Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Some Dubious Ideas and Some Good That Came of Them

Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Some Dubious Ideas and Some Good That Came of Them

When I learned my first child would be a boy, one of my first stops was the library, where I checked out a huge stack of books about boys: how they think, how they learn, how they’re socialized, with all the attendant parental and teacherly how-tos and cautionary tales. I was wary of essentialism, but willing to consider the possibility that the big recent developments in neuroscience might have something new to tell me. Since my son would not be born yet for some months, I tried out the most promising of the books’ insights on my students. Childhood in a masculine mode–any version of a masculine mode–is a foreign country to me. I wanted what I always want when I’m about to fly off to terra incognita. I wanted a map, a phrasebook, and a Rick Steves guide to the notable sights. That and a good highlighter pen will get me through as much touristing as I’ve ever been able to afford.

Only it turned out I wasn’t a tourist, or even a long-term expatriate. I was a character in a portal fantasy, the kind this essay on io9 praises, in which people cross through the portal from each world into the other, and nobody’s normality is stable. As it turned out, I had lived my entire life as a character in that portal fantasy without knowing it. None of my maps or phrasebooks could be relied upon.

This is the one book from that stack that I would still recommend.
This is the one book from that stack that I would still recommend.

The heap of books on boys’ brains was fascinating, but you know what happens to Actual Science when it gets into books for laypeople. On the rare occasion when an Actual Scientist tries to write one, the resulting book may be helpful to laypeople and credible to experts (Thank you, Lise Eliot!), but it is unlikely to sell as many copies as a book by a non-scientist far removed from the actual research yet willing to make sweeping generalizations about its practical applications.

I knew I did not have the chops to tell a good developmental psychology experiment from a bad one, so I made my peace with the popularizers. As far as I can tell from asking people who can tell a good experiment from a bad one, all the popularizers overstate the case flagrantly. There are differences between students we lump together as male and the students we lump together as female, but in many ways individual differences within those groups dwarf the differences between them. The problem with the portal fantasy plot I tried to use to think about boys’ childhoods was that every person is a universe, and we’re all potentially alien to one another. What could most of  these books really tell me, beyond the thing I’d already learned: my students are not me. I keep trying to figure out who they are instead. It seemed that year that considering gender and biological sex might not be a total dead end in my efforts to learn about the full range of humans I teach–my own kids included.

More truthiness than science here, yet this is the book from my stack that your kids teachers at school are most likely to have read.
More truthiness than science here, yet this is the book from my stack that your kid's teachers at school are most likely to have read.

The claims that were most relevant to me as a writing teacher who makes one-on-one house calls mostly involved choices in reading material–and, as a fantasist, I already had that covered–and freedom to move. Most of the popularizers agreed that asking boys and young men to sit still for long periods of time constituted a form of sex discrimination, on the grounds that most young girls can comply with such a requirement and most young boys can’t. If only male students could be permitted to walk, to run, to shoot hoops while discussing literature, they’d all learn better–that was the claim. (We might all be better off if no children were able to comply with the sit-down-and-shut-up model of teaching, if there turns out to be substance under the layer of hyperbole in this New York Times article about how our chairs are killing us.)

So, thanks to Michael Gurian’s book The Minds of Boys, I ended up kicking a ball around the basement with a seventh grader while he talked his way through composing and revising an epic tale of dragons, good versus evil, and wizards gone wrong. The project was kind of derivative, but hey, seventh grade. I was far better at asking questions to help him develop his plot and characters than at kicking the ball, yet my willingness to engage in something reminiscent of soccer was a big part of why I got paid to do that teaching. My student’s parents were desperate to get their son to find something about writing that he did not hate. They had tried everything else. Kicking a ball is not exactly about writing, but by the time that tutoring gig wound down, the kid produced a fairly polished final draft that weighed in at 12,000 words and was considerably better than The Eye of Argon.

My suggestion of integrating physical movement into the writing process was what got the student and his parents to work with me, but aside from that initial discussion, does it matter that we spent those hours literally on our feet rather than in chairs? And if it does make a difference, would it have been as big a difference if the student had been a girl? I don’t know, and I can probably never find out for sure; it’s hard to imagine a form of teaching less conducive to real scientific experimentation than freelance tutoring. I do know I would try it again if my very unscientific intuition about tradecraft suggested it would help a specific student, regardless of the student’s gender.

Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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