Instructors’ Teaching Experience
I’ve had three terrific experiences teaching Slaughterhouse-Five. While some students will have some initial difficulty following Vonnegut’s non-linear plot structuring (“It jumps around too much!”), most of the students find Billy Pilgrim’s story engaging and are excited to discuss both the World War II PoW narrative and the Trafalmadorian philosophies. In fact, a number of students have told me that it’s their favorite text of the class. Vonnegut’s novel lends itself well to an array of discussions, including the question of free will, war and PTSD, genre (why science fiction?), and the relationship between form and meaning. I paired Slaughterhouse-Five with Frankenstein and found that I was able to draw on many of the conversations we had about free will, ethics, and monstrosity/alterity in Shelley’s novel during our conversations about Vonnegut’s novel. I’ll likely teach this book again and I highly recommend it. [Travis Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org]
I taught Slaughterhouse-Five and found it to be extremely versatile. We spent a few days talking about some of the more philosophical aspects of the text, i.e. free-will vs determinism. I also used it to discuss the possibilities for incorporating historical or polemical material into a fictional text. Finally, it was useful for discussing more formal elements, such as characterization. When we discussed characterization in the text I had the student’s do a drawing exercise that they particularly enjoyed. Predictably, my students have a broad range of interests and abilities. Slaughterhouse–Five gave me an opportunity to appeal to a variety of their interests. It also allows for a range of creative paper topics. On their mid-term evaluations an overwhelming majority listed Slaughterhouse-Five as the most useful or enjoyable text that we have read. [Andrew Williams, email@example.com]
Drawing/Close Reading Activity
I had my students break into small groups and draw one of the characters from the novel. An important part of the activity involved incorporating specific details from the text and labeling them with quotations. My students found this to be a very enjoyable activity–little did they know that they were close reading and citing textual evidence. For the next class period, I scanned the drawings, then I was able to project them on the board and discuss them as a class. Discussing details from the drawings is a natural way to lead into other areas of discussion. [Andrew Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Tie-in with The Things They Carried
Vonnegut’s anti-war statement relies much on the ridiculous and preposterous appearance of Billy Pilgrim and Roland Weary. I ask my students to keep track of Billy and Roland’s clothing and material possessions and to think about what each object says about the character. Why, I ask, does Vonnegut give Billy and Roland these particular possessions? I’ve found that this discussion is much more successful when the students are given some time to engage the question in writing. I have my students choose one object and explain why they think it’s crucial to understanding Billy or Roland’s identity. I should also say that the students seem to respond better to this assignment and discussion if they’ve already read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. For those of you thinking about putting together units on war narratives, O’Brien’s short story works as a great companion to Vonnegut’s novel. [Travis Johnson, email@example.com]
The Novels of Kilgore Trout
Billy Pilgrim is obsessed with the novels of hack science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and throughout Slaughterhouse-Five we’re treated to a number of plot synopses of Trout’s novels. Asking students to pay attention to Trout’s stories and think about how they relate to the larger themes in Vonnegut’s novel makes for a great conversation. I like to have my students choose their favorite Kilgore Trout novel and write about it before class begins. However, be aware that if you have this discussion before Billy’s adventure in the porn shop near the end of the novel, the extent of Trout’s influence on Billy won’t be quite as clear to the students. Indeed, it’s in the porn shop that we discover a Trout story that closely parallels Billy’s encounter with the Trafalmadorians. I’ve also had students write great formal essays on this topic. [Travis Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org]
While the students are already aware that much of Slaughterhouse-Five is based on Vonnegut’s own experiences as a PoW in WWII, I don’t think they aware of how closely the events match up with Vonnegut’s experience. I show my students a letter that Vonnegut wrote to his family in 1945 not long after he was rescued. In the letter, Vonnegut offers a short summary of his experience as a prisoner, and what’s immediately striking is that the letter seems to work as a short summary of Billy’s experience as a prisoner too. I challenge my students to explain what Billy and the other characters bring to the table, to move beyond plot and think about how characters like Roland Weary, Paul Lazarro, and poor, old Edgar Derby affect Vonnegut’s war narrative. To help my students prepare for this discussion, I ask them to choose one of these characters and write that character’s letter home. How, I ask, would their letters differ from Vonnegut’s? The letter is available in Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s previously unpublished writings on war. [Travis Johnson, email@example.com]
While Vonnegut’s prose is clear and concise, the novel’s unconventional form and non-linear plot can confuse students, and so it’s important to spend most of the first day confronting these two issues and clarifying questions and confusions the students have. The following two discussions are not ground-breakingly original, but I’ve found that they’re necessary if you want students to engage in subsequent discussions.
- Vonnegut’s Voice: The first chapter is a bit jarring for students because it immediately defies their expectations about the novel’s form. Rather than offering a proper first chapter to Billy Pilgrim’s story, Vonnegut instead fashions his chapter more like an autobiographical introduction, describing his reasons for and the events that led to writing the book. What really throws the students off is that Vonnegut seems to disparage his own novel, calling it a “jumbled and jangled” “failure.” I begin our first discussion of the novel by simply asking my students how they respond to Vonnegut’s intro/first chapter, how it seems to function, and why they think Vonnegut chose to start the book this way. I’ve found that these three simple questions will provoke very interesting and useful conversation.
- Mapping Billy’s Life: This activity is very simple and straightforward, but the students find it enormously helpful. Draw a timeline on the board and ask the students to map the events in Billy’s life. As we add events to the timeline, I ask questions about the events and what they can tell us about Billy’s character. I encourage my students to copy the timeline in their notebooks and add more events to it as they read through the rest of the story. My hope is that the students will use this as a solid foundation upon which they can then build confidence in their ability to engage with Vonnegut’s text. [Questions submitted by Travis Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org]
An NPR radio interview with Vonnegut here
Vonnegut reading the “late movie” scene, coupled with video of WWII in reverse here