Monday, February 29, 2016

Godzilla's Roar: Using the Bomb and the Beast to Teach Writing

With a new Japanese Godzilla on the horizon, it seemed like a good opportunity to share an approach to teaching introductory English courses which focus on academic writing and critical reading. I teach a course at MacEwan University called Analysis and Argument. It's the bread and butter of our department, since it is required for nearly every degree program MacEwan offers. When I first came to MacEwan, I taught the course as prescribed, using an anthology of essays like Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Jo Goodwin Parker's "On Poverty." Most courses of this nature work with a number of such readings on a wide variety of topics. Most readers have thematic trajectories that permit the instructor to focus the content. Nevertheless, none of these essays are instructive for essay writing in the University. While it might be ideal to teach a student to write like George Orwell in "Shooting an Elephant," it's unlikely that's what their history professor will want from them on a research paper about the British Raj. There was a distance between what I was asking them to write, and what we were reading as exemplars. Further, those readings are not indicative of the sort of reading they'll be forced to do for just about every course that requires a research paper. So I'd been playing around with the idea of finding scholarly articles from the library database to replace the essay textbook with. And when I read Shambling Towards Hiroshima, I knew I'd found the topic to center those essays around.

Morrow's novella is a fictional account of the end of the Pacific War; while the nuclear option is in question, the United States has developed three behemoths, kaiju-creatures, to attack Japan and end the war. Unlike the historical events surrounding the atomic bomb, Morrow's alternate history includes a demonstration for the Japanese government of these weapons of mass destruction. A demonstration by a full-sized behemoth is untenable, so three dwarf-behemoths have been developed: unfortunately, dwarf size produces docile temperament, and so a Hollywood actor who specializes in playing monsters is hired to do the job on a set with a miniature of Tokyo to stomp hell out of. Despite the ludicrousness of the plot, Morrow's intention is dead serious: he wants his reader to know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The classic monster movie references and SF elements are the bait to take us to Ground Zero, to bear witness to the atrocity. Consequently, alongside the humor and homage is history. And therein I found my two trajectories - metaphor and monster on the one side, history and horror on the other.

Initally, I tried using Morrow's novella as a research unit at the end of the course, following the usual meandering through various essays and topics. It was very successful as a single unit, so the next year, I attempted to focus the entire semester on Godzilla and Hiroshima, culminating in Shambling.  It was frightening: I was asking students to invest in a limited topic for an entire semester. Granted, there was a lot to talk about in the Godzilla/Hiroshima conversation, but it was still a risk. Luckily, it was a risk that paid off. The full-semester of Godzilla and Hiroshima, while met with initial skepticism, turned out to be one of the best pedagogical choices I've made. I have repeated the approach for four years running, with minor revisions each year.

Here's the outline:

1. Introduction:
 In addition to the syllabus, I introduce students to three things on the first day of class: the library database and the bipartite theme-stream. I require them to find either “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Sixty-Five Years Later” by Michael C. Milam OR “Japan's Nuclear Nightmare: How the Bomb Became a Beast Called Godzilla” by Peter Brothers. Both articles are short and very accessible. Milam's is about the inhumanity of modern warfare, but it focuses primarily on Hiroshima. Brothers' is a very concise history of the original Godzilla movie. The next class, I ask how for responses to the articles. Usually, students are amazed to discover Godzilla has anything to do with something as serious as Hiroshima, and that Hiroshima was something more than a mushroom cloud. Few of them have been exposed to the "view from the ground" of either of these monsters.

2. Summary: 
The first assignment is a 500 word summary of an article. In short, students are required to tell me what the author said without any of their own opinions included. This is a challenge for students who have been trained through high school to write their opinion or what they feel. It's an essential tool for academic and professional writing. The skill of putting another person's ideas into your own words in a concise and precise fashion is a practical skill in the real world. I give them two more articles to add to their growing arsenal of information on Hiroshima and Godzilla: "Hiroshima: Historians Reassess" by Gar Alperovitz, which takes the position that there were alternatives to the atomic bomb, and President Truman knowingly rejected those alternatives, and "Godzilla's Footprint" by Steve Ryfle, which expands on Brothers' article by providing in-depth information on the original Gojira film from 1954. We do a summary workshop, where I assign sections of each article to each student. They are required to reduce those sections to two sentences, and then I review all those sentences in-class, to point out the right and wrong way to approach the assignment. An added benefit of this approach is that, while they are learning how to summarize, students are also internalizing those articles in a very close way.

3. Interlude 1: Gojira viewing
To give students time to complete their summaries, we take a "break" of sorts by watching selections from Gojira in-class, and then discussing them in light of Ryfle's article.

