Adaptation in the Writing Classroom

As I write the third episode in this series, my class is working away on their adaptation essay “tests.” We’ve concluded our course readings designed directly on adaptation and now, finally, I’m putting them to the test.

The Adaptation Essay “Test” is comprised of two brief essays, based on prompts composed mostly by students themselves. Over the course of the last three or so weeks, students submitted discussion questions on course content, which we then adapted to fit the style of an essay prompt. Afterwards, with the reformatted questions, students voted on their preferences and can choose between the winning six questions (they must respond to two).

In the spirit of composition, the prompts were designed with rhetorical analysis in mind. As students and I discussed how to ask questions (a fundamental part of any research process), I talked a lot about designing questions for a course like ours—a first-year writing course. Thinking back to the first episode of this series, some guiding key terms were audience, form, and genre. One of the reading assignments which will appear on the “test,” for example, is Thomas Leitch’s “Adaptation, the Genre,” which allows students to read and adaptation and genre conventions, and to dip their toes in academic arguments.

The “test” is based on course readings that appeared after we read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This novella was perhaps the biggest risk in my content, as I recognize the boundary between literary analysis and rhetorical analysis can be a bit difficult to navigate. In order to frame conversations, I began each class with “flash” lessons in writing, taken from the open-access writing textbooks on my syllabus. The goal, by the Adaptation Essay “Test,” was to give students the technical writing information on how to perform quote synthesis in an effort to back up a coherent thought. So, we used Stevenson’s text to practice some of the close reading strategies and to trial using keywords to better analyze and understand the meaning of a specific writing tool.

After Stevenson’s novella, we read a variety of related adaptations. The adaptations, I’ll point out, were not just creative texts. I took the classification of “adaptation” very liberally, assigning content like the Better Read Than Dead podcast episode on Jekyll and Hyde as an adaptation of the English classroom, The Incredible Hulk (2008) (Jekyll and Hyde in Superhero form, perhaps), a video essay about Ang Lee’s Hulk and toxic masculinity (an adaptation of a research paper), cartoon adaptations, and the trailer for Disney’s She-Hulk. These choices were specifically designed to practice audience and genre analysis, with an interest also in exigency and modality. These conversations also led to other writing topics, like bias. All in all, I wanted to experiment with how Stevenson’s novella would assist students in their analyses of the other media.

Did this experiment work? Were these texts as transformation as Dr. Jekyll’s serum?

It’s too soon to tell—the results are yet to be submitted. But students were generally receptive to the material. Though it seems like a difficult point in the semester (I had to adapt my teaching to wavering levels of engagement), many students expressed genuine interest in the topic. After listening to the podcast episode, for instance, I eavesdropped on one student tell her group she found the Stevenson’s novella more accessible, because the conversation about it was funny. Another student became much more actively involved once we arrived to our Hulk era: he offered the class context for the video essay, as he was the only one familiar with Ang Lee’s Hulk.

By way of conclusion, I want to be forthright in mentioning my disappointments alongside these successes. I had forgotten, in my excitement for this experiment of my own, the challenges of teaching first-year writing

Cat Champney is a second year PhD student and graduate instructor at the University of Delaware. She studies literary adaptation of the 19th century, with an emphasis on authorship and female gothic narratives. Prior to attending UD, Cat received her Master’s Degree in 19th Century Literature from Brooklyn College and a joint degree in English and Political Science from SUNY Binghamton. Her master’s thesis examined the absence of Scarlett O’Hara’s children from David Selznick’s film adaptation, Gone with the Wind. Prior to her current composition course at UD, Cat taught various composition and writing courses at CUNY Brooklyn College and City College of Technology. 

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