Thursday, March 21, 2013

They're Made Out of Meat

In this post, I'm putting some lesson plan information you might find useful to teach some lessons about a great, humorous science fiction short story by Terry Bisson called They're Made Out Of Meat. (<-- link takes you to the text of the story)

A still from the best adaptation of They're Made Out Of Meat.
The story was first published in Omni magazine in 1990.
It’s the story of two alien beings conversing about their discovery that the intelligent life on Earth, is made out of meat. Flesh. Us. This is evidently a disturbing and nonsensical proposition, and the beings decide to delete the records of their discovery to avoid further discomfort.
The story works because it’s punchy and brief, with the dialogue between the two protagonists flowing and exuding variously disbelief, bemusement and yet a very alien detachment to the hopes of mankind.

This story has been cited in sociological and philosophical contexts. One example is its use to demonstrate “Carbon chauvinism”; the idea that intelligent life can only “look like us”. This has an obvious analogue at a cultural level. Is our way of looking at other ways of being, the only valid way? How do we feel at the way the aliens treat us? This relates directly to a number of cross-curriculum priorities stated in the NSW English syllabus, including “Ethical understanding”, “Intercultural understanding” and “Diversity and difference” (p9 of the 2009 Syllabus)

The original story gives no clues as to the location or physical description of the protagonists. Bisson has presented the story theatrically and provides this description:

The set is a deep space galactic panorama projected on a screen--the Universe. Two lights moving like fireflies among the stars on the screen represent the the TWO VOICES

Lesson 1 begins with the best adaptation of the story, a short film made by Stephen O’Regan in 2005. As you can see, it dispenses with Bisson’s setup, and demonstrates its wonderful malleability.

I wrote to O’Regan (now in New York) to ask about how his version differs from the text (the flourishes with costuming, the behaviors of the extras, the music, and his excisions from the original. He wrote back:

Regarding the excisions...we shot all the dialogue...but simply dragged too long on screen no matter how clever the writing was on page. So I had to be tough on it. one point I cut it down to a 2 minute version. 

The video is watched twice. Once in isolation so it can be absorbed without preconception. Then again reading along with the text to compare it to the original. Differences are noted. Students examine how the choices affect the meaning of the story. Multiple discourses are evoked: How are humans represented? How are the “aliens” (focus on “otherness”)? Does the film exist in only one genre? Are there analogies between the aliens attitudes to humanity and our attitude towards other complex life on Earth? (Dolphins? Termites? Primates? Western culture vs other cultures?). How does costuming, the music, or the pacing of the dialogue affect meaning? Could this story suggest an answer to the “Fermi Paradox”? (the lack of evidence for intelligent life in the universe when the scientific consensus is that, statistically, it could be common). Why would the aliens be so averse to the idea of sentient meat? (Aside: our word meat comes from old English mete, meaning food generally. Are we food?)

As far as language is concerned, we explore several features. It is vernacular (The use of “Omigod”, “Nope”). Adjectives, exposition, in fact any context, are lacking. The repetition of the word “meat” is so pervasive, the phenomenon of “Semantic Satiation” occurs (when a word is repeated so much, it loses its meaning. The falling-apart of signifier and signified. Who knew there was a term for that?) As the text is entirely dialogue, with no descriptive element or exposition, we are left to infer the what/who/where. What effect to these choices have? (For example, do we end up thinking of this meat as, say, a steak, than our own meat? Our own grey matter and viscera?)

If time permits, vignettes from two other filmed adaptations and one audio-only adaptation can be sampled (although I don’t recommend watching them all in their entirety) for contrast. How do they differ? For example, in one, the alien kills a human. Do they use the "whole" text? Which one is best? I'll wager the one with the most changes. Can you cite other works that have changed in adaptation? What about the the “reboot” phenomenon in Hollywood? The difference between the Tolkien books and movies, etc. 

At the end of the lesson, students are grouped and told in the next lesson(s) they will be creating their own interpretation of the story.