4. Critical Analysis: While some people treat this assignment as a sort of position paper on a contemporary hot-button topic, I require students to work harder by evaluating the structure of the argument they are critiquing, not simply responding with "I think this article is right/wrong/true/false." Consequently, the critical analysis becomes a study of how the author made their point, without any opinion of whether they agree or disagree. Like the summary, this still isn't about the student's opinion or feelings toward the topic. Was the introduction strong? Were the examples good? Is the structure compelling? This is an exercise in evaluating the quality of an argument, not whether we agree with the author's conclusion. I give the example of when I was a minister and read The Case for Christ. While I agreed with the conclusion of that book, I thought the way Lee Strobel argued his point was weak. Likewise, I cite Bill Maher's Religulous as an example of anti-religious thesis that atheists might agree with, but have panned for its structure and approach.
Again, they are given two articles to choose from: on the Hiroshima side, it's Japanese scholar Sadao Asada's "The Shock of the Atomic Bomb: and Japan's Decision to Surrender-A Reconsideration," which argues against Alperovitz's position: Asada agrees that Truman knew about alternatives to the bomb, but Asada argues they weren't alternatives at all, in light of how intractable the Japanese military were. This is a great moment in the semester, because many students have concluded, based on their reading of Alperovitz, that Truman was a heartless bastard and the Americans are all jerks, and the Japanese were just innocent victims. Asada complicates things.
On the Godzilla side, it's William Tsutsui's “Godzilla and Postwar Japan Lunch Keynote Address,” which is supposed to be a survey of the Godzilla franchise meant to instruct about postwar Japan's history. However, the article is so poorly organized, it mostly ends up being a reiteration of Ryfle's information about the original Gojira.
Once again, I parcel out sections of each article and students submit brief critical analyses: we review these in class, which is crucial, as students have a very difficult time learning the difference between disagreement and critical analysis of quality of the article.

5. Interlude II: Hiroshima documentary viewing
Again, to give students time to write the assignment, we take another "break" to watch and discuss the BBC documentary, Hiroshima. We end up discussing how the documentary incorporates elements of both Alperovitz and Asada's argument. Students also gain a greater appreciation for the devastation of the Hiroshima event, illustrated through visual effects (incidentally, these effects were done by none other than Gareth Edwards, the director of the American reboot of Godzilla (2014) and a film we study later in the semester, Monsters (2010).

6. Research Paper: 
We start the research unit with Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster," which can act as a starting point for research essays focusing on Godzilla. Sontag makes a number of bold claims about the "inadequate response" of SF films whose imagery is dominated by destruction. She says they make no social commentary, and that as fantasies, they deaden us to the reality of real-world suffering. This is accurate, insofar as her American experience would allow: however, the students know that the Godzilla Sontag saw was not the one the Japanese had seen, and can argue against her point: Gojira has social commentary, and was meant to highlight real-world suffering. Of course, a student could also argue that Gojira might have been intended to do this, but ultimately failed. I do not require students to argue a point to correspond with my opinions on the matter. Sontag also speaks about the difference between intensive (close-up, concerned with view from the ground) and extensive (wide-angle, concerned with spectacle of devastation) views of destruction: I illustrate the difference between these views by asking students to recall the devastation in Gojira, and then having them compare that with the opening scenes of Grave of the Fireflies, where the perspective is not extensive, but intensive.

For the Hiroshima trajectory, I use either Vera Zolberg's “Contested Remembrance: The Hiroshima Exhibit Controversy” or Alison Kraft's "Atomic Medicine," if I am teaching nursing students. Zolberg's article, though it is specifically about the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian, provides a middle position on a number of the issues raised by Asada and Alperovitz, which adds enough information to form an informed thesis in response to the question "was the bomb necessary?"

Kraft provides a perspective on atomic energy that will be of practical interest to my nursing students: the rapidity of progress in cancer research in the 20th century correlates with nuclear testing. "Atomic Medicine" is also an opportunity for an interesting middle position research paper, where the progression of Godzilla from villain to hero can be used as a metaphoric way of speaking about how nuclear energy went from cancer cause to cancer treatment.

Now students have a total of eight articles under their belt: four for each theme stream. I require them to use three secondary sources for the research paper; one of these must be an article they locate on their own, not one I have assigned previously. To assist in the avoidance of plagiarism or bought essays, I find it's best to require students to use the articles already studied in the course. It's relatively easy to find essays online about Hiroshima. Finding essays which use the precise articles listed here is more difficult.

As I stated earlier, in previous iterations of the course, I used James Morrow's Shambling Towards Hiroshima as an anchoring point for the research paper. Students had to write on a theme from the book, illustrating what Morrow was doing using their secondary sources. I received some brilliant papers this way, but the novella as anchor is ultimately limiting, and I find the papers are better across the board when I don't require adherence to Morrow's novella for the final research paper. And besides, one of the lessons I've learned over the years in teaching introductory English is that students are too burnt out by the end of term to do any serious reading. Instead, I find it a valuable time to do a film study.

7. Final break: viewing of Gareth Edwards' Monsters.
Since the entire semester has been about a relationship between a metaphor and an actual historical event, I end the course with an exploration of a film that does the same thing which Gojira did, without identifying the real-world correlations. We view the film in short installments, discussing it after each 20 minute viewing. A full explanation of my close-viewing of this film can be found here.

Since there is no final exam for this course, our viewing of Monsters wraps our semester up in a way that requires application of concepts learned from Godzilla and Hiroshima to the particular instance of Edwards' film. I had hoped that Edwards' 2014 Godzilla would prove to be as good as or better than Monsters to finish out our course, but this did not prove to be the case, and I have continued using Monsters.

Each year that passes, I wonder if I should look at some other content: an entire semester on zombies? violence in video games? superheroes? But each year I watch the shock of students learning they'll be studying Godzilla for an entire semester turn to appreciation for the valuable lessons, as Tsutsui puts it, that a man in a rubber suit smashing miniature buildings can teach them (And it beats the hell out of having to read a stack of essays on the legalization of pot).