Frankenstein and Critical Thinking
Melissa Bloom Bissonette
Melissa Bloom Bissonette is an assistant professor at St. John
Fisher College in Rochester,
New York. She writes on the culture, politics, and personalities of early eighteenth-century
he student’s presentation posed the question “Who has the right to create life,
God or Science?” Her Power Point displayed images of Boris Karloff, a Petri dish, and an unattributed painting of Adam and
Eve. Passages from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein floated onto the screen from one corner or the other, in bright colors, properly cited.
Those lines illustrated the grotesque appearance of the monster and the horror with which he is met by strangers and villagers.
One slide featured a short animation of a green Frankenstein Monster doing a jig to
“The Monster Mash.” It was by far the most entertaining and enthusiastically produced presentation of the semester. Her fellow students were dazzled not only by the colors, the movement, the lightheartedness, and the variety of her visuals, but also by the obvious care she had invested in her work. Her final slide showed a cartoon monster head surrounded by question marks as she opened the floor for
Melissa Bloom Bissonette
questions. There were none. Her auditors had heard nothing that seemed incomplete or questionable, nothing they were not willing to swallow whole.
I was not as willing.
My more immediate concern was the simplistic, either-or, straw-man terms in which she posed her initial question. Was anyone questioning whether God had or was losing rights? Did readers of the novel and adults engaged in today’s ethical issues need to take sides? Were there only two positions, both absolutes? Her bad faith question was simply a platform for her to voice an opinion—not to state a position based on research or thoughtful reading, but an opinion she’d walked into the semester with. Where I had looked for critical thinking, this very intelligent student had served up a sloganized dichotomy. She was on her way toward a most unremarkable paper, one I’d read many times before.
My second concern suggested a solution to the first. Students in that class—in that audience—were developing similar or conflicting arguments in their own work, yet no one had a word to say. Hers was a passive, absorptive audience. They were a “cowed, credulous, hypnotized mass” in Bertolt
Brecht’s description of the traditional theater audience (Brecht qtd. in Willett
1959, 170).While the presenting student might have been distracted by her own technical creativity, the larger breakdown in this classroom was in her spectators, who failed to engage with and challenge her provocative ideas.
They were not a community in that room, but individuals, writing separate papers, to be read by a single authority, for separate grades. Frequent peer review had done nothing to alter that. This was “student-centered” to the point of narcissistic obsession.
The lack of critical thinking in the individual and of a critical response in the classroom were due to the passive/absorptive mode which dominates student reading and in-class behavior. Brecht’s response to the absorptive, emotional, and individual experience of theater audiences in the 1920s was to fill his stages with intrusive artifice: unpolished singers, half-completed sets, title cards announcing scenes. Such material reminders prevented
Brecht’s spectators from becoming absorbed in the play and feeling unthinkingly.1 He wanted them to be aware, always, that the people and story were represented by design, by a series of choices, and to be asking what those choices mean. Brecht’s method, usually known as the Alienation Effect
(Verfremdungseffekt or V-Effect), keeps the spectator in two minds simultaneously, the one taking pleasure in story, music, or character, the other taking note of what the play is doing, what its