In lesson 2, students choose from some options to extend their exploration. They could record an audio version of the dialog (in pairs) or a video version (groups of 3 or 4) using what are likely to be a plethora of student owned smartphones or iPods. Students choose which role to play, and more importantly, what could be added to their performance to make it distinctive. For those struggling for inspiration, suggest: Being robots, speaking with an unnatural cadence, deliberately mispronouncing words, emphasizing a particular emotion (disgust, incredulity, amusement), wearing attire (sunglasses, hats?), dubbing their dialog over footage of other animals or objects (Two dogs? Two rubbish bins? Sock puppets?). As the aliens are evidently in “human” form, are they phantasms? Have they “possessed” two bodies? Either assumption may change the performance. Could intertextuality between this work and other texts (X-Files? Invasion of the Body Snatchers?) inform or influence our understanding or representation here?

Post processing in a computer might alter the pitch of voices or the hue of skin. Imagination is more important than mastery in execution, and students should at least present some evidence of their intent in development by the end of the lesson if the project will go on. Some students may choose a representation that does not lend itself to a recorded format, and has to be performed live. Some students may choose to re-write the story in a different genre or perspective, or to write a sequel.

Enterprising students should be given leave to develop their project in this lesson but not record it if they have undertaken to film or record it elsewhere. These two lessons may be assumed to be the first of 3 or more lessons on the subject (the assignment criteria didn’t say they couldn’t be). Future lessons could be ICT lessons in video or audio editing, podcasting or vodcasting the raw material accompanied with a discussion about how the medium and technology enable new meanings or change the perception of the text.

The textbook Charged with Meaning (p275) suggests that the principles necessary to support students in creating screen or drama narratives are to encourage collaboration, promote self-management, to express contemporary cultural knowledge, employ flexible learning in space/time, permitting trial and error, and utilizing intertextual knowledge. These activities are geared toward applying these pedagogical principles.


 The freeloader adaptation (2005) directed by Stephen O'Regan. In my view, the best adaptation of Bisson's story there is.

Another adaptation, using the whole story, but the alien kills a human (definitely not in the original!)

Yet another one, not very good.

Lastly, here's a link to an audio-only radio adaptation.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe's 1845 poem, The Raven is one of my all time favourites.

This post is, unlike others on this blog, for students. Rather, I have collected here some resources you as a teacher may wish to use to present the poem to high school students.

First, some audio visual links. The Simpsons version is wonderful (can you believe it dates from 1990?) There are no good versions on YouTube, but a passable one here:


It's far superior to other youtube renditions that are little more than readings with photos like those from Bob McGraw, John DeLancie or Christopher Walken

I'm also a fan of the Interactive Raven web page, which allows you to select a stanza and have the poetic devices, and some difficult terms, explained.

I've prepared some sheets with the poem, and some resources relating to the poem for you:

Click this thumbnail for a PDF of the poem

Click this thumbnail for a PDF of a glossary of likely problem words and phrases from the poem

Should your students ask about a Hollywood movie titled "The Raven" with John Cusack, you can disabuse them of the thought it has anything to do with the poem. It's a murder mystery that casts a fictionalised version of Poe as a sleuth in pursuit of a serial killer who is using Poe's own horror stories as inspiration. Sounds insipid.

Here's all you need to know about Poe himself:

  • Born: Boston, January 19, 1809. Died: October 7, 1849 (aged 40)
  • Born as Edgar Poe. Orphaned young when his mother died shortly after his father abandoned the family.
  • Taken in by John and Frances Allan, of Richmond, Virginia, but they never formally adopted him.
  • Attended the University of Virginia for one semester but left due to lack of money. 
  • Had a contentious relationship with his foster father John Allan, so hardly ever used his middle name. He always published as "Edgar A. Poe"
  • Published his first work, a book of poetry, at the age of 18.
  • In 1835 (at the age of 26), he married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin. She died of Tuberculosis 12 years later.
  • By 1843, Poe was so broke that he found himself down to his last $4.50 and spent time stopping people on the street to ask for money for food.
  • When "The Raven" was published in 1845, it became an instant hit.
  • Poe was dead, two years later.
  • The cause of his death is unknown and has been variously attributed to alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, and "other agents"
  • In 2000, New York University announced plans to demolish the home where Edgar Allan Poe lived from 1841 to 1844 in order to make room for its law school. Outraged preservationists and Poe fans took to the streets in protest, leading to a compromise in which NYU promised to use the bricks from the original façade in the new building.
  • Every year since 1949, an anonymous fan known as the "Poe Toaster" has visited Poe's grave on the night of his birthday and has left a partially filled bottle of cognac and three roses.
  • As a student at West Point, Poe used to tell fellow cadets that his grandfather was the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold. Great story, not true.

