Keeping Things Somewhat Medieval Online

It seems like a lot of things you see about online teaching right now are about the sudden shift we all went through this spring from in person to online only courses, especially in places like Inside Higher Ed etc. Then there’s all the responses, often on social media which tend to take one of two positions: just surviving is what’s going on OR people are doing great things. The other thing I’ve noticed online a lot are comparisons between the virus situation in the world now and medieval plagues, and in the pieces by actual medieval scholars the main idea tends to be, the similarities are mostly superficial and if you look at the details (and most people won’t, let’s face it) things were actually a lot more complicated in the medieval world than is often credited.

These two near-simultaneous threads got me thinking about some of the parallels between the shift to suddenly entirely online education, and medieval pedagogy at the university level. You might think there’s nothing in common between the two times and methods, but at least in some ways, there are some interesting points of connection. Just for the record, what follows is not at all researched specifically in this context, nor is anything citable beyond my own memory. With libraries closed and being at a non-R1 institution (meaning without a fully stocked online library), this is the best I can do for now.

The basic medieval university program was based on the seven liberal arts for curriculum, and lecture and disputation in the classroom. The seven liberal arts were subdivided into the initial 3 (trivium) subjects of rhetoric, grammar, and logic, and the more advanced later 4 (quadrivium) of math, music, astronomy, and geometry. The specific content in each subject area was basically the classical texts by ancient and earlier medieval authors, and their main commentaries. In class, students would sit and take notes as the instructor read the textbook out loud; “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and this was in the days before the printing press (meaning personal books were probably beyond a student’s means). In order to progress to the next stage or complete their education, a student would have to participate and do well in a public debate called a disputation, which would involve interpretive argumentation based on the curricular texts. This is pretty over-simplified, but it’s the basic gist of how a medieval college student would be expected to learn.

So, some practices in the modern college or university classroom remain the same. Many instructors still “lecture” and expect students to take notes, students still need to prove their knowledge and skill to progress, and there is often some common educational content required of all students. One of the biggest changes at least philosophically is now one of the main objectives is to show students how to use critical thinking and come up with their own thoughts and reasoning. Not that this was entirely absent in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t, but the focus on individual interpretive creativity is most definitely a more modern focus.

One of things that I noticed was that the degree of interactivity between class members (including the instructor) dropped drastically when my students came back after an extended spring break to a purely online educational experience. This goes beyond students not discussing with each other as much as they might have in an in-person setting, but also when it comes to things like lectures. The most efficient thing could think of was to take the PowerPoints or lecture notes I already would have used, and added voice-over to them for the students to play and listen to in their own time. This makes the lecture experience considerably less interactive than it would have been otherwise, and at least a bit more like the medieval classroom experience.

A reason why the interactivity in particular stood out to me relates to the results of an informal survey I did of the students. As an extra credit option, they could fill out and return (online) an evaluation that specifically targeted the online section of the course (basically, the last month of class). One of the questions asked directly about the degree of interaction: did they like the lower degree or working with their class mates or would they have preferred more, and why? What surprised me was that of those who chose to do the extra assignment, there were actually more in favor of the less classmate interaction than more. While there are all kinds of reasons why this might have happened, a lot of the reasoning given was similar: students liked being able to think at their own pace. I had asked students about a week after we’d gone online to take a survey embedded in our course management software concerning if they wanted me to implement video interactivity or other more person to person technology to raise the options for discussion beyond the discussion board.

Of the three classes this was put to, a total of zero students filled out the survey. While this may have been partly due to student unfamiliarity with the tool involved, again I was a little surprised that no one was in favor of more personal interaction, because most modern pedagogical reasoning would be that many students prefer being able to discuss and interact with each other before committing to ideas or possibilities. The modern concept of there being benefit to being exposed to a variety of possibilities and reasonings before fully working out one’s own is on the one hand seemingly in opposition of the medieval focus on knowing the “correct” interpretations and reasons, and yet I was faced with students saying they preferred something almost similar to the medieval experience by working more with the texts and my lectures by themselves, as they might have in preparation for a medieval disputation.

