Using Adaptation & Performance to Teach Literary Analysis

I had a bit of a come-to-Jesus moment while reflecting on my teaching over this “break”. 1 The moment mostly involved our second level composition class – ENG 102, “Writing Through Literature.” It is also kind of an intro to lit class, but not really a hardcore lit survey – or not in my hands, anyway. It’s more like “flirting with literature” in my rendering of the thing. Bean's Engaging IdeasSo I have been running ENG 102 primarily as a writing class, usually focused around a particular theme (my last few sections used post-apocalyptic and dystopian works), in which students also encounter literature (there should be three genres included, poetry and drama are mandatory among those three), and begin to learn how to analyze and write about literature. I relied heavily on John Bean’s Engaging Ideas and had taken bits from other sources to help support students in reading, interpreting, and writing about literature. 

Earlier this year, the Twitterverse made me aware of Joanna Wolfe & Laura Wilder’s Digging Into Literature: Strategies for Reading, Analysis, and Writing. 2

I used the book to help structure my planning and teaching: it helped make ways of approaching literary analysis clear and transparent, and my students were able to make much stronger interpretive claims.

But there was still…something missing. I couldn’t name it, but something wasn’t quite clicking for me.

Backtracking for a moment: I am a theatre scholar (some of my teaching and research interests might not immediately convey this fact). When I began teaching at a college level, I often explored theatre using adaptation (e.g., reading Sophocles’ Oedipus and then Rita Dove’s Darker Face of the Earth) – and we always (of course) talked about performance and production. A regular feature in all my theatre classes – whether an intro classes for non-majors, or advanced seminars for majors – was asking students to envision productions and make deliberate choices about staging, design, and interpretation. Adaptations were usually pretty effective: students who struggled with the text(s) initially could start building connections through simple comparisons, which then let us delve more deeply into both plays. In addition, thinking through an adaptation helped make clear some of the moves inherent in interpreting the original text. So: why wasn’t I pulling on these past experiences for my Writing Through Lit class? If teaching adaptations and performance choices laid bare some of the exact same elements of literary analysis that I wanted students to deploy, why wasn’t I doing this in my course?

And then, this happened, as the semester was winding down:

The Hogarth Shakespeare series recruited popular novelists to adapt Shakespeare’s plays. And, though it is a bit of a gamble to assign a book before it’s even been published (gulp), my approach to the class began falling into place more comfortably than it has in the past.

So in my fall class, we’ll be reading The Tempest and students will then embark on a frenzy of adaptations and riffs, as we talk about how to read and write about literature, and what it means to make claims and interpretations about literature. To this end, I included several film adaptations/riffs, as a way of thinking about interpretive choices and themes brought to the fore in different approaches (we’re using the Globe’s production, Julie Taymor’s version, Forbidden Planet, and the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars. It pains me immensely that I could not find a way to fit Césaire’s Tempest in here  later edit: I managed to move things around a bit, and Césaire’s A Tempest is back in!). We will ground the class in a series of questions originally written for dramaturgy students by Elinor Fuchs (I’ve recommended this essay to so. many. people.), which is essentially an exercise in world-building: “EF’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.” The first two assignments – “Island Mapping” and “Adapting The Tempest,” were largely drawn from another invaluable book I recently came across: The Pocket Instructor / Literature: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom (Princeton UP). The latter assignment also took inspiration from colleague Jayashree Kamble’s “From Novel to TV” assignment. Students will wrap up the term by contributing to an online reading guide for Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, showing off the knowledge and abilities to read/interpret/write about lit that they acquired throughout the semester in a public forum (the prompt for this project is linked here). The syllabus and schedule (also displayed below, and you can scroll down to see the rest of the schedule, though the formatting is a bit wonky on the embedded file) are still under construction, so I am open to any suggestions or feedback (but I am open to such things always, really).

I would like to point out that I try not to think of content as the most crucial aspect of this class: teaching writing and – in this case – teaching how to read and write about literature are my primary objectives. And there are many different configurations of texts and adaptations that one could use. Sometimes, as professors, we get so hyped about content and reading lists that we let what we’re actually doing fall to the wayside: or maybe y’all don’t have this happen, but I’ve had to take a breath, step back, and reassess things in the past. It just so happens that there are certain moves I want my students to make when writing about literature – to think about themes, allusions, deeper readings, form, figurative language, historical context, and what others have said/done with the text – and then make claims about the text based on these sorts of things. And these aims can (in this instance) be reinforced by the content, and by using adaptation and performance as a way of teaching literary analysis.



I leave you with this gem (not my creation), just for the hell of it.

mine milkshake


  1. The “break” where I’m working on syllabi, a certification program, a book proposal, a conference paper, and a couple articles. That “break.”
  2. Specifically, as you can see from the tweet above, Vimala C. Pasupathi brought it to my attention – thanks!

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