Do you know anything about the musical groups Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene? Do you keep up with the political satire of Stephen Colbert? English professor Deborah Laycock does, and her students benefit.
In her early 18th-century literature class, Laycock engages students with the past in part by welcoming contemporary perspectives, not for the sake of sugar-coating but in recognition that "our understanding of the past changes how we read the present moment." Her students reading Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels will also analyze the satirical strategies of The Colbert Report.
"I want students to see how modern writers rewrite the past and thus get us to rethink both that past and the present moment," said Laycock.
And what about Broken Social Scene? The Juno-award winning rock band occasionally figures in Laycock's course on Canadian literature.
Just as Laycock gets students to see the 18th century with fresh eyes, she clears a path toward new views of Canada by "defamiliarizing" the United States. A song like "Dog Eat Dog," by Joni Mitchell, introduces students to Canadian artists who have redefined for Americans some aspects of U.S. culture. "We can begin to talk about Canadian identity after making 'American' identity more contested a construction," said Laycock. Her students go on to read such authors as Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Anne Hébert, and Michael Ondaatje with a more subtle understanding of distinctively Canadian themes and concerns.
Inspiration about teaching often strikes while she is walking her energetic Siberian husky in the morning. One revelation came as she was pondering the implications of Jonathan Lamb's essay "Eye-Witnessing in the South Seas" in relation to issues of travel and perception in Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko and Swift's Gulliver's Travels. "I struggled to jot down a new version of the course—or at least ideas that would take us in a new direction—while trudging in the tracks left by my dog in the snow."