While there certainly were students who stated their preference for more interactive personal discussion and education experience, as I was expecting, they were not in the majority. This takes me back to an article I read somewhere that suggested that many modern students actually like getting the facts and starting point interpretive ideas that often form the basis for most lectures. I also have to consider how, in a course that had been online the entire semester, students rarely engaged with the interactive options, including the discussion board, video chat, as well as voice only, any more than they were required to for a grade. Out of a class of over 20, there were about 4 or 5 students who regularly used those options. While technological experience is likely a factor, this phenomenon still seems to me to suggest that for all the focus and value put on modern students personally connecting with their instructor and each other, there might also be something to the medieval models.

I don’t know enough about the historical details of the various plagues that came through Europe in the centuries of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to speak in any detail on how those situations compare to our own world in 2020, but the one thing I will say about comparisons to those situations and now was that when addressing Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the basic premises of concepts such as the quarantine and social distancing made those texts a lot more interesting to teach. I had already designed an assignment involving re-writing a frame and tale, and as you might expect students really used that to consider their own life situations or those of people around them in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The thing that really got my attention beyond how much thought students were seeming to put into this assignment compared to others was that no one took the comparison too far, that is I didn’t have to correct anyone on trying to get too ahistorical with the plague that formed a part of Boccaccio’s frame.

In any event, if nothing else, I have learned from this last month’s teaching experience that students will 1) surprise you no matter what the situation, and that 2) the Middle Ages are still relevant in a lot of interesting ways.

A Few Ideas Comparing the Past and Present

I was reading a book a while back about the importance of a handful of beverages in social history. Coffee was one and the coffee house was really the main focus of the chapter. Basically, in the Enlightenment (18th century Europe) the coffee house was the one of the social and intellectual centers of life for most people. While I had some problems with how the book in question presented and interpreted its information, it got me thinking about my own habits in coffee shops. Since I was in graduate school, the local Milwaukee coffee shops were where I got a lot of my academic stuff done. They also were good meeting up places for social get-togethers. When I moved half a country away, one of the first things I did was find the local places, and there’s been one or two added since then (about 5 years ago).

Two now come to mind: one, the current pandemic and social distancing practices, and two, what would the medieval equivalent have been?

I can’t think of a general equivalent of such a location for the Middle Ages that matches well; it would have to be somewhere that had both practical/business and social functions, as well as cater to a wide range of different kinds of people. Taverns could be an option, but those weren’t quite as socially diverse as a modern coffee shop, at least not to my knowledge. Certainly there were such places for the nobles and places for the upper class peasants and places for the lower classes, but was there much or any intermixing? It’s either too bad most libraries are closed right now, or this could be a chance for trying to research like most students would want to start (as in, To the Google!). Church or local festivals of public functions might be another option, but those are less about location and business, at least in some ways. It’s an interesting question in terms of history, but also in terms of modern society. How socially open are modern coffeehouses? Starbucks for example is supposedly open to any and all, but when you go into one, there isn’t necessarily a wide mix in terms of social standing.

Medieval Europe also has experience with pandemic and plague outbreaks, although Black Death was bacterial not viral. The bubonic plague of the 14th century does have some significant parallels including the social panic and distancing (think the frame of Boccaccio’s Decameron), as well as the origins of the term “quarantine”. Again, the details are quite different than the now, but the general parallels do make for interesting ideas.

Besides adapting to a lot more life and work online, I’ve also noticed another phenomenon with connections to the medieval past including the roles of books and reading, and personal written works. I kept a diary when I was younger (as in 20 years ago) but I have over recent years started to keep a journal when travelling. That’s unlikely to be much of thing for me this year since most of my summer travel has been canceled or postponed, but I have started to keep track of what goes on in daily life since social distancing went into full effect in my area, not quite two weeks as of this moment of writing. Looking at what I’ve got so far, it’s mostly just listing off things done, but also includes some general observations about for example how exciting it was to see a display of toilet paper and paper towels that wasn’t totally empty in a grocery store a few days ago, or how I took my fairly new car through a drive through for the first time ever (as in first time for the car, not first time ever for me). The travel journal was a major genre in the middle ages, to the point where now it’s hard to tell some of the fact from the fiction. For example, the Book of John Mandeville and the Book of Margery Kempe both contain aspects of actual travel as well as interpretive observations and thoughts and feelings about what’s been going on for the author. Then you’ve got the more household familial texts, like the Paston letters. The interesting thing here is that the forms are not quite what we might now call a journal, since Mandeville and Kempe’s are travel texts (at least as one of their main genres) and the Paston books are epistolary collections. The personal diary as we know it becomes a thing a bit later in history.

