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 It’s slightly out of date for some theories but I can deal with that with some supplementary lecture and articles.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hold of several library titles that looked promising, and one of them was exactly right, although it too is a few years out of date, but not unmanageably so.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…

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.

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.

Challenging the Canon

I teach a lot of survey courses, often to non-English majors. Recently the idea came to my attention of the question of accessibility of some less than canonical authors and texts that still might be useful in a literature survey. I have taught a few things that aren’t staples in surveys of global literature and British literature, but Ovid’s Amores, Boethius‘ Consolation of Philosophy, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Mankind are all canonical, at least tangentially, in terms of general Western literature. With some extra annotation and lecture framing, these texts are not too hard for a student to look up either for background or for translations or secondary analysis.

I have used Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound before as well, and students generally respond well to it, although this is definitely a play where you need to use both the script and a performance. Because it isn’t a classroom standard, it’s less likely that students will have studied it previously, and some students might be more interested because this play is something new to them that they haven’t even heard of. Even Stoppard’s biggest commercial/popular hit, Shakespeare in Love, isn’t as well known to students in a first year introduction to literature class. I know this because I asked, and upon further reflection I figured out that the movie might be slightly older than some of the younger students.

There are some titles, both medieval and popular, that could have some real classroom use, but aren’t always available in accessible forms, which makes them even more likely to remain obscure. For example, the 9th century monk Sedulius Scottus wrote among other things a series of lyrics, some of which would fit nicely into either ancient or medieval traditions. For example, one of his poems (c. 81) is a debate between a rose and a lily. Not only is debate poetry a popular genre around that time, but the poem also explores some themes and images which are common like the symbolism of the two flowers, and the attempt to balance pagan and Christian ideas. The problem is that both the original Latin and the single published translation are not readily available. Neither is freely found online, and in physical book form, three copies of Sedulius Scottus: On Christian Rulers and The Poems and a single copy of Sedulii Scotti Carmina (CCCM 117) exist in the library system for the entire University System of Georgia (which includes places like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech). There are ways to include a single poem in a syllabus, including doing my own translation, but if students get interested, their options for further exploration are quite limited.

Similarly, something like Walafrid Strabo’s Hortulus, as a botanical treatise, might get students who aren’t planning to be literature majors interested in 9th century poetry. Nursing is a popular major and learning that at one point in history lilies were considered an anti-venom in addition to their literary and cultural symbolism might be a gateway for certain students. A dual language (Latin and English) edition is the same large USG library system exists in only three copies; again, as with the lyrics of Sedulius Scottus, if a student were interested in further investigation, finding the materials to explore that text would be a struggle if their institution did not possess one of these copies. A more determined student might be able to find some additional resources, but often, if the class or assignment doesn’t directly align with the student’s major or career goals, they are less likely to be willing to take the time to seek out further information.

The problem with using something that’s not especially standard as a teaching text is not just that the primary text itself can be difficult to find. The same problem exists when a more modern text is popular, but too recent to have generated much secondary scholarship. I have previously used V.E. Schwab’s Vicious in the same general literature survey as The Real Inspector Hound. I also used novels by Kim Newman (The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. All three novels were reasonably popular (two were best-sellers) and all published within about the past ten years. My reasoning was that these were stories students might be able to get interested in, and that they wouldn’t be able to rely too much on secondary work and online summaries or study guides. Vicious was probably the most successful, and I’ll be using it again, but this time I’ll compare it to how students get on with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Drew Hayes’ The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, Vampire Accountant. All of these novels are pretty readily available, although none free should a student want their own copy. It’s my experience with novels like these that tells me that often students aren’t often willing to spend time digging into related but less direct avenues of research if they can’t find something directly on their subject within an hour at most. Of the novelists I’ve listed, only Neil Gaiman has been around long enough, been popular enough, and been viewed as literary enough to have much secondary scholarship published on his work. But the interesting thing is that the university library system doesn’t have much of that scholarship; I had to go to the public library for it. Again, limited access and/or time many students may not be willing to spend.

While student struggles with critical thinking, especially when research might be involved, have long been lamented in various academically-centered media for some time, very little, at least of what I’ve seen, has been able to come up with a particularly useful solution. Getting students more interested and invested in what they’re working with is the best solution I’ve encountered, and sometimes the best way to do that is to use things that aren’t as traditional or even canonical in the classroom or academy. The problem of resources is much larger and one individual instructors don’t have much control over, but we can at least get things started by getting students interested, since demand after all can be a pretty powerful force.