Sunday, September 25, 2005

More like a history class? Really?

Finally, I’m getting around to that pedagogical post I’ve been planning on writing. But now that I’ve made you wait, it’ll probably be a big let-down, a total anticlimax. Oh well. Still, maybe you all can help my thinking with this one and post a few comments about it. A girl can hope, anyway. Oh, and I invite those of you who aren’t academics or former academics to comment from the student perspective or perhaps the general audience perspective.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I finally got around to reading my Spring teaching evaluations and one of them struck me. It wasn’t one of those infuriating stinkers – in fact, for the first time ever, the evals were uniformly positive – but it did stick out nonetheless because I’d never received such a comment before. In the midst of complimentary statements, the student wrote (and I’m mostly paraphrasing here) that sometimes my class seemed “more like a history class than a literature class” and that it would be good to be told how the material of the class connected (or maybe it was “related”) to other literature so that students would know why it was important. The funniest thing about that last bit – about needing to know why it was important – was that this was my Chaucer class. OK, the first lesson here then is: unlike Shakespeare, Chaucer is no longer automatically famous and important, at least not to my students. Good to know. At least I don’t have to un-teach that “father of English poetry” business. (For the record, that was Dryden’s fault.) And I can easily address, sometime in the beginning of the semester, the reception history of Chaucer’s works in general; for instance, I can talk about how he was set up as a model to imitate almost immediately, which was kind of unusual for a “vernacular” (i.e., not classical, not Latin) writer, or I can discuss how The Canterbury Tales was one of the first texts printed by Caxton (thus beginning the material process of enshrining it for generations to come). Or I can mention, as we read various parts of his work, who retold, translated, or recycled the same stories and motifs over the centuries. (That last part I already do, actually, but perhaps the student was absent when that happened?) These are all good lessons in what the canon was/is and how it’s materially and historically determined.

But I’m more puzzled by the “more like a history class” bit and the general desire for connection to other literature. Actually, puzzled isn’t quite the right word. Rather, it just made me think about my students and their expectations and where they come from. First of all, the comment sounds like someone who has been going to English classes in the 1950s, in the height of New Criticism, when it was all about the text in front of them with maybe a little literary history (but not social or cultural contexts) thrown in for good measure. In that world, Chaucer was important because of his poetic “genius” and that genius was clear because so many other writers had read and been influenced by him. That’s a little weird coming from someone around 20 years old. Of course, it’s not so unusual coming from some of my older colleagues, so perhaps the student has been, up to now, used to that approach. And while you could do this old style literary history with Chaucer – not that I really want to – what do you do with a text like The Book of Margery Kempe, which languished in someone’s attic (or thereabouts) until the 20th century? Is the first autobiography (however inexact that generic term is here) in English by a woman not important because it wasn’t read by centuries of writers? (Again, a good lesson in the material circumstances of what gets read.) In fact, so much of what’s interesting in the medieval period is interesting because it’s so uniquely medieval (or at least didn’t survive much past the renaissance – the dream vision genre, for example), which tells us something about how historically determined things such as “taste” are. Even with The Canterbury Tales we have that lesson: some of the tales seem “modern” (for example, some resemble the short story in the tightness of their plots and the details of their imagined worlds) but just as many seem distinctly medieval, yet it seems that Chaucer was consciously trying to forge a place for himself in what he saw as literary history. (At the same time, I can show students how the modern-seeming tales are very medieval and the medieval-seeming tales, even the ugly ones, are not so safely distinct from our own world. But I digress.)

But the medievalists among you might already see the irksome problem here. How do we emphasize the alterity of the Middle Ages without participating in its marginalization and therefore our own marginalization as medievalists? (This a very sticky problem that I think is deeply historically determined and goes way back to the Reformation itself, especially for those of us who work on English subjects, whether literature, history, art history, or whatever. But that’s too big for this post to deal with.) I try to walk a line between the continuities and discontinuities, but perhaps I’m just confusing students. They do like things neatly wrapped up for them. Or maybe I’m over-emphasizing the discontinuities as this student’s evaluation comment suggests.

