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First-year students connect current events to ‘the greatest novel ever written’

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October 15, 2013

“Breaking Bad,” Norman Rockwell and “Pygmalion” might not seem relevant to a work of 17th-century Spanish literature, but students in professor Thomas Deveny’s First-Year Seminar (FYS) class are having no trouble linking “Don Quixote” to current times.

Holding up a recent issue of The New Yorker, Deveny asked the students in his FYS class, “The Greatest Novel Ever Written,” to identify the people on the cover – Walter White from “Breaking Bad” and Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.

The class discussed how the combination of these two prominent figures – one fictional and one real– parallels how Don Quixote mixes up the experiences of his real life with the tales of chivalry and knighthood he reads. Deveny, professor of Foreign Languages, finds that the novel’s “constellation of themes” lends itself well to such connections.

Rachel Dockter from Jefferson, Md., who plans to design a major in Deaf Education, finds herself more engaged with the text when her professor helps make the novel relevant beyond class. One way this happens is by attending cultural events throughout the semester.

First-year students connect current events to ‘the greatest novel ever written’
First-year students Rachel Dockter (left) and Kaitlynn-Marie Cendaña (right) share a copy of “the greatest novel ever” in their First Year Seminar class about "Don Quixote."

Since many in the class had met this requirement by attending the McDaniel Theatre production of “Pygmalion,” students discussed how the play’s treatment of women mirrored that in “Don Quixote.”

Religious studies major Kaitlynn-Marie Cendaña from Great Mills, Md., appreciates the interdisciplinary nature of the course, particularly instances when the students examine works of art that relate to the text.

The class, examining Norman Rockwell paintings featured in a recent Smithsonian Magazine, discussed how artists – both in painting and in literature – decide on what level their works are mimetic, or representative of reality. Students connected this to the theme of “seeming versus being,” or the idea of appearances not always matching reality. This theme shows up in one of the novel’s most iconic scenes – Don Quixote tilting at windmills that he believes to be giants.

For Deveny, the ability to understand the difference between seeming and being is especially important for the first-year students in his class.

“With the world we live in today, we have to be critical readers, critical viewers, because there’s a lot of misinformation or distorted information out there,” he said.

Throughout the semester, Cendaña, Dockter, and their classmates submit summaries of news articles to practice critical reading while preparing to connect current events to the 400-year-old text.

“Reading any work from another time broadens your mind, and that’s the whole point of a liberal arts education,” said Deveny.

First-year students connect current events to ‘the greatest novel ever written’