Here are my edited lesson notes:

These are two lessons where we look in detail at Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, in its context as a “short text”.

Poe’s poem is iconic, and lends itself to being examined in its original written form as well as appreciated also as a performance piece (lesson 1), and even as parody (lesson 2). I chose it because it’s a classic, cracking supernatural “scary story” (horror, always a winner), because there are adaptations (eg the Simpsons version) that make an otherwise fusty poem fun, because it will challenge students in terms of their vocabulary and their knowledge of metaphors drawn from mythology, because the enquiry questions force students to “take sides” and realize that meaning is negotiated, not handed down, and frankly because there are lots of great resources already out there on the poem.

Ambitiously, I intend to perform the poem, from memory, in a setting easily created (a darkened room such as the school’s drama room), by the light of a candle, with some thunderstorm effects playing softly in the background. I’ve actually done this, the whole poem, from memory.

We spend some time talking about the metalanguage of the poetic devices used by Poe (assonance, alliteration, trochaic octameter, etc), but this is intentionally brief, and yields to a more detailed analysis of the poem’s allusions, meanings, and themes. Students will be invited to make a personal response by stating what they think, or how it makes them feel. What is its value as… a scary supernatural story? A tragic tale of lost love? A study of the descent into madness? I will encourage students to look deeper and to suggest that these, and other layers can be simultaneously true and valid responses. Poe’s own essay on the composition of the poem can be introduced, and his views of value of the poem being in the “totality of its impression on the soul” (paraphrase), and the almost mechanistic process he used to craft it can be cited. We can ask: Is the only valid view of the poem Poe’s view, or do we create our own meaning arising from the interaction of the text with our own minds, experiences and culture?

Lesson 1 builds the scaffold: Present the poem in a theatrical environment isolated from distractions. Demonstrate first hand its mood and pace. Examine the poem for difficult words or phrases so meaning is not lost because of any ignorance of terms. Begin to explore the allusions, the mythological and biblical references, and comb the text for the phrases that set the scene, the time, and the position and internal state of the narrator. The brief treatment of the metalanguage can go here.

The enquiry questions may be introduced, but not debated, since this is the purpose of lesson 2.

Lesson 2 begins with the adaptation of the poem that appeared on the first Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode in 1990, narrated by James Earl Jones. Online versions are available, but not on YouTube (see my blog). Not only is this good fun, but it challenges students to examine how texts change in adaptation or parody (e.g note the Simpsons version excises Stanza 15 and 16), and we ask “Is this as valid as the unadulterated work?”, “Would it matter if Poe would not have approved?” and muse on the phenomenon of the “mashup”; blendings of texts, even between 168 year old poems and postmodern pop-culture cartoons. What other blendings of classic works and pop-culture can we think of (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet? How about the book Pride and Prejudice, and Zombies?) When does an adaptation so depart from the original it becomes… something else? (eg old vs. new Battlestar Galactica?)

Then I reintroduce the enquiry questions and put the students in a fishbowl or debate format as they argue for or against some key questions surrounding meaning. Was the Raven actually speaking? Did the Raven have a message? Were the questions the Raven was “answering” all in the narrators head? Was he going mad?

Here are some enquiry questions you can use (adapted from another source)

  1. Do you think the speaker, the narrator of the poem, is insane? Is there another explanation for his behaviour?
  2. How does the narrator’s behaviour change over the course of the poem?
  3. Is it possible that the speaker is making up or imagining some of the weird events in this poem?
  4. Do you think the Raven pushes our speaker over the edge, or does he do it to himself? Is nature torturing him, or his own mind?
  5. Why do you think a raven was for Poe a useful symbol? What if, instead, the ghost of Lenore had showed up?
  6. Do you think religion plays an important role in this poem? If so, where do you see the evidence?
  7. The speaker half-suspects the Raven is an evil spirit. Does this seem reasonable to you? What evidence can you muster for or against this theory?
  8. Does the talking Raven actually seem supernatural to you? Is it possible that there is nothing going on here that can't be explained in a scientific manner?
  9. Does it seem like the idea of heaven provides any lasting hope in this poem?