And then there’s that pesky “more like a history class.” The historians among you would be horrified to think that anyone would mistake what I do as what goes on in a history class. At any rate, I think this student was referring to my presentations of the received wisdom of social and cultural history (and sometimes literary history, too) when I thought they were needed for students to really get the text. And I’m definitely not going to stop doing that. Not only do I think it’s necessary for “appreciation” of the text, but I also believe, as already suggested throughout this post, in the historically determined nature of any text. Or maybe they even thought class was more “history” than “literature” when I brought in a facsimile of the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales and asked them to think about the physical text as well as its content. Hmmm….Should be interesting to see what the response is to my Early English Lit. class next semester, where I plan to make the material history of the texts we study a regular part of the content of the course.

Finally, I think what this student’s comment shows is that they often don’t know what to do with classes and professors with very different approaches to what is essentially the same subject (i.e., literature in this case). Some of my colleagues might not give any historical context at all for the works they teach (though I find that hard to believe, it’s possible). Like I mentioned, some of them are getting on in years and their approaches fit the generation they belong to. And maybe because those colleagues are older white men, the students see their approaches as “authoritative” and mine as, well, “more like a history class.” Perhaps I should be more transparent in telling students about how and why I approach literature. I did that in our gateway course – as I introduced them to various theories and methods, I told them about my preferred approach and even gave them an excerpt from one of my articles. But maybe I should do that in my other courses, as well, since god knows they don’t take any of their classes in logical order. And perhaps I should expose them to more scholarly writing, so they can see the differences in approaches in our writing, as well.

But good lord, I *do* want to have time to get to the text, after all! What do you think?


eddywarner4119 said...

i thought your blog was cool and i think you may like this cool Website. now just Click Here

Dr. Virago said...

Sigh. Here I was all excited that a new and unknown reader had something to say about the teaching of medieval literature and it's just blog spam. Oh well. If I keep getting more of it, I may have to turn on the little authenticating option where you all have to type in the random letters you see. We'll see.

Dafina Girl said...

Ha -- I got invited to join the communist party with my first comment spam.

La Lecturess said...

I've encountered this attitude, too. The first time was when I was TAing for a Milton course in grad school, and a very smart student mentioned on his course eval that he'd have preferred that the lectures take a "less historicist" approach. (And yes, he used that word.) But how do you teach Milton, who's so involved in the political and religious battles of his age, *without* giving students a decent grounding in the events and issues at stake?

This term I'm teaching the first half of the Brit Lit survey, which also demands a lot of backfill--and it's backfilling that I love to do, frankly, since I'm a very historicist critic myself, and since I think it's hugely important to understand the frames of reference of the people of the period if you're to understand the works themselves--but I do worry that sometimes, on works that we can't devote more than a day to, I'm only skimming the surfaces of the texts themselves.

(Sorry for the length, but I've been enjoying your blog and this post struck a chord!)

Dr. Virago said...

Excellent! Real live commenters! Wee! Welcome Dafina Girl and La Lecturess. And Lecturess, long comments are welcome. You did see the size of my post, didn't you? ;) I think maybe talking to students about different approaches and how some are especially suited (or not) to particular periods, texts, authors, what have you, might help make clear *why* we are historicists when we talk about older literatures. (And hey, points to the student for knowing the word "historicist.") And maybe a good debate/discussion might even arise if we asked students what's gained and lost with or without the "historicism." I remember having one of those with a boyfriend in college, anyway, so maybe it would work with our students, too! (I argued for historicizing back then, too.)

Something to think some more about, anyway. Right now, though, I have to pack for a conference! Ack!

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, and Dafina Girl, how hilarious that you got such quirky spam! Mine's the run of the mill fake online dating/porn site. Sigh.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

My experience has been that English-type students tend to balk at having to learn anything historical, even if all it really comes down to is a general summary of the different cultures that inhabited medieval England, knowing why 1066 mattered, and realizing approximately to what century the works they read belong. In many cases, I think it's as an indication of sheer intellectual laziness.

But I also think it's sometimes an indication of the "intimidation factor" of medieval literature: it's not well known to them, and the more new info the students have to absorb, the more nervous they tend to get.

So, my response is usually to be patient about such complaints, but to explain firmly why it's absolutely necessary that they understand at least the basic cultural and historical background if they're going to understand anything about what the text is up to.

And then I tend to really burst their New Critical bubbles by explaining that, while explication is an extremely valuable skill, all literature is particularized and contextualized. There is no such thing as the "Universality" of literature that still gets touted in far too many classrooms. Literature is written by specific people in specific places at specific points in time for specific reasons.