Then there’s the reading. Books as objects especially in the earlier part of the what we might call the medieval era would not have a been a common item in most households, since the printing press wasn’t around yet, and even towards the end of the fifteenth century when it was still a newer thing. Storytelling might have been one general option, and the popularity of the story telling collections from this time (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan – not necessarily in any kind of order here) suggest this might have actually been a possibility. Today, there’s a lot on social media about how some people plan to catch up on their reading, but there’s also responses about how realistic of an expectation this might be. Fiction definitely seems to have some kind of social effect, not just for the entertainment value (although it’s certainly that) but also for the ‘escapist’ factor. I would be willing to bet that there’s a good bit of promise in the idea, since I know that there’s plenty of scholarship on the book as an object. I also have to wonder how far a research project into the use of fiction as a coping mechanism could go without a research library since I for one find great value in shelf browsing. Not that the databases etc. aren’t good places to go, they are, but sometimes finding exactly the right search is a struggle, and you find the best sources by checking out what’s near whatever it was you had found in the catalog.

There have already been some more public comparisons to history of pandemics and outbreaks of disease, and this one here is by no means detailed or comprehensive. I’m mostly considering a series of general ideas and how they might apply both to the past and to the present, and maybe a little intot he future.

Getting Medieval on Theory

I face an interesting challenge this fall: teaching my first theory and methods for English majors course. I’ve had to start thinking on it now since textbook orders are due late February. I was surprised how few theory anthologies there are which are not $100 plus, or mostly summaries of ideas without actual excerpts (preferably longer ones) of the actual original theories. I had the idea that for the first ¾ of the class I would choose a single base text that students could practice on. Ideally, this would be something of manageable length, has been around long enough to have been subjected to a variety of examinations, and not too much of a chore read, meaning something most students are likely to have at least heard of if not had to read bits of before. Not a deal breaker but also preferable would be something I’ve studied in some detail myself, so that gives me medieval works like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Shakespeare was also an option for a while (I was thinking either Macbeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream), but I figured that a) there might be too much on some of the plays, and b) I don’t know the scholarship off hand quite as well, meaning more set up work for me.

The full semester at my institution is 16 weeks, which means I can cover about 12-13 areas of theory; there needs to be an intro week, and a few weeks at the end to focus on the main end-of-course paper/project. It’s going to take me a while to really get things fully designed, but for a starting point, here’s an initial list, in no particular order: feminist studies, gender studies, Marxist, new critical, new historicism, eco-criticism, race studies, queer theory, post-colonialism, structuralism, deconstruction, disability studies, psychoanalysis, reader response, and cultural studies. I did find a theory reader that has a decent balance of description and actual readings from theorists, as well as some sample applications. It’s slightly out of date for some theories but I can deal with that with some supplementary lecture and articles.

The other side of the course is the methods side, and I found that textbook pretty quickly after getting a hold of several library titles that looked promising, and one of them was exactly right, although it too is a few years out of date, but not unmanageably so. This handbook covers general research resources both online and print, bibliography, history of the book and editing literary texts, history of the discipline, interdisciplinarity, translation, media, and planning/executing a larger research project. My literary trial text needs to be something that has options for all of these areas, and with medieval literature, many of them are pretty accessible, even for mid-level undergraduate students.

So besides the obvious need to overlap and work out scheduling time for each thing to be covered, I still need that literary test piece. If Beowulf and SGGK are my main choices, the big question now is which one will work best, again bearing in mind the level of my students.

Beowulf:

Feminist reading: Gendel’s mother and the Hrothgar’s queen

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and some of the transactions between families during war/feuds

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors

Race: the controversy and contents of the new collection of essays that was all over social media late 2019; also Gredelkin as racially other

Queer: less of the sexuality angle, more on the otherness identities of some characters

Post-colonial: Grendlekin as native against the Danes, maybe Geats and Danes in each other’s lands

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, possible links to other Scandinavian epics or sagas; maybe bring up Tolkien here

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation possibly in Beowulf the character

Psychoanalysis: dreams, prophecies (alluded to in the songs), and maybe Beowulf and Grendel’s mother

Disability: this one will be trickier but I’m thinking maybe old Beowulf’s final battle

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

Beowulf also offers ample possibilities for all the basic methods components including bibliography, editions, translation, media, etc.

