Riley McGuire wearing a plaid shirt and black jacket and smiling in front of a gray background

Worcester State professor uses Victorian “monsters” to inform teaching techniques

August 30, 2023
By: Rebecca Cross

What’s in a name? A lot, apparently, as Assistant Professor Riley McGuire recently proved. In spring 2022, he opted to teach Worcester State’s Romantic and Victorian Gothic course—a course that had been canceled in the past because of a lack of enrollment. While not substantially changing the focus of the course, he retitled it Gothic Monsters from Frankenstein to Dracula. The course quickly filled to capacity.

The exciting title drew students in. McGuire’s innovative approach to teaching one of the most traditional courses of literature kept the students engaged. The course was not dumbed down. Students read classic 19th-century texts, including Frankenstein, Dracula, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Carmilla, and The Picture of Dorian Gray and they were invited to engage with the texts in ways that were relevant to them. McGuire encouraged them to critically assess the key themes of the stories and the most effective ways of expressing those themes.

McGuire is sharing his insights. He wrote a paper on his discoveries, which he presented at the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada conference in May, where he participated in a panel discussing innovative pedagogical practices in the field of Victorian studies. He attended with a grant from the Worcester State Foundation. “I found it really energizing to be in conversation with other folks who are thinking critically about their teaching practices around Victorian literature,” he said.

“I enjoyed the class and I have always enjoyed Professor McGuire’s approach to teaching,” said Tim Gauthier ’23. “He allows room for old material, as well as new material related to the subject. No matter what topic or gothic adventure we were on there was always something to connect with. He also allowed us to take charge of our work and help to guide a portion of the class which makes all the difference in the world of education.”

Samantha Hindle ’23 said, “The way that Professor McGuire taught this course kept me engaged by looking at the societal implications that not only were prevalent within the stories’ narratives but the effects that they had in each of the characters as well. He provided us with tools to look into and search the novel to find commonalities between the reactions of the characters (including the monsters) and society.

McGuire’s expertise is in Victorian literature, so the contemporary relevance of Victorian literature and art were obvious to him. “I think a lot of my preoccupations with our contemporary moment start to crystallize and come into focus in the 19th century,” he said. That includes an interest in the representation of sexuality and disability—both categories of identity that have been classified as “monstrous” in various texts, including Dracula and Frankenstein.

In the course, he introduced his students to the idea that various groups that have been historically othered often get categorized as monstrous. Some of the questions he asked his class were: How often is the monstrous a stand-in for a racially marginalized Other, or someone whose gender identity or sexual identity is seen as non-normative? When is it a stand-in for a person with disabilities? When is it a stand-in for a range of groups who have less social power? What cultural anxieties are they embodying?

“It’s a problematic representation,” he said, “because we don’t want to categorize these groups as monstrous, but monsters also tend to have a lot of power. So, there’s that duality of being stigmatized but also powerful.”

“Students had a lot of fun with it. I think they were surprised by how much they enjoyed these texts, how Frankenstein still felt relevant to them, and learning about Mary Shelley as the matriarch of science fiction,” McGuire said. “They got into very passionate debates about these figures.”

Students formed groups and advocated for a film adaptation that they would watch collectively and gave presentations to convince the rest of the class. “That was a nice culmination of the community they formed with each other in the class. They had a lot of fun doing that, but they also came up with super smart, compelling arguments about what it means to reimagine these texts and figures in the contemporary moment that makes for a good adaptation or a not so good adaptation.”

What started as an approach to entice more students to enroll in a class became a deeper research into pedagogical practices. McGuire began to research strategies to make older texts more appealing to students. At first, he thought about concrete classroom practices, but it evolved into seeing 19th-century monstrous figures as tools to help him extract some lessons to understand the educational landscape of a post-COVID world.

One of these lessons was that Dracula is a “bad mentor,” who, as McGuire put it, “creates other vampires who need the same sustenance he needs, who have the same restrictions on their mobility that he does, who are identical to him in behavior and habit.” In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is defeated by a group of individuals who each possess unique traits, skills, and strengths. The lesson McGuire sees is that English professors aren’t just making other English teachers but also journalists, editors, and a wide variety of professions. As part of his teaching approach, McGuire considers how to help prepare students to step into different career paths. He has started working on the creation of internship opportunities and understanding professional licensure requirements.

McGuire has effectively combined historical texts and modern concerns in other classes. In his Disabilities Studies class, he has used H.G. Wells’s short story “The Country of the Blind” to demonstrate the social model of disability. In the story, a sighted man winds up in a community of blind people and finds, contrary to his expectations, that he is at a disadvantage because the community has developed their environment and practices to an experience of being blind. The social model of disability asserts that it’s not people’s bodies and minds that are broken, it’s a society that is not built to accommodate people with disabilities and, in fact, does just the opposite by placing barriers in the way of certain kinds of experiences.

“Everything in society is built in service of an expectation of how a human functions,” he said. “If we change our expectations of how a human functions, we change our design practices. The hope behind those kinds of conversations is to encourage students to think about how we should be more critical about our current design practices to make sure that they work for as many people as possible.”

Other Worcester State faculty are getting on board. One of them is MaryLynn Saul, who specializes in medieval literature and is developing a course that would contrast Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” from Canterbury Tales with the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale. “It’s been hard to run the medieval course,” Saul said. “But so many of our ideas and later literary tropes started in the medieval ages. Like Riley, I’ve been thinking about how to make it a little more inviting so students can see that connection.”

These conversations on pedagogy will continue to take place at Worcester State, and McGuire will be involved. As the pre-tenure recipient of the university’s Alden Excellence in Teaching Award last year, he will give a lecture on teaching along with the tenured recipient (Hy Ginsberg in math) this coming spring.

Top image: Riley McGuire

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