A semester of First-Year Seminar at Columbia typically begins with an exploration of self and community and builds toward a topic we call Manifesting Vision. This final unit asks students to consider how critical thought can be transformed responsibly and ethically into creative works and actions. Students in my class read and discuss Sophocles’ Antigone and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, texts that dramatize the limitations of simplistic notions of right and wrong while examining the surprising (and sometimes monstrous) consequences of the decisions we make.
For their final project, my students reimagine one of these classic texts. The assignment is to propose a retelling of either Frankenstein or Antigone, translating one or more of the questions explored in the original into an idiom that speaks to contemporary issues and audiences. Students may choose to work with themes that are subtle or central in the original. They may keep elements of plot, character, and setting, or they may transform these radically. Students have imagined contemporary versions of Antigone that look like blockbuster action films, full of Mafia intrigue as faith and family values conflict with criminal enterprise. Some projects, less interested in narrative, turn these tales into impressionistic dances, paintings, and songs. In one student’s vision, Frankenstein’s creature learns to play the ukulele and writes songs about being ugly and misunderstood—her classmates, treated to a live performance of the compositions, never referred to the being as “monster” again.
I emphasize that this project asks for a proposal so that students feel free to dream big. They may propose something wildly complicated, time consuming, or expensive, but execute a more manageable and modest sample: they create storyboards or edit together trailers for proposed feature-length films; they propose a novel and deliver a chapter or two; they compose and perform a song offered as one piece of proposed rock opera. Whatever students create, their work must be accompanied by a statement that serves both to describe the proposed piece and to articulate a rationale for it. The strongest work is specific about the themes and questions from the original text the student set out to explore, it clearly describes an exploration process and notes discoveries made along the way, it lays out communicative goals for the proposed retelling and explains how those goals were realized, and it reflects on the new work’s strengths, limitations, and ethical entailments.
Brett King’s piece is, at first glance, a fairly faithful retelling of Antigone. The setting, the plot, and the characters remain perfectly recognizable. But he’s added a twist: rewriting the story as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, a genre he remembers fondly from his own childhood, Brett has taken themes central to the original drama and woven them into the very structure of the new text. Brett was most interested in Sophocles’ themes of fate and freewill—but he wasn’t satisfied with letting today’s audiences simply read about fictional characters making tough choices. What was primarily an issue of content in the original becomes a guiding principle of form in Brett’s version, as the proposed piece makes use of a genre that invites readers to be decision makers themselves. By playing with the notion that the decisions we make sometimes change everything, sometimes change nothing, and can only ever be undone in our own imagination, readers experience Antigone in a whole new way.
FYS Instructor Michael Lawrence
Brett King (major/Cultural Studies; minor/Women & Gender Studies): Brett spent the first 27 years of his life living in the Washington, DC/Metro area. He spent ten of those years working for his local school system—the first three years as a classroom assistant at an elementary school, followed by seven years as a classroom assistant/administrative secretary for a program catering to students with Asperger’s Syndrome and Emotional Disabilities. When not studying, catching up on soap operas, or training for triathlons, Brett indulges in many other (geeky) hobbies—he still collects the “He-Man” and “She-Ra” toys that, as a child, helped mold his appreciation for the fantasy genre that he now also writes in. He’s very grateful for his family and loved ones and all of their support over the years.