Teaching Vonnegut: A Recap

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s annual Teaching Vonnegut workshop took place on July 12-14 in Indianapolis. This workshop provides middle school, high school, and college educators with tools and tips for teaching Vonnegut in their classrooms. It’s organized by our phenomenal Director of Education, Max Goeller. Vonnegut himself was a major proponent of public schools and education. Therefore, so are we.

Here’s an overview of the events that took place on Day 2 of the workshop.

9:00 a.m. 2081 in the Classroom

Hannah Earl of the Moving Picture Institute (MPI) and Sarah Skwire of the Liberty Fund opened Teaching Vonnegut Day 2 with a panel on the MPI short film 2081. The film is based on “Harrison Bergeron,” a classic Vonnegut short story set in the year 2081. Both the story and the film portray an America forcibly equalized by handicapping the strongest, smartest, and prettiest members of society. Skwire, “a loose cannon with an English Ph.D.,” helped create a series of lesson plans for 2081 and “Harrison Bergeron” and presented one of the plans in her and Earl’s panel.

Skwire’s lesson plan series includes five different plans. Each one contains a detailed essay explanation, lists of concepts and vocabulary words, curriculum standards covered by the plan, writing prompts, and a five-minute video lecture.

“I’m the lecturer for those,” said Skwire, “so if you hate me, don’t show them.”

Both the story “Harrison Bergeron” and the film 2081 portray an America forcibly equalized by handicapping the strongest, smartest, and prettiest members of society. The lesson plan topics build on that theme of oppressive governmental intervention, including questions like, “Do we need equality? Can the government make us equal?” and, “When should we resist oppression?” (“This is for the Hunger Games fans in your classroom,” said Skwire, “and I love these guys because I was these guys.”)

Both MPI and the Liberty Fund are institutions that advocate for free speech and freedom. MPI is a nonprofit organization promoting the work of filmmakers with a passion for freedom. The Liberty Fund is an educational foundation devoted to providing freedom-related resources to teachers and creating discussion of freedom-related topics. Incidentally, both Earl and Skwire are Vonnegut fans.

“You can have a contentious, politically laden discussion in your classroom without talking politics,” said Skwire. “You’re talking Vonnegut.”

Marc Leeds, author of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia, asked Skwire if she thought the downplay of Vonnegut’s comedic voice in 2081 was detrimental to the story. Skwire said she loves Vonnegut’s story, but she understood why 2081 made aspects of the text, such as the clown nose the story’s title character, Harrison, is supposed to wear, less comical.

“Something about seeing the comedy makes it less funny,” she said. She also acknowledged that teenagers would get a lot out of a more dramatic version of Harrison’s struggle: “[Teenagers are] some of the funniest but least humorous people you will meet . . . I think students are going to react very well to [the] heightened tragedy.”

In which the teachers become the taught.

10:00 a.m. Cat’s Cradle

Next up was Jonathan Eller, an English professor at Indiana University Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies. Eller discussed similarities between Bradbury and Vonnegut and dove into major themes of Cat’s Cradle.

At first glance, Bradbury and Vonnegut were very similar. They wrote in the same genre and about many of the same topics. They were both in favor of imagination and literacy and in opposition of war and restrictions of freedom. If there had been a “corporate board of the antiauthoritarian league,” said Eller, Vonnegut and Bradbury would have been the Chief Executive Officers.

Bradbury and Vonnegut differed in their opinions on technology. “Bradbury did not hate technology,” said Eller. “Bradbury was suspicious of those who manipulated the technology for us.” Vonnegut, who had studied science in school and came of age in the era of the atomic bomb, placed more blame on technology itself, or at least the minds who created it.

Eller said the main technological issues in Cat’s Cradle stem from the “total inability to comprehend the notion of responsibility.” The inventor of ice-nine, Felix Hoenikker, doesn’t take appropriate measures to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, and when it is used, it creates the worst possible disaster: the end of the world.

“Someone said about Bradbury: ‘He’s not a predictor of futures; he’s a preventer of futures,'” said Eller. In Cat’s Cradle, “Vonnegut was being a preventer.”

11:00 a.m. Galápagos and Ecology

Christina Jarvis, an English professor at the State University of New York, spoke about Galápagos and the environment. She’s currently writing a book about the environmental aspects of Vonnegut’s work. This presentation united two of her biggest passions: Vonnegut and the environment.

