Adaptation in the Writing Classroom

By Cat Champney

(FERPA Disclaimer: students are quoted in this article. All personally identifying information has been removed. Regardless, though, the students quoted here gave written consent to use their words.)

The goal for the first few weeks of my class sound simple: define adaptation. However, that’s not really so easy. As I mentioned in my first post, arriving at a single definition for adaptation is futile and perhaps even useless. We agree on a central definition of adaptation… then what?

After watching Adaptation (2002), I had students talk about what they thought adaptation meant, to the film. What does the film tell us about adaptation, and how might those features help us define it? The film allowed us to talk about adaptation in different dimensions: how was it a theme? How was it a genre? What about a format, or medium? Some of the class dipped into some literary/film analysis, which I entertained, but we quickly focused on the rhetoric of the film and its paratexts: what can Adaptation tell us about adaptation in writing?

The following class, we discussed two online articles about the Netflix adaptation of Persuasion. After briefly recapping our previous discussion, we talked about how the two authors considered adaptation in their arguments and what specific rhetorical devices they used to signal those considerations. I selected both articles because they used somewhat inflammatory language—terms like “Fleabagification”—to provoke students’ realization of the power of rhetoric. Students quickly came to realize that both authors, in a similar way, projected certain expectations on to adaptations. Expectations, of course, quickly gave way to talking about audience and genre.

Prior to assigning the film, I was nervous to its reception. Would students be caught up in the meaning of it all, or would we be able to focus on rhetoric? Would they be able to compare a film to an argumentative essay online? Or, would it be too distracting?

Ultimately, all of these fears were unfounded. There was value in the change of medium, from the film to the online article, and the topic was met with high levels of engagement. Even if it wasn’t apparent that students had read closely, they were listening to others’ elaborations and contributing their own thoughts on the many nuances to adaptation. I took this opportunity to open the room and ask about personal connections to the material: how do these qualities of adaptation apply to our own creation and writing processes?

These questions were strategically placed. My first assignment in the course is a low-stakes diagnostic essay. I began using these when I was an adjunct instructor as a way to gauge students’ strengths and weaknesses. I explain the essays as both introductions and samples: I want students to try their best to introduce their writing to me, without the added stress of grades. Then, students and I work together throughout the semester to build on their strengths and practice their weaknesses. The prompt for the essay is intentionally basic: I ask a general question and encourage students to use a mix of course material and personal experiences to back up some sort of central claim.

For this essay, as you might have guessed, I asked, what is an adaptation? Although only a sampling, I’ve included some interesting replies:

“An adaptation is a process of change due to disruption in the environment. The world’s smallest sunflower adapted to the sidewalk by wriggling its flexible stem through the fissures in the rock. This process of tactical revision, however, extends beyond nature; when a written work is to be ‘adapted,’ it too must acquire a new set of traits—a unique demeanor and fresh commentary…” (my emphasis)

“An interesting paradox I can think of that relates to this is the Ship of Theseus… But what if, over time, every part on the boat got damaged, and replaced with a new part? Would this still be the same ship? Would it be a new, different ship with a different identity?”

“Often it depends on the context of the work being adapted, however this basic format of an adaptation requires a balance. An adaptation is the balance between the accuracy of the original work and the updating to bring modern ideas into the new pieces of work”

Other students spoke of adaptation more generally, referring to their own adaptation from high school student to college student. Though I disagree with the categorization, many of them found such personal adaptations “unremarkable”—even though they’ve build an entirely new identity. Another student created an adaptation trifecta: Nature, Literature, and Culture as three ways to “center” or ground adaptation, while others approached the question in a less structured manner, organizing their paragraphs by evidence instead.

While I think every teacher is impressed with their students’ work, I found myself struck by the variety in their responses, even using the same evidence. I was happy to see some students flat out disagree with the argumentative essays, providing counter examples like Harry Potter and other media to construct their own definitions. While it’s just a start, that was the point in this assignment: encouraging students to think about how they define adaptation and how to enter into existing conversations about it. What matters, and to whom?

The next few weeks of the semester will build on their responses to this question and their skills in discussion questions about Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde—how does this frequently-adapted novella inform us further about adaptation, and rhetoric? While there will certainly be challenges with this text, I look forward to talking about it… and reporting on it here!

Until next time!

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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Adaptation in the Writing Classroom

By Cat Champney

Adaptation is an appropriate key term for many composition instructors returning to the classroom for the first time since the lockdowns in 2020. All of us have had to change our syllabi, our assignments, and our mindsets around teaching composition in the digital, pandemic age. Even if we were tech-savvy before, a shift in and out of online classrooms (and potentially some time in a hybrid classroom) left its mark on all of our individual psyches. On top of the pandemic, we are living in an era of misinformation: teaching students how to evaluate sources, recognize bias, and write for specific audiences holds near-apocalyptic prescience.  

After reflecting on my own adaptation as an educator and, frankly, as a human being, I asked—why not center the composition classroom in adaptation itself? Why not talk directly about our shared experiences through adaptation as a process and medium? 

