When students felt disconnected from the conventional myths of the Greeks and Romans, Jackie Williams, MFA, created a new, entirely modern approach.
Professor of English,Fresno City College, Fresno, California
MFA in Creative Writing, BA in English
Jackie Williams, MFA, developed an interest in mythology when she was very young—after her mother gave her a book on Norse gods and goddesses. “I was just fascinated by the stories and the way the characters intertwined,” she says. However, when she began teaching a Classic Myths course at Fresno City College in California, the English professor noticed that many students did not feel the same passion for the time-honored tales.
That bothered her, not only because she was still a big fan but also because myths can serve as avenues to self-reflection. “Mythology is a form of instructive text where—through the stories, themes, symbols, and characters in the story—you’re supposed to learn something about why the world is the way it is or why you’re supposed to behave a certain way,” she says. “Comparative mythology scholar Joseph Campbell says that we have problems in society today with young people running amok because we don’t have strong modern mythology that they can connect to. I want to challenge that idea.”
One reason for the disconnect, she theorizes, is the lack of diversity in the myths being taught. “I’ve used the phrase, ‘There are a lot of old, dead white guys,’” she says, laughing. “There was nothing in the original course outline that touched on today’s different perspectives. I wanted to give that to my students.”
To do that, Williams reworked her syllabus to include a new assignment, letting students choose a story from popular culture—say, a movie or a TV show—then turn it into a modern-day myth in the form of a podcast or graphic novel.
“Students embrace the activity because they get to choose something that’s significant and relevant to them,” Williams says. “So they really just step it up!”
Read on for specifics on how she brings the project to life.
“Comparative mythology scholar Joseph Campbell says that in society today we have problems with young people running amok because we don’t have strong modern mythology that they can connect to. I want to challenge that idea.”
-Jackie Williams, MFA
Course: English 42 Classic Myths
Course description: Reading and critical analysis of basic mythic themes in literature, film, and the visual arts. The origin of myths in ritual, their development in western civilization, and their ultimate form and continued presence in the arts.
Williams’s legendary approach: Turning modern stories into mini myths
Williams begins by grounding her students in traditional mythology. Here is a quick rundown of the setup—and the stages of the assignment itself.
Choose a lens through which students can analyze their myth
To situate students, Williams teaches three ways mythology is studied at the scholarly level: by looking at its structure, its symbolism (through comparative analysis), and its psychological components.
“Structuralists argue that the real meaning of a myth is conferred in the arrangement of its parts,” Williams explains. “For example, you can find Cinderella’s story in almost every culture in the world, but the real meaning for that culture is based on when things happen in the plot.”
Comparative analysis focuses on recurring symbols and patterns of symbols between mythologies. “For example, fire can often be a destructive force, but it can also be a generative force,” she explains.
Psychological analysis often means focusing on archetypes—types of characters that occur in stories again and again, such as tricksters, saints, and martyrs.
Find a myth in modern-day media
Williams asks each student to select a modern story (from within the past 100 years) that they feel has properties similar to those found in myths: It must include one of various mythic elements, such as archetypal characters or symbolism. It also must be what is known as an “instructive” text, working to teach a lesson. Many students zero in on popular characters and tales such as Harry Potter, The Avengers, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.
Make feedback fun with a speed-dating approach
Once each student selects a tale, they present a proposal that addresses the following points:
- What is the chosen “myth,” and why do you think it should be considered mythology?
- What formal aspect are you going to investigate: symbolism, archetypes, or structures?
So, explains Williams, students must argue that elements of classical myth studies, such as structuralism, can be applied to their modern story. Their proposal presentation, however, can be modern—and, preferably, enjoyable.
“We always do some sort of fun activity in class to get feedback—for example, speed dating,” says Williams. “So they all stand in a line, and they have two minutes to pitch their topic to their peer, and then one minute to get feedback.” (Then each presenter shifts down the line until everyone has met with everyone else.)
Share drafts (and struggles) on discussion boards
Once they have feedback from their peers, they begin working on their draft. Ultimately, they will write either a 5-minute podcast script or 12-panel graphic novel. “As they’re drafting, I have them post the drafts to discussion boards on our learning management system a few times a week,” Williams says. “They comment on what they’re working on and what struggles they have, and their peers can chime in.”
Workshop the scripts before finalizing the writing
For the next stage, students workshop their draft scripts in class, getting additional feedback and input from peers as they shape their final versions. Students then submit a written script for podcast or, if they opt for a graphic novel, they submit a 500-word “explainer” to outline their thought process for each panel. (For the final version, students submit a separate storyboard of at least 12 panels.)
Produce the final products as best (and cheaply) as possible
To create a final podcast, Williams recommends that students use a free app such as Anchor (a class favorite) or the voice recorder on a smartphone. Graphic novelists can use any software they like, such as Adobe Photoshop (available with a free trial) or Pixton. Williams points out that points are not deducted (or added) for artistic skill or production quality.
“I grade on content (length, depth of explanation, connection to formal elements, strength of argument, etc.),” says Williams. “But the class has a voting sheet: best of show, most informative, most entertaining, best artwork, etc. Extra credit [goes] to the students with the most votes.”
Showcase all the podcasts and graphic novels in a “gallery walk”
Williams allots one class period for a “gallery walk” where students can view each other’s finished work. For this, she signs out a computer lab, and those with graphic novels and explainer papers set them out for others to read, while the podcasts are put on the computer workstations. Williams even bought headphones for each computer so that students can listen to the podcasts one at a time. “In one class period, we were able to share almost everyone’s project,” Williams says. “They were able to interact with the projects as the kind of media that they like to consume today.”