies and a back-pack. Then he asks her if she will be ok. She nods, they hug and then he turns to go back into the police car.

I stared at the screen in astonishment. “That’s the end?!?” I wondered. Her father left long ago, her mother died at the start of the film, the girl was kidnapped and brutally treated for weeks, and now, with a few stationary supplies, the girl is now alone and supposed to take care of herself?

Over the next few weeks, I watched a few more and was astounded by whole new levels of plotting. It often feels like I am watching several movies at one: Assassination (2015) has freedoms fighters betrayed by team members (shades of Guns of Navarone), funny but doomed killers (shades of Bitch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and twin sisters on opposite sides of an immense cultural, educational and temperamental divide (a grown-up, super spy equivalent of the Parent Trap).

I am often bewildered as I try out comedies, historical fiction and modern thrillers such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), Masquerade (2012), The Villainess (2017) and War of the Arrows (2011).

It takes a lot of concentration to understand each movie, not because of the sub-titles but the  work of trying to create new templates and figure out new tropes. How can I visually tell the difference between good guys and bad guys? Is the behavior of this woman showing that she is good or bad? Does this style of house indicate that the owners are rich, poor, old-fashioned or trend-setters? Is the meal the characters being served haut cuisine or everyday fare? Is this behavior normal or odd?

Sometimes it is good to be lost.

Communication in Dhofar: Getting Information and (not) Giving Compliments

The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of and sympathy with a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb into the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern developed Euro-Atlantic culture.  (Gardiner, In the Service of the Sultan, 174)

I have lived overseas in four countries and spent significant amounts of time in a fifth – it is easy to change what you wear, what you eat, when you eat, what side of the road to drive on, what days are the weekend, where the light switches are located, and what time stores are open. It’s difficult to learn a foreign language, but it is far more difficult to learn and understand new communication strategies.

I am still trying to understand and articulate how the Dhofaris who I do research with use language. Some people compare understanding a foreign culture as peeling back the layers of an onion, but to me that implies that there is finite level. To me, understanding culture is like mountains beyond mountains. You get to one level only to find there are infinitely more layers to discover.

How do I learn how to read communication exchanges? I was once talking to another American about my research and how difficult it is to get access and insight into Dhofari cultures. He said, “So you must ask a lot of questions.” I said, “No, I don’t ask any questions.” The look on his face was the look of a person struggling to reframe their whole conceptual framework of what “research” means. “Research” means asking questions, right? Socratic dialog, give and take, write a plan and make enquiries, figure out what you want to know and go look for the answers. You “pursue” research; you “hunt” for answers; you “capture” data; you “acquire” answers; there are so many metaphors of the “chase” for information.

But those metaphors don’t work here. For example, when Dhofaris greet each other, “how are you” is repeated over and over. Between good friends, the first 3 or 4 passes are expected to have a positive answer. After that, and after a little time, the actual answer can finally be revealed.

No one would think of saying, “Hey, you just said four times that you are ok and now you tell me that you didn’t get the job you wanted.”  “Everything is fine,” was the appropriate thing to say before, but now it’s appropriate to reveal what is really going on. You have to wait for the information; you can’t force it.

Another communication difference is compliments. When I had moved into a new villa with a large living room I had decorated with paintings, Arabian rugs, colored glass lanterns, pillows in abundance. When men from my research group stopped by, I asked, “What do you think of the living room?” The three men stood rooted, observed everything carefully, made expressions of surprise and approval, they waved their hands elegantly; they vowed that in their lives they have never seen such decorating; they swore they did not know that such marvelous decorating was possible on this earth; they wondered out loud how was it possible to take a plain room and turn it into a palace, a castle, a dream; they declared that I must come immediately to their own houses and commence redecorating their own homes.

Compliments are often seen as something for children. A grown person should not need positive verbal reinforcements on how they look or what they have done, so my research partners were teaching me that when I disingenuously asked for compliments, I was going to get enough compliments to choke on. Either ask and accept the fake whipped cream compliments with proper abashment or (better) don’t ask. In that case I had spent three days rearranging the living room and was not really interested in the truth; the cotton candy compliments were perfect.

