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.

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Beginning a New Project

Embarking on a new project is always an interesting time. What I am beginning to work on is an extension of an older project, but it represents a new direction. My current long-term research project is a revision of my dissertation into a book. The original project, titled “Argument In Poetry: (Re)Defining The Middle English Debate Poem In Academic, Popular, And Physical Contexts”, argues that many medieval English argument poems tend to follow two models based on academic and popular practices of the times. The academic models come from commentary and disputation practices (Chapter 2), while the popular practices are derived from medieval drama and sermons (Chapter 3). The physical context, addressed in the fourth chapter, reviews a sample of representative manuscripts containing debate poems in order to analyze the types of texts, themes and marginalia typically preserved along with the poems.

I am currently working on a replacement for my original chapter 4. I will be replacing that chapter with an extended analysis of a single longer poem, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. I plan to analyze the persuasive elements that relate to the commentary tradition, the disputation tradition, the sermon, and confessional literature. The first part of this project will be concentrating primarily on the interactions between Amans and Genius in order to analyze Gower’s treatment of the interpretive and persuasive dialogue in the context of the various related discursive traditions referenced above. The second part of the project will concern the same elements within the exempla presented by Genius.

I am proceeding thus:

1) Initial reading of the primary text for ideas and questions to guide research.

For this first step finding the right edition of your text is important as the edition can be used to start the secondary source research process.  The advent of the digital humanities has made this element far more accessible than ever before. To me, a good edition, traditional or digital requires several components. First, a good scholarly edition must have a good “Works Cited” and ideally “For further information see” sections. A second key element is the inclusion of a glossary and textual notes. Particularly if I am looking at the text in question for the first time in depth, a detailed “Commentary-Notes” section is also very helpful. I am partial to the TEAMS Middle English series because these editions meet the above requirements. In the case of the Confessio Amantis, I will be primarily referring to:

Confessio Amantis, Volume 1

 

{I will eventually be using all 3 volumes, but volume 1 serves as a good example.}

An interesting fact about this series of editions is that many are available online as well as in print.  If I am committed to a specific text as my object of study, I find that I prefer to have the printed text. I prefer to not be tied down by WiFi connections and battery or cord availability. That said, I do like the digital editions because they can save time with hyperlinks to notes, and a digital text can make initial word searches faster than a paper concordance. I always make sure to double check a full concordance (when available) simply because, especially with Middle English, there may be forms of the word or alternative spellings that I was not aware of.

2) Once I have some ideas and questions from the initial reading of the primary text, I next begin looking into the secondary research to see what has already been done in the field, and to find out who the major scholars are. For this literature review, I start in two places. First, I have search my primary academic library’s catalog for potentially relevant sources.

 

 

The second place that I look to build my list of works to review is the Bibliography section of my edition.

                                                                                  LIbrary search

As of this writing, I have gotten as far as the two steps described above. What follows is based on previous practices.

3) As I read through the first round of primary sources, I keep notes. Based on my initial questions and observations concerning the text, I write down the relevant ideas for each text. I also make note of any potentially useful sources referenced so that I can look up the original arguments or ideas for myself. I prefer to keep track of my sources in a searchable digital file, but I keep my notes in a notebook. Although the paper notebook is less easily searchable, I find that if organized by title and author, I can still refer back to what I need while not being tied to an available screen.

This part of the process is probably the most time-consuming. The Bibliography and Index can be helpful places for saving time, especially if a text is not the work of a single author, but a collection or anthology of essays. That said, I firmly believe that taking time during the initial research phase will save time later on. Keeping detailed, organized notes will be helpful later on when I might realize that I want to return to a source I haven’t looked at in six months for a specific reference. In addition to checking my notes, I will also go through the indices and bibliographies provided to re-view the source in terms of my current question or perspective.

4) Outline. I like outlines and I find that I work well with them. As I teach composition students, I record my claims and reasons based on the primary text, keeping track of the relevant passages. I then add to each claim-reason the relevant secondary references.

5) First draft. After ensuring that everything in my outline is compatible, I sit down to write. I find that setting a schedule is useful, but that flexibility must be included. I set myself a weekly page goal and a daily  progress goal with a catch-up day built in.

6) Review and Revision. A hard lesson to learn is that having someone else read your unfinished work is helpful. After draft 1 is done, I send it to a willing trusted third party, while I begin my own revisions. This step is repeated until a polished project is completed.

Given that I am currently in the middle of step 2, the Gower project of mine will be ongoing for quite some time. I hope to have an outline at least started by Summer 2015. In the meantime, stay tuned for occasional updates and observations about how works is coming along.

General Literature

TEAMS Middle English Texts

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

Luminarium

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.

e-Chaucer

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.

GeoffreyChaucer.org

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.