What my students taught me in class today

I took a class on tragic literature while working on my MA (taught by Prof. Lincoln Konkle at TCNJ), so I enjoy sharing some theories for interpreting tragedy with my sophomores each year when we read Antigone and Macbeth. We cover Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche, but most years I give short shrift to Nietzsche because I’m rushing through material, and his theory of the Apollonian and Dionysian is challenging for tenth graders. But this year I’m teaching Advanced Sophomore Literature and Composition, and I want to crank the level of intellectual challenge up a notch, so I designed a lesson for our “lab period” today that I hoped would help make the Apollonian and Dionysian concept stick with my students.

Basically, I made a list of 25 people/businesses/events/things from contemporary culture, and I asked the students to place each item on a spectrum from most Apollonian to most Dionysian. You can see the handout and a sample below.

thing2 classwork1

I broke the students up into groups of three or four, and they discussed each item on the list. They used the two columns of traits borrowed from Nancy Taylor’s web site to define what is Apollonian and what is Dionysian. There was a joyful energy of noisy hubbub in the room as the students worked, which always makes me feel like I’ve done my job well.

It turns out that I designed an activity that was deeper and smarter than I anticipated. You see, I was thinking a lot about the items on my list that were on the outer edges of the spectrum, but the insights are gained from the items that the students thought were equal mixes of Apollonian and Dionysian. After all, that’s Nietzsche’s theory: Greek tragedy is great because it mixes the two elements. So, for instance, one of the items on my list for the students was The National Football League. Clarence argued, persuasively I think, that the NFL is both Apollonian and Dionysian. The rules and strategy are very complicated and logical, but the fan experience is often full of boozy revelry. The insight that came to me as I discussed this with the students is fairly obvious: Greek tragedy was one of the highest expressions of ancient Greek Culture, and the NFL has a similar role in contemporary American culture. Nietzsche would be proud: We proved that it is a balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces that leads to gigantic popularity of a pastime.

I also learned that, if you have the projector on in your classroom and you google Nicki Minaj, there is nothing you can click on that is appropriate for a class full of fifteen year olds to see.

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