 

On the other hand, we have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Feminist reading: Arthur’s queen, Morgan leFay, and Lady Bertilak

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and the transactional nature of the bargains

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors; the Green Man

Race: the othering of certain characters in certain situations, the casting of Gawain in the new movie, possibly race in Arthuriana

Queer: discussions of Gawain’s identity

Post-colonial: founding of Britain frame, Gawain and the Green Knight in each other’s territories

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, the Arthurian traditions

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation Gawain, but also the identities of the Green Knight, and possibly a few others

Psychoanalysis: symbolism, Gawain’s psychology, and Gawain in Bertilak’s castle

Disability: Gawain as guest in the castle vs the hunting; this one again might take a little work to get right

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities of Arthur’s court vs the Bertilak’s

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

 

Much like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also has plenty of strong options for the methods areas to be covered.

So far, the two texts are roughly equal. It comes down to text options. Both texts are available in a range of translations and edition types. I decided I didn’t want an edition that comes with a lot of extra supplementary analysis either, because the goal of using the text would be for the students to start working on their own analyses using the various theoretical and methodological applications. Part of the decision came from personal taste in terms of translation options, and I also wanted something that kept some of the original style or language but that was done in a readable way for a 21st century student, and was readily available in a paperback or ebook under $20. I landed on Armitage’s SGGK.

What I’ve got listed here are really only the initial starting possibilities. As I start to focus on designing this course over the summer, I’ll be getting a lot more into the details of each theory as it has been and could be applied to the medieval text. I’m also going to need to consider how to align pairing theoretical work with methodologies. IF anyone has any ideas or advice, I’d love to hear it…

End of the year review: sort of

Maybe it’s just the people I’m around on social media, but it seems like nearly everyone was ending 2019 and/or starting 2020 with goals concerning reading, nearly always in the form of a goal number of books to be read or finish reading. Take Goodreads: it’s an easy way to keep track of what you want to and already have and are currently reading. It’s also pretty good for helping decide if a book is something you might want to add to your reading list, with the reviews. And it lets you do all this in public, in front of everyone you know via digital stuff. I’m reasonably sure you can’t turn off the feature that sends you an email every time you list another book as “Read”, although you can turn off or block the daily notices about what your friends are reading, adding, or finishing. So one question this all brings up is something of a paradox: reading is largely a solitary activity, and yet it has become a fairly public performance. The question then is how much of this is due to the oversharing/bragging/trolling (frequently anonymous) opportunities offered by social media, or how much of it is something else?

What strikes me is how much this resembles medieval practices in some ways. Books, or at least the contents of books, essentially were a form of social media, they were a prestige item, they had social and solitary aspects to them, and people had opinions about them. Books also existed in multiple formats, much as they do now, although obviously some of the forms themselves have changed.

Take audio books for example. I’ve never really been able to get into this method of experiencing books, but it is quite popular. Back in the Middle Ages, this way actually how a lot of people would experience books. The origins of the term “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and that’s how higher levels of education were often provided. The instructor would read from the lone copy of the textbook, and possibly commentate, while the students took notes. In some cases students could copy out their own versions of the book, but this would need to be done by hand, either by themselves or someone they paid. There are also records of medieval monasteries that indicate that it was a practice to have someone reading from scripture or other religious text while everyone else was eating.

Certain forms of ebooks also have medieval analogues or at least general comparisons. On several online platforms, including GoogleBooks, you don’t flip through the pages, you scroll. The modern book through which one flips or turns pages is a descendant of the codex, while the scroll through counterpart is the much older roll or scroll. You read as you unroll and re-roll. There’s actually an older hilarious video called “Medieval Helpdesk” (you can find it subtitled on Youtube, since it was originally done in Norwegian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ) that makes the very real suggestion that, at one time, the book in the shape that it’s now most commonly known for was a revolutionary thing.

Books had a social function much as they do now as well, especially if you follow platforms like the above mentioned Goodreads. People would leave comments in the margins containing critiques, comments, and sometimes even discussion threads. One of my favorite examples is from the Devonshire Manuscript (British Library Additional 17492). This book was originally passed around a group of lady friends at Henry VIII’s court, and one page has a poem composed by a gentleman hoping to court one of the ladies. Here is Cynthia Roger’s description of the thread:

Poem 8 on fols. 6v-7r is a declaration of love to Mary Shelton from one of her admirers. The first letter of each stanza spells out her last name. She seems to have known the author, as she writes a tart reply to his poem just below it— “Undesired service, requires no hire (payment).” Margaret Douglas seems to have also known the author and the fact that her friend was rejecting him, as she writes out to the side of this poem, “Forget this.” Mary, being a little more charitable, writes underneath Margaret’s comment, “It is worthy.”

