Adding ‘Twilight’ to a syllabus meets challenges

Team Edward and Team Jacob seem to be rallying support in the college classroom. From Rutgers College’s “Vampires: From Sin and Exile to Sex and Salvation” to Harvard’s “The Vampire in Literature and Film,” university classrooms are increasingly turning their attention to the pop culture phenomenon of vampire love stories sweeping the hearts and minds of teenage girls everywhere. Controversially, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga has found itself on the docket for the literature under consideration in a range of these classes, igniting debates on the merits of analyzing “trashy” young adult fiction in the collegiate setting.

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Public outcry at the inclusion of Twilight in universities was most recently sparked by Ohio State’s syllabus for an honors seminar in fiction writing offered this past spring, which included Meyer’s series. Bloggers ridiculed the course’s professor for implementing the novel as required reading, especially, as one blogger noted, in “a time when the practical payoff of an undergraduate education is being reevaluated.”

Resistance on the part of students, who are in many cases already predisposed to unflattering opinions of pop culture works like Twilight, can make the investigation of such pieces challenging. Nathalie Anderson, Professor of English Literature and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Swarthmore, experienced student opposition to works like “Dracula” and “100 Years of Solitude” in a course taught in previous years, “Literature of the Fantastic.” “I would have some students who would object to just about anything on the [syllabus], and they wouldn’t like it because they would think it was too shallow, or too popular, or too mainstream, or it couldn’t be great literature, or it wasn’t really fantasy … so this has been a hot topic for a long time,” she said.

However, in other settings, works like “Twilight” are met with overwhelming enthusiasm. The principle determinant on either the rejection or acceptance of the books as viable pieces of literature in the classroom seems to be the manner in which their value is framed.

In “The Vampire in Literature and Film,” offered at Harvard University in 2010, Professor Sue Weaver Schopf began her first lecture with a disclaimer, pronouncing, “I hereby disavow most of the works on the reading list as being equivalent to ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Madame Bovary,’ ‘Great Expectations,’ ‘Wuthering Heights,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ etc. I’m not going to try to make a gigantic case for the brilliance, the literary merits, the enduring aspects of a lot of these works of literature […] they are works of popular fiction.” The class was capped at 161 students, indicating a wide enthusiasm for the topic area, despite the questionable intellectual value of many of the works on the syllabus.

Swarthmore Professor Diane Anderson, who teaches courses in Educational Studies, found her class’s approach to Twilight in 2009 to be more open-minded than Professor Nathalie Anderson’s in terms of delving into popular culture. Following the reading of Mikita Brottman’s “A Solitary Vice: Against Reading” in her honors seminar Literacy in Education, discussions delved into questions about why we read, how we choose what to read, and why, in some cases, we feel guilty about those choices.

Particularly intriguing to the class, according to Anderson, was the continued investment in “trashy” novels, even in an elite intellectual environment like Swarthmore. To further explore this subject area, she collaborated with students in choosing a “trashy” novel for the class to study together, and “Twilight” was the favorite candidate.

Initial grit and enthusiasm appeared to bode well for the students’ project. “We were very gung-ho about it,” Diane Anderson said. However, the endeavor ultimately proved too trying for some members of the seminar; Anderson admits many could not get through the novel.

Ultimately, the class was able to extract a “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” moral from its brush with “Twilight.” “Many of us can condone the pleasures of reading trashy or popular culture books, but that doesn’t mean we all liked this one,” Diane Anderson said. “We did have a discussion about what these books offer us, musing about how we sometimes might speak disparagingly of those who engage in such guilty pleasures, but it doesn’t mean we’re all going to appreciate each other’s guilty pleasures in the same way.”

Although labeled by the seminar as a “trashy” read, Diane Anderson notes the merits of “Twilight” as a fantastical work. “I think it tackles relationship issues and I also think it is in our nature as both men and women to fantasize,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of the books we like to read are fantasies. It’s fun, and there’s nothing wrong with fun. And we do it with TV… I watch ‘Glee’ and ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.’ This is fantasy. And it’s good fantasy. I suspect it’s good for our brains.”

Professor Nathalie Andersen also noted that the books have their merits, while she herself is not a fan. “It seemed rare that I had read a book that got so well at what teenage girls feel, which is very self-conscious … and at the same time falling in love with love in a way, and I thought that it captured this dilemma for teenage girls really astoundingly well,” she said. “For myself, they’re not my favorites … It seems to me that there is an agenda about adolescent behavior that suggests that you can be in love as much as you want and you can commit as early as you want, but that sex is bad, that sex is polluting, sex is dangerous … it seems to me it creates a kind of didacticism.”

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