Syllabuzz: ENG 171 – Secrets, Spies & Surveillance in Young Adult Literature

Professor of English Megan Isaac teaches students to use literature and theory to analyze the ways in which surveillance and our attitudes toward it are instilled from childhood.

Professor of English Megan Isaac

What can Dr. Seuss teach us about surveillance? In the pages of “The Cat in the Hat,” we meet two young siblings left home alone without any parental supervision, leaving the door open — almost literally — to an unexpected babysitter. The level of surveillance, or lack thereof, found in Seuss’ classic is a far cry from the surveillance state used to oppress the people of Panem in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” a book released more than 50 years later. “Where did our perceptions that it’s normal to track people and know where people are at all times come from?” asks Professor of English Megan Isaac. “Because it’s very clear to see from this literature that 50 years ago it wasn’t normal, but now it’s normal. How has that changed and why?”

It’s the question Isaac attempts to answer for students in her first-year seminar course ENG 171: Secrets, Spies & Surveillance in Young Adult Literature. The course, which is reserved for first-year students in their first semester on campus, teaches students to use literature and theory to analyze the ways in which surveillance and our attitudes toward it are instilled in younger generations from childhood. The course begins with the study of older children’s picture books, like “The Cat in the Hat,” and compares them to more current books, like Carol V. Aebersold and Bell Chanda’s “Elf on the Shelf,” to theorize how attitudes about parental responsibility and surveilling children have become more intensive over time.

Students later analyze more advanced young adult literature like “The Hunger Games” and Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy” to study the ways each story’s protagonist employs surveillance or is an object of it themselves. The coursework also includes deep dives into government surveillance, as well as the works of theorists Foucault and Deleuze, to see how the structures of society — from the architectural design of schools to the algorithms that shape apps like TikTok — funnel our movements and affect our experiences. “I want my students to think about how surveillance is represented to them,” Isaac says. “How they develop the attitudes toward it that they have, and then to consider how comfortable they are with those attitudes and how intentional they want to be about surveillance, whether they carefully submit to it, whether they resist it and then also how they wield it themselves.”

While students learn about the development of surveillance, they also learn a lot about themselves, specifically what digital information they’re volunteering. They analyze their own social media accounts and even their campus Phoenix Cards to find out how much of their information is available to others and how it’s used. Isaac considers surveillance management to be a “threshold skill,” like literacy, that opens a student’s eyes to all sorts of new ideas once it is learned. And along with learning about surveillance and how literature has enforced an expectation of submission to surveillance technologies, Isaac hopes first-year students leave her class with a fresh, exciting take on literature analysis on a college campus. “I think one thing the course does is it sort of changes their expectations about the discipline because this is not how English or literature were likely taught in their high schools,” she says.

About the professor

Megan Isaac joined Elon’s Department of English in 2007. Her research currently focuses on surveillance culture in children’s and young adult literature.

Recommended materials

  • “Black Mirror,” series 4, episode 2 (“Arkangel”), written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Jodie Foster (available on Netflix)
  • “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks” by E. Lockhart