These questions, I must admit, were not brought on only by the pandemic and social injustices that sparked adaptation for so many of us in the last few years. As an adaptation scholar, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about adaptation texts, how we define them (if we can), why we define them (if we do), and how adaptation studies fit in with English departments. For some, an adaptation is simply a film born out of a movie—and, of course, the book is always better than the movie. For others—myself and other adaptation scholars—that definition limits the vast potentialities of our field… and the book is not always better than the movie, my apologies. Before formally becoming an adaptationist (in training), I was most interested in the nineteenth century: but I never understood why many disdained movies that recreated the period. Who cares if Netflix’s Persuasion uses contemporary slang? Does it not send young, new readers back to Austen’s novel? I became more interested in other questions: what is the adaptation doing? – how does it do it – and who does it do it for?

As students begin to try and define themselves and their writing processes—which are both perhaps equally undefinable—why not use adaptation, then, as both a metaphor and a literal tool for first-year writing instruction? What is their writing doing? How is their writing functioning? What rhetorical devices achieve what ends? Who are they writing for?

Definition uncertainty aside, the process of adaptation in theory is a very useful, adaptable, term for writing instruction. Marty Gould writes, “when we focus our student’s attention on adaptation as a process, we help them understand that verbal and visual communication necessitates multiple contingent decisions involving audience, medium, and message, and this perspective should make them more aware of form and content in their own writing” (my italics, 636). That is, like many adaptationists, students are capable of reading beyond book fidelity (how loyal an adaptation is to its “source” text) in order to understand the process of adaptation in creation. How does adaptation as a process, then, help us to understand writing today? Especially in a first-year classroom, where students adapt to changes in location, lifestyle, and academic rigor, how might adaptation aid students writing for their institution and beyond?

All of these questions are the basis for my composition syllabus this semester, though I realize it’s doubtful I’ll form concrete responses in one semester, or twenty. In the opening of my syllabus, I ask students a serious of framing questions: “What is an adaptation? How do we adapt our writing for new audiences? How can we adapt writing from one format (a novel, or research paper) to another (a film, or digital advertisement?” By looking at adaptations and formulating hypotheses about the processes of adaptation, I hope that students then understand that they have the power to replicate, transform, and recreate their own reading and writing processes. Not to sound too metaphoric, but I hope students strive to become adaptations of themselves, in a way, well positioned to write for the college classroom and beyond.

My assignments and readings for the semester emphasize adaptation, with a secondary emphasis on digital media and content beyond creative texts—in conjunction with our department’s interest in multimodal writing. I began the semester with a viewing of Adaptation (2002), followed closely by two online articles about Netflix’s recent Persuasion (2022). The first assignment in the course is a combination of a literacy narrative and a traditional five paragraph essay: I asked students to try and define “adaptation” in three pages, using examples and evidence from the course content and personal experience. The definition they define in their essay will help them frame the rest of the semester, as we talk about adaptation, but also exemplify how reading new texts in new ways can change opinions, mindsets, and writing strategies. They should look at this first essay / first definition not as a formal argument that they must defend, but as a work-in-progress… much like their reading and writing processes at this stage in the semester.

As an overview—and by way of conclusion for this post—I intend this regular blog series to track the success of adaptation in the composition classroom. By the end of the semester (and the culmination of this series) I hope to find answers to the following questions:

First, how does adaptation function as a key term, a strategy, and a metaphor in first-year writing?

Second, what are the challenges and pitfalls of talking about adaptation? Will the class succumb to performing literary analysis, as opposed to rhetorical analysis? Or, will they challenge this opposition altogether?

Lastly, how can I adapt the syllabus, my own teaching, and my own understanding of adaptation to better meet the needs of post-pandemic students and multimodal English departments?

Though this is a large undertaking, I am not without support. Scholars like Thomas Leitch, Marty Gould, Julie Sanders, and Kamilla Elliott (to name only a few) all have excellent scholarship on adaptation in the English department. Similarly, the learning goals and objectives for first year composition at the University of Delaware are extremely compatible with such an undertaking and in line with pressure from adaptationists to include adaptation in the English classroom. Key terms from these goals, such as audience, context, multimodal, community, revising, and more apply to the process of adaptation, which is in itself a process of writing and rewriting. I will revisit these goals and objectives frequently in this series, to pinpoint how adaptations (texts) and adaptation (process) complete and exceed such goals and objectives.

Finally, and selfishly, I hope that this project works towards more unity between literature and composition departments. Though the University of Delaware is more united than most, it would be irresponsible to claim that there does not exist any tension between writing studies and literary studies—adaptation studies, in this case, might be a perfect mediator to two to-be-divorced parents who, to follow the metaphor, should remain married rather than pursue co-parenting.

Throughout the semester, I’m happy to invite visitors to class sessions, share content, and collaborate with other instructors on this endeavor—you can reach me at champney@udel.edu.

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.