Rethinking Heroes

Last year was the first year I taught my Hero with a Thousand Faces course, which is based upon Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The course, by the way, begins with a study of the monomyth, followed by study of several works of literature and films that exhibit the hero’s journey. I wanted to start the year with a classic text, and students had read The Odyssey in 9th grade, so I settled on The Iliad. I had not read The Iliad until the summer before, as I was preparing for the course. Last year I felt that the size and sheer weight of the storyline stopped the forward motion of the course, but it was the first time I’d ever taught the work, and sometimes I have noticed that until I feel I know a work better, I spend too long on some parts, not enough on others, and with large works like The Iliad, which can be read in pieces rather than its entirety, I don’t know what to skip and summarize and what to give close attention to. I chalked my troubles up to my unfamiliarity with the text.

This year, I really think that the problem is with the book. I have slashed parts of the book from our study, and it’s still dragging. It’s just too long to begin this course with, I think, and I plan to replace it next year with a collection of Greek, Norse, and Celtic myths (perhaps Hercules, Perseus, Cuchulainn, and the like). It would give students the opportunity to practice applying Campbell’s theories to a number of short works prior to tackling a longer work. Also, I am not too sure The Iliad is the best work to illustrate Campbell’s theories: Achilles may not even be a hero, and he doesn’t really journey anywhere, and though Hector may be a hero (he was considered one of the Nine Worthies by medieval writers), his story doesn’t really fit the journey either. I love the work, and I think it’s great for students to read and be exposed to, but I am thinking it’s not a good fit for this course.

Another logistical problem unique to my situation is the fact that the Jewish holidays in September and October often create challenges in terms of timing assignments, as I cannot give students homework that is due the day after a Jewish holiday. The past two years in a row, we have encountered some problems with finishing The Iliad as the holidays approach. I think all in all, it will be a much better solution to start small with some shorter hero stories from mythology.

I think it’s a good practice to examine the books, units, and activities we do each year to see if they are still working for our current students. I was dismayed to learn this week that this practice isn’t as widespread as I thought, and I wonder why.

7 thoughts on “Rethinking Heroes”

  1. Achilles is problematic–ediitng the Iliad to fit secondary constraints never goes well for me either. I teach the Iliad at the local art college and that always works–they self-select the most powerful chapters, fueled by their visual strengths. Last year, my World Lit seniors (I am jealous of your Campbell course) became obsessed with Norse mythology and Icelandic myths. With some quick thinking, we were able to refocus the unit–and it was a great lead in to the Arthurian legends. And there is a James Baldwin translation of Siegfried, if you care to layer the cultural versions.

  2. Well, I haven't taught anything exactly the same since I started teaching. 🙂

    We've been covering the idea of Heroes in senior English – we read The Hobbit. I like that Bilbo is an unlikely hero. There are so many stories/novels to choose from that focus on the hero theme.

  3. Reflection about what works and doesn't work is indeed so crucial, and yours is always so clear and thoughtful. It is encouraging. Thank you.

  4. Maybe later in the course, if you assign a paper with more than one topic option, one of the choices could be asking students to read parts of the Iliad and decide if Achilles is a hero and support their answer.

  5. I'm teaching The Odyssey right now– we don't do it in 9th grade here– and boy, do I feel your pain. They are NOT interested, don't want to read on their own (they'll SparkNote it first), and I'm in your boat on the Jewish holiday thing. I'm going with the books you suggested for The Odyssey, but I'm thinking that I'm going to intersperse with some short stories, maybe some film clips, rather than plod through for the sake of "it's what I planned on and I'm sticking with it."

    On the note of films– I'm interested in how you use them and what your administration thinks is appropriate. I'm having issues with a micromanaging principal that isn't so excited about me using films, and I'm trying to come up with a convincing argument for using them–particularly in this course, which is based on the journey theme– so I don't have to ask every single time I want to show something.

    1. Well, it's not so much that they're not interested; I just don't think it's working for the course. In terms of films, for the most part my administration trusts us to select wisely. I never have to ask if the video is part of our library. If it isn't, I do run it by my department chair, but I have never had a problem. That said, I don't use entire films often. I tend to show clips. We go to see plays on stage, so I don't even show the entirety of a Shakespeare play. I use YouTube quite a lot. I embed videos that I don't want to spend instructional time viewing (self-created videos or YouTube) on my class blog.

  6. I agree that we should revisit our curriculum every year. In some ways I am lucky because I teach many of the same students each year and I know their interests and strengths, however I'm still surprised when a lesson that worked very well one year doesn't the following year.

    I teach visual art and computer literacy (with some English tutoring on the side) at a religious Jewish school and I also have to take into consideration all the holidays. I usually start with some groundwork, for example, elements and principles of design, and leave the bigger projects until after the holidays; otherwise the students lose the continuity of what they are doing (and the paint dries up!).

    By the way, my daughter is probably sitting in an ed tech class right now (she's in education – Art and English) and I have forwarded her your url. Today is blog and wiki day 🙂

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