By Alicia Bessette
Jenny Sawyer '02 wants teenagers to read the classics. Her "60second Recap" video albums—posted at 60secondrecap.com —can grab their attention, which she hopes will lead to a lifelong love of literature and better grades in the classroom.
In a series of one-minute videos, Sawyer dissects the major ideas behind universally dreaded classics, from Hamlet to Brave New World.
Her overview of Crime and Punishment presents two Sawyers⎯one wearing devil horns, the other a halo⎯that slide across the screen miming tug-of-war, as Sawyer's voiceover declares, "Call Crime and Punishment the story about a tug-of-war between pride and conscience."
In her "Limits of Love" theme study of Wuthering Heights, she discusses whether Bronte sees love as something that can be governed or tamed, as next to her pops up an illustration of Bronte under a cartoon thought bubble musing, "I wish we had match.com back in 1847."
Additionally, she highlights books for extracurricular reading in her Pick of the Week videos.
Sawyer's love of literature blossomed in high school. She recalls sighing rapturously after her English teacher recited the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Her classmates burst out laughing, but Sawyer's sigh was genuine. "The fact that I now have a job that allows me to convey this feeling of joy I have toward literature is a huge blessing," she says.
Alumnae Bulletin: What is the 60second Recap?
Jenny Sawyer: The best analogy I can think of is that it's a tour guide for students. When you first open a book, it's like this foreign city. You might feel like you need help navigating it. But you don't read a tour guide for Paris and think, okay, I can skip Paris. After reading the tour guide, you want to go to Paris even more.
We don't want teenagers to miss out on the pleasure of reading these classics on their own. The videos will lead them to pick up the books—hopefully with more confidence.
AB: Where did you get this idea?
JS: It was the result of a wonderful creative synchronicity.
I was always interested in the classics. I became even more passionate about literature in college, and during my summers I interned at magazines and publishing houses. One of my internships was at Riverbank Review, which has since gone under, but it was a wonderful publication that reviewed books for children and teens and was based in the Twin Cities.
So I was steeped in a lot of good contemporary writing for teens, but still I wondered how one can introduce the classics in a way that gets teenagers really interested in them. Because you don't encourage people who don't like to read by having them do more reading.
One of my friends worked in the film industry and has contacts in Hollywood. At a party, he got involved in a conversation about working for the small screen.
Then he posed the question, "could you do great works of literature in 60 seconds?" It struck us as a very exciting idea, and a very subversive idea: using video, the language of today, to explore literature.
AB: How can you capture a book in 60 seconds?
JS: I really believe that with all books—even the classics—all you need to find is one thing you like, that one "hook," and you're in. That's what I look for when I'm scripting these 60second Recap albums. I'm looking for a way to connect my viewer and my viewer's world with the world inside the story.
Yes, the videos need to be scholarly. They need to be factually correct. I do so much research to that end. But I do feel that my real purpose is to convey joy and enthusiasm for these books that so many of us have dreaded reading.
AB: What is the process with each book?
JS: I read the book again, so it's fresh in my mind. And I try to read from the perspective of someone who has never read it before. For example, I remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school, and being confused by the first chapter, because it's so dense. Only in the subsequent chapters do you get into the real story. So when I wrote the script for The Scarlet Letter, I made sure to address that first chapter: Why does Hawthorne talk so much about the Custom House? What's up with that?
After a couple days of reading and brainstorming, I'm usually able to pinpoint the one main idea I want people to take away from the book. I treat it a bit like a thesis statement, and I build the script around that one major idea.
AB: How many books have you done so far?
JS: Between our launch in early September 2009 and the end of what we're calling "Season 1" in April of 2010, we filmed 30 books. Our goal is 100 books and 1,000 videos: 10, one-minute videos per book.
AB: At Bryn Mawr, you took dozens of English classes.
JS: It's funny, my cofounder, Peter Osterlund, recently said to me, "Of all the people I know, you're the only one who is doing something that very closely relates to your college experience."
At Bryn Mawr I learned how to write, and how to think critically. My big breakthrough came during the second semester of my freshman year, in Peter Briggs' British poetry survey class. After I turned in a paper, he called me into his office and told me, "You're a competent writer, but your papers just aren't that creative. In class, you speak very creatively. Do that in your written work."
He told me, essentially, that I needed to bust out. That's when it dawned on me that this is what college is all about. It's about exploration, and pushing intellectual boundaries. The next paper I turned in was on "The Lady of Shallot" and Anne of Green Gables. He went wild over it.
And that's exactly what I'm doing when I go about writing a script for 60second Recap. I ask myself, how do I present this material in the most creative, fun, and accessible way possible?
AB: What's been the reaction?
JS: So far, the overall reaction is overwhelmingly positive. I hear from a lot of teachers who are so thrilled to use the videos as a resource in their classrooms. One teacher in the Tampa area recently emailed me. She works at an all-girls school, and her students made their own 60-second videos for The Turn of the Screw, with great results. Our website is a really nice opportunity to get a conversation going with teachers.
Students email me too, mostly to request books. One student in an AP English class asked for a 60second Recap album on King Lear. She said she read it four times, but just couldn't get a handle on it. "I'm not stupid or lazy," she insisted. "I just don't get it."
AB: Aren't you dumbing down literature?
JS: A Washington Post education blogger wrote a scathing review of our website. She claimed that the idea of young people needing a video to entice them to read is ugly. In the comments section, a high school teacher who had successfully used the Recap in his classroom chimed in, in our defense: "Sure, a study guide can prepare a student and impart basic information. But a study guide can't convey enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is key." That one comment really tapped into our purpose: conveying and generating
Jenny Sawyer ‘02 moderates a debate between Animal Farm's rival pig leaders Napolean and Snowball (metaphors for Stalin and Trotsky), over their ideas for ruling the farm.
There are a ton of characters in Catcher in the Rye: "If you can remember only two, Holden and his little sister, Phoebe, you're way ahead of everybody else," says Sawyer.