Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Piloting a Steamboat, Riding a Stagecoach, and Following the Equator: A Course in the Writings of Mark Twain

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Piloting a Steamboat, Riding a Stagecoach, and Following the Equator: A Course in the Writings of Mark Twain

Article excerpt

This new course was taught from September 2015 to June 2016 at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey. It had multiple purposes. Its chief objective was to foster an awareness of and appreciation for the life and works of America's author and storyteller who called himself "the most conspicuous person on the planet" because of the extraordinary diversity of his writings, his spoken thoughts on his uniquely wide-ranging life experiences, and human values that are loved to this day by a worldwide audience. My hope was that the students would see the relevance of Mark Twain's stories and truths of life as crucial for their growing up in a complex and turbulent world.

Throughout their lives, whether rich or poor, happy or sad, successful or failing, young to old, desperate or ecstatic, they will be uplifted to know that Twain has already felt the same and that they are not alone: they have reason to endure and have the awareness and courage to refine human faults. His writings and thoughts will serve as inspirations to enjoy life and continue to strive in it. In his own words, "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water" (Rasmussen, Quotable 31).

Course Objectives

They will learn that Twain's writings will increase their reading comprehension through his unique communicative abilities to stimulate their senses, their emotions, and their imaginations. A commensurate objective is to increase the students' critical thinking skills in command of language, grammar, and vocabulary through extensive readings of Twain's stories, travelogues, novels, essays, notebooks, lectures, letters, autobiography, authoritative Twain websites, audio and film adaptations, Skyping with internationally recognized Mark Twain scholars, and written analytical reactions.

In describing this course to prospective students, I emphasized that this quintessential American giant of literature had written many classics that show various aspects of life in different parts of our country throughout most of the nineteenth century. The stories are told with intelligent humor, adventure, pathos, and irony. Twain's beliefs have shown the human faults that demand efforts to correct them in the best way possible. Students would be introduced to an overview of his life from Hannibal to the East Coast, journeying back to "the magnificent, majestic Mississippi River" (Twain, Life 64), then journeying to Americas matchless frontier known as the Wild West, to California and the Sandwich Islands, to Europe and around the world, and always back to the United States. His life would be the foundation for studying his literature and thoughts. Additionally, the course would conclude with a trip to his Hartford, Connecticut home and its museum.

What was required of the students? High performance standards and methods of evaluation that included their responsibility to be very inquiring and willing to critically read the different voices of Twain while maintaining a rigorous academic pace, given the volume of material to be presented. They were asked to organize their thoughts on his life and writings and communicate them clearly by actively participating in group discussions of the readings, contribute substantive questions and give pertinent comments in Skyping sessions with Mark Twain scholars. Further, they were expected to be tested periodically on the course materials and write essays of at least three to five pages regarding their reactions to an increased knowledge of Twain and his canon.

Who were the twenty-two students who signed on for this course's first year meeting for fifty minutes four times every week? They were seventeen seniors and five juniors from Seton Hall Preparatory School, more familiarly referred to as The Prep. Seton Hall Preparatory School is New Jersey's oldest Catholic all-boys private high school. Its 950 students (grades 9-12) come from 130 towns and ten counties, principally from New Jersey's northern counties. …

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