None of that is to say that it can't be appropriated for other purposes, come to mean other things over time, etc. (Lord knows I'm no positivist). But even "A Great Work of Literature" (TM) is not an impervious, celestial golden orb of eternal, unchanging meaningfulness, and it didn't drop out of the sky. So yeah, they have to learn a little bit of history if they're gonna understand what's going on, and the further away they are from the period or the culture from which the literature comes, the more they'll have to learn. But it won't kill them.

On another level, I do occasionally wonder whether a secondary cause for all this "but that's *history*"-type whining is our rather strict contemporary division of the disciplines, which I tend to find troublesome, anyway. But maybe that's just me beating a favorite old dead horse.

As to the marginalization of medievalists, well, I don't know that we're ever going to be able to avoid that entirely. Some of it is self-reinforcing: not a whole lot of people are interested in spending years and years learning dead languages and history in order to know more about the Middle Ages. And maybe that's not all bad.

I do, however, do my best to broadcast the ways in which I, as a medievalist, defy most people's expectations of medievalists whenever that's appropriate (i.e., I like eating Cheese Whiz; I'm not fond of wine; I drive a pickup truck; I love B-movies; I never wear tweed or elbow patches--or at least not without ironic intentions; and so on). And I try to teach medieval texts that I think will defy their expectations or to teach them from perspectives that I think will defy their expectations. I think that kind of thing helps a little.

Or at least that's what I tell myself when I want to feel relevant.

Dr. Virago said...

AW, yeah what you said. All of it. (I just got back from four days away without access to the Internets -- I'm afraid I can't say anthing more articulate than that at the mo'.)

HeoCwaeth said...


I'm new at the grad school/scholar thing, and have been assigned by my university to TA American modernism (a topic about which I know close to nothing, causing me to spend more time irritating the sitting prof for clarity than any ten undergrads combined). So I can't really comment from the "teaching of medieval literature" perspective. Also, the fact that I'm in grad school to work on medieval texts probably means that my undergrad experiences and observations will be less-than-average. However, I can say that I absolutely *loved* the historical aspect of learning medieval texts, and enjoyed the classes where the professors would talk about the society that formed said text far more than the hour-long lecture about Gawain's favorite flirting technique as shown by the texts. (The guy who gave those lectures was a perv, so that might also have something to do with my preferences.) I think AW is correct in assigning the blame for this to the intimidation factor in approaching medieval texts for the first time. I assume you were teaching Chaucer in the original, and that language is frightening when one first encounters it.
As a former HS teacher, I would add that much of the students' training prior to coming to you has involved clearly established connections made by their teachers. (I know this because I used to go to meetings every week with other teachers, to see how we could make that happen.) So, an English major looking for transfer in his English classes does not surprise me.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Since I have ventured into teaching lit in my classes, I certainly can't complain! And I think a lit person would probably be upset at what I do ... I know my students are! Style? Character? Mood? Other Lit stuff? Not so much. How does this reflect the times? How can we use it to learn about cultural expectations and commonplace things? How might the audience of the time have understood the issues and characters? Those are my questions ... although, to be fair, I did let the 19th c. class have a long rant about how much they really hated most of the characters in Jude.

Don't get much of a chance to teach lit in my own fields, unfortunately. Just whatever I want, but surveys don't have time for a lot of lit. So it's Antigone or Lysistrata, Book IV of the Aeneid (first time this term), and Roland. And those are not so difficult.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Coming to the party VERY late, but the bit here that struck a chord for me (apart from the general fact that I teach literature in almost all my classes, whether history or no [I teach in a non-history department as well], and justify it by saying, Hey, we have to take everything we can get in the Middle Ages, and I'm sure we butcher some of the literary stuff [like me trying to explain the difference between epic and romance in 60 seconds or less: "Epic is"), but I'm not about to stop!): how you deal with students getting taught VERY different perspectives by your other colleagues. I know that I've run into this a little (and a grad school friend of mine has run into this a LOT) in terms of methodology, where senior colleagues choose to give charming, entertaining lectures, but never run discussion at all, so that the students expect you to lecture and think that discussion is just a waste of time and "not telling them what they need to know". And you can try to explain why you teach the way you do, but it's hard when you can't explicitly say, Colleague X learned his approach 30 years ago and hasn't updated it since... (no offense to various Colleague X's out there...). And your authority is what's going to suffer, not Colleague X's. (I have seen this go the other way around where students don't want to sit and listen to lectures and flock to the cool discussion classes, but it doesn't always.)

