[DWJ] long, long delayed discussion of teaching Hexwood

Stallcup, Jackie E jackie.stallcup at csun.edu
Wed Jul 6 15:50:01 EDT 2016

I love teaching!  It's so much fun to get to stand up in front of a class and yak about books that I would yak about for free.

I don't know how well this class would translate to a high school class though.  It's hard enough with graduate students!

But maybe that's your point, Amy--if high school teachers taught books like this, maybe the students would be more invested and interested...

-----Original Message-----
From: Dwj [mailto:dwj-bounces at suberic.net] On Behalf Of Amy Harlib
Sent: Wednesday, July 06, 2016 8:32 AM
To: Diana Wynne Jones discussion <dwj at suberic.net>
Subject: Re: [DWJ] long, long delayed discussion of teaching Hexwood

aharlib at earthlink.net
Wow – I wish my English/Lit classes in high school were as interesting as yours!

In NYC, life long lover of all things SF & F and DWJ.


-----Original Message----- 
From: Stallcup, Jackie E 
Sent: Tuesday, July 05, 2016 6:16 PM 
To: dwj at suberic.net 
Subject: [DWJ] long, long delayed discussion of teaching Hexwood 

Hmm.  I wonder if the attachments made this post get rejected.  Here it is without the attachments.   If you want the syllabus, I'll be happy to send it to you...

-----Original Message-----
From: Stallcup, Jackie E 
Sent: Tuesday, July 05, 2016 3:10 PM
To: Diana Wynne Jones discussion <dwj at suberic.net>
Subject: long, long delayed discussion of teaching Hexwood

My goodness DWJ-ers,

First, the list has been very quiet.  I switched over to my school email account because my juno account got hacked and is no more (sigh).  Then I didn't get anything at all for a long time so I thought I hadn't made the switch properly.  But then I did get a little spate of emails that trailed off again.  Where are you all???

Anyway, second, I am also now in a new position.  The last time I posted anything, I was English department chair, DROWNING in email and work.  I honestly don't know how I managed to survive.  Now, I'm "special assistant" to the Dean of Humanities, which means interim associate dean. While one might think that that is a harder job than being chair, it isn't, by a long shot.  I actually have my life back, sort of.  One result is getting to go back to the very bottom of my email pile and finally FINISHING things.  

One of the things at the bottom of the email pile follows.  I believe that I started writing it in August 2013.  How time goes by...  I was delayed from sending it by wanting to incorporate some notes from a couple of students regarding their notes from the discussion.  I now finally have time to do that, on another hot afternoon, albeit one that is in July 2016 rather than August 2013.



Hi everyone,

I have been so overwhelmed that I haven't had a chance to fill you in on how our class discussion of Hexwood went last year.  Martha has now prodded me twice (thanks Martha--much needed!) I am going to take a few minutes on this hot Friday afternoon to write up some notes about it.

To start with, as long time dwj listers may recall, I have tried teaching several of Jones' novels with mixed results.  Dark Lord of Derkholm in particular required a lot of refining of my lesson plans to teach effectively, but I learned some really interesting things in the course of doing so.  (did I tell you guys about that already?  I don't know... I know that I talked about the disaster that was the first time I taught it...  but perhaps not the later experiences).

Last fall, I got to teach a graduate class called Childhood and the Fantastic.   I can't remember why I decided to do Hexwood this time instead of Dark Lord (now that I had finally figured out how to do Dark Lord!), and as Martha said when she heard:  "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING???"  Yes indeed!  I think it was because I knocked the Hobbit off the reading list, which paired up so well with Dark Lord.  In its place I put The Hunger Games and that just seemed to go nicely with Hexwood, if I remember correctly.  I've attached my syllabus in case you are interested in looking at it.  As you can see, the last three weeks of the class were Hunger Games, Ender's Game and Hexwood, thought of as sort of linked in various ways. 

One thing that I did to set up the discussion was prepare them for Hexwood to be a tricky read.  Both Hunger Games and Ender's Game are far more straightforward and conventional (as I'm sure you all know!)  They are both compelling reads that make you forget that you are reading.  So I had to make sure that they knew that Hexwood was going to be a little bit different experience.  So, two weeks out, I told them to be sure to leave time to read it twice--that that was an absolute MUST.  Then the week before our discussion I told them that they HAD to come to class prepared to discuss Hexwood cheerfully (even if they were puzzled).  No complaining, no whining!  And I gave them the carrot of not having to meet during finals week if we had a great, in-depth discussion of Hexwood.  I think this intrigued them and it also warned them not to enter the reading with slack minds.  

One of the interesting things that always happens in a class is that discussions tend to gravitate toward certain themes and ideas.  Students seem to pull out particular themes, so that while I might teach mostly the same texts, the conversations and the "through-lines" for the course are always different.  Around week 12, I had the students get into small groups and identify the main ideas that they saw cropping up throughout the course.  Then they got onto https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__wordle.net&d=CwIGaQ&c=Oo8bPJf7k7r_cPTz1JF7vEiFxvFRfQtp-j14fFwh71U&r=ChQZV9av_IvNDkzIpngwUsKJilpddbhq0EMuEXqohmY&m=BVeirbaEq8OyFO0Cpq0REpHcTpKC2xZ_Ow0yuJuLrUM&s=wqQjvHD_rdDwWRs9nxqz-XOJsgvGlxUy9HgfFmKsFik&e=  and made word clouds that showed what ideas were most prevalent.  We talked about these in class and then I used these to structure the last few weeks of the course.  