Manuscripts like this also show people sharing favorite bits of text, much in the way we might now retweet or share a post we particularly enjoyed or wanted to share, and many such examples still survive.

Reading in the Middle Ages and beyond was commonly a public activity. In times before the printing press and better sources and methods of production came along, books were not something readily available. So, in this time which was also before modern forms of entertainment like television and streaming, people might get together and read to each other.  We get a look at this even in stories, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. After Pandarus has agreed to help Troilus win Criseyde’s affections, he goes off to find her, and he finds her and two companions listening to a fourth lady reading out loud:

Whan he was come vnto his Neces place,

“Wher is my lady?” to hire folk quod he;

And they hym tolde and he forth in gan pace

And fond two othere ladys sete, and she,

With-inne a paued parlour, and they thre

Herden a mayden reden hem the geste

Of the siege of Thebes while hem leste.      (II.78-84)

 

Reading could also still be a private activity in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, especially when it came to producing and collecting books. The anonymous writer of the lyric “Pangur Ban” for example describes a scene in which the monk studies alone, while his cat pays attention to the mice. Such scenes of personal solitary reading or study also show up in a lot of dream visions, like the introductions of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Parliament of Foules. Many medieval books that still survive come to us from private collections gathered during the Early Modern period and later, and possessing such a personal or private library would have been a sign of wealth or prestige, or in other words, something only a few people could or did do.

Bookmaking was itself both a solitary and group activity. A monastery scriptorium for example was a public space used by many, but each copyist or artist was largely working alone on his part of the book.

Finally, the reviews. In addition to marginalia, medieval versions of reviews and trolls and fan fiction still survive, even in highly respected literary works. Gower and Chaucer and Lydgate all participated in such activities. Towards the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer makes a dedication to “moral Gower” a label which stuck and has been taken as a slight insult towards his acquaintance and possibly friend. Lydgate frames his Siege of Thebes as an additional Canterbury Tale. While it’s not possible to definitively prove Chaucer’s intention in his remark about Gower, it has long been taken as snarky in a way that might pass for light-hearted trolling. It is possible to prove Lydgate’s fan-fiction though since Lydgate directly places himself within the frame of the Canterbury Tales, and he wrote admiringly of Chaucer in other works, such as The Fall of Princes.

There is a good deal of serious research and scholarship that has been done on reading as practice and what it meant culturally in medieval Europe, not to mention a good deal of modern scientific work on how the human brain may have evolved or adapted to/for reading and how it manages what appear to be several complex simultaneous processes that need to happen in order for reading to be done. While I’m not touching much on those details here, it is worth realizing that the idea of reading as well as the practice is far more complicated than most people realize. It’s something worth thinking about, even if only in terms of personal practice.

The Online World of World Lit

I am facing an interesting challenge for the new year: teaching my first ever fully online class. I’ve taught World Literature 1 every semester I’ve been at my current institution (4 ½ years), but now I’m facing adapting it to a new platform. I have taught some hybrid courses (up to 50% online), but now I have to work out how to adapt everything to the online platform. In addition to the existential strangeness of likely never meeting many of those students in person, I also have to work out a variety of different ways to replace in-person classroom activities and interactions.

This is probably the biggest challenge in terms of technology, much of which I have at least theoretical familiarity, but it’s also got me thinking about texts. As with many institutions, textbook costs have been a concern of note at my university of late and there has been a push towards lower cost or no cost materials, nearly all of which are digital. There are a lot of good quality ancient and medieval texts in translation online, but the problem for me is that when I’ve assigned online texts before, I have noticed a distinct drop in the likelihood that members of the class have done that reading, as opposed to how many would have done it if assigned from the physical paper textbook. I remember the one and only fully online course I myself took, and the biggest thing I remember from it was how little I got from it intellectually. I remember especially one online discussion board when the professor made a comment on something I’d posted, and I responded hoping for more discussion, but never got anything back. I also remember totally forgetting about a fairly sizable assignment until the last minute, rushing to find a suitable source text online because for some reason, probably date or time, the local library was closed. I’m pretty sure I must have done at least ok in that class since otherwise I’d remember it better. My point is, I don’t have a lot of practical experience with the fully online class, but I’ve got enough of an idea of things that can go wrong to be a little concerned about how I set mine up.

