Reminders Related to Teaching Middle English

I’m in the middle of teaching an upper-level English course on Middle English Language, Literature, and Culture. It’s a 5-week session, which means 12 3-hour class periods (we lose one day off for Memorial Day), some in-person, some online, and 1 needed for a mid-term, and a second needed for a final exam. More on how things went later.

What I mean to consider today is what preparing for this class has reminded me about studying language. It has been nearly a decade since I taught anything that could be labeled ‘foreign language’, and in some senses Middle English qualifies; a native speaker of modern, current English needs considerable help on grammar, syntax, and vocabulary to work with texts in most any form of Middle English.

Reminder 1: Just because a word looks familiar does not mean it is, aka beware the false cognate. I remembered this myself, but when I started to review some of the texts I was planning to use for class, I was surprised at how often,  when I looked something up, it didn’t mean what I was expecting. This of course makes me paranoid, and I spend possibly longer than I need to double checking vocabulary. I don’t regret that though, because I do find difficult forms or unusual vocabulary with enough advance warning to know it’s coming in class and therefore be able to explain the origin of the form or word.

Reminder 2: Inflections can be important. Middle English is not as inflected as something like Old English, and it is less inflected than modern English. But still, sometimes those spelling variations can matter. This is proving confusing for students sometimes, since they also have to try and deal with the lack of standardized spelling.

Reminder 3: I remember hearing once that a basic rule of thumb for designing a test was to take it yourself (a good idea for proofreading purposes anyways) and then double that time for your students. This rule doesn’t quite work so well with translations, at least not in the first half of the course, when students are still getting used to the textbook, resources, and the language itself. The first full day of class, we barely finished the text with me taking some of the translating to speed things up, and ended up with less than 5 minutes to discuss interpretive possibilities. I don’t regret the length or the text, as I do believe that the more exposure you get to something, the easier it gets to understand and work with.

Reminder 4: The problem with using lots of exposure to learn something, as I did with Middle English, is that you don’t always get a strong grasp of the intricacies of grammar, syntax, morphology, etc. This means that I had to learn the basics rules of Middle English inflection in order to teach it. Similarly, I never really formally studied the syntactic or metrical rules for poetry, and therefore had to learn some of that as well. This is not a bad thing, but it does illustrate the difference between learning a language by the grammar and learning it by exposure.

Reminder 5: Pronunciation and reading aloud are at the same time important and troublesome. Troublesome because if you want to correct most (not even all) mistakes, it takes a very long time to get through a short segment of text. Important because it provides another means of exposure to the language. Plus, when dealing a language that survives in a lot of poetry, you need pronunciation to understand rhyme, and stress to help understand meter. Speaking is one of the best practices for learning these elements.

Reminder 6: Just because a rule makes sense to you, doesn’t mean students will always agree. I’ve long thought that Middle English sounded more familiar in many cases than it looks on paper. However, some students have directly said that for them, the opposite has been true so far.  Part of me wonders whether this was a ploy to lessen the amount of reading aloud, but still it remains true that different people have different learning styles, and every teacher needs a reminder of that once and a while.

Reminder 7: No matter how much you plan, things will go their own ways. I’m a fan of over-planning, because it’s better to have too much than not enough to do, but it can be a little frustrating to not get to something you know/hope would be interesting or fun. This is especially sad when you had a really cool way to tie the literature into something related to the history or culture of the time.

Reminder 8: Technology has a mind of its own. I was assigned a new classroom for this class. This is a good thing in that the room the class is in is considerably nicer than the one I had first though. But the tech is touchy. The computer restarted on its own in the middle of class, the smart-board doesn’t always like all the markers, a key website proved uncooperative during a demo, etc.

Reminder 9: There’s always a student or few who is hard to integrate into the rest of the class. It’s not that a student may not want to participate, but maybe they are shy, or learn better on their own, or have lower confidence. When the class is small though, as many summer and major-level courses can be, it’s hard to let someone hide.

Reminder 10: Teaching a class for the first time is hard work. There’s a lot more advance planning with lectures and lesson plans, and there’s more trial and error with assignments. On the other hand, it’s also pretty rewarding when students actually seem to enjoy the material, and it’s easier to remember to ask for feedback about reading assignments, in class work, or pretty much anything else.