Interestingly, though I teach lit all the time (my medieval women's history class may as well be a women writers class), I've never had anyone say it's too much like a lit class. (I have had the comment that they'd have appreciated more narrative/background/big picture, which, in that particular semester, I agreed with.)

Dr. Virago said...

Woah! I take a little break from the computer for the weekend and look what happens while I'm gone! Cool!

I only have time for a quick response at the moment, but perhaps I can come back later to this.

HeoCwaeth: Welcome! And how hilarious that you and I have the same pseudonym in Old English and Middle English variations! Thanks for the high school perspective, especially since it's different from my own experience (now an average of 20 years ago), which was all formalist -- if I wanted to know anything about time periods or contexts, I had to find out for myself. I suppose that's why I found it easy to make the connections between my college courses myself. I imagine my own students get an education more like what you're describing. Good to know!

ADM: I had to laugh when you described what you do with literture in your classes's a little llke what I do! OK, so I *do* discuss the "lit" stuff, too, but now I'm starting to get an idea of why my student said my course was "more like a history class"! It's because we're all cannnabalizing each other! LOL! Well, my critical approach *is* New Historicism after all...And your students hated the characters in Jude?! (Jude the Obscure, right?) I *loved* that book when I was an undergrad. Even though I'd gotten over that wall into the American version of Oxbridge educational prestige, I still really identified with Jude. I think my current students might, too. Maybe I'll teach it in one of the intro to lit courses one of these days. I'll let you know if my students hate it, too! :)

NK: I can't define epic and romance either. I'm pretty sure no one else can -- especially not romance, it's so capacious. And you're so right about that "Colleague X has a 30-year-old approach" thing. Sigh. I'm lucky, though, since most of my students are the ones who are more likely to flock to the discussion-style classes and find the old guys kind of boring in style. I guess it didn't occur to them that the *content* of what's taught -- not just the delivery -- can be different, too. But at least they'll generally accept my authority over all things medieval, since I'm the only medievalist in my department. (This is especially helpful when I have to un-teach assumptions about medieval drama to the theater majors who show up in my classes. I do it gently. I tell them their professors don't have accurate information about medieval drama in their anthologies and handbooks and since they don't specialize in it, they've had no reason to read scholarship on it. It's not their fault -- it's the anthology writers' fault.)

Dr. Virago said...

Cool! Now I know why you guys (HeoCwaeth, ADM, New Kid) bothered to scroll down and comment on an older post -- I was included in the Ancient/Medieval History Carnival! And I didn't even know it! (I did, however, tag this for the teaching carnival.) Just figured it out, in fact. Neat!

Alun said...

At a time when we're supposed to be promoting 'interdisciplinary' work, it seems that your approach to Chaucer works. I suppose you could argue that there's plenty to work with in interpreting Chaucer in the 21st century, but without the historical background you cannot know why we came to this position. Nor, without a knowledge of the Middle Ages can you place the text in its context. Why shouldn't studying medieval texts be like history? Perhaps the solution is to throw this open to the students and ask them how important they think it could be to understand the Middle Ages, then they're the ones justifying the position.

My own (belated) comment on a fascinating article.

Dr. Virago said...

Alun, I think throwing it open to students is an *excellent* idea! In fact, given that this was just one student comment, I'm guessing that most students would be on the side of historical context. But who knows. At any rate, it might make them think about the *variety* of approaches to literary texts.

And thanks for coming by!

Anonymous said...

As a non-Medievalist, I really like it when professors bring in historical context, it allows me a foothold to understanding.

I wouldn't worry about the comment too much, after all, you can't please everyone. I would try to make it more clear in future classes, maybe on syllabi, the importance of cultural context.

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks, Anon. I think you're right about not worrying too much about it. In fact, my first instinct with an eval comment that's different from the rest is to realize I can't please everyone, but this one made me wonder if other students were puzzled, too, or if we should explain more *why* we do things the way we do. You're idea about a note on the syllabus is a good one -- or perhaps I'll address it in my first class.

Professor Zero said...

Hi - previous commentors have good ideas, which I won't reiterate. My main point is, don't worry about a thing, I can tell your class is good.

When I was a new professor, I got bad evaluations for a couple of years, until they got used to me. It surprised me since I had always had good evaluations as a T.A. What these bad evaluations said was that my classes were too objective, too scientific, and provided too much historical and cultural content. Students claimed to have learned in the English department that you were supposed to emote with literature, not analyze it. Several evaluations actually stated that my approach might be acceptable coming from a man, but was inappropriate in a woman.