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.