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Welcome to English 102 Composition II (Monsters and Culture). While most of you are here because you need to finish the second semester of a mandatory writing sequence for your degree, my goal is to transform the barebones requirements for the course into a much more interesting class by focusing our reading and writing assignments around monsters and how cultures define them.
The generic requirements for any ENG 102 section are pretty basic: students build on the college-level writing skills introduced in ENG 101 and expand on that skill set by focusing on integrating sources into writing, conducting academically appropriate research, synthesizing that research into compelling arguments beyond mere summarization, ethically documenting source materials using a required academic style, and further honing their ability to write for a specific audience using proper grammar, syntax, and critical thinking. Those are the basic goals for the course, regardless of who teaches it.
To make it more interesting, I'm building the course around the theme of Monsters in Culture. As a casual fan of horror films, I find monsters to be a particularly safe way of exploring the fears and anxieties of a culture in a specific historical moment. Monsters that terrify one culture might seem silly or irrelevant to other cultures, and what once scared a culture may seem unimportant today because what scares people has changed over time. Monsters serve as a Rorschach test of sorts, allowing readers or viewers to explore safely the groups, individuals, taboos, and cultural expectations that society feels anxious about for a variety of reasons, some legitimate, some not.
Take Godzilla, the giant cinematic lizard that has been stomping through (and on) Tokyo since its debut in 1954. As a child watching Saturday afternoon monster flicks on one of the three channels available on my TV, the image of a man in a rubber monster suit stomping on cardboard buildings was great fun, but not particularly terrifying or even thoughtful: it was just silly, and my friends and I loved pretending to be Godzilla (or any of the other equally amusing monsters in his film series) by stomping on our Matchbox cars and shoebox cityscapes. It wasn't until much later that I learned that the original film, Gojira, directed by Ishiro Honda, was very different in the original undubbed and uncut Japanese format. A basic question about the historical moment in which the film was released—1954—might ask why Japan would make a film about a radioactive lizard attacking the homeland. Anyone with a working knowledge of World War II might consider the fact that Japan experienced two nuclear weapons used by the United States to decimate the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The immediate destruction and subsequent radiation trauma shocked the entire global population, but for the Japanese, the experience was personal, one of immense physical destruction of their own people and property on an unprecedented scale further complicated by the lingering effects of radiation and fallout. It would be easy to say that Godzilla embodies the nuclear bomb and be done with that particular interpretation.
The problem, however, is that if Americans had made a film like that, they would have aimed Godzilla at the people who dropped the bomb, not at themselves. Godzilla largely attacks Japan in the original series, though, begging the question of why the Japanese filmmakers wanted to further punish Japan. The challenge to American viewers is to step outside of the nationalist point of view and instead think more globally. Godzilla isn't attacking Japan or the Japanese: its attacking humanity on behalf of the Earth that has been decimated by human beings through nuclear war, pollution, and a general destruction of the environment. As an American, it is difficult for me to put myself in that headspace while watching a grown man in a rubber suit stomp on plastic models of tanks and buildings, but the original film wasn't made for people in my historical period or my culture. Watching the film today gives a glimpse into the concerns of the Japanese people at the time the film was released, and watching the multiple generations of films about Godzilla released since 1954 (both by Japanese and American directors), we can track the shifting concerns Godzilla represents. The monster may remain a constant, but the meaning of the monster changes to fit the anxieties of a specific culture and place.
The official point of the class is to develop your writing skills so that you can survive and thrive both in college and your professional life, but to do so, we are going to work on a sustained issue throughout the semester. Each of the three major units will build on each other both in the writing skills needed to complete the paper at the end of each unit and in the content needed to discuss monsters in an academically appropriate fashion.