Compliments between adults are often used to point out a mistake. Being told I look like a bride or “nice” means I am inappropriately dressed or look exhausted. Good food is eaten without comment; over-spiced, under-cooked, burnt or over-salted food is lavishly admired. When a man receives praise on his behavior, dishdash, car, fishing ability or singing voice, there is usually a problem.

I worked for several years at MIT which has managed to connect almost all the buildings on campus to each other through underground tunnels or above-ground walkways. When you map out a path between two buildings which are distant from each other, you need to remember which floor the connection is on. For example going through a line of four buildings, you might walk between the first two building on the 3rd floor, go up the 4th floor to walk to the next building and then up to the 6th floor to get to the last building.

This is the perfect metaphor of intercultural communication – if I stayed on my own floor with my own style, I would hit cement walls. Messages sent will never be received and I won’t be able make headway. With halting steps and many mistakes, I have to try to walk up to their level of communication.

(a favorite example of cultural misunderstanding: the saying in English is ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’, in which ‘lemons’ is a metaphor for something difficult. Someone who works for Talabat misunderstood this and, to a North American, this sign means: if you don’t have enough problems in your life, we will bring you some.)

lemons

Conference presentation: Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms

Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms, Dr. Marielle Risse

English Scholars Beyond Borders International Conference, Dec. 4, 2021

Outline of ‘Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms’

1 – Introduction

2 – Choosing texts

3 – Teaching strategies

4 – Short lessons

5 – Assignments

6 – Examples: “July” by John Clare and Philoketes by Sophocles

Introduction

The title of this conference is crossing borders and that is a good metaphor for discussing literature and language teaching because it’s easy for a language teacher to cross the border between disciplines and become a literature teacher. Language teachers read books, poems and dramas and understand the concepts of genre, narrator, metaphor, connotations, etc.

But for a literature teacher to cross the border in the opposite direction and become language teacher is much more difficult. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a literature teacher in a language classroom is a miserable and lost creature.

I studied German and French at university so I am well acquainted with the grammar of those two languages, but in English – explaining the difference between when to use the present simple and present continuous? Rules for doubling consonants when making a present participle? Forming nouns off of verbs by adding ‘y’? Conditional clauses? When I have to teach a grammar class and explain ‘count’ vs. ‘non-count’ nouns or the present perfect or when to use ‘for instance’ instead of ‘for example’ – painful!

But I need to do some language teaching in all my literature class. When I walked into my first Middle Eastern literature classroom at the American University of Sharjah more than 20 years ago, I had students from 15 countries with varying levels of English. I had to blend some language information into my discussion of texts so I made a series of changes in my teaching.

In this presentation I want to explain how I teach literature differently with English major students than with literature majors, concentrating on four main areas: choosing texts, teaching strategies, short lessons and assignments.

Choosing texts

I have several publications on how to choose appropriate texts for literature classes and my main point is that it is vital to pick a text that students can connect to in some way as they are already fighting language and sometimes cultural difficulties and differences.

Dickens has written many classics, but his diction is difficult and the recurrent theme of a child cast out from the family, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, create hurdles for understanding and appreciation.  

Whereas, my students have really enjoyed Beowulf’s and Sir Gawain’s lessons about protecting one’s leader and staying loyal to one’s family.

For Shakespeare, I choose the accessible plays such as Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V with selections from King Lear and Macbeth. Not Julius Caesar or Merchant of Venice.

As 99% of my students are female, for other dramas, I often pick ones with interesting heroines caught between conflicting duties such as:

  • Alcestis, Euripides
  • Deanira, Sophocles
  • Antigone, Sophocles
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde
  • Arms and the Man, Shaw
  • Quality Street, J.M. Barrie
  • Our Town, Thornton Wilder
  • Princess Sunshine, Tawfiq Al Hakim

In terms of fiction, I use Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier to spark class discussion.