“[I’m] a huge sustainability nerd,” said Jarvis. “I’m like the person at the hotel with my camping gear [and] reusable stuff.”

Galápagos is set a million years in the future, where humans are still around but have evolved to have flippers and much smaller brains. The story’s narrator, a ghost named Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s oft-cameoed character Kilgore Trout,  reiterates that there are no wars, military weapons, or slavery now that the humans of the past aren’t ruining the planet.

Vonnegut “wants us to realize we are not visitors on our own planet,” said Jarvis. Almost every character in Galápagos acts like a visitor. Out of all the wealthy, important characters who signed up for a cruise around the Galápagos Islands, the only “real environmentalists” are Mary and Roy Hepburn, who aren’t rich or famous and were deemed too uninteresting for a newspaper article about the cruise.

Many readers take all this as an indication that Vonnegut gave up on humanity. Jarvis disagrees, citing the “echoes of hope” in Leon Trout’s narration. The evils of war and weaponry may have disappeared in this future, but as Trout says, so have things of beauty: art, music, love.

“Some students want to see [Vonnegut] as this chain-smoking prophet of doom,” said Jarvis. “And I don’t.”

1:00 p.m. Slaughterhouse-Five

Marc Leeds is the author of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia. He’s also taught Slaughterhouse-Five in high school and college classrooms several times. He himself struggled with Slaughterhouse-Five when he first read it at the age of 16.

“What the hell just happened?” Leeds said he thought after finishing the book. “I must have skipped pages. I’m on drugs [too].” Leeds was in bed due to a football injury and had taken large quantities of painkillers.

Leeds tried to read the book again, this time penciling a gray dot on each page to show he’d read it. He reached the end for the second time. “I still didn’t know what the hell it was about.” He read it once more. No luck.

Leeds gives his presentation about Slaughterhouse-Five.

Leeds’s difficulty was that of many readers of Slaughterhouse-Five: the unconventional, non-linear narrative style. Leeds found it easier to understand this fractured narrative after learning about Vonnegut’s experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. After the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut was put to work burying and burning bodies.

“He’s 22 years old,” said Leeds. “How can you possibly deal with stacks of bodies like that? Forget my narratives. I feel like my whole life would have been fractured after that.”

Leeds said his students always struggled with getting the book’s non-linear narrative to make sense. He thinks its lack of continuity is a sign that even Vonnegut hadn’t completely processed his experiences during the war.

“I always tell my students: If you don’t think you’re getting all of it, don’t worry,” said Leeds. “Kurt didn’t.”

(If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of The Vonnegut Encyclopedia, follow this link: https://squareup.com/market/kvml/item/vonnegut-encyclopedia)

2:00 p.m. Metafiction in Don Quixote and Breakfast of Champions

Terri Carney, a Spanish professor at Butler University, went where no Teaching Vonnegut speaker had gone before: all the way back to 17th-century Spain. She highlighted similarities in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, especially in regards to metafiction. That is, fiction about fiction.

Carney said Don Quixote, first published in 1605, is considered the first modern novel. It’s a satire of the cheesy, unrealistic chivalric novels of that time period, but it’s also a satire of fiction itself. For example, another author wrote a sequel to Don Quixote without Cervantes’s knowledge. Cervantes then wrote his own sequel in which the characters meet people who have read both Cervantes’s original novel and the fake sequel. In another section, Cervantes stops his story in the middle of a dueling scene, claims he doesn’t know the rest of the story, and describes himself tracking down an Arabic manuscript that just happens to pick up exactly where he left off.

Carney begins her presentation on Cervantes and Vonnegut.

Another major theme in Don Quixote is whether or not free will exists. Don Quixote becomes a knight because of chivalric novels and uses them as a guide for how to act. But as Carney says, it was his choice.

“He chooses to go out and do it,” said Carney. “He chooses to be programmed by [the novels].”

Breakfast of Champions also plays with the ideas of metafiction and free will, said Carney. Near the end of the novel, Vonnegut himself sets his character Kilgore Trout free from the bounds of narrative. But even then, said Carney, the question of free will comes into play.

“Is he free?” said Carney. “Or is he free only because the author set him free, which makes him not free?”

And so Teaching Vonnegut ended as it should have: with cake and a Kurt reference.

If you or a teacher you know would like to be a part of Teaching Vonnegut next year, pay a visit to the Education page of vonnegutlibrary.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *