Overwhelmed or Emboldened? I Choose Emboldened


Courtesy of Amazon

This fall I’m teaching an online Introduction to Literature course. The first piece of fiction my students read is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a 200-year-old Gothic novel that asks the same question that Mary Chayko does in Chapter 10 of her 2018 book Superconnected: “what does it mean, really, to be human” (214). In a discussion board post, my students agreed on three major requirements:

  1. the desire for knowledge and learning;
  2. the ability to form connections with other human beings and show empathy for them; and
  3. the ability to feel intense feelings like love, faithfulness, rage, and vengeance.

Some critics believe Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the ever-reaching power of man. Essentially, they claim it is a treatise against the notion of “playing God.”  I ask my students to think about how Shelley’s monstrous creature relates to today’s modern advancements like cloning and artificial intelligence. Much of the content throughout Chapters 8, 9, and 10 of Chayko’s text made me feel anxious, hand-wringy. Then I came upon media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s quote:

“Living in modern technologized times can be a shock to the system [. . .] the more we become aware of these challenges—economic troubles, climate change, wars, any of a host of social problems—the more we can become overwhelmed with the prospect of actually solving them” (Chayko, p. 215).

Yes! That’s how I felt while reading this week’s content. That’s how it feels right now when I go online or turn on the radio. A recent New York Times article, “It’s Not Just You: 2017 Was Rough for Humanity, Study Finds,” shared that reported negative feelings were at an all-time low across the globe (Chokshi, 2018). Quite frankly, worrying about internet surveillance is the last issue many people (including me), already tired, stress, and overwhelmed, want to add to their worry list.


Kim Jong Un and President Trump, Source: Time Magazine

However, like many other big issues (greenhouse gases, suicide prevention, North Korea) that we individually can only do so much about, individually we can educate ourselves on these issues and talk about them with friends and family, or blog about them on platforms like this. We can pay more attention when headlines about “net neutrality” pop up in our Facebook newsfeed. We can read works like Chayko’s and try to answer the questions she asks. As people privileged to live in a technologically-adept and responsive society, we have an obligation to make sure these new advances that make our lives easier and more efficient aren’t thwarting the human rights of others, that they don’t do so already.

Mary Shelley warns of “playing God,” but we know since Frankenstein’s publication in 2018, we have seen advancements that would frighten and mystify her. “As science writer James Gleick looks at it, ‘We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened’ (2011, p. 419)” (Chayko p. 215).  I choose emboldened, with the knowledge that liberty isn’t free. As Sam Cooke puts it: “A change is gonna come.” We have to be ready for it.

Posted on September 21, 2018, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Society, Teaching, Technology, Trust. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. “We can read works like Chayko’s and try to answer the questions she asks. As people privileged to live in a technologically-adept and responsive society, we have an obligation to make sure these new advances that make our lives easier and more efficient aren’t thwarting the human rights of others, that they don’t do so already.”
    I think reading is key, but not a lot of people do it. In fact, as your NYT link shows, we may be fearful of what we read online, even if at times we stay in our filter bubbles. No matter one’s age or genre preference, reading opens one’s mind up to different worlds and perspectives, so if we as educators can push more to read and read actively, then I think we can work toward a better humanity.

  2. My college has recently added more literature courses, introduction to lit, ethnic lit, and American lit, which our department was very excited to begin teaching. Oftentimes it’s easier for students to critically read and analyze works when there is a story/plot/characters that they can relate to or empathize with. Even though as a society we’re not reading as much as 100-200 years ago, we do read a lot, just in different, shorter formats.

  3. Amery,

    When I first started reading your blog post, I wasn’t sure how you were going to tie Frankenstein to Dr. Chayko’s book, but you managed to pull it off. This was an extremely insightful read and interesting way to use Frankenstein to reflect on modern times. You took me back to my undergraduate literature courses. One of my professors told me that she loves being an English professor because it allows you to understand the world around you and the problems of the time.

    I have to agree with Dr. Pignetti – reading is the key to opening up our minds and seeing things from a different perspective. However, I feel new articles have (slightly) lost their ability to persuade people who think differently than the publication’s political leaning. I feel like books (like Frankenstein and modern literature) is the way to get people to think differently about the world around them. Personally, I have found that people who read literature often are more emphatic and willing to think differently. Unfortunately, literature is often ignored.

    This discussion also reminds me of a Medium post I saw on my Linkedin feed this morning – “5-Hour Rule: If you’re not spending 5 hours per week learning, you’re being irresponsible (https://medium.com/the-mission/the-5-hour-rule-if-youre-not-spending-5-hours-per-week-learning-you-re-being-irresponsible-791c3f18f5e6). The post explains how the world’s greatest leaders take the time to read every week (Bill Gates goes so far as to take book vacations). It creates a strong argument that if you’re not reading, you’re doing yourself a disservice. And I couldn’t agree more!

    • The notion of a book vacation sounds divine! One of the bonuses of my off term as an instructor is to stack up a pile of books and articles for leisure reading.

      You’re absolutely correct. Reading does build perspective and empathy. One of many articles will support that: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/; however, the trick is to GET students to read. I begin my term by asking students for their favorite book or author. I get many, “I’m not a reader” type of answers, and within a few weeks, I also get some grumbles of, “I didn’t realize there’d be so much reading.” I also know more and more students are immersed in visual stories (Netflix binges, YouTube series, etc.), so maybe they’re getting some of the same effects there? I hope so anyway. Thanks for your comment.

  4. A recent Frankenstein find you might be interested in!

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