And here are my links to my two lesson plans, in PDF format

Friday, March 15, 2013

Aboriginals, Colonisation and Contact History

Here are some resources that we will be referring to in class as we examine the topic Aboriginals and Indigenous Peoples, Colonisation and Contact History.

An important sub-heading for this unit of work could be "The History Wars". It is important both to be sensitive to the perceived history and identity of people, and also to ask whether the views being advanced are historically correct or serve a political purpose.

1. Governor Davey's Proclamation is a picture created in Tasmania in 1830. The idea was that it be shown to the local Aboriginal population, and convey to them the idea that the "white man's justice" applied equally to both populations. If a white man killed a black man, the same punishment would be meted out as in the situation where a black killed a white.

2. In the period ending Governor Macquarie's tenure, barely 3000 square kilometres had been officially granted to settlers. However, starting in the 1820s, land grants exploded, nearly doubling within the decade. Around 1826, the formal limits of the colony were set down as the "Nineteen Counties". It was deemed too hard to provide governance over the lands beyond these counties, such as police, schools or churches. Here are a couple of images showing the counties and their larger context within New South Wales:
Note this land extends up past Port Stephens in the north, out past Mudgee and Bathurst in the west, and down past the Shoalhaven river in the south. Have you visited any of these places. How many hours away are they, even by car? This total area was the extent of the "official" colony in the 1820s.
Aboriginal peoples certainly lived in these areas at this time. The government of the day did not consider that there was any obligation to compensate Aboriginals as they were pushed out of these areas, and in 1836 the Governor made first use of the term "Terra Nullius", meaning "land that belonged to no one".

3. When studying history, we can gain a lot by turning to contemporary accounts of life and attitudes. Such sources have value, but we should also remember that they are documents of their time. As well as containing truth, they reflect the attitudes and assumptions of that era.
A great source is a booklet written by two men in 1893.

Titled "NOTES ON THE ABORIGINES OF NEW SOUTH WALES". It was written by George Thornton (who was a Sydney Mayor and NSW Parliamentarian) & Richard Hill (a founding member of the Aboriginal protection board). Both men had had a long association with Aboriginals and spoke simultaneously with warmth towards them, and the condescension characteristic of the age. Click this image of the front cover to access a copy in PDF format.

In areas of settlement, and especially in the squatter lands beyond the 19 counties where the laws were loosely applied (or not at all), there were instances of conflict between Aboriginals and settlers. The degree of violence is disputed, and forms the basis for what are now called the "History Wars"; arguments among historians about both historical facts, and what they say about our national character, and relations between Europeans and Aboriginals. We must examine claims that at times seem completely contradictory.

We will watch in class one (possibly more) episodes of the SBS documentary series "The First Australians". Here is the first part of episode 2, and the SBS site has links to all the others.

What are the History Wars?
When approaching controversial topics, we should expect that there are opposing views. We should learn discernment. Is the view intended to serve a political purpose? Is the view supported by documentary sources? Is there genuine ambiguity about the motivations of people in the past because their inner thoughts are not recorded for posterity? To what degree can we infer historical facts and motivations?

There are some strident critics of the "orthodox" view that Aboriginals were deliberately massacred with the tacit approval of the governing authorities in the 1800s, and of the view that Aboriginal children were stolen from their families in huge numbers for no reason until well into the 20th century. One such historian is Keith Windschuttle. He has written a number of books where he claims stories of Aboriginal massacre are hugely over-estimated, and that the "Stolen Generation" story has likewise been overblown, for political purposes. He offers his own analysis of historical sources to back these claims.

Here is an important point: Where there are opposing views that both claim to be based on facts, we must evaluate each side properly. Reading histories that routinely claim that there was widespread genocide in early Australia (the worst possible crime that can be claimed) without evaluating opposing views is unwise.