Teaching strategies – using scaffolding to create a strong foundation

reading aloud – every class, every student reads to improve pronunciation and enunciation

  • poem – one line
  • fiction – one sentence
  • drama – one character’s words

comparing narrative structures

For example, I give students the first page of an autobiography from an Omani writer and from an English writer and ask them to work in groups to figure out what is similar and what is different. English writers usually have exact dates, list full names of family members, give specific place names etc., while local writers give more general impressions. This leads to a discussion of how cultures tell stories and give opinions differently

comparisons with Arabic

  • using the evocative O = ya
  • starting sentences with verb, often used in Arabic but in English = command or question

Short lessons

word attack/ word meanings

  • homonyms – prey / pray – bear / bare
  • teach prefix/ suffix/ root – Latin and Greek – like: auto-bio-graphy

explicit grammar

e’en – ‘Tis – apostrophe for missing letter

explicit teaching of archaic speech

  • thou, thee, thy, thine
  • ye, yon, yonder, yore
  • -th ending for verbs like thinketh

explicit metaphor teaching

  • color metaphors – I’m blue, he’s yellow, I’m green
  • animals – monkey, positive and negative
  • objects – the moon (positive in Arab cultures, negative in North America/ Europe)

Assignments

recitation

helps with pronunciation, enunciation and emotion

acting

helps students use the language in a natural way

with so many essays on the internet, make assignments which check for understanding and are personal

  • compare character to someone you know
  • have a conversation with a character
  • explain the drama or novel with a friend, your mom, your husband and write a short paper explaining what you agree and disagree on – my mom thought…

supporting opinions with proof/ evidence to help get ready for IELTS and standardized English exams

‘Some people’ or ‘everyone’ vs. I think Alcestis made the right choice because I think…

Two examples

1 -teaching grammar, vocabulary and literary terminology through poetry

“July” by John Clare

Loud is the Summer’s busy song,

The smallest breeze can find a tongue,

While insects of each tiny size

Grow teasing with their melodies,

Till noon burns with its blistering breath

Around, and day lies still as death

The cricket on its bank is dumb;

The very flies forget to hum;

And, save the wagon rocking round,

The landscape sleeps without a sound.

The breeze is stopped, the lazy bough

Hath not a leaf that danceth now;

  • topic students can relate to – hot weather, sleeping in the middle of the day
  • metaphors and simile – Summer’s busy song, day lies still as death
  • alliterations – sleeps without a sound
  • expand vocabulary – breeze, tiny, melodies
  • double meanings – bank and dumb 
  • grammar – hath, danceth

2 – picking an interesting text so that students want to read and discuss

Philoketes by Sophocles        

This drama is based on one of the stories from the siege of Troy. On the way to Troy, the soldier Philoketes is hurt and his wound does not heal, so he is left on a desert island by Odysseus. After ten years of fighting against Troy, Odysseus is told that the Greeks will never win Troy without Philoketes and his magic bow so Odysseus goes back to the island,

Odysseus tries to play a trick, he stays hidden and tells a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to find Philoketes, become friends with him, and then convince Philoketes to allow Neoptolemus to hold the bow – then Neoptolemus will run to the boat with the bow and they will sail away, leaving Philoketes stranded.

The play works well because:

1) a lot of suspense – Will Odysseus’ trick work? it seems to, but at the last minute, Neoptolemus tells Philoketes the truth

2) themes of forgiveness and trust – Should Philoketes forgive Odysseus for leaving him on the island for 10 years? Should he trust that Odysseus will bring him back to his country?

3) connection to Omani society – The dilemma is solved when Hercules appears and tells Philoketes to get on the boat, that he will be safe. This highlights the importance of mediators, a very important part of Omani cultures; when two people are at an impasse, they should look for someone older/ wiser to both give advice and guarantee correct behavior.

(photo by S. B.)

Related publications

Risse, M. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts,” in Advancing English Language Education. Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou, eds.. Dubai: Zayed University Press, 2020. 221-223.

Risse, M. “Ok Kilito, I Won’t Speak Your Language: Reflections after Reading Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” in Octo-Emanations. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2020: 233-236.

Risse, M. “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website, October 7 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/

 Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017: 28-35.

Risse, M. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.

Risse, M. “Selecting the Right Literary Texts for Middle Eastern Students: Challenges and Reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2014: 165-188.

