Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Into the Afterlife and Back with Honors Students

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Into the Afterlife and Back with Honors Students

Article excerpt

One of the best and funniest student evaluations I have ever received read: "if this professor taught a course on Hell and how to get there I would take it." This generous compliment sounded like a good course idea, and a year or so later, Dr. Caroline Perkins and I successfully proposed an honors seminar called "Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in Literature and Culture." Like other programs described in previous issues of Honors in Practice, the Marshall University Honors Program is built on team-taught interdisciplinary seminars--in this case Classics and English--and emphasizes student leadership and collaborative learning.

Presumably "what happens to us after we die" is one of humanity's oldest questions. Nonetheless, we wondered about the type of student a class about life after death might attract in the millennial age. While text-oriented Baby Boomers and Generation X professors are likely to seek stories of the afterlife in classical epics and scripture, our tech-savvy Generation Y students, fans of Twilight and players of MMORPGs, may well have other ideas not only about where to find stories about the afterlife but about the definition of the term. Also, while the topic sounds interesting enough, the course implicitly promises to waver between eternal bliss and perpetual damnation, to acquaint students with angels as well as devils, and at some point to evoke terror; after all, we are talking about dying. Most of all, we recognized that, like other college experiences, the course might question cherished beliefs, overtly or subtly, depending not so much on our presentation of the material as on the individual student's reaction to it. Fortunately my teaching partner skillfully wrapped up our first day's discussion with a simple summary, which turned out to be a fitting description of our semester: "we bring the literature, you bring the culture." We have taught "Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in Literature and Culture" twice now, meeting once a week for two and a half hours and maintaining the momentum of the seminar during the week with postings on our web discussion board.

SETTING UP THE SEMESTER

Our first two seminar meetings were devoted to setting up the semester by broadly surveying works that address the afterlife, articulating our own cultural understanding(s) of the afterlife, and reading two stories that displace common modern western concepts of the afterlife. As a way to introduce ourselves and the students to one another, we asked each seminar participant to name a work that offers a glimpse of the next world. We recorded each answer on the board in a grid that reflected both genre (literature, visual arts, performing arts) and place (heaven, hell, purgatory). It became immediately clear that not everything fit neatly into a category, an important first principle for the semester. We also gave students time to free-write on their understanding of the general concepts of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and then we formally introduced the course with a PowerPoint presentation that anticipated some of their responses.

Our PowerPoint presentation began with Fra Angelico's Christ in Limbo (c. 1440-1445) and an Eastern Orthodox icon Christ Enthroned in Heaven (c. 1700). We followed these calm traditional images with the works of well-known artists: Hieronymus Bosch's creepy gothic triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1504), which depicts a surreal paradise and a sickening hell; Jan Brueghel the Younger's Paradise (c. 1620), the epitome of lush edenic greenery and animal life in peaceful coexistence; and an engraved illustration of a spiraling heaven from Dante's Divine Comedy by Gustave Dore (1832-1883). We rounded out our collection of the visual arts with two images our students would not have anticipated, a painting of Reincarnation in the Hindu tradition and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel (1871-79), in which a woman looks longingly down from heaven at her still-living love interest. …

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