World Literature YouTube Enhanced

Mary-Lynn Chambers, Elizabeth City State University

As English Professors we are able to engage our imagination so that the characters in the literature we teach come alive.  We chuckle at Don Quixote as he mistakes the windmills for giants.  The entertaining novel by Cervantes tickles our funny bone, but most of our students prefer the comedic exploits of Chris Rock over the misfit antics of the antiquated hero penned by Cervantes.  There is a unanimous “Amen” when we English Professors anguish over the challenges of trying to engage our students with the musings of Macbeth.   How can we make Shakespeare come alive, be more relevant, or even more easily understood for our college students?  Between the lectures, grading papers, and student conferences it can be challenging to find material to enhance the classroom experience for our World Literature students.  Thankfully, there are many creative souls out there who have put their collective thoughts into designing and producing visuals that are much better than anything we might produce in our spare time.  Why re-invent the wheel when the extra elements needed to visually enhance the literature we are teaching are available on YouTube?  Once we have considered the dynamics of our college literature class, we need to investigate the extra elements available to us on YouTube, then we can determine how we can incorporate those elements into our own college literature classes.

Last summer I was given the opportunity to teach the second section of World Literature to an online class at the university where I was currently employed.  The average classroom at this HBCU school was around 80% African American.  Also, the average age for students in the second section of World Literature offered on campus was around 20.  Assuming that this demographic would remain consistent for the online class I would be teaching, I began researching good YouTube options for enhancing the online lectures I would be giving.  In this online class the major pieces of literature I addressed are as follows: Tartuffe by Molière; “The Chimney Sweeper” by Blake; “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Tolstoy; “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.  What follows is the process I went through to find the most effective YouTube videos for each piece of literature and how the inclusion of these YouTube videos enhanced the online experience for the students.

In order to understand Tartuffe by Molière, the student needs to have a better understanding of the author.  If the student knows why Molière wrote Tartuffe, then he or she will have a greater appreciation of the humor and charm of the play.  Since my World Literature students are around twenty years old, like most of their generation there is an appreciation of Hollywood.  Through my searching of varied YouTube options, I discovered the following movie trailer on Molière:

In this movie trailer we are exposed to the humor of Molière as well as the characters in the play Tartuffe.  The artistic license of the YouTube video lends a flair that engages the students and helps put a “face” to the characters that have remained tied to the page up to this point for the student/reader.  I explained to my online class that the video provides an opportunity for them to see a bit of the man, Molière, who devoted his life to the creation of stage illusion.  In this short two minute video the viewer is exposed to a power struggle, erotic ploys, and the potential masks that people wear.  My challenge to my students after viewing this video was to consider which of the characters in the play are they most like and why.  I suggested that the students watch this video before they start reading the play, then I suggested that they return to the video once they are half way through the reading of the play, while keeping in mind a few questions.  Two of those questions were:  Why do people wear masks?  What is Molière saying about organized religion and more specifically about the Catholic Church?  Although these two questions are not specifically answered in the video, there are references that will spur thought and discussion, which is one of the goals in any literature class.

The second piece of literature we addressed was Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper.”  There were plenty of YouTube options interpreting “The Chimney Sweeper,” but I want my students to understand the horrific plight of the chimney sweeper in a way they could relate to.  So, after a few readings and before they began to analyze the poem, I asked them to leave the written text and turn to their computers where they could view a relevant video .  The following YouTube video is the video I chose for this class; it is a satirical piece that delivers a message through humor:

The video provides clear visual and verbal elements that are easily viewed and understood in under two minutes.  I suggested to my students that they read over the poem twice so that they have a basic understanding of the material before they watched the video.  Then they watched the video to help provide some context concerning the tone and content of the poem.  After the viewing of the video, I suggested to the students that they should read the poem again from the perspective of a young boy who spent his days in a dirty chimney knowing that inevitably that activity would harm his health or kill him.  After a third and fourth reading, I directed my students to the second edition of “The Chimney Sweeper” written a few years after the first poem.  I was grateful that I had the YouTube video as a reference because the video provides a platform regarding the value of tone.  In the video the creators used a sarcastic tone to try to make a point.  This tactic of emphasizing a point was useful because it provided a platform for discussion regarding varied word choices, symbolism, and tone in the two versions of “The Chimney Sweeper” and how the variations served Blake’s agenda when writing those poems.

Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a weighty piece of literature that forces our students to dig deep regarding life and death.  To really understand Ivan Ilyich, the reader must first appreciate the perspective of the author.  I usually find that relating the history of the author can often be a dry experience for the students in the class.  In order to make the author segment of the lecture more engaging, I found a YouTube video that provides insight into the life and vision of Leo Tolstoy.  The following is the video I provided:

This video actually captures pictures and activities of this author.  We hear about his successes and we are exposed to his failures.  We are surprised at the people’s response to his death, and the two minute video leaves us wondering what Tolstoy did that created such a response from the people.  This snippet on film helps provides a backdrop to the short story of a man who grappled with what made life worth living, and on his deathbed discovers the value of people over things.  We see from this video that Tolstoy also grappled with significant questions in his own life, and continued the struggle even to his death bed.  This video not only gives some insight into the author’s life, but it also provides a jumping off point for further discussion regarding the students’ view regarding the meaning of life. For this lecture I chose to highlight the author with the extra visual element, but this piece of literature could also benefit from a video that offers visual details regarding the storyline on the life and death of Ivan Ilyich.