Here is a website with some information about these opposing views:

Another controversy relates to the name adopted by Aboriginal people in North Western Sydney. You may remember an assembly or other civic function where recognition is given to the "Traditional custodians and inhabitants of the land, the Darug people."
A local historian, G.E Ford has advanced a theory that this term, Darug was invented by a (white) historian in Blacktown and first mentioned in a book in 1993, and that no Aboriginals in north west Sydney had used this term to apply to themselves before that time. Another people, the Dharug people (note the spelling), were from the Georges River area, but were unrelated. G.E Ford suggests that the correct name for the Aboriginals in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains areas is Darkiñung. Here is a link to Ford's analysis of historical sources and oral histories.


  1. What do you think about the growth of the Australian nation? Should we be proud of it?
  2. What do you think about the treatment of Aboriginal people since the First Fleet. Should we be proud of it?
  3. What might we say about the motivations (if not the outcomes) of many who formed policy towards Aboriginals?
  4. Can historical controversies be hijacked by people with "an axe to grind"?
  5. Why is it important to look at both sides of a story?
  6. Discuss this statement: "Although we can argue about history, it is more important that we treat the people around us now with respect."
Some Definitions

Squatting: One who occupied a large tract of land not formally granted by the Government in order to graze livestock.  Initially often having no legal rights to the land, they gained its usage by being the first (and often the only) Europeans in the area. These lands may or may not have been inhabited by Aboriginals.

Genocide: The deliberate killing of a large group of people, esp. those of a particular ethnic group or nation.

Massacre: In indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people

History Wars:  The public debate over the interpretation of the history of the British colonisation of Australia and development of contemporary Australian society.

Black Armband View of History:  The argument over whether accounts of Australian history tend towards an overly negative or an overly positive point of view.  (The opposite is suggested to be the “Three Cheers” view” – Geoffrey Blainey)

Black War: Even though there were many conflicts between Aboriginals and settlers around Australia, historians usually use this term to refer to a period of conflict in Tasmania in the 1820s and 1830s.

Dispossession: To have one’s property, and specifically land, taken away without compensation.

Treaty: A formal agreement between two peoples or nations to settle a conflict, or to set out rights, obligations or compensation.

Question: Who is bound by a treaty?
Why was there a treaty in New Zealand between the Maori and the settlers, the treaty of Waitangi in 1840, but no treaty in Australia?

Comparing Texts

We need to learn to compare evidence and decide how persuasive it is.  Sometimes this evidence is contradictory. We will be looking at this in more detail in class, but here are some examples relating to one part of Aboriginal History, the conflict between settlers and Aboriginals in Tasmania during the 1820s and 1830s.

Compare what these two sources are saying:
Source 1: The first massacre of Tasmanian Aboriginal people occurred at Risden Cove in 1804, when Lieutenant John Bowen and his troops fired on a group which included women and children. By 1806 clashes between Aboriginal people and settlers were common. The Tasmanians speared stock and shepards; in retaliation Europeans gave them poison flour, abducted their children to use as forced labour, and raped and tortured the women.
Source 2: "[There is a claim that] in the four years between 1804 and 1808 British colonists killed 100 Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land . However, if you look up her source for this, the diary of the colony's chaplain Robert Knopwood, you will find he only recorded four Aboriginal deaths in that period... 
[There is a claim]
-->Tasmanian settlers killed Aborigines by offering them poisoned flour. Their sole source for this is a diary entry by George Augustus Robinson in which he recorded a conversation between a superintendent of the Van Diemen's Land Company and his convict shepherds. If you go back and check the original source in Robinson's diary entry of August 8 1830 you find him recording that the convicts asked the superintendent for some poison. He asked them why they wanted it. Robinson's diary continues:
 They said: “Oh sir, we will poison the natives' dogs"
These two sources are at odds. They are interpreting what they both claim are the primary sources of historical data, which is documents, records, diaries and soforth.
Which is correct? Our responsibility is to dig, to explore further, to see the evidence ourselves and to be persuaded by one side or another (and sometimes, both sides are wrong!).