With texts in a general literature survey like this one, I’ve found over the years that what seems to work best is a fairly even mix of things students have probably heard of or even read bits of previously (Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Milton) and things they likely have not (Ramayana, Tukaram, Boccaccio, Rabelais, The Abencerraje, Tales of the Heike). I also like to include a few things likely to be more intellectually challenging like selections from the writings of Boethius and Confucius.

I have found myself emphasizing more and more the fact that nearly all of these texts are in fact translations from another language, time, place, and/or culture. It has started especially when a new edition of the textbook was published that used a totally different translation of Sunjata. The 3rd edition had a translation more faithful to the original poetic style of the recitation, while the 4th edition had a prose translation. I’m guessing the editors made that decision because the poetic version was a little more difficult to comprehend in terms of story and character, but the prose version loses so much of the cultural and historical feel. When I realized I was going to have students with both versions, and I still do even though it’s been a few semesters since the new edition was released, I really liked what happened when students with the different versions had to work together in class. This is the kind of thing I now have to figure out digital ways to replace. Each section or unit of the course is going to have some kind of group or not-solo thing in it, but I want to have things that are more interactive to encourage students to engage and collaborate in ways beyond just posting to a discussion board and generally agreeing with each other as seems to happen most of the time.

One project I’m hoping will enable some of all the things I’ve been considering is a “where did this come from” or “how-why do we still have this” kind of thing where students look up the textual histories and transmissions of various texts. Because so many repositories of ancient and medieval texts have been digitizing and making more freely available not only the digital facsimiles but also general information about the various texts and copies, my hope is to have students make use of these resources. The group aspect would come in the form of students collaborating to cover multiple time periods of transmission or textual history. For example, with something like the Illiad, one student would work with what is known about the oral text and ”original” composition, another with the ancient manuscripts, another the medieval translations and copies, and the final with how the text was thought of and existed in the mid-Renaissance era. Each individual would be responsible for researching and putting together their own section, and then they would have to collaborate in putting everything together as a timeline or other to be figured out format. I’m also thinking that these projects should be shared with the rest of the class.

Besides some of the logistics, the biggest challenge for me is that while I have great familiarity with many of the European, especially UK libraries and collections, I am going to need to locate English language sources for things that are held in other parts of the world.

I’m also most likely going to have to put together the class as the class proceeds, something I don’t really like doing if possible because it can feel rushed, and that’s not usually not my personal best work.  I know most of the text selections pretty well by now, and I have discussion cues and assignments to go with them, but those are all designed for a different delivery. I’m thinking of using this whole semester as an opportunity to experiment a little more than I might otherwise do with some class elements. For example, I’m thinking of pairing shorter excerpts from the standard works, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with much less known writers and texts from the same period, and giving students a choice of the second text from a list. So someone might have to read the required pieces of the Canterbury Tales, and then their choice of the following: online excerpts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis or Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. Somehow, some way, I also want to figure a way to work in Hoccleve’s Complaint. I’m thinking that something like this, where everyone has one text in common, and then one text that they can’t be sure other class members have looked at, might help get some kind of collaborative learning going. The problem is, it’ll be tough to pull off without more reading than usual, and students sometimes have enough trouble keeping interested or up with the reading calendar as it currently is.

The next few months are likely going to be me figuring things out as I go, and probably a fair bit of thinking out loud here.  We’ll see how this goes.

Reading Classics: Challenges and Ideas

I am not likely to meet a goal/deadline: I wanted to finish reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes by the end of October. It’s got really pretty, literary writing, but I’ve had to sometimes force myself through certain parts when I get bored or lose focus. This got me thinking about the struggle to read something because you have to or feel you should. I’m planning to teach something that takes inspiration in part from Bradbury’s novel, plus it’s a classic work by a canonical author which I’ve never read. The thing that’s causing me some trouble here is I suspect that I want the story and the style to work better together; for me at least, I’d like to be able to enjoy the two things together, but it’s been hard so far to do that. Mostly, I’ve only been able to focus on one or the other. If I, who have lots of academic literary training have a hard time with something that’s supposed to be a classic, then what must students sometimes feel when asked to read things like this, or things even less familiar in terms of language and/or cultural background?