With all of that in mind, I thought you might find it useful to see how I introduced the discussion of Hexwood on the last day of the semester (see below).

From that intro, I (as usual) turned it over to the students to come up with the main elements in the text that we would talk about for the day.  Much to my relief, they had plenty of things to talk about and were cheerful and eager to put stuff on the board.  From there, I put them into small groups to talk over the issues they had identified and off we went.

Now, here's one of the reasons I've taken so long to write this up for you all. Of course now you probably want to know WHAT we talked about, right?  Agh! I don't know!  I don't take notes in class so once the discussion is done, it's gone.  I can tell you a few things that I remember:
Among the things that I was very interested in examining is how Jones disrupts our narrative expectations with her characters.  My favorite example of this is Orm.  I find it incredibly, horrifyingly creepy the way that his eyes twinkle.  For most writers, that's simply a narrative shortcut that says "hey, this is a good guy." (Dumbledore's usual descriptions are a good example of this kind of... well, I don't want to just call it narrative laziness, but perhaps narrative conventionality).   I wanted them to think about how Jones develops our sense of who characters are and what they are capable of in unconventional ways.  

Given that violence loomed so large in many of the texts that we read, we discussed how it functioned here in ways similar to and different from the other texts that we had looked at (particularly Ender's Game and The Hunger Games)

And here are some notes from students that, while unformed, give you a sense of what we talked about:

Student one:
Control/power authority
Morphing identities
Agency/free will
Performative nature of existence
Bannus as a fiction maker
Own your past/pain and use it
Our experiences pile up/create a schema
Looking back at a path to look forward; many things impinge upon us and we have to look back to understand Destiny vs performativity

Student two:
Novel questions reality
Dismantles the assumptions of fantasy; dismantles the conceptions of narrative.
Images of disease
Clothing acts in the same way that names do:  creating new/different characters, creating confusion and disrupting the narrative Ending is not neat and tidy; it assumes a harmony, but does not give satisfying closure Most students in small group who didn't like the book had problems with the ending, not the plot twists

Student three:
Anti-essentialist depiction of existence and the performative nature of the self Post-modern, nonlinear narrative structure, with considerable temporal shifting and alternate realities depending on dominant point of view Expanded boundary of self-consciousness Bannus attempts to tie up loose ends but the forest itself rebels, wanting to create its own new mythology in order to continue playacting

Intro to Hexwood discussion:

Put on board and discuss:  "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."  (semisonic).  

So, our class is coming to an end, but you are already looking forward to next semester's classes.  As I was thinking about Hexwood, and the other books that we've read this semester, and this being the last class, I was thinking about cycles and circularity.   One thing that I've learned is that I can teach the same course many many times, and every time it is a different course.  The texts may be the same, and you all may be students that have taken classes with me before, but every class becomes its own entity.  Every set of students make up their own course from the given texts.  

We started to talk about this two weeks ago as we made our wordles and thought about the discussion topics that stood out in looking back.  And last week, with Ender's Game, I thought in particular about how violence seems to one topic or thematic thread that this particular course and this particular set of books has highlighted.  

So, as we conclude today, we are doing so with a book that is famously ambiguous-in MANY ways, of course, but particularly in relation to beginnings and endings.  So I want to start there with our discussion of Hexwood.  And I would like to segue eventually into considering openings and closing of all of the texts we have been looking at.  

Finally, and it may or may not end up being related, I want to consider what we have identified as "big picture" questions or ideas.  One that occurs to me as particularly fruitful (and I want to tell you now so you see what I mean and can have it at the back of your mind as we talk) is one that we identified last week:

"What price victory?"

When I mulled that over in relation to Ender's Game, I realized that at some level, it really applied to Hunger Games as well.  And then I realized that in a modified form, it applied to a lot of the texts:  

What price.... [fill in the blank].  

So, as we talk, let's think about this particular idea, or other big picture ideas that you can identify.

Oh and here's the email that I sent off to the students prior to our discussion:

Hi everyone,

Two things:

First, this is just to confirm what we discussed last night:  Since we are all caught up with the reading and we have already started the "wrapping up" discussion, we can go ahead and NOT meet on December 17 on TWO conditions:

1.  you come to class on December 10 prepared to discuss Hexwood cheerfully (even if with puzzlement).  

2.  you come to class on December 10 prepared to branch out from Hexwood so that our discussion touches upon other reading from the semester and comes to some kind of graceful conclusion.  Come to think of it, that's a very appropriate way to use Hexwood.  We'll just pretend that we have a Bannus whose theta-field has grown to encompass all of the semester.  

If we have a good, rousing fun discussion on the 10th, we'll call it a semester.   

Second, Professor Wightman just sent me this link, which is an Amazon review of a book written by an old college classmate of hers.  The review is ... well, apropos of this course.  I thought you should see it.  First, here's a link to the book itself:


And here is a link to the review:  Enjoy!


Dr. S

P.S.  Goodness, I'm going to miss our class after next week!

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