J. Alfred Prufrock, and the Dilemma of Teaching 21st Century Students
Aug 26, 2009 Teaching 2869 Views
Now that the fall semester is gearing up, you're probably cooking up new ways of getting today's students engaged in their studies. And since conducting class via Twitter sounds neither feasible nor appealing, it might be time to look into your other options.
With more and more sites like YouTube, Facebook and StumbleUpon competing for their attention, it's tricky getting students interested in the good ol' paper-based classics. In terms of sheer stimuli, even something as high-spirited and swashbuckling as The Three Musketeers can't top the average computer game of ten years ago. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?" Forget about it. Dig up the most everyday, run-of-the mill, uninspiring gray sock from under your bed, multiply that to the power of lint, and you still don't come anywhere close to as boring as J. Alfred.
Or so he would have you believe. The truth, of course, is that beneath his timid, meticulous, slightly balding exterior, Prufrock is a dark, complicated, and deeply conflicted man. He reads death in the evening sky. He wanders through cheap back alleys by night. He feels tortured over a mysterious, shawled woman. And, unlike every single person around him, he is utterly, painfully aware of the idiocy of his conventional little life. True mediocrity would never feel confined by such circumstances. By this measure, J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the single most inspiring figures in poetry - even if only through negative example. His 132-line treatise on whether or not to "dare disturb the universe" is enough to get even the most bashful admirer-from-afar to buy a bullhorn and make for the rooftops.
But whether you choose to read him as trapped by his situation or too weak-willed to transcend it, one thing Prufrock refuses to be is consistent. He laments that social niceties leave him "pinned and wriggling on the wall," feels that the treachery of women has brought his "head... in upon a platter," and even sees the gloomy evening as a "patient etherized" and waiting for disassembly, yet he simply cannot stop himself from dissecting everyone and everything around him: the "faces that you meet," the "hands of days," the "eyes that fix you," the "[a]rms that are braceleted," the "pair of ragged claws," the "long fingers," and the "nerves in patterns" are all representative of a cold, calculating rationality that structures his otherwise emotionally turbulent interior.
Of course, the conflict between content and presentation is found in everything from the classic realm of literature to the brave new world of media; the key is in finding teacher resources that recognize the difference. Is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" wildly exciting? Absolutely! Could it use a little gussying up for today's students? You bet it could. Is it as easy as turning the poem into a face-paced interactive game in the style of Guitar Hero? Maybe. But in general, our experiences show us that life is rarely that simple. Otherwise, no one would need separate Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts.