Big and Small Versions of the Same Project

I have made it nearly four years at my current institution without having been asked to lead a senior English major project (called ‘Capstone’). What all English majors here are asked to do, nearly always spring of their senior year, is to produce a 20-page research project in a chosen area of interest, and then pare it down to a 10 -15-minute presentation which is then given to an audience of mostly faculty and administrators. While they take a course on general methods to guide and supervise them through the process, each student also needs to find an individual advisor who is a subject specialist in or at least near their chosen subject.

Spring of 2019 was open season on the medievalist who knows a thing or two about mythology and popular culture. I can only think to blame both my Summer 2018 teaching assignment (Myth and Folklore in Literature) and the fact that I have now been in my current position long enough to have had students who started in my introductory classes be in the spring of their senior year.  I say ‘blame’ but neither the time nor the course have been negative experiences in any way. It’s just that those two things coinciding are the only factors I can think of for my sudden popularity. Whatever the reasons, I’m now going to be guiding more than one student (in slightly different capacities) through the process from beginning to end of what is essentially an article draft, then turn it into an 8-10 page conference paper. I vaguely remember some classmates in graduate school complaining about a similar assignment in a course on Greek tragic drama as ‘evil’ and me being thankful to not have been in that class. This has since become a thing that I, like most professional academics, must do on a regular basis, forwards or backwards.

One of the reasons I’m putting together a general outline for myself is that I remember sometime in my first or second year of graduate work in English, there was a talk on getting through the dissertation process in a timely way. Granted, the scale is different in my current situation, but the basic premise is the same. One of the senior faculty members who was part of the panel had handouts that included a general timeline. I found that useful and although I was nowhere close to my own dissertation at the time.

It seems like some things that seem obvious to those of us who have to do it on a regular basis are not always obvious or even clear to someone facing the situation for the first time.

I’d recommend to pretty much any first time advanced researcher The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. Fitzgerald as it was once recommended to me. It’s user-friendly, practical, and multi-disciplinary all at once. It’s also not expensive, especially as far as textbooks go; it’s a paperback under $20. I admit I haven’t looked at the most recent edition, since I’m pretty sure my copy is at least 1 edition out of date, but it’s still the best, most useable guide for something of this sort, at least the part concerning the 20-page paper.

To my knowledge, there is no equivalent guide for turning a larger project into a more condensed presentation version.


Particularly for the medieval side of things, for the basic areas any general project of this sort might need, here’s my basic list of primary and secondary material:

General Primary: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

The Art of Preaching by Alanus d’Insulis

The Metalogicon by John of Salisbury

Ars Versificatoria: The Art of the Versemaker by Matthew of Vendôme

Here’s my reasoning for the above, in addition to studying the corpus of your author or genre of interest, if you’re working on anything British and medieval, you should know a little about history and some key genre theories, especially poetry and preaching. Admittedly these lists (above and below) are generic, and not necessarily what I would need for a specific project. That of course will have to depend on the nature of the proposed project.

Basic Secondary (borrowed from a 2014 post):

European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius

Medieval Narrative: An Introduction by W.A. Davenport

The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar by David Fowler

Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative by John Ganim

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages by A.J. Minnis

Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms, Methods, Trends. Ed. Albrecht Classen

Old English and Middle English Poetry by Derek Pearsall

Reading Middle English Literature by Thorlac Turville-Petre

The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600 by Vivienne Law

Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: an Institutional and Intellectual History by Gordon Leff

I admit that some of the titles I have listed in the secondary section are possibly out of date by now or are being replaced by something more current; however, as of right now, I am not aware of anything that has fully replaced any of them. And I would also note that this list is more of an example preview, since it doesn’t include things like Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric by Copeland and Sluiter, which is an essential anthology for me, but it is specific to medieval literary criticism and theory, and not all projects might require that kind of thing. Some might, but it’s just a bit too category specific for me to put it on a general model list.

I have not included any of the many extremely useful web-based sources, because they both depend largely on the specific project/subject and there are too many to choose from. TEAMS and may be the lone exceptions.

If anyone has suggestions for any of the lists, please share!

The general process as I now understand and practice it should look something like this, based on the 16 week-long semester, a typical timing schedule for most academics, be it professor or student of most levels:

1)            Start with proposal/abstract ideas which must be flexible, since specific research on the question may not have been done previously.  (Week 1)

2)            Read the primary material, as widely as possible. (Weeks 1-5)

3)            Read the secondary material, focusing on the specific approach/subject. (Weeks 2-5)

4)            Formulate thesis and reasons (Week 6)

5)            Outline reasons with supporting citations both primary and secondary (Weeks 6-7)

6)            Draft 1 by Spring Break (Week 7-9)

7)            Revise for content (Week 9-10)

8)            Revise for structure and style (Week 11)

9)            Proofread (Week 12)

10)          Final written draft (Week 12-13) This may not be a fully complete article draft but should at least cover the main ideas and have notes for the secondary sources to be cited if not already included. I tend to use Comment boxes for this.

11)          To start moving towards the presentation, return to step 5 and eliminate any redundancies or pick one major example per point (Week 13)

12)          Make sure your current presentation draft is still cohesive, and time yourself (Week 14-15)

13)          Make any adjustments necessary, and Present or be generally ready for the eventual presentation (Week 16)

Modern Theory Goes Medieval (or Tries)

A while back I mentioned that I have a problem with applying a lot of contemporary literary theories to medieval literature. Now, I’m going to explain why in more detail. The major problem with most contemporary literary theories is that they are not text-based; rather, theories like feminism, psycho-analysis, post-colonial, deconstruction, etc., are based on current culture, sociology, psychology, etc. Why is this a problem for application to medieval literature? All that remains of the medieval time period is text. So, in order to apply a more modern theory to a medieval text, you either have to bend the theory itself (meaning apply it in ways that might be contrary to the theory itself) OR risk serious argumentative fallacies like reversing the burden of proof or assuming an unproven – untested premise.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few weeks ago, I went to a talk by a medieval scholar who considered himself an eco-critic.

I now interrupt this reasoning for some theoretical definitions.

Ecocriticism is relatively new, having developed as a literary discipline in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the definition can vary depending on who you ask here’s a few of the key points, courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. One of the editors of an influential collection on the subject, Cheryll Glotfelty, defines ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment {taking} an earth-centered approach to literary studies”.  Ann Milne adds that often ecocriticsm contains a degree of activism and advocacy for awareness and change. A third scholar, Lawrence Buell, defines the theory as “the relationship between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis”. Buell adds that, in order for text to be considered ecocentric, it must meet the following requirement: “that the “non human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence”.

Back to my argument.

This talk I attended discussed a set of three vitae of a particular saint written within about 50 years of each other. The earliest is anonymous, the other two are by Bede. Bede likely knew the first anonymous text, as his first vita of the saint was a continuation or companion to the earlier version. Bede’s second text, the presenter argued, was intended as an update or replacement. The key difference in Bede’s new version of the Vita was that Bede removed several of the place names, and instead used generic location descriptions. The argument of the talk was that Bede likely made the alterations in order to account for leadership and power-political changes in the bishoprics the saint visited or lived in.

The talk was interesting and founded on good scholarship, but the label of ‘ecocriticism’ does not work for me. First of all, the evidence is almost purely textual. The geography involved did not focus as much on nature or even place, as it did on name (a textual feature). Second, the focus was not on human interaction with the land other than naming areas. Lastly, according to the definitions cited above, the argument does not qualify as ecocriticism on the grounds of 1) not featuring any kind of advocacy and 2) not containing ‘nature’ as a distinct presence (in this case, only places names and frame-setting).

Another general problem I have with theories like eco-criticism and medieval literature is that the core concepts, like “Nature”, had very different meanings in the Middle Ages. Ecology was less a factor in the use of the term ‘nature’, and nature was more often thought of in terms of ‘human nature’. While anthropomorphizations, allegories, and frames involving the natural world abound in medieval literature, ecocriticism’s focus on activism and non-textual meaning and relationships are nearly impossible to establish for texts from a time and place like the saint’s lives considered in the talk.

I liked the talk and found it interesting, but I disagree with the scholar’s appraisal of the theoretical approach. Ecocriticism and theories like it are not helpful (in my mind) in determining how the medieval thinkers and writers saw themselves, their history, or their world. Ecology as we now consider it implies understanding, values, and science beyond what was known or even accepted between 1066 and 1500. What modern theories like ecocrticism can do in terms of medieval literature is help current students and scholars understand how we view the medieval thinkers and writers.

The problem is that most modern students, and literary theorists and critics aim for the former rather than the latter.

General Literature

TEAMS Middle English Texts

This invaluable series of texts includes scholarly editions of the texts, notes, and commentary.


The medieval section of this site includes texts from major authors, biographical details (as known), and bibliographies of (and some links to) articles and other scholarship.


This site includes Chaucer’s texts, as well as other tools for study. Tools include a concordance, some ‘translations’, and a glossary of Chaucer’s Middle English.

Although this site is no longer active, it contains an annotated bibliography of resources, many of which are now standard in the study of Chaucer and his contemporaries. The link goes directly to the editions-of-text page.