One of many reasons Harry (Potter) ultimately triumphs is because of his ability to understand the past and integrate it into his present.

Once a year or so, a group of students can be found chasing after each other on the Academic Quad. Something unusual about their gaits catches the eye — they aren't quite hopping, not quite skipping, but they obviously are concentrating on their steps and enjoying themselves in the process. This isn't a new dance class or university-level recess; it is one of Virginia Zimmerman's poetry classes playing meter tag.

The associate professor of English invented the game to liven up lessons on the rhythms of poetry. Rather than marking up poems with slashes and dashes to indicate stressed and unstressed syllables, the students invent steps to fit the rhythm. Step-hop, step-hop, step-hop, step-hop, step-hop, for example, might pace out an iambic pentameter. Add in an element of tag, in which each team may move only with a given metrical foot, and the exercise builds classroom rapport as well as enduring learning.

Zimmerman, the recipient of the Presidential Award for Teaching Excellence in 2009, has a few surprises in store for students in her "Young Adult Fiction" class, too. Students discover how much meaning can be hidden in so-called easy reading. "When they read Middlemarch, they expect to discover that there is a lot going on," she says. "When they read Peter Pan, they don't expect it to be complicated."

Combining her specialties of Victorian literature and young adult fiction, Zimmerman has been studying books written to educate children about the new theory of evolution. "In the 19th century, the idea was that you could witness evolution by watching a child grow up," she says. "So I thought, what happens when you try to teach someone who is 'evolving' about evolution?"

The idea that the stages of evolution are mimicked in the stages of growth sounds ridiculous today, but Zimmerman's interest is not so much in modern scientific validity as in how the ideas of the time were communicated. One of her favorite examples of the genre is The Fossil Spirit: a Boy's Dream of Geology. In the book, an Indian mystic tells of being reincarnated through the different stages of evolution, starting as a single-celled animal, moving up to a shellfish, a dinosaur and so on. "It follows all the conventions of a first-person adventure story, but it's also a way to teach evolution as it was understood at the time," Zimmerman says.

Whether challenging students to move to the rhythm of poetry or see familiar literature in new ways, Zimmerman likes exposing students to eye-opening ideas. Her first book, Excavating Victorians, explores how Victorian society dealt with the shocking discoveries coming from geology and archeology that completely changed their understanding of time, the Earth, and life on it. "In the book, I focus a lot on traces, both geological and archeological traces, which are material objects from the past that endure into the present and become artifacts," she says.

More recently, she applied the concept of traces to the popular Harry Potter novels. "My article is about how Harry uses traces productively, and learns how to rely on the past and use the past, in contrast to Voldemort (the antagonist), who uses the past unproductively," she says. "One of many reasons Harry ultimately triumphs is because of his ability to understand the past and integrate it into his present."


Posted Sept. 8, 2009


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