For commonly assigned longer readings, like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Canterbury Tales, I have found that students have often already read at least excerpts, and thus get bored, or they find the material and style too difficult, and give up on actually doing the reading. I noticed pretty quickly that when I included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on syllabi for World Lit and Brit Lit 1 surveys that a lot of students had had to read at least some of those texts in previous classes. One problem is that it’s difficult to introduce some of the more intricate issues and interesting problems of either one of these two texts when about half the class knows the story but the other half does not. Issue two is that in most surveys, reading the entirety of multiple longer poems like this can be difficult to get students to actually read, as opposed to the Shmoop, CliffNotes. Grade Saver, etc. summaries. Some of that kind of thing is inevitable, but when students get tired of struggling with the style, that makes considering some of the features of the actual poetry more difficult, and those are some of the things that most survey students are not as likely to have encountered before.

This is something I can relate to from Something Wicked This Way Comes because the style is so much the point of the book, more so than with an average novel at any rate. I have to admit I looked at some of the supplementary materials in the edition I have and found out enough that I can already summarize the entire plot without having read half the novel yet. On one hand, now that I know the story I can focus a bit more on the style and more literary elements like foreshadow etc, but on the other I won’t be able to follow the gradual building of the characters and the world as naturally.

Something I’ve been considering doing is switching to some lesser known texts that cover many of the same literary and cultural elements as the commonly taught ones. For example, instead of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon contains a lot of the same warrior culture stuff and literary elements, and has the added bonus of being relevant to actual history as well as the Vikings. One assignment I personally would enjoy would be to have students write their own endings and/or introductions to the story since we know the history for guidance but enough of the text is missing that students could get creative.

Instead of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I think selections from a sister text like Pearl might be an interesting option. As with the Old English texts, there remains a lot of cultural and historical and poetic room for exploration and interest. I taught excerpts of Pearl in a Middle English language and culture course one summer, and I was surprised a little at how much some of the students took to Pearl. I have not really looked, but I have to wonder if there is a passable translation readily and freely available for students to use. I know for a fact such things exist for The Battle of Maldon, so I have some hope for Pearl. Maldon is short enough that it can be done in its entirety, and wouldn’t be too much of a burden on someone’s attention or interest if it turns out this just is not something they can get into; for Pearl, I would imagine that the opening sequence and the conclusion would provide enough for students to work with and appreciate, but likewise not be overly difficult to get through if again it turns out this is just not something a given person gets into.

This brings me to another related idea; when you are told something is canon, classic, or traditional, it can give the impression that you must like it to demonstrate you are a person of intelligence and/or taste. I would like to figure a way to allow students to dislike something as long as they can explain why in more depth than “Boring”, “Too hard”, “Too long”, etc. I hesitate to use examples of my own personal taste because then students are apt to go with the strategy of “cater to Prof’s personal interests”. However, I do think the general idea has some merit. I don’t especially care for Leaves of Grass, but I can explain why in terms of technical details of poetry. I also cannot stand a lot of traditional chivalric romances, particularly those in the Arthurian tradition. A lot of Crétiene de Troyes’ works annoy me in a fairly visceral way and I absolutely cannot stand Le Morte d’ Arthur for their overly melodramatic and soap-opera-esque characters and plot-lines. Nevertheless, these things do have cultural and historical interest to them, and a lot of people are likely familiar with some of the basics but not as much with the original stories or versions.

To the original question of what to do about classic works and the perceived need to read them, there seems to be a bit of a stalemate: one the one hand, students should have at least some basic familiarity with the literary canon in order to consider where current trends (literary, historical, cultural, etc) might have come from and they might actually discover a surprising interest, but on the other the majority of the time, reading such things can be burdensome when forced, making it far less likely a person would be able to appreciate anything about a particular text. This is why I’m thinking of changing a few things out to see if it makes any difference. As for Bradbury, I will finish it in part because it would be professionally useful for me since I am planning to teach a novel with direct literary debts to this canonical original. Whether or not I end up enjoying the original is still unclear, but we’ll just have to see.

