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Laugh while you learn: Excellence in Teaching

By Sarah Aldag, ECS
March 21, 2007

© Lisa Nugent

An encounter with James Krasner is bound to make one smile, or more likely to laugh out loud. Noted for his intelligence and admired for his scholarship, he is hailed for his ability to cause frequent and uncontrollable eruptions of laughter.

“I think it’s important to be funny,” he says. “That’s my big thing. The essence of humor is sudden shifts of context, and when you’re teaching, what you’re trying to do is to get people to see something in a different context.”

Using humor, Krasner demystifies what might be considered heavy historical literature and imbues it with modern-day relevance. Take Noah, for example. In his Bible as Literature course, Krasner details the specific instructions that God has given Noah for building the ark. “It has to be this many cubits, by this many cubits, by this many cubits, and I say, ‘Why is God talking this way, why is he suddenly being so precise about measurements?’”

Krasner has his students imagine God as a middle-aged man, who is frustrated with his family and seeks escape in his garage-turned-workshop. “There’s an element of emotional response on God’s part here,” he explains. “He gave Adam and Eve this general instruction, ‘You can do whatever you want, but don’t eat that,’ and it didn’t work, so now with Noah it has to be exactly this many inches big, so there is no question. When I say that it’s about a middle-aged man, you can laugh. It’s funny. And they get it. You really have to put everything in a very down-to-earth frame of reference.”

The strategy works equally well in his poetry classes. “Love poetry has changed so little in 500 years,” he observes. “You have these really elegant sounding love poems, but they’re describing exactly the same sort of bitter, or petty, or silly emotions that everyone experiences when they’re falling in love. When you look at a passage from Shakespeare or Petrarch, and you say, ‘Well this is just a bad breakup,’ it seems funny, but it’s also true. There isn’t this division between cultural history and ordinary every day life.”

Krasner teaches Victorian British literature, his specialty, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. As he works with students who are about to begin their own teaching careers, he will, with a Krasnerian twist, challenge them to identify the worst book they read in high school and determine why it was so bad, all in preparation for choosing the books they will ultimately teach. Jane Eyre, his favorite, is often at the top of that list.

“She is a great character. I am completely in love with Jane Eyre,” he says as he leans forward in his chair. His eyes light up. “She’s really angry, and passionate, and sneaky, and she tells all these lies and she gets what she wants, but she manages to come off as this incredibly good moral person and she really is. There’s something so alive about her and about the way [Brontë] writes.”

Krasner brings a seemingly endless and eclectic range of literary knowledge and insights to his teaching, including research of his own. His book, “The Entangled Eye: Visual Perception and the Representation of Nature in Post-Darwinian Narrative,” was published by Oxford University Press. His work has also appeared in prestigious literary journals such as Representations, Victorian Poetry, English Literature in Transition, Mosaic, and PMLA.

Yet, teaching remains a priority and a love. “Teaching is about the chemistry of the people in the room. You go out there with the same ideas and the same jokes and sometimes it goes better, and sometimes you think it is going worse. There I am yakking all semester and the real content of the class is what’s happening in people’s minds and what’s happening between the people in the room, and between them and me. It’s a magical experience.”

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