The Class on Fire…

… Why I Taught The Hunger Games (in my college writing class)

Becky Goldberg

In the spring semester of 2012, in the first two writing classes that I taught as a lecturer and not a graduate student, I took a risk in teaching something that I feared might garner some criticism (or at the very least, skepticism) from my peers. I taught The Hunger Games as the primary text in Writing 102.
Like so many choices I’ve made (seriously), the origins of the decision to teach a young adult bestseller stemmed from my tenth grade English class. I have to credit Mr. Oatis (whom with I am still in touch) with being one of those rare formative educators. He opened the eyes of a bunch of self-centered teenagers to not only see and appreciate good literature, but to understand how everything that we read can serve as a reflection of the society we live in. This lesson is certainly a part of my evolution into the teacher I am, but it was the fact that Mr. Oatis hated Julius Caesar that can really be credited with influencing my decision to teach The Hunger Games. When I say that Mr. Oatis hated Julius Caesar, I am making something of an understatement. Mr. Oatis DESPISED Julius Caesar on a level that could have rivaled the fire of Cassius’ abhorrence and revulsion. 
I know that Mr. Oatis hated Julius Caesar because he told us. In teaching any of the assigned curriculum, he made no false pretenses about what he liked and didn’t like. That doesn’t go to say that he didn’t see value in teaching those things, and he was still able to instill that value upon his students; it was just apparent that he appreciated the relevance of Our Town and Billy Collins’ poetry much more than the anachronistic errors and political dysfunction of Caesar. We did too. As tenth grade students, we were able to relate to the blossoming relationship of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, we were able to laugh at Collins’ admiration of Victoria’s Secret models. As good a teacher as Mr. Oatis is and was, the importance Ancient Greek politics, even told through language of Shakespeare, is a difficult thing to express to a bunch of apathetic 15-year-olds. As and adult, and a teacher who is constantly trying to connect with my students, I understand the aversion that Mr. Oatis had.
I hate to come off as self-serving in the way that I work and teach, but I feel as though my job is immeasurably more rewarding when I am having fun doing it. Coming off of a semester that included writing my Master’s thesis, directing a theatre piece that I had devised, finishing up an internship, acting in a play, working twenty hours a week in a liquor store, and being a full-time graduate student who was also teaching, the only thing I wanted to do over the winter holidays was read something mindless. So, on the recommendation of a few friends, I picked up The Hunger Games. The three-book series was the only thing I read over my winter break, and so when it came time to picking texts for a WRT 102 syllabus, I had dystopia on the brain and started joking that I was just going to have to teach it. After really thinking about how that might work, however, it started to make sense. Despite being at a reading level a bit too young for freshmen, the themes and tone of the books are exactly the type of thing I would have loved discussing as a young college student.

I spent the next few weeks pulling together a reading list that could thematically frame the story of a teenaged girl volunteering to fight to the death on national television. I came up with the following:

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula LeGuin
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
The Utopia by Thomas More

I also found several articles, blog posts, and opinions pieces on topics ranging from child trafficking to The Jersey Shore, and we took a week of class to watch V for Vendetta.
Throughout the semester, class discussion focused primarily on the exploration and definition of “dystopia,” and what it means to live in a world where a majority of the population is forced to suffer at the hands of the few people in control. We found a frightening number of parallels between The Hunger Games and the world we are all living in.
We discussed at length the concept of schadenfreude, and my students were able to make deep and important connections between the way in which putting 24 children into an arena and watching them slaughter each other on national TV is not so different from the million views that YouTube received on the video of Snooki getting punched in the face. My students began calling themselves out on the moments in life when they’ve taken pleasure in the exploitation or pain of another individual, and as a class we were able to expose and question this fault in everything from the news media to college hazing rituals.
We talked about the idea of safety, and in looking at both The Hunger Games and V for Vendetta debated whether it was preferable to live in a society that is totally free but has danger lurking around every corner, or to live in a world with suffocating restrictions and know that at the very least you are safe and will have a warm meal to come home to at the end of the day. We discussed the restrictions our own government and governments around the world have in place to “protect” their citizens, and whether these laws are appropriate and necessary or non-essential and even, at times, patronizing.
My students incited a massive debate one day about the thought that it may be necessary for someone in a society to have to suffer, because with limited resources, for most of a population to be cozy and warm in their middle-class world, someone has to be left out in the proverbial cold. Many of my students’ research paper topics branched off of this very idea: one student wrote about whether we should stop providing health care to the elderly in order to increase resources and decrease population, another explored the horrors of child-trafficking, and a third looked at the laws surrounding medical consent and instances in which the patient was refusing what the doctor knows to be life-saving treatment.
Politics and suffering societies aside, I also enjoyed teaching a contemporary book that had a female protagonist whose main drive was not a love interest. In fact, the second film installment of the series, Catching Fire, was one of the only 2013 blockbusters to pass the Bechdel Test, which measures gender bias in a film based on whether female characters converse with each other about something other than a man.
Perhaps the most memorable and certainly the most rewarding reason for teaching this text is that I can guarantee you that every single one of my students read the book. I had everyone from frat boys to rugby players tell me that not only was this the first time they had actually read a book for school in years, but they had plans to finish the trilogy. They all loved the story, and loved coming to class to discuss all that the book had made them think about. They were interested, engaged, and thoughtful throughout the entire course, and their enthusiasm made my job fun. In taking the hint from my high school English teacher, I brought into my classroom something that I truly enjoyed, and had a semester full of deep conversation, skilled analysis, and a whole world of fun.
This entry was posted in Teaching Anecdotes, Teaching Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Class on Fire…

  1. MaryAnn Duffy says:

    Hi Becky. I always love hearing what you teach because your tastes are so completely different from mine, and I get so much out of your perspective. It is nice to be pulled into the new century when I am still slogging through the last, literature-wise! You have such a fresh outlook and enthusiasm in teaching that I appreciate. I especially liked your comment on the Bechdel Test. (I was not familiar with that!)

  2. Roger Thompson says:

    Great read! Thanks for writing this. And, enjoying your class is not “self-serving.” It’s probably one of the best indirect messages we can give–learning is enjoyable. Kudos to you!

  3. Pingback: Faith as a Foundation of Professoring | RhetComp @ Stony Brook

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