Examining Literature through a Psychological Lens Literature with Jennie Hutton Jacoby

For many, adolescence can be a challenging time. Teenagers can often feel anxious, confused, and isolated. Jennie Hutton Jacoby’s English elective on psychological literature strives to help students gain a better understanding of these years by giving them insight into themselves and others with a bit more clarity and empathy. She does this by using literature, both fiction and nonfiction, to introduce her students to the different branches of psychology, the different approaches to psychotherapy, and some common psychological profiles.

“Literature serves as a great vehicle for discussing difficult topics,” says Jacoby, who has taught at Rivers for 23 years. “It provides students with the opportunity to see that they are not alone in their struggles to understand their emotions and their reactions to the stresses of life. It also provides a safe way to talk about those things."

The discussions we engage in during the course of our work can be powerful and personally meaningful." — Jennie Jacoby, English teacher

For example, students examine the dysfunctional family in Judith Guest’s Ordinary People and explore the damaging effects of guilt and blame. Peter Shaffer’s play Equus provides the vehicle for using a Freudian lens to uncover the motivation for a teenager’s violent crime.

The revolutionary counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey provides the opportunity to discuss the debilitating effects of rejection and shame as students examine mental illness and the power dynamics in an institutional setting. Sylvia Plath’s poetry and her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar help students understand the spiral of depression, while Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper explores a new mother’s descent into postpartum psychosis.

English teacher Jennie Jacoby uses literature as a mirror that students can hold up to themselves.

By pairing these and other literary readings with memoirs and case studies, Jacoby makes the literature feel more real and relevant. “Reading the biographies of the various authors as well as studying the cultural landscape and political environment of the time periods in which the works were written allows us to gain deeper insights into the meanings of the works and into the mindset of the authors.”

For Jacoby, one of the most rewarding outcomes from the course is for students to be able to make connections between the literature and their own lives, encouraging them to become more aware, forgiving, and empathetic. It is the kind of course that students often reflect upon and remember for years after they graduate.

Photos by John Hurley

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The Rivers School