One of the final pieces of literature that I focused on during the five week summer session course was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  Poetry is difficult for many students to grasp; whereas,prose is much easier to understand because of the straightforward approach to the subject matter. For many students, they can’t relate to the symbolism, vocabulary, or tone that is developed within a few short lines, and even the activity of re-reading poetry leaves many a student confused and frustrated.  Understanding that this poetry plight is true for many college students who are not English majors and are just fulfilling a required course, I wanted to help my students see that they can approach a piece of poetry from a number of different perspectives.  So, I suggested an unusual approach to the reading of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem. Even before my students opened their anthology and read a word, I asked them to watch the following video:

As I mentioned earlier, about 80% of my students are African American twenty year olds.  I chose this video because the rap genre is easily relatable for a majority of my viewers. I wanted my students to see that this poem has aspects that intrigue and inspire even the 21st century college student.

After an independent reading of the poem, I suggested that the second reading of the poem be done in conjunction with T.S. Eliot’s own voice.  I provided the following link for that second reading:

At this point in the lecture, I would recommend that you discuss the vocabulary and help the students see the significance of phrases used.  Ask the students to identify the terms or phrases that jumped out to them.  You can also give them research opportunities like discovering what the “yellow fog” is.

Remind the students that when we studied “The Chimney Sweeper” earlier, the re-reading was a key to discovery.  Then help them to see that re-reading this longer poem is just as necessary.  However, a student’s mind can wander when a poem is a longer length, so wise readers take different approaches to reading through the poem.  At this point I suggest they use the following YouTube video to help provide the needed variety in their readings:

What I love about this particular YouTube video is that it provides a current setting for the reading of this poem.  The video shots highlight words and phrases, but they also provide meaning and emotion that is part of this piece of literature.  You can take thisopportunity to discuss the value of different approaches to a single piece of literature.  Ask the students how this particular video has changed their view of what T.S. Eliot is trying to address.  The wonderful thing about this poem is that the theme is common to all.  Whether we were in fourth grade or in college, we have all had a crush on someone who did not return the same sentiments.  Our range of emotions can bounce from disappointment to embarrassment to a broken heart, but the theme of unrequited love is one we all share.

At the end of the analysis of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” I like to do one more reading where they can soak in the nuances woven into the fabric of T.S. Eliot’s writings.  At this point the poem has become very familiar to the students, so I turn to a familiar voice that most of the students know from the big screen.  The following YouTube video is the reading of the poem by Anthony Hopkins:

`This varied approach to re-reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has proven very effective for my students who have had the chance to respond to the readings on the online discussion board.

Of course, our hope in teaching literature to our students is that their interest will be piqued and they will search out more of the classics to read.  Toward the end of a semester or summer session, I have the chance to encourage the students to explore other pieces of literature.  A World Literature course provides a Table of Contents full of other acclaimed pieces that are worthy of their exploration.  If approaching the selections without the guide of an instructor is daunting for your typical literature student who is not an English major, then share with them how to gain insight or an overview through the use of YouTube videos.

The best way to approach selecting a helpful video that will provide insight regarding a reading is to wisely choose your key words that you will put into the search engine.  The title of the piece or the author’s name is an effective way to help you find what you are looking for.  I also use the +sign to help narrow my search.  For example, with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” I wanted a variety of videos, so I typed in Prufrock +reading, and I found nothing, so I learned quickly that I needed to put the whole title in quotation marks.  Next I typed in “The Love Song of J.AlfredPrufrock” + readings, and the first two items that appeared were the two readings I pasted in for your earlier viewing: one by T.S.Eliot and one by Anthony Hopkins.  Next, I changed the search words to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” + rap, and I discovered that there was a well done rap that was recorded and placed on YouTube for my usage.   I selected the term “rap” because I knew that was a genre appreciated by many of my students.

Now, I must confess that there is a lot of junk that is also posted to YouTube, so it takes some time and effort to find a video that will work well for your students.  Keep in mind your audience and what would appeal to them.  We might like the style of a particular video, but if our students don’t like it, then we have lost them to Facebook before the video ends.  Also, make sure that the visual is clear and the audio is easily understood.  If you frustrate them with a video of poor quality, then they will not take the time to watch and engage in any of the other videos you post further on in the class.  We have the privilege of introducing our students to some great works of literary art, and we need to make sure that we highlight the wonder of the pieces we study with well-done video elements.

Now it is your opportunity.  Take a look at your syllabus and select a few pieces of literature that you believe could benefit from another creative approach.  Visit YouTube and see what is available.  Make sure that you provide guidance for each piece presented, and then take the time to receive feedback from the students regarding the effectiveness of the choice you made.  If the feedback is good, the discussion from the element effective, and understanding is increased, then you have made a good choice, and the YouTube element can be added to your syllabus for future use.  Enjoy the search!