Teacher and Student Struggles with Citation and Research

Scholarly research and citation are things commonly taught in most every English course, particularly composition. I saw a post on social media recently suggesting that focusing too much of Works Cited formatting might scare students off. But then again, students do really need to be able to cite accurately no matter what their post-school goals might be, even if the formatting rules might vary by profession. Even if students practice and review, it seems like the majority of the time most Works Cited in a batch of essays have noticeable errors. Students know citation is important, they can explain why it’s a good thing, yet why is it that it seems so difficult to remember to italicize or indent?

I have taken to trying to explain why those things are part of the formatting to help students realize that these formatting details are not just there for looks. I think it helps them understand, but I’m still no closer to figuring out why so many can’t quite manage to format basic book or article citations properly. I know of the problem is citation generators, but even that does not fully explain. Maybe it’s also because the rules seem to change a bit every few years, but most composition students have really only had to work with one set of rules, possibly two. MLA 8 has been the standard in most English composition classes for long enough now that the changes should no longer be much of a challenge.

As someone who has been through MLA 6, 7, and now 8, I have to say an adjustment period should not be years long. There were some substantial changes between MLA 7 and 8, many of them good and necessary, although the revision of the structure on the Handbook itself was one of the worst pedagogical decisions made by an academic group in recent memory. I have serious doubts anyone who was seriously involved in that process has had to work with actual students much, or at least not aby other than top tier very above average ones. I was and am a good student in the traditional sense; I’m good with details and traditional schooling has not been something difficult for me. But I have had trouble trying to figure out how to cite something even slightly less than common using that manual. The style itself is not the issue; it’s how the book is set up, and how over-generalized it has become. MLA 7 let you look up exactly how to cite things, while MLA 8 tries to use the same basic paradigm for everything and it only makes a process confusing for students even worse.

Every now and then, I seem to run into something that reminds me of what it might be like for students who struggle with Works Cited and formatting. I realized that I needed to cite a digitized manuscript but had not idea of whether to treat it as an e-book or as a manuscript, which require two quite different formats. The journal I’m aiming for requires MLA citation, and the MLA 8 Handbook was not helpful for something this specialized. While I’m advanced enough as a scholar to know that sometimes the rules are not as set as one might think, it’s still a mildly vexing problem since you don’t want to submit something to a professional journal that has basic level errors like a faulty Works Cited; that’s just embarrassing even if the peer-reviewing is done blind. It’s especially bad if the particular citation is something incredibly well-known, like the Ellesmere Chaucer or the Findern manuscript.

One of the other common struggles with composition is trying to get students to take the time to actually find the best possible sources for their projects, and not simply the most convenient. Some of this might be attributable to the rise of the digital age, and the fading of patience to spend an hour working through an index or bibliography of a given subject. I’m sure there’s plenty of research about this sort of thing, but none of it helps with figuring out how to show students the value of in-depth research for a researched-based writing assignment. This complaint is all well and good in theory, but when it comes to practice some student problems are more relate-able. When the main campus library only has about half a floor worth of books on shelves, students might be quickly discouraged from the stacks, and when the accessible databases either don’t have the most current or relevant sources, again, it would be easy for an average student to get discouraged. Thankfully, my institution has great people in our ILL area, but getting students to use that system also has challenges. Even for me, having to wait a week to get a source is aggravating since I might have had time for the work when I requested the book, but may not when the book actually shows up. Or as a colleague noted, it might be difficult to remember exactly what the new arrival was needed for. If these things are troubling for someone with research experience and who learned how to use things like physical book-length bibliographies and indices, then I can only imagine what such difficulties might be like for someone who does not have the same level of expertise or experience.

Then comes the problem of fully reading and understanding things like academic sources themselves. I remember as an undergraduate being quite excited to find a journal article that I could fully read and understand. I saw on social media recently a post along the lines of “If you run into an academic source that you can’t read, that does not mean you are stupid; it just means you are not ready for that source.” I like this sentiment, but I have to wonder if the average student would accept this or feel more like they were being talked down to or possibly dismiss the idea as a feel good palliative.

So where does all this leave me? For now, students know that formatting counts on a Works Cited but is not a major part of an essay grade overall. I’m experimenting with a few things this semester in Composition 1 to see if some work on finding and citing sources outside the context of the middle of a major research assignment will be helpful. I also try to use prompts that are open enough that students can tailor their research both their own interests as well as the current resources available to them. We’ll see in December how everything works out.