Dr. Nicole Gervasio makes classic works accessible and gives voice to marginalized characters by having students create a radical lit-crit mini-magazine.
Carol G. Lederer Postdoctoral Research Associate, Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, Brown University, Providence, RI
PhD and MA in English and Comparative Literature, BA in English and Growth & Structure of Cities
Dr. Nicole Gervasio is passionate about ensuring that marginalized voices are heard, especially when it comes to those in classic works of literature. “The problem with canonical curricula is the way it is taught,” she says. “The fact that you could get through the entire Iliad and never talk about how the rape and abduction of Helen is the cause of the Trojan War is atrocious to me.”
When she took over a Literature Humanities course at Columbia University, Gervasio was determined to challenge the status quo. “[American universities] tend to peddle a very homogenous, unified perspective as a universal norm,” she says. “[However,] in reality, that emphasis is simply a result of a monopoly on the power to decide whose stories get told.” That “who,” she notes, is almost always white, male, and Western. “[My goal was] to switch the emphasis from what people traditionally look at as heroism and any number of masculinist constructs in [texts like] The Iliad.”
To help provide students with a new lens through which to examine heroism and other concepts, Gervasio chose to employ a relatively modern medium that was initially conceived as a means of spreading radical thought: the zine. Popular among counterculture organizations and grassroots feminist groups since the 1980s, these self-published mini-magazines are simple in construction, making them inexpensive to produce. In fact, they are usually composed of text and images pasted onto paper and photocopied for distribution. The goals of zines, she adds, are the same as those she had for her students: to share information, to challenge the status quo, and to build community.
Creating an assignment around this medium, she felt, would make the material feel more accessible and provide her students with the opportunity to become agents and producers of the material they have learned. Below, Gervasio—now a postdoctoral research associate at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University—shares some of her best practices from this assignment, as exemplified in her students work in Vol. 1, from 2017, and Vol. 2, from 2018.
“Be fearless in whatever curiosity it is that’s driving you, so long as you can find a way to explain it to your students that feels transparent and authentic to the learning goals you need to communicate.”— Nicole Gervasio, PhD
Course description: HUMA CC1001–HUMA CC1002 Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy, popularly known as “Literature Humanities’’ or “Lit Hum,” is a year-long course that offers Columbia College students the opportunity to engage in intensive study and discussion of some of the most significant texts of Western culture. The course is not a survey, but a series of careful readings of literary works that reward both first encounters and long study. Whether classwork focuses on the importance of the text to literary history or on its significance to our contemporary culture, the goal is to consider particular conceptions of what it means to be human as well as the place of such conceptions in the development of critical thought.
See resources shared by Nicole Gervasio, PhDSee materials
Lesson: Creating a “compilation zine”
Their zine contribution is a response to one of the required works of literature. Media used here can include essays, poetry, play dialogue or stage directions, flowcharts, drawings, comic strips, and music playlists. Some advice she offers students: “I encourage you to think of yourself as writing a blog post—whether the end result is a list, a how-to manual, a photo/image essay, a collection of examples, or just plain commentary (sometimes called ‘newsjacking’)—on some resonance you perceive to be important.”
In addition, students must come up with a comparative essay question (like those that might appear on the final exam), then answer it using their response, plus two or three texts from the course. Students submit this separate “companion essay” directly to Dr. Gervasio to satisfy the Core Curriculum’s requirements for academic writing.
Though this assignment may sound “comparatively” simple, Gervasio asserts that there are a number of devices to employ that can maximize its impact.
Allow students to find their own voice
Though the zine itself is rooted in social justice, Gervasio does not require students to take an oppositional stance in their submission. “It’s not an assignment about tearing down the syllabus,” she says. “It’s about reading those works and leveraging their own voices to talk back.” Ultimately, she notes, students must feel comfortable with what they create, because (as with original zines) their work will be photocopied and shared. As she states in a handout, “Whether the end result is uncensored or transgressive, conventional or educational, you should be proud of your invention—not hesitant to share it with the world because you’re worried it’s embarrassing or underdeveloped.”
Invite them to challenge the core
Gervasio’s goal is to help students view literature beyond the white, male, Western, highly educated viewpoint that has marked their previous education. To encourage students to begin thinking more deeply about the issues brought up by classic works and their curriculum at Columbia, she asks the class to read a New York Times opinion piece by Bianca Brooks, a former Columbia College peer, called “It’s Not Just the Books, It’s the Discussion.” This becomes the starting point for a conversation about the point of the course itself and their own preconceived notions and misconceptions. “I allow students to weigh in about the degree to which they have criticized some ideas they may have inherited unwittingly—and the degree to which [the questioning of required cores will be new to them], when the very nature of it being required means you’re not supposed to challenge it.”
Provide plenty of prompt ideas
Gervasio recognizes that not every student is comfortable with being creative or artistic, so she gives her students a wide array of options and suggestions for satisfying the zine project. In fact, her sample prompts—posted on a Google doc shared with the whole class—fill five pages and cover three categories: creative, interdisciplinary, and pedagogical.
Creative. This is for the artists and writers of the class. For example, students can design a Circle of Hell in illustration or poetry à la Dante’s Inferno, mimic the writing of one of Montaigne’s personal essays, or draw what Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness looks like in To the Lighthouse.
Interdisciplinary. Students are invited to draw connections between literature and other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, and musicology. For example, they may choose to create a playlist of modern songs “embellishing the tone and mood of any of the texts we’ve read in class” (as in this example for Woolf’s To the Lighthouse). If they choose, they may draw connections with current events, as with the student who, in Vol. 1 (page 7), discussed the yellow cards used to single out prostitutes in Russia during the period of Dostoevsky. “[The student explored] the legacy that the color yellow has had on marking signified populations for various oppressive state apparatuses, [such as] the cards that are used to identify people crossing at the US-Mexico border,” says Gervasio.
Pedagogical. As a third option, students can translate their work into contemporary formats that provide memorable teaching aids for the final exam, part of which requires them to identify direct quotes without any context. For example, one student, in Vol. 2 (page 23), made a Buzzfeed-style quiz about obscure minor characters from Don Quixote, King Lear, Pride and Prejudice, and the Gospel of John.
Make the zine public
Gervasio prints the 48-page zine at the end of each semester (giving every student a copy), and she has been fortunate to also be able to submit it to the affiliated Barnard Zine Library as part of its archive. “[This] gives students the very rare opportunity [to] feel like they’re a part of something,” she says. In fact, the assignment brings students together—just as original zines did. “It’s the note they leave [the semester] on,” she says. “And they take a piece of each other with them.”
The teaching philosophy used in this course centers around empowering the student to learn something so well that they can turn it on its head and challenge it—and to engage in intelligent debate if it gets misconstrued. “In an era when stories are recurrently manipulated and fabricated for any number of malignant political purposes … these great names are often invoked, even when it is unjust and a huge misinterpretation of the writings of these great people,” says Gervasio. “If you want to be able to counteract an incorrect narrative like that, then you need to know what you’re talking about, if you want to have any credibility.”
Gervasio has a strategic and personal reason for making the seminal works that shaped Western thought and philosophy more accessible. “I myself am a first-generation college student. I came from a working-class neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey,” she says. “I understand what it is to feel simultaneously alienated by these texts—that can be incredibly difficult to read on just an intellectual level—and yet also aware of the power you acquire once you show your mastery and your fluency in speaking their language.”