Risse, M.  “Frosty Cliffs, Frosty Aunt and Sandy Beaches: Teaching Aurora Leigh in Oman,” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.4, 2013: 123-145.

Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?: ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy 13.3, 2013: 415-427.

Risse, M. “Do You know a Creon?: Making Literature Relevant in an Omani University,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2012: 302-314.

Risse, M.  “Using Local Voices in Literature Classrooms,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 9.1, 2012. http://lthe.zu.ac.ae/index.php/lthehome/article/view/71

Risse, M.  “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30, 2011: 53-63.

Risse, M. “An Open Letter to Alice Walker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 20, 2009: B11. http://chronicle.texterity.com/chronicle/20090220b/?pg=11#pg11

I am happy to announce that I will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms”

l will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms” at the English Scholars Beyond Borders – Dhofar University International Conference. Dec. 4-5, 2021.

My presentation will argue that in non-Anglospheric institutions such as Dhofar University, literature teachers will always need to be language and culture teachers. Given that many students on the Arabian Peninsula will use English when traveling or teaching primary or secondary students, texts must be chosen for their linguistic and cultural, as well as literary, qualities. I will use examples from teaching literature, cultural studies and education on the Arabian Peninsula for over 15 years to discuss how to create syllabi which reflect both the literary canon and students’ needs, with an emphasis on teaching multi-level classes and explicating cultural narration differences, as well as sneaking in language lessons. For example, folding language teaching into literature classes means both silent editing (such as not calling attention to spoken mistakes but repeating the student’s words with the correct pronunciation and/ or grammar) and short, explicit lessons. Lastly, it is vital to foreground cultural differences in plot, characters, settings and themes, in addition to narrative structures as an analysis of a literary text in English is expected to have the author’s opinion clearly stated with proof in the form of quotes and specific details, a format that Arabian Gulf students sometimes have not learned.

Bibliographies on topics connected to Dhofar, Oman

(photo by S. B.)

Bibliography of the Modern South Arabian languages, compiled by Janet Watson and Miranda Morris, updated October 2021

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345983960_Bibliography_of_the_Modern_South_Arabian_languages_Compiled_by_Janet_Watson_and_Miranda_Morris

Bibliographies I have compiled

Houseways

Pre-historical and Historical Houseways in the Dhofar Region: Selected References

Foodways

Updated bibliography from my research on Foodways in Southern Oman

Selected Bibliography: Animals, Birds and Fish in Southern Oman

What I’ve Been Reading: Food, Cooking, Cuisine, Culture, Anthropology, & History

General

Bibliography of Works Consulted for Research on Dhofar, Oman

Annotated Bibliography of Texts Pertaining to the Dhofar Region of Oman

Short bibliography of books about Dhofar in Arabic

Teaching Literature

Selected Bibliography: Primary and Secondary Texts for Literature Teachers on the Arabian Peninsula

I am pleased to be asked to present on my work at the International College of Engineering and Management, Muscat

I will be speaking about “Using Cultural Insights to Enhance Productive Learning – How Teachers Can Work Effectively with Students” on Thursday, March 25 for the International College of Engineering and Management, Muscat.

I will be using recent research and insights from my article: Understanding the Impact of Culture on the TESOL Classroom.

 

 

 

 

 

I am pleased to announce that my chapter “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts” has been published

Risse, Marielle. 2020. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts.” Advancing English Language Education,  Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou (eds.). Dubai: Zayed University Press. 221-223.

“Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts” – This chapter focuses on a technique which increases students’ participation, creativity and analytical ability in literature and language classrooms. By teaching two texts in English together, one from a Western and one from a Middle Eastern culture, students can compare and contrast a familiar text to one that has new settings, themes, people and opinions. This analysis allows students to see how characters, leitmotifs and points of view can be both similar and different across cultures, and in turn improves students’ reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking abilities. As some teachers might be hesitant to use literature in a language classroom or be unfamiliar with texts from a different culture, this chapter gives several specific examples, in addition to explaining how to teach paired texts. When teachers overcome the fear of working with new texts, they can pass on their insights to students.

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